Page images
PDF
EPUB

in the course of a scholastic education-when my heart was full of poetry and romance, and Lucan and Akenside were at my tongue's end-I fell into the political opinions which the French revolution was then scattering throughout Europe; and following these opinions with ardour wherever they led, I soon perceived that inequalities of rank were a light evil compared to the inequalities of property, and those more fearful distinctions which the want of moral and intellectual culture occasions between man and man. At that time, and with those opinions, or rather feelings (for their root was in the heart, and not in the understanding), I wrote Wat Tyler,' as one who was impatient of all the oppressions that are done under the sun. Thé subject was injudiciously chosen, and it was treated as might be expected by a youth of twenty at such times, who regarded only one side of the question.' The poem, indeed, is a miserable production, and was harmless from its very inanity. Full of the same political sentiments and ardour, Southey, in 1793, had composed his Joan of Arc,' an epic poem, displaying fertility of language and boldness of imagination, but at the same time diffuse in style, and in many parts wild and incoherent. In imitation of Dante, the young poet conducted his heroine in a dream to the abodes of departed spirits, and dealt very freely with the murderers of mankind, from Nimrod the mighty hunter, down to the hero conqueror of Agincourt:

A huge and mássy pile
Massy it seemed, and yet with every blast
As to its ruin shook. There, porter fit,,
Remorse for ever his sad vigils kept.
Pale, hollow-eyed, emaciate, sleepless wretch,
Inly he groaned, or, starting, wildly shrieked,
Aye as the fabric, tottering from its base,
Threatened its fall—and so, expectant still,
Lived in the dread of danger still delayed.

They entered there a large and lofty dome,
O'er whose black marble sides a dim drear light
Struggled with darkness from the unfrequent lamp.
Enthroned around, the Murderers of Mankind
Monarchs, the great! the glorious! the august!
Each bearing on his brow a crown of fire-
Sat stern and silent. Nimrod, he was there,
First king, the mighty hunter; and that chief
Who did belie his mother's fame, that so
He might be called young Ammon. In this court
.Cæsar was crowned-accused liberticide;
And he who mnrdered Tully, that cold villain
Octavius—though the courtly minion's lyre
Hath hymned his praise, though Maro sung to him,
And when death levelled to original clay
The royal carcass, Flattery, fawning low,
Fell at his feet and worshipped the new god.
Titus was here, the conqueror of the Jews,
He, the delight of humankind misnamed;
Cæsars and Soldans, emperors and kings,
Here were they all, all who for glory fought,
Here in the Court of Glory, reaping now
The meed, they merited.

[ocr errors]

As gazing round,
The Virgin marked the miserable train,
A deep and hollow voice from one went forth:
"Thou who art come to view our punishment,
Maiden of Orleans ! hither turn thine eyes ;
For I am he whose bloody victories
Thy power hath rendered yain. Lo! I am here,
The hero conqueror of Agincourt,

Henry of England !! In the second edition of the poem, published in 1798, the vision of the Maid of Orleans, and everything miraculous, was omitted. When the poem first appeared, its author was on his way to Lisbon, in company with his uncle, Dr. Herbert, chaplain to the factory at Lisbon. Previous to his departure in November 1795, Southey had married Miss Edith Fricker of Bristol, sister of the lady with whom Coleridge united himself; and immediately after the ceremony they parted. My mother,' says the poet's son and biographer, wore her wedding-ring hung round her neck, and preserved her maiden name until the report of the marriage had spread abroad.' Cottle, the generous Bristol bookseller, had given Southey money to purchase the ring: The poet was six months with his uncle in Lisbon, during which time he had applied himself to the study of the Spanish and Portuguese languages, in which he afterwards became a proficient. The death of his brother-in-law and brother-poet, Lovell, occurred during his absence abroad, and Southey on his return set about raising something for his young friend's widow. She afterwards found a home with Southey-one of the many generous and affectionate acts of his busy life. In 1797 he published his ' Letters from Spain and Portugal,' and took up his residence in London, in order to commence the study of the law. A college-friend, Mr. C. W. W. Wynn, gave him an annuity of £160, which he continued to receive until 1807, when he relinquished it on obtaining a pension from the crown of £200.

The study of the law was never a congenial pursuit with Southey; he kept his terms at Gray's Inn, but his health failed, and in the spring of 1800 he again visited Portugal. After a twelvemonth's residence in that fine climate, he returned to England, lived in Bristol a short time, and then made a journey into Cumberland, for the double purpose of seeing the lakes and visiting Coleridge, who was at that time residing at Greta Hall, Keswick-the house in which Southey himself was henceforth to spend the greater portion of his life. A short trial of official life also awaited him. He was offered and accepted the appointment of private secretary to Mr. Corry, Chancellor of the Exchequer for Ireland; the terms, prudently limited to one year, being a salary of about £350, English currency, His official duties were more nominal than real, but Southey soon got tired of the light bondage, and before half of the stipulated period of twelve months was over, he had got, as he said, unsecretaryfied, and entered on that course of professional authorship which was at once his business and delight. In the autumn of 1803, he was again at Greta Hall, Keswick. While in Portugal, Southey had finished a second epic poem, “Thalaba, the Destroyer,' an Arabian fiction of great beauty and magnificence. For the copyright of this work he received a hundred guineas, and it was published in 1801. The sale was not rapid, but three hundred copies being sold by the end of the year, its reception, considering the peculiar style of the poem, was not discouraging. The form of verse adopted by the poet in this work is irregular, without rhyme; and it possesses a peculiar charm and rhythmical harmony, though, like the redundant descriptions in the work, it becomes wearisome in so long a poem. The opening stanzas convey an exquisite picture of a widowed mother wandering over the sands of the East during the silence of night;

Night in the Desert.

I.
How beautiful is night!
A dewy freshness fills the silent air;
No mist obscures, nor cloud, nor speck, nor stain,

Breaks the serene of heaven:
In full-orbed glory, yonder moon divine
Rolls through the dark-blue depths.
Beneath her steady ray

The desert-circle spreads,
Like the round ocean, girdled with the sky
How beautiful is night!

II.
Who, at this untimely hour,
Wanders o'er the desert sands?

No station is in view,
Nor palm-grove islanded amid the waste.

The mother and her child,
The widowed mother and the fatherless boy,

They, at this untimely hour,
Wander o'er the desert sands.

III.
Alas! the setting sun
Saw Zeinab in her bliss,
Hodeirah's wife beloved,

The fruitful mother late,
Whom, when the daughters of Arabia named,

They wished their lot like hers;
She wanders o'er the desert sands

A wretched widow now,
The fruitful mother of so fair a race;

With only one preserved,
She wanders o'er the wilderness.

IV,
No tear relieved the burden of her heart;
Stunned with the heavy woe, she felt like one
Half-wakened from a midnight dream of blood.

But sometimes, when the boy

Would wet her hand with tears,
And, looking up to her fixed countenance,

Sob out the name of Mother, then did she

Utter a feeble groan.
At length, collecting, Zeinab turned her eyes
To heaven, exclaiming: • Praise be the Lord !

He gave, he takes away!

The Lord our God is good !! The metre of "Thalaba,' as may be seen from this specimen, has great power, as well as harmony, in skilful hands. It is in accordance with the subject of the poem, and is, as the author himself remarks, 'the Arabesque ornament of an Arabian tale.' Southey had now cast off his revolutionary opinions, and his future writings were all marked by a somewhat intolerant attachment to church and state. He established himself on the banks of the river Greta, near Keswick, subsisting by his pen and a pension which he had received from government. In 1804, he published a volume of Metrical Tales, and in 1805, Mados,' an epic poem, founded on a Welsh story, but inferior to its predecessors. In 1810, appeared his greatest poetical work, “The Curse of Kehama,' a poem of the same class and structure as "Thalaba,' but in rhyme. With characteristic egotism, Southey prefixed to ‘The Curse of Kehama' a declaration that he would not change a syllable or measure for anyone :

Pedants shall not tie my strains

To our antique poets' veins. Kehama is a Hindu rajah, who, like Dr. Faustus, obtains and sports with supernatural power. His adventures are sufficiently startling, and afford room for the author's

striking amplitude of description. The story is founded,' says Sir Walter Scott,“ upon the Hindu mythology, the most gigantic, cumbrous, and extravagant system of idolatry to which temples were ever erected. The scene is alternately laid in the terrestrial paradise-under the sea—in the heaven of heavens --and in hell itself. The principal actors are, a man who approaches almost to omnipotence; another labouring under a strange and fearful malediction, which exempts him from the ordinary laws of nature; a good genius, a sorceress, and a ghost, with several Hindustan deities of different ranks. The only being that retains the usual attributes of humanity is a female, who is gifted with immortality at the close of the piece.' Some of the scenes in this strangely magnificent theatre of horrors are described with the power of Milton; and Scott has said that the following account of the approach of the mortals to Padalon, or the Indian Hades is equal in grandeur to any passage which he ever perused:

Far other light than that of day there shone
Upon the travellers, entering Padalon.
They, too, in darkness entering on their way,

But far before the car
A glow, as of a fiery furnace light,
Filled all before them. 'Twas a light that made

Darkness itself appear
A thing of comfort; and the sight, dismayed,

Shrank inward from the molten atmosphere.
Their way was through the adamantine rock
Which girt the world of woe on either side
Its massive walls arose and overhead
Arched the long passage; onward as they ride,
With stronger glare the light around them spread-

And, lo! the regions dread-
The world of woe before them opening wide,

There rolls the fiery flood,
Girding the realms of Padalon around.

A sea of flame, it seemed to be

Sea without bound:

For neither mortal nor immortal sight

Could pierce across through that intensest light. When the curse is removed from the sufferer, Ladurlad, and he is transported to his family in the Bower of Bliss, the poet breaks out into that apostrophe to Love which is so often quoted, but never can be read without emotion:

Love. They sin who tell us Love can die. At times deceived, at times oppressed, With Life all other passions fly,

It here is tried and purified, Ali others are but vanity.

Then hath in heaven its perfect rest : In heaven Ambition cannot dwell,

It soweth here with toil and care, Nor Avarice in the vaults of hell :

But the har vest-time of Love is there, Earthly these passions of the earth, Oh! when a mother meets on high They perish where they had their birth. The babe she lost in infancy, But Love is indestructible :

Hath she not then, for pains and fears, Its holy flame for ever burneth,

The day of woe, the watchful night, From heaven it came, to heaven returneth. For all her sorrows, all her tears, Too oft on earth a troubled guest,

An over-payment of delight ? Besides its wonderful display of imagination and invention, and its vivid scene-painting, “The Curse of Kehama' possesses the recommendation of being in manners, sentiments, scenery, and costume, distinctively and exclusively Hindu. Its author was too diligent a student to omit whatever was characteristic in the landscape or the people. Passing over his prose-works, we next find Southey appear in a native poetical dress in blank verse. In 1814 he published Roderick, the Last of the Goths,' a noble and pathetic poem, though liable also to the charge of redundant description. The style of the versification may be seen from the following account of the grief and confusion of the aged monarch, when he finds his throne occupied by the Moors after his long absence:

The sound, the sight
Of turban, girdle, robe, and scimitar,
And tawny skins, awoke contending thoughts
Of anger, shame, and anguish in the Goth;
The unaccustomed face of humankind
Confused him now-and through the streets he went
With haggard mien, and countenance like one
Crazed or bewildered. All who met him turned,
And wondered as he passed. One stopped him short,
Put alms into his hand, and then desired,
In broken Gothic speech, the moon-struck man
To bless him.

With a look of vacancy,

« PreviousContinue »