Robert Southey ranks among the great English writers,
secure of the fame he so eagerly anticipated. Yet, who now
reads Southey? Nelson is not so significant a work that the
author's name should rank high on its account alone; the Doctor
has few readers. Most people indeed know Southey's works only
from the Golden Treasury - After Blenheim, and My Days amok
the Dead are Past: most of the works here examined have, as
individual contributions to literature, no real importance.
Of the students who so glibly refer to Southey's prose in
examination papers, hardly one in a score could explain his
reputation, for that reputation is unheld not by a handful of
titles, but by a lifetime's writing.
Southey's letters introduce us to one of the most remarkable
personalities who have ever borne part in the sustentation.
of English literature. Student and recluse as he was, things
happened to Southey. Offered the editorship of a government
journal, central figure of a scene in the House of Commons,
elected member of parliament for a rotten borough, poet -laureate,
and had he chosen, baronet of the realm - these were contemporary
tributes which, accorded to a man of letters with no other
public contacts whatsoever, mark him as of no small importance.
He was almost incredibly industrious, and though in many ways
a stupid man, was enormously informed. Within the limits set
by his religious and political opinions he was prepared to
write - and did write - on everything. The respect in which he
was held and the mass of his writings make it impossible for
any student of the 19th century to overlook Southey. Read or
unread, he will always be remembered as one of the really conspicuous
figures of his age. That he is known now despite the
paucity of biographical study, is one more tribute to him.
The importance of his writings is mainly in the importance
of the writer. Wrong in nearly every judgement he formed and
lacking originality or cogency in argument, he will certainly not
be read for guidance. His essays illustrate the state of society
and may have a value to the historian, but that equally is not
our concern. Yet he will be read with interest for the excellence
of his prose style. This is not confined to any one book, nor is
any book devoid of blemish: if this belated survey of his prose
works has any value it may be in emphasing that however prejudiced,
illogical, or ill -informed Southey may have been, he never forgot
altogether how to write fine English. Life is too short that
readers to-day should waste time on the Colloquies, but even in
this masterpiece of folly there is good writing: that is why the
19th century read it.
Southey's prose writing had three moodes. In narrative he
wrote short sentences, built into closely worked paragraphs with .
no heightening or colouring whatever. His aim was to pack in
as much detail as possible without spoiling the porportion of
the story, and sometimes these long close paragraphs contain odd
juxtapositions, as has been shown. He was seldom much excited by
mere events, so that for adventures and scenes of battle he had
no graphic style, and the most stirring encounters are badly
enough related; but by shifting the focus, as described elsewhere,
he maintained an atmosphere of tension. In the Peninsular War,
his battles lose by comparison with Napier, who was undoubtedly
a very gifted writer. Southey's style was well calculated to
provide clarity with economy; and was used to good effect in
Nelson, the Admirals, and narrative parts of other works. The
following passage from the battle of Trafalgar is typical:
"The Victory had not yet returned a single gun: fifty of her men had by this time been killed or wounded, and her
main-topmast, with all her stunning sails and their booms, shot
away. Nelson declared that, in all his battles, he had
seen nothing which surpassed the cool courage of his crew on this occasion.At four minutes after twelve she opened her
fire from both sides of her deck. It was not possible to
break the enemy's line without running on board one of their
ships; Hardy informed him of this, and asked which he would
prefer. Nelson replied: 'Take your choice, Hardy, it does
not signify much.' The master was then ordered to put the
helm to port, and the Victory ran on board the Redoubtable,
just as her tiller ropes were shot away."
Southey's passion was best kindled by more abstract forces.
Throughout and after the Napoleonic wars he was very deeply
moved by emotional patriotism; hypocrisy and scatology
always roused his fighting temper; he could be very violent
in defence of his own opinions. In this mood he wrote a more
highly coloured style. He favoured long paragraphs built up
of compound sentences, in which the main thought was repeated,
and elaborated by illustration, and i9ts application extended
sometimes by reference or illusion. He was apt to overpunctuate,
and favoured too frequently the 'pompous triads' of which
Macauley complained in Johnson, but his sentences were well
balanced and seldom laboured. At his best, this style has a
resonance and rhythmic flow not often equalled, and it is un-
failingly perspicuous. "All who read shall understand me," said
Southey. At his worst, he became hysterical and resonance
was lost in high-pitched abuse, very unlovely. Sufficient examples of this style rae given in the text.
In meditative mood , the style retained its rhythmic quality,
but lost its violence. There are pages in The Doctor permeated
with homely sentiment, but sustained by the dignity of these
rhythmic flowing paragraphs which stamp the author as a master
of English prose. Much of Cowper and many letters illustrate
this style; a late development from the aggressiveness of his
most active period.
As a satirist Southey was impossible, and his ponderous
jocosity gives little pleasure. He tells many good tales in
The Doctor, and tells them well, so he was not utterly without
a sense of humour,but his own witticisms are pitiful. The worst
faults of his style are due to too much aggressiveness and too
little genuine humour. He was obviously deficient in imagination .
and drove his way through difficulties by sheer self assertion;
a method which makes no converts. If Burke defended his side
like a philosopher, Southey did so like a soldier. His style
lacks the figurative colourfulness of Burke's, and though more
continuously clear and hard hitting, was apt to get out of
control. Deficient in logic and humour, he was no match for
Macaulay in mordant criticism, and his narrative is certainly
less colourful. Though in prejudice and self confidence they
were equal, Macaulay must be admitted the more entertaining,
if more mannered in style. Absolute equality with Sterne is
probably to be denied Southey on the score of originality and
absence of characterisation, though he writes better. With the
19th century essayists he lid not compete.
Southey's position seems to be a little lower than any
of these writers; but it must be remembered always that though
his separate works are poor supporters of his fame, the aggregate
bulk of his good writing is very considerable. It is unjust
to rank him by the success or failure of his books - he was not
a writer of books, but of prose: passage for passage, he will
stand comparison with the best in our literature.
To examine his books is at best a poor way of estimating
the status of a man whose life and character contribute so
largely to his greatness. So far Southey has been unfortunate
in his biographers: the time is ripe for a new estimate.