Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793-1810 
edited by Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts.
Pickering & Chatto, 2624 pp., £450, May 2004, 1 85196 731 1
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On 15 June 1794, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prodigious, garrulous and chubby, his brilliant undergraduate career in tatters, set out from Cambridge in the company of a steady companion called Hucks, picturesquely intent on a walking tour of North Wales. Their route took them through Oxford, where they looked up one of Coleridge’s old schoolmates, who took the visitors to see a notorious democrat at Balliol called Robert Southey. It was an encounter that, Southey would recall, ‘fixed the future fortunes of us both’. The tourists had planned to stop in Oxford for three or four days but ended up staying three weeks. When they finally set out for Wales, Coleridge’s head was buzzing with Southey and Southey’s audacious politics, which seemed to chime so excitingly not only with his own but with the progressive spirit of the age. ‘Few persons but those who lived in it,’ Southey wrote thirty years later, ‘can conceive or comprehend what the memory of the French Revolution was, nor what a visionary world seemed to open upon those who were just entering it. Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race.’

Each saw in the other, or thought he did, an agent of that millennial regeneration and the perfected image of himself. Coleridge had found a ‘Sheet Anchor’, ‘a down-right, upright Republican’ with an ‘undeviating simplicity of Rectitude’. Southey was quite as impressed by him, ‘a Cantab … whom I very much esteem & admire, tho’ two thirds of our conversation be spent in disputing on metaphysical subjects’ – which presumably implies that Coleridge did two-thirds of the talking. In truth, as events would quickly show, their kinship did not go very deep. Coleridge’s republicanism was a kind of spilt religion, inspired by the mystical sense of universal fraternity he had absorbed from the Unitarian Joseph Priestley and the dissenting circles he had moved in at Cambridge; Southey’s, on the other hand, was bookish, a heady and incoherent mix of Gibbon and Rousseau and Voltaire, stirred up with the modish radicalism of Godwin – none of which Coleridge ever cared for much. Nevertheless they had soon sorted out a plan for their lives. Equipped with a party of like-minded followers and wives, they would set up a communistic kibbutz on the banks of the Susquehannah river in Pennsylvania, where, since there would be no private property and hence no incentive to misbehave, they might confidently look forward to a good life of honest toil, philosophising and poetry. Coleridge, thinking a new word necessary for so innovative a departure in human affairs, christened the scheme ‘Pantisocracy’.

It sounds now like a comic interlude in a more serious sort of literary life; but many people (including Priestley) emigrated to America at around this time. Long before Coleridge arrived on his doorstep Southey had dreamed despondently about escaping England and starting afresh. ‘Is it not rather disgraceful, at the moment when Europe is on fire with freedom … to sit and study Euclid or Hugo Grotius?’ he complained in a letter. Now Coleridge had arrived, and in the interests of utopia Southey promptly paired his comrade off with a fiancée he had to hand: Sara Fricker, the vivid and quick sister of his own intended, the much more docile Edith. A startled Sara was introduced to her new young man as he returned, bedraggled and sunburned, from the tour of Wales – ‘a dreadful figure’, as she remembered, though admittedly ‘eloquent and clever’. And so Coleridge abandoned Cambridge and Southey Oxford, and they moved to Bristol, Southey’s home, where they set about trying to raise funds for the passage. Southey offered a series of lectures on history, and Coleridge one on religion, and they co-authored a docu-drama, The Fall of Robespierre, which gamely sought to render recent events across the Channel in high old style: ‘Shudder, ye representatives of France,/ Shudder with horror’ and ‘O prodigality of eloquent anger!’ and so forth. Coleridge was ambivalent about Robespierre, as many British progressives were, but Southey was altogether more robust, reportedly exclaiming when he heard news of Robespierre’s execution: ‘I had rather have heard of the death of my own father.’

Of course they never made it to Pennsylvania, which was probably just as well. (In his shaggy-dog history of ideas, Madoc, Paul Muldoon imagines the high-minded debacle that would have ensued had they ever got there.) Fiery Southey grew cooler and cooler. He began by suggesting that the party might perhaps work up to the full American dream by way of a small farm in Wales (Coleridge was incredulous); then toyed with the idea of entering the church (Coleridge was horrified); and finally, after coming into an annuity, rethought his position on common ownership and withdrew altogether. Coleridge was magnificently contemptuous about this lurch into conventionality and wrote him a scorching letter: ‘O Selfish, money-loving Man! What Principle have you not given up?’ Left with no degree, no money and few prospects, and with the unexpected burden of a marriage that Southey had engineered for him, Coleridge not unnaturally felt hard done by; but the fault was as much his own in having mistaken so wishfully the nature of his man. For Southey’s deepest instincts were really as far as could be from the reckless spirit of adventure that the enterprise required. Whatever wild noises he made as an undergraduate, Southey was always ruled by a rage for order: his youthful utopianism was one fantastical expression of this; his later fervid conservatism was another; and, in a different way, the remorseless domestic stability that characterised most of his adult life was another still. The fiasco of Pantisocracy had brought out crucial differences between the two men which each had refused to see: as William Haller said long ago in his astute and still highly readable Early Life of Robert Southey (1917), the scheme was thrilling to Coleridge as a philosophical experiment, while appealing to Southey chiefly as a set of rules.

Coleridge, ever eager to find in others the well-adjustedness that he missed so badly in himself, mistook Southey’s vehemence as a sign of emotional strength; but Southey’s obsessive need for control could only ever have been a characteristic of someone whose inner life was permanently poised on the edge of the craziest turbulence: he is one of Eng. Lit.’s great neurotics. For Coleridge, as for Wordsworth, the human personality was something like a vast river or a growing tree: a single strong autonomous thing, yet responsive and continuously developing. For Southey, it was more like a suit of armour or an exoskeleton. His gift for self-suppression was amazing, in part no doubt because he had been forced to perfect it so early. His first years were spent in the stuffy house of an aunt, a hygiene fetishist whose childcare regime consisted mostly of enforcing long periods of inaction so as to avoid any possible contact between infant and dirt. She insisted that the boy sleep in her bed, and there he would lie immobile for hours until she was ready to get up. ‘Once, indeed, I had a mimosa-sensibility,’ he wrote, while still a young man, ‘but it has long been rooted out,’ and it’s true that most of his life was spent trying to ensure that his acquaintance with himself was as superficial as possible. Coleridge, to whom self-analysis was stock-in-trade, found the case absorbing, if repellent, and in the privacy of his notebook he would often analyse his brother-in-law. He recognised Southey’s character as heroic in one way, while remaining convinced that there was something less than fully human about it too:

I can tell you what he is not. He is not a man of warmth, or delicacy of Feeling, he is not self-oblivious or self-diffused, or acquainted with his own nature … an unfathoming and (not only self-unfathomed, but even) self-unsounded Spirit … He is a clear piece of Water in a park, moved from without – or at best, a smooth stream with one current, & tideless, & of which you can only avail yourself to one purpose.

By the time Coleridge wrote those words in 1804, Southey had become a pathologically hard worker (‘the most industrious of all literary men on record’, De Quincey called him), producing thousands of words to order, both verse and prose, and addicted to books, which he gutted with brilliant efficiency. (‘I can’t think of Southey, without seeing him either mending or using a pen,’ Coleridge said, with the ruefulness of one who often couldn’t bring himself to pick a pen up.) The anaesthetic of sheer toil did the trick most of the time; but it is less surprising that, in the end, his mind broke down completely than that it took so long to happen. He took an odd sort of pride in how well, on the whole, he had coped with the problem of being himself. As he explained to a friend: ‘If it were not for great self-management, and what may be called a strict intellectual regimen, I should very soon be in a deplorable state of what is called nervous disease.’ Thomas Carlyle, whose own nerves had their deplorable moments, knew a fraught hidden drama when he saw one: ‘How has this man contrived, with such a nervous system, to keep alive for near sixty years?’ Given this insight, it was mischievous of Carlyle to go on to remark casually to Southey that Shelley must have led a haggard sort of existence. Carlyle found the response unsettling: ‘I remember Southey’s pause, and the tone and air with which he answered, “It is a haggard existence!”’

Mark Storey, Southey’s most recent biographer, gently describes him as ‘less than completely stable’, and his poetry is a product of his genius for repression, as the handsome and welcome new edition of the verse lets us see with new clarity. No one in the world knows more about Southey than Lynda Pratt, and she and her team of editors, principally Tim Fulford and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts, have done an exemplary job recording variants, printing early versions and manuscript fragments, and identifying sources. Southey’s ambitions were vast, and he set about achieving them with precocious efficiency. While still a schoolboy, he had read Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World, and decided then and there to write an epic about each major religion. Of the long poems in this edition, each several thousand lines long, Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) is a supposedly Islamic romance, Madoc (1805) sets Aztecs against Welsh Christians, and The Curse of Kehama (1810) takes on a lividly distorted version of Hinduism. Two later long poems, Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), his most successful and some have thought his best, and The Tale of Paraguay (1825), fall outside the scope of the edition. His first effort, Joan of Arc, was already well in hand when Coleridge showed up at Balliol: Joan was a provocative choice of heroine in a country presently at war with France. The religion on offer in that poem is a kind of nature worship, instilled by the happy contingency of Joan’s growing up in a forest: it is a glimpse of the Pantisocracy they never managed – ‘Nature has spread around/The unguilty food of life abundantly’ – and Coleridge obligingly stumped up a few hundred lines to sketch in the metaphysics (which Southey cut from the second edition). Duly inspired, Joan rouses the French to defeat the English, a victory which Southey anachronistically presents as a triumph of Pantisocratic values: Joan addresses the multitude as ‘Citizens’ and describes her monarch as the ‘voluntary choice of duteous subjects’. The Anti-Jacobin rose to the bait and denounced Joan as a Tom Paine in petticoats. But the politics of Southey’s poem weren’t much more than skin-deep: nothing could be further from a genuinely political interest in choices and stratagems and alternative courses of action than the motivating fantasy of divine election that moves the poem on. Joan doesn’t decide to save France so much as twig that she is the person ‘whom Providence all-wise decrees/The saviour of the realm’, and everyone else in the poem with any sense realises it too, sooner or later, often in ringingly unimpressive verse: ‘Recovering from amaze, the Priest replied:/“Thou art indeed the delegate of Heaven!/What thou hast said surely thou shalt perform!”’

It is hardly unprecedented for an epic to tell a story the providential outcome of which is known from the start: calling your poem Paradise Lost doesn’t allow much room for cliffhanging suspense. But then Milton has a habit of imagining the religious destiny of his poem in incongruously political and military terms, as though, impossibly, things might somehow have worked out differently, and the poem discovers a human interest that it should hardly possess. Southey’s poems enjoy no such complication: ‘It cannot perhaps be said that any of the characters interest you much,’ Wordsworth delicately remarked, after he and Dorothy had made it through Madoc. The other epics have more exotic settings, but they share Joan of Arc’s animating fantasy of an all-controlling determinism. Thalaba the Destroyer is a textbook example of fashionable Orientalism but, as Southey himself conceded, its hero was really a replay of his first heroine, ‘a male Joan of Arc’. Thalaba is elected to do ‘the will of Heaven’ in the first book – to avenge the death of his father – and for the rest of the poem he is moved on from colourful episode to colourful episode in a way that appears to him quite aimless but, as he rightly trusts, is far from being so. Tim Fulford points out in his interesting introduction to the poem that, officially, Southey took a dim view of the fatalism he believed to be ‘the corner-stone of Mahometry’; but in the play-space of poetry nothing excited him more. The only really foolish characters in the poem are Thalaba’s opponents, who ceaselessly try to stop him as though they inhabited a universe of normal moral luck and stood the slightest chance of success. One miraculous intervention after another renders their attempts futile, and the poem ends with our hero destroying the enemy’s headquarters. The climax is deliciously abrupt, as though the poem doesn’t know what to do with a bit of initiative now that it finally has some:

Thalaba knew that his death-hour was come,
And on he leapt, and springing up,
Into the Idol’s heart
Hilt-deep he drove the Sword.
The Ocean-Vault fell in, and all were crushed.

Thalaba is fast-tracked to paradise and the poem comes to a halt three lines later.

The action is similarly imponderable in the other long poems. In Madoc, the Aztecs are fatalists piously contrasted with the get-up-and-go Christian hero, though the outcome of his actions is again never in much doubt. The grim universe of The Curse of Kehama is one in which the villainous Rajah is sure to get his comeuppance. As someone in that poem says, ‘All work, unconsciously, the will of Fate’: a deplorable doctrine, no doubt, with all the ethical problems consequent on the denial of free will, but a scarcely secret delight too, and probably one of the poem’s main attractions for its admirers. Shelley, who was not immune to the charm of historical inevitability, thought Kehama marvellous and (as Marilyn Butler has observed) several times borrowed from Thalaba the central device of a boat leading a protagonist inexorably downstream towards an appointed destiny. Newman outdid even Shelley in admiration, acclaiming Thalaba as ‘the most Sublime of English Poems’: reading it, he remembered in the Apologia, ‘I began to think that I had a mission.’

Set like jewels within these marvellous teleologies, Southey places vignettes of paradisal gardens and glades and palaces and towers: lovely fantasies of orderly enclosure that are some of the most striking things in the poems.

Where’er his eye could reach
Fair structures, rain bow-hued, arose;
And rich pavilions thro’ the opening woods
Gleamed from their waving curtains sunny gold;
And winding thro’ the verdant vale
Flowed streams of liquid light;
And fluted cypresses reared up
Their living obelisks

Such enchanted topographies are further glimpses of the Susquehannah life that never was: they are also Southey’s versions of Xanadu, and sometimes come very close in wording: ‘She raised her head, and saw/ Where high in air a stately palace rose.’ (Which way did the influence run? In his introduction Fulford maintains that ‘Kubla Khan’ draws on Southey, and not the other way round – which indeed is possible, though it requires dating Coleridge’s poem a couple of years later than scholars usually put it.)

A number of contemporary notices picked up on a creepy subtext: Southey’s language always speeds up excitedly when things threaten to spin off into the deranged and kinky. The British Critic said of Thalaba that ‘a more complete monument of vile and depraved taste no man ever raised,’ which was pushing it a bit, but the reviewer was nevertheless sharp to detect a secret complicity between Southey’s verbal imagination and his inventions of depravity. Southey is regularly at his best when at his most freakish or ghoulish or grotesque, summoning up dark forces or describing unspeakable tortures. The Aztecs give him a lot of especially good copy in that last department: ‘Stripes, which laid his flesh/All bleeding bare, had forced not one complaint;/Not, when the working bowels might be seen,/One movement.’ (‘The leading character of the poem is horror,’ gasped the Eclectic Review. ‘We are sickened almost in every page.’) Or take this, from The Curse of Kehama:

At once on every side
The circling torches drop,
At once on every side
The fragrant oil is pour’d,
At once on every side
The rapid flames rush up.
Then hand in hand the victim band
Roll in the dance around the funeral pyre;
Their garments flying folds
Float inward to the fire.
In drunken whirl they wheel around;
One drops, … another plunges in;
And still with overwhelming din
The tambours and the trumpets sound;
And clap of hand, and shouts, and cries,
From all the multitude arise.
While round and round, in giddy wheel,
Intoxicate they roll and reel,
Till one by one whirl’d in they fall,
And the devouring flames have swallowed all.
Then all was still …

The mad energies are reined safely back in again and we are restored to the business in hand, but meanwhile the poetry has at least flirted with the possibility of getting drunk.

‘He can comprehend but one idea at a time,’ Hazlitt said of Southey, ‘and that is always an extreme one.’ The epics – those enormous, hectic combinations of extremes – are mostly not what you would consider good poetry, but that might tell us as much about what we ordinarily call good poetry as it does about Southey’s merits; and it’s true that what’s best about these poems, their broad narrative push and gaudy weirdness, is not the sort of thing that modern practitioners of Eng. Lit. have much to say about. On the other hand, no amount of critical relativism is likely to persuade many readers that language is being used in particularly deft or subtle ways, and the editors of this collection are probably wise to make more of his broad historical significance than of his literary merits. Wordsworth told Coleridge disapprovingly that Southey wrote ‘too much at his ease’, and it is certainly true that his verse never gives you the impression, as Wordsworth’s does, of sense won out of a struggle with convention, a style ‘knotty and contorted’, as Coleridge said, ‘as by its own impatient strength’.

Southey evidently held firm and unremarkable notions of what epics should sound like, so these pages are full of people saying ‘That were foolishness to think’ or ‘Vain is resistance now’ or ‘Art thou firm of foot/ To tread the ways of danger?’ Things tend to happen with noisy ostentation (‘Fast, on the intervening buckler, fell/The Azteca’s stone faulchion’); humdrum thoughts are translated into decorous orotundity (‘Is it a crime/To mount the horse, because forsooth thy feet/Can serve thee for the journey?’); narrative links work very hard to fulfil their poetical duty (‘Meantime from Aztlan, on their enterprize,/Shedder of Blood, and Tyger of the war/Ocelopan and Tlalala set forth’). The poems can feel like one extraordinary thing after another. Astonishing events occur on every page (‘Even as she spake,/The tower, the bridge, and all its multitudes,/Sunk with a mighty crash’) in a succession of magical rings, spectres, dark wizards, dreadful creatures and the rest: ‘Every incident is a miracle,’ the Monthly Magazine said wearily of Thalaba, ‘every utensil, an amulet; every speech, a spell; every personage, a god.’ The poems induce a kind of snowblindness: Coleridge wrote in Biographia Literaria of the ‘full blaze’ of Kehama – ‘a series of images, chasing one another away’, as another critic put it.

Thanks to the chance meeting at Balliol, Coleridge (and Sara Fricker) ended up in the wrong marriage, an experience which, among other things, eventually fed into ‘Dejection: An Ode’, one of Coleridge’s most original achievements. ‘Dejection’ inaugurates a long tradition in modern writing (Arnold, Eliot, Stevens, Beckett, Larkin) that finds a way through to imagination by describing imagination’s failure. The fallout for Southey was less fruitful, though it was to affect his subsequent reputation just as much. When the Edinburgh Review began in 1802, the editors needed a peg on which to hang a hostile account of what was wrong with contemporary poetry, and Thalaba came readily to hand. Francis Jeffrey wrote an eye-grabbing and witty review that took Southey as the representative of a new ‘sect of poets … dissenters from the established systems in poetry and criticism’, defined by their ‘perverted taste for simplicity’ and ‘bona fide rejection of art altogether’, something of which Jeffrey disapproved chiefly because he associated it with reckless leftist politics. It’s hard to see many of those punches landing on Thalaba: even Jeffrey had to acknowledge that Southey was ‘less addicted’ to the dangerous new principles than were his co-conspirators. In truth the ‘sect’ was a figment of the journalistic mind, and Southey guilty chiefly by association: the association was with Wordsworth, and that existed only because of the prior association of both poets with Coleridge. Southey was understandably fed up about the ‘Thalabacide’ he had received in Jeffrey’s article (‘He is a damned lying Scotch son of a bitch’), though he was noble about it too: ‘I am well pleased to be abused with Coleridge and Wordsworth: it is the best omen that I shall be remembered with them.’ The idea that the three poets formed a group firmly stuck, and only grew stronger when, in 1803, the Southeys moved to Greta Hall, the draughty house outside Keswick in which Coleridge had installed his young family so as to be near Grasmere. Jeffrey would later come up with a label for the sect, the ‘Lake School’, a less than useful grouping which has lingered in literary histories ever since. (Southey stayed at Keswick for the rest of his life, paterfamilias for forty years to more than his own family: Coleridge quit the Lake District for good in 1810, leaving his children to Southey’s dependable ‘Vice-fathership’. Given that Southey was largely responsible for bringing up his children, Coleridge’s dissections of his brother-in-law’s industry and rectitude weren’t handsome even if they were astute.)

As neighbours (more or less), Southey and Wordsworth came to regard one another with respect, but as poets they were not much alike. Wordsworth’s poetry thrives on a mistrust of literary sensation and marvellous incident: ‘The moving accident is not my trade.’ He entertains the idea of providential election by unknown powers, but finds his truest subject-matter in perplexity and strangeness and unaccommodated surprise. In short, he feels modern. Where Southey and Wordsworth do overlap, without coinciding exactly, is in the love-hate relationship their poems have with the commonplace: a relationship, characteristic of so much late 18th-century verse, that you might call ‘Romanticism’. It was Wordsworth’s coat-trailing experiments with the prosaic that got under Jeffrey’s skin (‘Oh! what’s the matter? what’s the matter?/What is’t that ails young Harry Gill?’) and, indignant, he persuaded himself he found something similar in Southey. He wasn’t entirely wrong. The deadpan plot-summary of Thalaba that Jeffrey includes in his review is very funny, partly because it picks up on the implicitly comical marriage of the extravagantly epic and the obdurately humdrum in Southey’s poem. An unsteady sort of humour creeps in whenever the rent-an-epic pomp is incongruously tied to a life more ordinary: narrative business, for instance, often has an atmosphere of subdued farce (‘So saying Conrade from the tent went forth’). Reviewers other than Jeffrey noticed Southey’s readiness to introduce what the Literary Journal called a ‘chit-chat expression’ and so to create ‘the most ludicrous effect’. The misfiring solemnity that arises can, it’s true, sound like something written by Pete and recited to Dud: ‘He asks for food, and lo!/The Damsel proffers him her lap of dates,’ and the like. But it isn’t always easy to tell how far the laugh is on Southey and how far he is its initiator. Some of his epic locutions don’t rule out the suspicion that they’re aware of their own artifice: ‘On comes the Elephant, to slake/His thirst at noon in yon pellucid springs,’ for instance, or the droll Miltonism afforded by an account of how pelicans ‘Filled the swoln membrane from their plumeless throat/Pendant’.

In a hostile but clever review of Madoc, John Ferriar puzzled about its genre: ‘We suppose that Mr Southey would not suffer it to be classed under the mock-heroic.’ The epics are not mock, of course, in the way that The Splendid Shilling or even Mac Flecknoe is, but perhaps it isn’t so absurd to detect mock energies disruptively at work within them, not least because Southey’s other poems so often entertain mock-heroic possibilities more wholeheartedly. ‘By far the best of his works,’ Hazlitt said, ‘are some of his shorter personal compositions, in which there is an ironical mixture of the quaint and the serious’: the fifth volume of this set is devoted to the shorter pieces, and reveals just how many of these quirky, enjoyable poems Southey wrote, churning them out for the Morning Post along with more conventional sighs of sensibility and sententiousness and worthy lives recorded in stiff inscriptions. As with the thirsty elephant, animals often provide the right occasion, as in ‘The Pig’ (‘Give thy fancy scope,/And thou wilt find that no imagin’d change/Can beautify this beast’) or ‘To a Spider’ or ‘To a Goose’; domestic life provides other opportunities. Such poems hardly disguise the possibility of being ludicrous without exactly indulging it either, and the same is true in a different way of his ballads, such as ‘Bishop Bruno’ and ‘God’s Judgment on a Bishop’, which are at once flip and grim, throwaway and macabre (a little like Auden’s ballads). When Jeffrey was being brutal about Wordsworth’s Poems, in Two Volumes (1807), he offered Southey’s ‘Gooseberry-Pie: A Pindaric Ode’ as an example of the same sort of mismatch between high poetic ambition and low subject-matter that disfigured Wordsworth’s addresses to daisies and celandines, his point being that at least Southey knew he was meant to be ludicrous.

But actually the tone is rarely so simple: Southey was an able enough parodist, as the spoof sonnets by ‘Abel Shufflebottom’ show, but his gift best reveals itself when the spirit of parody is only uncertainly abroad. And it works the other way around too, as Geoffrey Grigson pointed out in the excellent Choice of Southey’s Verse that he made for Faber in 1970 (long overdue for a reprint). Grigson was a fine critic, as well as an anthologist of genius, and his introductory essay remains the best thing ever written on the subject: ‘One feels, in poem after poem, even poems mainly serious, that he stations himself deliberately on the verge of self-parody, in rhythm and movement and in statement.’ He’s right: when the Anti-Jacobin sends up Southey’s poems on the suffering poor, or Lewis Carroll sends up Southey’s ‘The Old Man’s Complaints’, it is hard to say whether they are satirically turning serious poems on their heads or merely picking up on a part of their original self-mocking spirit:

You are old, father WILLIAM, the young man said,
And pleasures with youth pass away,
And yet you regret not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason, I pray?

The verses roll by, remorselessly reiterating the one point in the same way and the thought begins to arise: is this a moralising poem about the virtues of temperance or an acknowledgment of the absurdity of attempting such a poem?

When he collected his shorter poems, Southey introduced them with a disarming note explaining that the reader should consider them ‘the desultory productions of a man sedulously employed by better things’: in private he cheerfully referred to them as ‘old rubbish’ and to himself as an easygoing hack. About his epics he could sound much more vainglorious, and this edition shows how assiduously he revised and reworked them over the years, but for all that they have an oddly desultory quality. It’s telling that Southey’s best parodist was Byron: good parody usually involves fellow-feeling, and something in Southey evidently chimed with Byron’s abiding sense of the ultimate frivolity of writing poetry at all; though where Byron embraced that as a gleeful vocation, Southey experienced it as part of a bleaker and more encompassing redundancy. Byron conjured desultoriness into an idiom and in Don Juan wrote its self-inventing masterpiece, an epic founded on the deeply sane awareness that there are better things to do than compose poems.

That was beyond Southey: his heart could never be wholly in his work, because his heart was never wholly anywhere. Except, maybe, in reading. Byron called Southey ‘our completest man of letters’, which was ambiguous praise from him, but true: for Southey the best thing was books (appropriately, they are the subject of his most famous poem, ‘My Days among the Dead’). When Jeffrey complained that Thalaba was ‘little else than his commonplace book versified’ he was being unfair, but he was on to something; and when Hazlitt said, rightly, of one Southey poem that it had the ‘obvious commonplace defects’, he might have added that his best poems have the commonplace virtues. Southey published his epics with vast numbers of footnotes citing sources for the events and beliefs displayed in the poems and discussing all kinds of curiosities along the way: they are reproduced in full in this new edition, lovingly accompanied by notes of their own, and reveal Southey in his true colours, not as a Romantic poet exactly, but as the last of the antiquarians. The poems come to seem like occasions for the reading that went into them, their hypertrophied notes taken over from what was, in a way, his greatest work of all: his commonplace book, published posthumously by his son-in-law, an immense multi-volume heap of facts and quotations drawn from his omnivorous reading. It was a huge pile of fragments to set against his ruin, a magnum opus of self-distraction. Everything he did speaks of some formative disorientation and self-estrangement: it is dreadfully appropriate that he should have been overheard in his last dark years muttering to himself, ‘I wish my head was in the right place.’

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