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Robert Southey's Letters, published not unsparingly we grant, but certainly after passing through the hands of one more than ordinarily desirous to present his subject in the fairest light before the world. We will dismiss this portion of our criticism at once, by plainly expressing our regret that the Rev. Mr. Southey has not been spared his delicate and not easy task. We doubt very much whether the son of any man is the fit chronicler of his father's life. We are certain that the son of Robert Southey cannot be just to the public, and not do violence to his own reverential love. We are further convinced that the present biographer, in his very anxiety to reconcile editorial obligations with filial affection, has done great harm to the object that lay nearest his heart. We have to complain in the name of the public, of sins of omission, and of sins of commission on behalf of Robert Southey. At every other page we grow impatient at the absence of all that is required to admit us into recesses which biography undertakes to lay open, and of all comment upon a text that provokes rather than satisfies curiosity, that offers the merest glimpses of matters which it is the chief office of the biographer to bring into the broad day. As frequently are we annoyed by the publication of passages thrown off by their author hastily in early youth—possibly repented of almost as soon as written—often contradicted by passages recurring at a later date, and hardly more essential to a complete understanding of the poet's character than a record of his fractiousness at the interesting time of teething. Robert Southey would have sighed to reperuse the unconsidered utterances of his earlier letters. Why should the
HIS EARLY RESIDENCE WITH HIS AUNT.
reader smile at them ? The voluminous collection of epistles for which we are indebted to the indefatigable zeal of the Rev. Mr. Southey, are, we repeat, admirable raw material, as far as they go, for the astute critic and skilful biographer. They ought never to have been thrown in undigested heaps upon the world ; nor would they, had the son of Robert Southey been an older man, a more experienced writer, and blessed with good advisers.
Robert Southey was born in the city of Bristol, on the 12th of August, 1774, and was the son of a small tradesman. His childhood, however, was passed, not at home, but in Bath, at the residence of Miss Tyler, his aunt, of whom a speaking portrait is drawn in the biographical fragment. Lament for the ill fortune that induced Southey to cut short that pleasant labour begins as soon as the inimitable Miss Tyler appears upon the scene, and never ceases till the fragment ends. Miss Tyler had a great contempt for Bristol society. She was passionately fond of theatres, and the familiar friend of the great actors who exhibited on the boards of the Bath Theatre—the first establishment of the kind out of London. The gala days of her household were those which found tragedians at her table. Then the lady would assume the appearance and adopt the manners of one who had been bred in the best society, and be equal to her pretensions. Then, too, the best room was opened. At other times Miss Tyler was attired in a bedgown, went about in rags, and lived in the kitchen. But in rags, as well as in kitchen, the lady was scrupulously clean; her hatred of dust was a consuming passion; and her notions of uncleanness
a cup fout being in an uncleo be airpe temeritxt of the
were as irrational as those of a Hindoo. She once buried a cup for six weeks to purify it from the lips of one who, not being a favourite, was not considered clean. A chair used by an unclean person was invariably dismissed to the garden to be aired. Once a man called upon business, and had the temerity to seat himself in the lady's own chair! The effect of the crime Southey pronounces to have been tremendous. Her features grew tragically fierce; her language became irreverent; her gesticulations were those of one in wild distress, and she lifted up her eyes and hands like a woman lost in hopeless misery or in the last extremity of mental anguish. With this lady Southey lived from the age of two till six. He had no playmates; he was never permitted to do anything in which by any possibility he might contract dirt; he was kept up late at night in dramatic society, and kept in bed late in the morning at the side of his aunt, not daring to make the slightest movement that could disturb her; and his chief pastime—for neither at this time nor at a later period had Southey any propensity for boyish sports—was pricking holes in playbills—an amusement, of course, suggested to him by Miss Tyler, and witnessed by her with infinite delight. As soon as the child could read, his aunt's friends furnished him with literature. The son of Francis Newberry, of St. Paul's-churchyard, and the well-known publisher of Goody Two Shoes, Giles Gingerbread, “and other such delectable histories in sixpenny books for children, splendidly bound in the flowered and gilt Dutch paper of former days," sent the child twenty such volumes, and laid the foundation of a love of books, which grew with the child's
HIS LOVE OF READING.
growth and did not cease in age, even when the vacant mind and eye could only gaze in piteous though blissful imbecility upon the things they loved.
From Goody Two Shoes the advance was rapid and decided. Before the boy was seven years old he had been to the theatre more frequently than he afterwards went from the age of twenty till his death. The conversations to which he listened were invariably of actors, of authors, and of the triumphs of both ; the familiar books of the household were tragedies and“the acting drama.” At eight, Beaumont and Fletcher and Shakspeare had been read through. At the same tender age the resolution was first formed to excel in the profession which the child heard extolled for its dignity from morning till night. At first the actors of plays were esteemed beyond all other men; these, in their turn, gave place to writers of plays, whom, almost as soon as he could hold a pen, the boy himself began to emulate. He was not quite nine when he set to work upon a tragedy, the subject being the continence of Scipio. In 1782 he went as day boarder to a school in Bristol, learning from his master, as invariably proved the case with him, much less than he contrived to teach himself. Before he had reached his twelfth year he had read, with the keenest relish, translations of Jerusalem Liberated and the Orlando Furioso, and had been entranced with the Faery Queen of Spenser—a vision that never yet burst upon the youthful poet's soul but to intoxicate by the brilliant magic of its strains, and to elevate and strengthen by the purity and loveliness of its matchless forms. At thirteen, Southey was not only master of Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser, but well acquainted also, through translations, with Homer and Ovid. He was familiar with ancient history, and his acquaintance with the light literature of the day was bounded only by the supply. A more industrious infancy was never known; but it was surpassed by the ceaseless energy of youth, which, in its turn, was superseded by the unfaltering and unequalled labour of the man. We intreat the clamourers for the rights of labour to bear in mind the record. No artisan in the workshop, no peasant in the field, no handicraftsman at his board, ever went so young to his apprenticeship, or wrought so unremittingly through life for a bare livelihood, as Robert Southey. Whatever dignity might attach to the vocation, of independence, so called, there was none. Sixty years' continued toil, though they rendered an honest, prudent, honourable and religious man happy and grateful in the midst of suffering and sorrow common to all, yet left him comparatively poor and actually dependent upon the generosity of his country. We dwell upon the fact to console perseverance wherever it may be found, but especially to warn off the mere adventurer from ground on which the wisest and the best prepared find it not easy to secure a footing.
Southey tells us himself that he does not remember, in any part of his life, to have been so conscious of intellectual improvement as he was from his twelfth to his fourteenth year, and he attributes his advance as much to constantly exercising himself in English verse, as to any other cause. In truth, he commenced his poetic labours as soon as he was breeched, and in a magnificent fashion that has known no