Зображення сторінки
PDF
ePub

ment, fifty guineas for his unpublished poem of Joan of Arc, with a present of fifty copies for his subscribers. Southey noted the instance as the only one extant of a bookseller proving as inexperienced and as enthusiastic as an author himself.

Joan of Arc was an epic of considerable length, displaying great imaginative powers, a singular mastery of language, and an extraordinary facility of verse. Neither Joan of Arc, nor any other poem from Southey's pen, can take its place side by side with the masterpieces of those rare poets whose names become a nation's household words ; but the first, and every subsequent metrical composition of the Poet Laureate, exhibited, in a remarkable manner, qualities that obtained for their possessor respect and admiration that will not readily be lost. Vigour, fluency, great skill, a fine ear, a flowing pen, strong perception, great learning, copious and recondite illustrationnone of them everyday gifts—were all at the writer's command. One talent was given him in almost fatai exuberance. We have already adverted to it. It unfitted him for the highest excellence, and betrayed him into repeated error. The very abundance of the poetic coin distributed by Southey depreciated its value. The most precious of all metals, as our children may hereafter learn, will suffer from a glut. One stands appalled in the presence of Southey's poetic feats. “Is it not a pity, Grosvenor,” he writes to one of his poetic friends, “that I should not execute my intention of writing more verses than Lope de Vega, more tragedies than Dryden, and more epics than Blackmore? The more I write the more I have to write. I have a Helicon kind of dropsy upon me,

HIS RAPIDITY OF COMPOSITION.

177

and crescit indulgens sibi.In another letter, written before he was twenty, he remarks that he has accomplished a most arduous task. “I have transcribed all my verses that appear worth the trouble. Of these I took one list—another of my pile of stuff and nonsense—and a third of what I have burnt and lost; upon an average 10,000 verses are burnt and lost, the same number preserved, and 15,000 worthless. Consider that all my letters are excluded, and you may judge what waste of paper I have occasioned.” A note is added by the editor, to the effect that most of these excluded letters were written in verse, and often on four sides of folio paper. Shakspeare has informed us how the poet delivers up his heavenborn fancies, and we believe him. Southey kills faith and makes us infidels for ever. A poet's eye “in fine frenzy rolling” is not the eye with which Robert Southey contemplated his creative work and set about it. “I must fly from thought," he writes to Horace Bedford in 1793, “To-day I begin Cowper's Homer, and write an ode ; to-morrow read and write something else.As coolly he expresses himself, nine years afterwards, upon the completion of another long epic. “It was my design to identify Madoc with Mango Capac, the legislator of Peru; in this I have totally failed, therefore Mango Capac is to be the hero of another poem.Writing a thousand lines, or destroying a thousand, the labour was equally effortless. “Yesterday,” he tells a friend, "I drew the pen across 600 lines, and am now writing to you instead of supplying their place.” But their place will be supplied the moment the letter is despatched, for “the poem goes over for publication very shortly." The fountain can never

VOL. I.

vorrowo.ces himselber long, ango call, therer,

N

be exhausted. It is as full, and flows as bountifully in 1809 as in 1793. No merchant ever advised his correspondent more methodically and accurately of the items of a cargo than the Laureate communicates to his brother, on the 25th of November, 1809, the measurement of a poem just taken off the stocks. “I have this day finished Kehama, having written 200 lines since yesterday morning; twenty-four sections, 4,844 lines; 200 or 300 more will probably be added in course of correction and transcription; and all has been done before breakfast, except about 170 lines of the conclusion.” What Southey accomplished, however, difficult as it may be to realise the thought, was but a drop in the ocean compared with the great flood which, in his youth, he had designed to pour from his inexhaustible soul into our sadly parched world. He informs a correspondent, in 1812, what had been his generous intention, had not prudence demanded a sacrifice which it almost broke the poet's heart to make. “I had a design," he says, “of rendering every mythology which had ever extended itself widely, and powerfully influenced the human mind, the basis of a narrative poem. I began with the religion of the Koran, and consequently founded the history of the story upon that resignation, which is the only virtue it has produced. Had Thalaba been more successful, my whole design would by this time have been effected; for, prepared as I was with the whole materials for each, and with the general idea of the story, I should assuredly have produced such a poem every year.We cannot sympathise with the poet in his bitter regret that the opportunity of fulfilling his object was never permitted him.

HIS REVERENCE FOR THE POETIC OFFICE. 179

But, if Southey in his youth composed with rapidity, and gave free rein to a steed that might have been the better for the curb—if, instead of subjecting his intellect to the rigorous discipline, and to the severe habit of investigation, for want of which his well-intentioned and well-stored mind stumbled so frequently in the dark as he advanced in life-if, we say, instead of doing this, he would read without discrimination, and write without limit, it must not be supposed that the struggling lad had no true sense of the poet's mission. His very reverence for the poetis office induced him to regard as an ordinary pursuit the only serious occupation in life which ceases to be cultivated with success the instant it is brought down to the level of a profession. Industrious from his cradle, he could find happiness only in employment. He was happy beyond expression composing his Joan of Arc, though laden at heart with all the cares that can oppress the unfortunate, at the threshold of life. His future was uncertain, his present was one of penury. Whilst the precious sheets were printing, he was walking the streets of Bristol without the means of purchasing a dinner. When he lay down at night with no hope of providing for the necessary food of the morrow—if he could not sleep, it was simply because his head was full of the verses, and busy with the incidents that were to be committed to paper with the returning daylight. All that he gained by the publication of Joan of Arc was over and over again forestalled by his lodging-house bill for tea, bread and butter, and similar modest fare, but the benefit derived from resolute persistence in the labour that he loved, and prosecuted because it

he lay down a food of these his hea

comforted and sustained him, compensated richly for trial and privation, had they been twenty times as terrible as they were. To work was part of Southey's religion.

Shortly after Mr. Cottle's munificent purchase of the copyright of Joan of Arc, Southey's uncle, who held a chaplaincy in Portugal, arrived in England. He found his nephew a Unitarian in religion, and a Radical in politics. Moreover, he saw him with no visible means of earning his bread, and yet engaged to be married. The rev. gentleman acted a father's part by the unfortunate. To mend his faith, to improve his politics, and to wean his mind from an “imprudent attachment,” he proposed a six months' visit to Portugal preparatory to his adoption of the legal profession, for which pursuit the good uncle undertook to prepare him by a needful supply of funds. To gratify his mother, Southey consented to the trip; but, as soon as his uncle had fixed the day for departure, he himself fixed the same day for his union with Edith Fricker. They married, and parted immediately after the ceremony was performed. Edith was poor, and Southey, who resolved to earn money by the sweat of his brow, feared that she would hesitate to receive funds from one not legally her husband. To remove her scruples, he assumed the right to provide for her wants. “ Should I perish by shipwreck,” he writes from Falmouth to Mr. Cottle, to the care of whose sisters he had left his maiden wife, “or by any other casualty, I have relations whose prejudice will yield to the anguish of affection, and who will love, cherish, and give all possible consolation to my widow." With these words Southey

« НазадПродовжити »