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imagination, though it has been utterly wanting in some of our greatest poets,-in Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as in Milton. It is commonly and perhaps correctly said to be the gift of a glooiny rather than of a cheerful temperament; and no doubt the humour which breaks through the clouds is the most enlarging and enriching :
The richest mirth, the richest sadness too.
This was not Southey's kind; but his had a charm of its own. Much of it belonged to his daily life, and it was ofter. out of this that it found its way into his poetry. His life was a singular combination of gaiety with steady industry and laborious research. Some trivial incident occurred, and his fireside was enlivened by verses like those which follow1, almost conversational in their easy pleasantry :
Inscription for a Coffee-pot.
'Twas not a thing at which to scoff,
For fifty guineas were the cost thereof.
On the one side the head of the King you might see,
And on the other was Mercury.
But I was scant of worldly riches,
And moreover the Mercury had no breeches.
So, thinking of honour and utility too,
I sold the medal,-why should I not?
These verses are engraven here,
That the truth of the matter may appear;
As to the place and rank to be assigned to Southey amongst the poetic souls of our literature, the time has hardly yet arrived for
1 I was at his fireside when they were written, and took a copy of them
forming a judgment. 'Do not ask yourself,' he says in a letter to Ebenezer Elliot, 'what are the causes cf the failure or success of your contemporaries; their failure or success is not determined yet; a generation, an age, a century, will not suffice to determine it'.' This is a truth to which past history will be found to testify. We read now with astonishment the opinion which Dryden, evidently conscious that he was flying in the face of prevailing sentiments, ventured to express, towards the end of the seventeenth century, about two poets who had written in the beginning of it · -For my own part, I consider Shakespeare equal to Ben Jonson, if not superior?
Southey's belief in his own posthumous renown has led some persons to call him conceited. In his youth he was sanguine and presumptuous; in his after-life sanguine and confident; at no time of life was he ever vain. He took great delight in his own works. Why should he not? Wordsworth once spoke to me of the value he had himself attached to ethical poetry as possibly excessive, but not on that account to be found fault with; inasmuch as it had given encouragement and animation to his endeavours. Southey in a letter to Grosvenor Bedford (Feb. 12, 1809) says,-Young lady never felt more desirous to see herself in a new ball-dress than I do to see my own performances in print. . . . There are a great many philosophical reasons for this fancy of mine, and one of the best of all reasons is, that I hold it good to make everything a pleasure which it is possible to make so.' And in a letter to me (April 13, 1829) twenty years later, he illustrates the same princip'e by a story of a Spaniard he had known who 'always put on his spectacles when he was about to eat cherries, that they might look the bigger and more tempting.'
He was not in the habit of guarding himself against misconstruction. Except on rare occasions,—such as Lord Byron's invectives in the Press or those of Mr. W. Smith in the House of Commons, he left his character to take care of itself. He had a high opinion, especially in his earlier years, of his powers. He believed too in the high and permanent place which some portion of his work would take in the literature of his country. Such expectations are probably indulged by many young poets who make no mention of it. As abstinence is easier than moderation, and egoism in soliloquy than outspoken egoism, so is it not seldom the
'Life and Letters, vol. iv. Jan. 30, 1819.
refuge of the weak. And whether the aspirants be weak or strong, their aspirations are not ignoble, and their hopes make them happy. If they succeed, the world is the better; if they fail, it is
Whatever tendency to excess there may have been on Southey's part in the estimate of his own works will be found to prevail quite as much in his estimate of the works of his friends, or indeed of many other works, old and new, which he approved and admired, In a letter to me of Oct. 1829, he writes,—' A greater poet than Wordsworth there never has been nor ever will be.' And if he expected for himself a larger measure of attention from posterity than may now seem likely to be accorded him, it should be remembered, that though as long as his mind lasted he 'lived laborious days' for the sake of his family and of others whom, in the generosity of his heart, he helped to support, yet all the labours of all the days did not enable him to do more than make preparations for the three great works which it was the object and ambition of his life to accomplish.
Of what he did accomplish, a portion will not soon be forgotten. There were greater poets in his generation, and there were men of a deeper and more far-reaching philosophic faculty; but take him for all in all,—his ardent and genial piety, his moral strength, the magnitude and variety of his powers, the field which he covered in literature, and the beauty of his life,—it may be said of him, justly and with no straining of the truth, that of all his contemporaries he was the greatest MAN.
[The King is in disguise on his final mission to exterminate the Moors |
On foot they came,
Chieftains and men alike; the Oaken Cross,
Siverian, quoth Pelayo, if mine eyes
The apostate Orpas in his vauntery
Wont to parade the streets of Cordoba.
But thou shouldst know him best; regard him well:
Either it is he,
The old man replied, or one so like to him,
Doth with such power and majesty bestride
Indeed fulfill'd, and hath the grave given up
Its dead? . . . So saying, on the old man he turn'd
Like one who sees a spectre, and exclaim'd,
By means scarce less than miracle, thy throne
Grace was vouchsafed; and by that holy power
In this and all things else,
Upon the Goth, thy pleasure shall be done.