Page images

none of Southey's early recollections of his friends, so there is no account whatever by letter or recorded conversation, either on first acquaintance or in after life, of the impression he made upon them. Everything, even to personal appearance, dress, habits, manners, as far as we know anything of him at all, is told by himself. And so far it is fortunate for our curiosity that Southey did talk of himself a great deal. It was a theme which he readily recurred to and expatiated upon. In these points there cannot be a greater contrast than in two lives which in plan, subject, and biographer, present so many points of similarity—the memoirs of Southey and Sir Walter Scott, so far as the former is shown to us in these opening volumes. In the one-in Sir Walter-we know what every one who came in contact with him, what all his friends and acquaintance, said and thought of him, but very little indeed of what he thought of himself; in the other, we are intimately informed of what Southey thought of himself, but are left to guess what judgment the world or his friends formed of him. Indeed, the present work makes us realize the skill and felicity with which Mr. Lockhart has executed his task. We see Sir Walter amidst his crowd of friends, and we feel ourselves absolutely admitted into his society—we see him with their eyes. But no skill or fascination of style could have constructed from Southey a work of similar interest. Southey probably wanted his charm of manner; there was not round him that cheering, radiant atmosphere of enjoyment, which made all who were admitted to Scott's society for ever so short a time, look back upon the occasion as one of the bright spots of their memory. He had, no doubt, natural defects of manner and temperament, if not temper, to contend with; his beautiful verses on the holly tree were written from a well founded sense of analogy between the rugged, repulsive points of his character and its prickly leaves; and, moreover,

-what is so great a barrier to ease and grace of manner,—he was self-conscious. His genius, his moral qualities, his peculiarities, were ever present to his mind. His feelings, his views, his occupations, form the one subject of his letters, so far as we see them in these opening volumes, which bring us to his thirtythird year, though there are indications towards the close of a check on this natural disposition.

There are many curious points of agreement in the circumstances, especially in early childhood, of these two poets, born within three years of each other. Both were early separated from their families, and consigned to the care of maiden aunts; both had long seasons of solitary musings, caused to the one by his lameness, to the other by his aunt's whimsical method of treating a child. Both had a desultory, changing school life, removed from

[ocr errors]


master to master; having abundant leisure during this period to follow the bent of their own fancy and taste; both reading and delighting in the same poets-even to Hoole's translation of Tasso—at the same early age; both early showing genius and a strong leaning to romance, and seeking to inspire their schoolfellows with the same tastes:—and this resemblance



pursued to such little points as each thinking that under proper training they could have made good mathematicians, a faculty early swamped in them for want of proper cultivation. Yet in character and temper, perhaps in some degree caused by differences of circumstances fully as great as their similarity, there could scarcely be a greater contrast than their youth and early manhood presents. The one joyous and social, only too content with things as he finds them; with neither wish nor confidence in his ability to work a change in what he sees; more conscious, more constantly alive to his deficiencies than his powers; with an unaffected modesty, as if scarcely regarding his good gifts as belonging to himself: the other discontented, restless, contemptuous, quarrelling with the existing state of things, full of longings and impulses to work a change; selfconscious, arrogant, sceptical ; but under so much that was unpromising and forbidding, showing at all times a moral rectitude, a deep affectionateness, a power and sense of right, that force themselves upon our respect and regard in spite of all the prejudices he raises in us against himself. The restless workings of unemployed power, we feel, may claim our indulgence in one to whom the better way had not been pointed out. His strivings and eccentricities find a parallel in the insect and animal kingdoms, where we may often observe an apparent restlessness and discontent till the purposes of being are attained. Then follow peace and order. Southey's energy preyed upon itselftill he found his vocation; and if ever literature was a vocation, it was in him. Most men of genius like a hundred things better than exercising their gift ; it is a thing to be invoked, and a labour, in a certain sense, to invoke it. They are glad when their task is done and they can turn to other things. With Southey, labour in his own calling was his existence. The pen was with him a sixth sense; his right hand was useful to him because it could hold it; his eyes were serviceable for they could direct it; his tastes and gifts were valuable as the streams which ministered to it. Even his keen enjoyment of nature was not complete or developed till it had expressed itself through this medium. He used his powers as the elephant his proboscis, reaching out far and wide, mastering great and small, overcoming all hindrances and impediments as if for mere sport and exercise-all to support the vast demands of an insatiable appe

tite and indiscriminate digestion. Most men are industrious because they are obliged, or because they have learned to think it right; but Southey's industry was his gift, as much, and in the same sense a gift, as memory or imagination.

There are few things that strike us as more unjust-unjust alike to the object of blame and to the quality itself—than the constant charge brought against persons of ability, of want of perseverance; as if anybody could persevere in an intellectual pursuit, that liked. Industry in common things and every-day duties is a moral quality; industry—successful perseverance-in the exercise of the highest faculties of the mind, is a gift, and frequently what alone makes the difference between ordinary and extraordinary power, between a short-lived and a durable fame. It implies the length of time that the mind can sustain great exertion. Many men have flashes of high and vigorous thought; they can wind up their mind to a limited effort; but probably no power on earth, no moral sense, could enable them permanently to sustain that elevation. Such industry we must believe to be an intellectual faculty, for it is valuable only as it is supported by other intellectual powers—it is surely no virtue to plod on when these fail it, to work on still as a moral duty! And yet, because a person has done one thing well, it is very frequently lamented that he should neglect his powers, and not go on as he has begun, taking for granted that he could have done so had he wished it. Why, it is asked, should such an one waste his powers in translation instead of original composition ? why will such another confine himself to short efforts? why does he not write a book that will live? And the blame is laid on his want of perseverance, as if, because he has composed one poem he could bring out another as good, because he has written a clever pamphlet he could write a clever book; when ten to one, if, acting on this advice, he were to go on writing as a moral duty, he might, indeed, repeat himself indefinitely and produce a great deal of dull matter, but neither edify the world nor add to his own reputation. Nor will we admit that this is a dangerous doctrine, or an encouragement to idleness. Men bear very complacently the charge of neglecting their powers so long as it is taken for granted that they possess them. No fallacy ministers more to vanity or conceit. We would only maintain that the intellect is a tree that must be judged by its fruits; and by the goodness and abundance of the

fruit alone can it be judged. Many a man looks disparagingly on his neighbour's labours, as if he could do as well if he chose to exert himself, and is encouraged by his friends in the delusion; when in fact he could not exert himself or make the effort if he would. His mind lacks the strong machinery of exertion.

Southey's industry, then, was a gift supported by his other gifts. Neither was it a moral but an intellectual gift, precisely of the same nature as his others. There was a necessity upon him to labour. It was the hunger of his soul, and if outward circumstances, as rank or fortune, had interfered with its indulgence, he would have been unhappy and restless—the purpose of his being would have visibly failed him. And to this quality rather than to more spiritual influences we must attribute that amelioration of his nature and character, which is evident before the close of the period to which these two opening volumes of his life lead us. He began life as a democrat and reformer, very much disposed to turn the world upside down; but insensibly this temper disappears--disappears before the absorbing interest of books to be written, and published, and sold, and read-before the necessary desire of success. We have no direct confession as yet of a change of views, only other and antagonist interests succeed to the old ones. What could such a man have done in times of civil turmoil and commotion ! There had been a time when he manifested an evident sympathy

a for Buonaparte : he exults in the disappointment of some country people who had been led to believe in his overthrow—he is a hero with him ; but when he is fairly set to work, when every day is spent at his desk, when he feels the inconvenience of a threatened invasion in the general panic; when booksellers will not publish books, because the world is more intent on fighting than reading,—no man could be a stronger anti-Buonapartist, or look with more patriotic indignation and contempt on his insane scheme. His patriotism was doubtless a real virtue; only his industry was a prop and pillar of it. Again, this quality adds to the lustre of his domestic character, amiable and exemplary as it was. A busy man is by nature a lover of home; he has no desultory wandering propensities. If he cannot give much time to his wife, she may console herself, at least, that he has

, none to give to any one else. His greatest relaxation is by his own fire-side, where alone he can thoroughly unbend and find that rest so indispensable after sustained exertion. And, of all this peace, this calm repose, this easy, cheerful, effortless talk, the remembrance and prospect of which wraps round him unconsciously like a genial atmosphere, in his study or his daily walk, she is the centre: loved with a double security of affection, not only for her own sake, but because she is where he loves best to be, and where he feels most himself.

Southcy's domestic affections, however, though we speak of them in connexion with his leading characteristics, were no mere instinct. He had no idea of happiness apart from the fulfilment of duty, and his sense of the obligations of duty was a large one.


[ocr errors]

His notions of domestic ties, of the claims of family, of the obligations that devolved upon him, were commensurate with his estimate of his power of providing for them; and this gave a dignity and a purpose to occupations which might otherwise have appeared an inadequate employment for a life. The labourer of the field does not more literally earn his bread by the sweat of his brow than the literary man; he cannot have a keener estimate of the value of money, the equivalent for this precious commodity. Southey's genius, his best and noblest thoughts, were of necessity exchanged day by day for the commonest wants of our nature: he must write a poem to get some

chairs and tables; he must pursue speculation and philosophy for ' bread and cheese. Yet, his sense of the lawful claimants and recipients of his earnings increased with his exertions; his house was a refuge and rendezvous in all family difficulties; he devoted his money before he got it towards his brother's education or advancement; he gave his time, which to him was money, for the succour of the unfortunate or distressed, who had no other claim on him than their misfortunes. Perhaps there is no more magnanimous instance of this ready dedication of the fruit of his labours, than his appropriation of the sum to be received for " Thalaba.' He estimated its value our readers will not think, too highly-at about 1001. For this he had abundant home uses; it was disposed of in imagination before it was received, when he was consulted (he being then in Portugal) on his youngest brother's disposition in life, and quite simply, as if he were not doing some great thing, he devotes this precious sum, with all its poetic halo and fragrance about it, and brightness beyond mortal gold-to be paid over as an entrance fee for his brother's surgical education. We felt really glad for Mrs. Southey's—the gentle Edith's sake, if not for his own, that the sacrifice was not required of him ; an uncle came forward; but as far as his will was concerned, the sacrifice was complete.

It is traits like these and many more, that force us to love and admire a character not exactly attractive. A man may be forbidding to strangers who is so heart-whole to his friends. His egotism and self-consciousness we get to think an idiosyncracy-if not the inevitable consequence of a very early development of intellect, the fruit of being a man before his time. Doubtless, men are born differently in this respect, and it is not fair to expect opposite natures to conform to one rule of selfappreciation. We come in fact to measure him by the standard we apply to our intimate friends; we do not call certain quali. ties in them by the bare and sometimes unjust name of faultsthey are distinctive peculiarities—their way.' Not, of course,

« PreviousContinue »