Page images



sleeper, a blessing inherited from his father. Yet this highpressure, so long as the brain could sustain it, constituted his happiness. Hard work was his secret for cheerfulness.

He tells a low-spirited friend to translate “ Tristram Shandy 'into Hebrew; and he would be a happy man. The following history of one of his own monotonous days implies a perfect contentment with his existence :

of my own goings on, I know not that there is anything which can be said. Imagine me in this great study of mine, from breakfast till dinner, from dinner till tea, and from tea till supper, in my old black coat, my corduroys alternately with the long worsted pantaloons and gaiters in one, and the green shade, and sitting at my desk, and you have my picture and my history. I play with Dapper; the dog, down stairs, who loves me as well as ever Cupid did, and the cat up stairs plays with me; for puss, finding my room the quietest in the house, has thought proper to share it with me. 'Our weather has been so wet, that I have not got out of doors for a walk once in a month. Now and then I go down to the river, which runs at the bottom of the orchard, and throw stones till my arms ache, and then saunter back again. James Lawson, the carpenter, serves me for a Juniper; he has made boards for my papers, and a screen, like those in the frame, with a little shelf to hold my ivory-knife, &c. and is now making a little table for Edith, of which I shall probably make the most use. I rouse the house to breakfast every morning, and qualify myself for a boatswain's place by this practice; and thus one day passes like another; and never did days appear to pass so fast.'— Vol. ii. p. 262. Ætat. 30.

The mention of the corduroys' reminds us of the few notices he gives us of his own outer man, which are all characteristic. He was always not only slight but lean and of grey

16 hound-like' proportions. Like most people who fight against prevailing fashions, his dress and appearance were often in his mind. We owe a debt of gratitude to those who emancipated their species from the absurd bondage of powder; yet a man could not leave it off without thinking oftener of the impression he made upon others than those who contentedly endured the nuisance. There is an amusing instance of this effect of a deviation from custom in the following history which he writes to his wife. He and his friend were evidently not dressed as gentlemen did then dress for a dinner party, and they ought to have been prepared to take the consequences with more philosophy. But both were piqued at being taken at their word. They must, therefore, have assumed in themselves an inborn gentility which could not be disguised, and which humbler men believe their clothes to share with them. The ladies seem to have been reformers in their way; but Southey has no patience with their rational attempt to lengthen the ridiculously short waists of the period; he would tolerate no innovations but his own.

• As we went to dinner yesterday a coachful of women drew up to the door at the moment we arrived there; it rained merrily, and Carlisle offered




his umbrella, but the prim gentry were somewhat rudely shy of him and of me too, for his bair was a little ragged, and I had not silk stockings on. He made them ashamed of this at dinner. Never did you see anything so hideous as their dresses; they were pink muslin with round little white spots, waists ever so far down, and buttoned from the neck down to the end of the waist.'— Vol. ii. p. 16. Ætat. 25.

On his first visit to London from Keswick, he gives an amus. ing account to Mrs. Southey, of the sensation his old-fashioned appearance caused :

• I landed at the White Horse Cellar; no coach was to be procured, and I stood in all the glory of my filth beside my trunk, at the Cellar door, in my spencer of the cut of 1798, (for so long is it since it was made,) and my dirty trowsers, while an old fellow hunted out a porter for me; for about five minutes I waited; the whole mob of Park loungers, Kensington Garden buckery, male and female, were passing by in all their finery, and all looked askance on me. Well, off I set at last, and soon found my spencer was the wonderful part of my appearance. I stopped just before a group, who all turned round to admire me. Pulled it off, and gave it to my dirty porter, and exhibited as genteel a coat as ever Joe Aikin made.'Vol. ii. p. 284.

Mrs. Southey had, it seems, conjured him to take proper advantage of his visit to the world of fashion. At thirty he is not too proud. He gives his interview with the tailor :

You should have seen my interview with Hyde. I was Eve, he the tempter ; could I resist Hyde's eloquence? A coat you know was predetermined; but my waistcoat was shameful. I yielded; and yielded also to a calico under-waistcoat, to give the genteel fulness which was requisite. This was not all, Hyde pressed me further; delicate patterns for pantaloons,- they make gaiters of the same, it would not soil, it would wash. I yielded, and am to-morrow to be completely Hyded, in coat, waistcoat, under-waistcoat, pantaloons and gaiters. .... If Mrs. should see me! and in my new hat--for I have a new hat—and my new gloves !'—P. 285.

The morrow came, and he writes :

• I have a great triumph over you, Edith. Had you seen me in my Hyde, when I tried it, you would never have sent me to a London Hydemaker again. The sleeves are actually as large as the thighs of my pantaloons, and cuffs to them like what old men wear in comedyI am sure, if I were a country farmer, and caught such a barebones as myself in such a black sack, I would stick him up for a scarecrow.'— Vol. ii. p. 287.

There is something particularly ungracious in the act of criti. cising private letters, in sitting in cool judgment (forgetful of our own failures and short-comings as correspondents) upon what was never intended for our perusal: in interfering, as it were, between two friends, and saying to them, 'This is not the way you ought to communicate with each other; it does not amuse me as much as it might do; you omit a great many 'things I should like to know; there is a want of point and

T 'humour in your style ; many things must pass around you ' which you fail to notice; you have had opportunities of observing

[ocr errors]

which you ought to make more use of; why do you not speak of the distinguished or remarkable people that fall in your way? '—tell me more about them, and less about yourself. But, in fact, such comments are really addressed, not to the writer, but to the selector, whose business it is to discriminate between what is of public and of private interest. Most letters perfectly answer their purpose, though if got together and printed in volumes, they would form a more irksome style of reading than the ingenuity of man has yet devised. The task of selection is, indeed, a difficult one ; for much which in an indifferent and nameless person would be dull, because we have no curiosity about him, becomes interesting simply because such and such a person has written it And this consideration is sure to weigh beyond its worth with those engaged from friendship or a nearer

the work of perusal and editorship. Everything will have an interest for them, and they will too readily expect the world to sympathise in their private feelings. Print, too, is a marvellous disenchanter. A sentiment or expression has an individuality in the characteristic handwriting which it loses in type, —there it must be tested by its naked worth. But, in fact, letters, like everything else, must in the long run be estimated by their own merits. We are glad to read a few letters by a great man because he wrote them, but we can only read volumes full with satisfaction because they are intrinsically worth reading: because either they tell us facts not to be learnt elsewhere, or express opinions, feelings, and affections felicitously; because they convey us new ideas, or bring home to us common ones in a new, fresh, characteristic way; because, in fact, they would amuse or interest us if any body had written them. The mind naturally leans for a while on a distinguished name; it is slow to find fault with what is thus as a favour shown to it. The privilege of reading a great man's letters is next to being admitted to the pleasures of his conversation, and we are not predisposed to be critical; but after a time prestige goes for little or nothing, and just as, when really admitted to the society of eminent persons, we are not satisfied for above half-an-hour with the mere consciousness of honour or privilege,—we must have genuine intercourse, they must content our expectations, or we find it flat and insipid : so with letters, let who will be the writer, unless there is established some relation of sympathy between ourselves and him, we grow weary.

These general observations, however, only partially apply to the letters before us. We cannot say positively that they are not interesting, but only that they do not equal expectation; they add nothing, we think, to Southey's literary reputation. He must always write well, but the accomplishment of letter

[ocr errors]

writing he did not possess in any remarkable degree. The letters of very young people seldom are interesting; it is an art which comes with practice. A man may write a beautiful poem before he can write a good letter, which requires the easy, unconscious exercise of more matured powers. Therefore we have not formed our opinion from the letters before 21 or 22, which are often very grandiloquent stilty affairs, but upon the latter ones for the few years before the age of 32, where the second volume leaves him.

Though letters should be unstudied, no one writes them well whose style has not some characteristic excellences by which the writer can at once be recognised, which does not give us that peculiar pleasure of answering to expectation, and reminding us of himself. We do not think this could be said of Southey, except in his humour, and that is not often happy, or easy to sympathise with, but undoubtedly characteristic. It was with him a remote vein, not touched by ordinary occurrences, which the little events of every day never seemed to come near; therefore we are sometimes struck in his letters by an unconscious approach to the absurd, which a more common-place, natural sense of the ridiculous, would have preserved him from. His ideas at once of the awful and the grotesque were his own, and anomalous. For instance: it seemed as if he could not think without a certain mirthfulness of the great enemy of our souls. Every grotesque legend is surpassed by his own invention and play of fancy in this department; while in his poetry he expresses a genuine awe at ideas which in mankind at large can raise only a smile. We must confess that the Simorg, that old and lonely bird' in full enjoyment of profound repose,' so terrible to Thalaba and the author, has never been to us other than a simply ridiculous image-just an owl made bigger and older, and more incorrigibly sleepy and stupid.

Again : being so entirely engrossed by his own pursuits, the hundred incidents of every day which chequer life and affect each man differently according to his nature, he had not leisure to relate; his mind was full of his various undertakings, and these were, therefore, the easiest and most natural things for him to enlarge upon. Except those to his brother Tom, and the very few to his wife, his letters are deficient in what is, after all, one main though common-place excellence-news; or if he has adventures to tell, he does it in the briefest possible manner; e. g. to his most intimate friend he thus alludes to his first visit to Scott, then an object of universal interest :-'I am ‘returned (from Scotland) with much pleasant matter of remem'brance; well pleased with Walter Scott, with Johnny Arm'strong's Castle on the Esk, &c.' ... and to his brother of the


[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

same meeting,- We stayed three days with Walter Scott at Ashestiel, the name of his house on the banks of the Tweed. 'I saw all the scenery of his Lay of the Last Minstrel, a poem 'you will read with pleasure when you come to England.' He ends the letter with an account more at large of his having spent all the money destined to refit his wardrobe, in Edinburgh, on books.

These little points we give in illustration, though it may seem to give undue importance to trifles; as it is impossible to extract whole letters. One, however, in a very different style, we are tempted to give entire, as an example of the uncompromising honesty and sincerity of his friendship. To Coleridge and to others there are many which prove a very sincere and warm affection, but none which show more clearly what he felt were the duties of friendship, and its uses if men would but apply and profit by them. As for him who needed so severe a lesson, the world has not much new to learn of the worth of his professions, and of the discrepancies between his principles and his practice. •To S. T. COLERIDGE, Esq.

· Feb. 1804. I am not sorry that you gave Godwin a dressing, and should not be sorry if he were occasionally to remember it with the

comfortable reflection in vino veritas ;" for, in plain truth, already it does vex me to see you so lavish of the outward and visible signs of friendshi and to know that a set of fellows whom you do not care for, and ought not to care for, boast every where of your intimacy, and with good reason, to the best of their understanding. You have accustomed yourself to talk affectionately and to write affectionately, to your friends, till the expressions of affection fow by habit in your conversation and in your letters, and pass for more than they are worth; the worst of all this is, that your letters will one day rise up in judgment against you, (for be sure that hundreds which you have forgotten are hoarded up for some Curl or Philips of the next generation) and you will be convicted of a double-dealing, which, though you do not design, you certainly do practise. And now that I am writing affectionately more meo, I will let out a little more. You say in yours to Sara, that you love and honour me; upon my soul I believe you : but if I did not thoroughly believe it before, your saying so is the thing of all things that would make me open my eyes and look about me to see if I were not deceived: perhaps I am too intolerant of these kind of phrases ; but indeed, when they are true, they may be excused, and when they are not, there is no excuse for them.

was always looking for such things, but he was a foul feeder, and my moral stomach loathes anything like froth. There is something outlandish in saying them, more akin to a French embrace than an English shake by the hand; and I would have you leave off saying them to those whom you actually do love, that if you should not break off the habit of applying them to indifferent persons, the disuse may at least make a differ

Your feelings go naked, I cover mine with a bear-skin; I will not say that you harden yours by your mode, but I am sure that mine are the warmer for their clothing .... It is possible, or probable, that I may err as much as you in an opposite extreme, and may make enemies where you would make friends; but there is a danger that you may sometimes excite dislike in persons of whose approbation you would yourself be desirous.



« PreviousContinue »