A prostitution of talents?

Robert Southey
August 22, 1997

One of Byron's more temperate comments on his older and once better-known contemporary summed up what was wrong with a high degree of accuracy. "Oh Southey! Southey! Cease thy varied song. A bard may chant too often and too long!" That just about defines the matter. Southey became ready to write about everything, and he was prepared to write about it at very great length. As his biographer ruefully concludes in a moment, one would guess, of mild exasperation, there is something touchingly comic in the spectacle of a man of letters (for Southey was certainly that) maintaining the highest private and public principles while turning his hand to any project, literary or social, which would bring in a certain amount of hard cash.

To be fair to Southey he was surrounded when he was young with men of so much greater genius that their comradeship and closeness excited his own talents without, in the proper sense, inspiring them. His partnership with Coleridge was more like that of two young adventurers with high but muddled minds, than it was that of any magic fellowship in mutual inspiration, of the sort that Coleridge was to have with Wordsworth.

One of the successes of Mark Storey's book is to fill in his whole background in detail, giving the reader a strong impression not so much of Southey himself - the poet remains an almost necessarily indeterminate figure - as of the climate of ideas he inhabited and the milieux in which he moved. Young writers had their way to make in the world then, as they do now; and they adopted much the same strategies and followed the same sort of fashions. The young Southey was feverishly correct, as we should now say, from a political and ideological point of view; but his biographer's detailed grasp of the life and circumstances actually surrounding him makes ideas of pantisocracy, and of pacifism, of enthusiasm for the French revolution, the perfectibility of man, abhorrence for the slave trade, seem not much more than conventional attitudes taken by young intellectuals in Southey's time, as are similar ideologies in our own.

There was nothing solitary or independent in his thinking. He seems to have worked nothing out for himself, as Wordsworth did, in the depths of an egocentric consciousness. He was a social and communal being through and through, in no sense neutral in the war of ideas but adapting his skills to it, "corrupted by the world, contaminated by Custom", as Shelley scornfully remarked. Both Shelley and Hazlitt spoke of "a hateful prostitution of talents", but Southey did at least cling obstinately to the idea of himself as a family man, and a benevolent one, whose private virtues were conspicuously lacking in the poets and writers who scorned him.

Nor was he touchy: the older and in a sense the more complacent he grew, the less he bothered about what was said of him by the radicals and the bien pensants (a rather different category) among whom he had once been presented as the new honnete homme, the upright and virtuous figure. He was not even put out, as poor Keats was to be in a similar context, when John Foster of the Eclectic Review, a periodical which at least from its title should have been sympathetic to Southey, observed that his lengthy rhapsody "The Curse of Kehama" "produced an irresistible impression of flagrant absurdity". Nonetheless the poem, in its free romantic stanza form, is not difficult to read today and possesses a sort of boneless period charm: all that is left of the deep influence it exercised on later romantic poets; even those who, like Byron, most affected contempt for the author. "The Curse of Kehama" has a romantic Hindu quest theme, "Thalaba" a Muslim one, the earlier "Madoc" one from Wales - Southey was nothing if not eclectic in his round-up of exotic morals and stories.

Storey rightly draws attention to the immense influence of Southey's oriental subject matter, based as it was on the key oriental fantasy of William Beckford's "Vatheka"; though he goes too far in the direction of our own contemporary correctness in claiming that Southey's long poems, like Byron's far more popular "Turkish Tales" which came after and were influenced by them, were popular "not because they were 'escapist' but because they addressed central issues of the day". We may like to think that true of our own authors' magic realism: it was certainly not the case with Byron readers, nor with the far fewer romantic spirits who revelled in "Thalaba". Escapism, although a bad word today, was once after all a romantic prerogative: however much those who shamelessly enjoyed Byron and even Shelley in order to get away from it all were unwittingly contributing to the higher and more comprehensive Spirit of the Age. Pushkin adored the most popular of them all -Moore's "Lalla Rookh", and remarked, rather intriguingly, that it gave a poet the freedom to get away from the conventional crowd, and to be himself. Keats knew that the same was true of his own "Endymion", heavily Southey-based as Storey points out; and Keats's own view of the "chameleon poet" is in a sense oddly true too of Southey, even though Keats must have been thinking of the very different chameleon qualities of Shakespeare. In vital ways the romantics were Shakespearean, however much they imported into their verse the prejudices and ideology of their own time, as in Southey's still famous little dramatic ballad on Old Kaspar and Little Peterkin and the Battle of Blenheim.

Storey's narrative pursues a highly detailed quotidian course, but like the poet himself it is not hard to read, and, it is full of incidental fascinations. When he married Edith Fricker, sister of Coleridge's fiancee Sara, the subject of Molly Lefebure's excellent biography, The Bondage of Love, Southey probably had the best of the bargain, even though Edith, always equable and good-tempered, was to become an invalid in later life. It is strange to think of the two touchingly pompous young men choosing their Bristol sisters as suited to become members of an ideal community on the banks of the Susquehanna. Meanwhile, two of Southey's brothers were to join the navy, helping to protect England against the revolution that Southey and Coleridge then so ardently desired, composing a fiery play together in two days on the fall of Robespierre. Southey was the one who more especially regretted that heroic downfall. In later life his brother Tom, though no great asset at any time to the naval service, was at least able to help Southey with technical details about ships, for his adulatory and patriotic life of Nelson.

John Bayley is emeritus professor of English literature, University of Oxford.

Robert Southey: A Life

Author - Mark Storey
ISBN - 0 19 811246 7
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 405

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