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TIE MAN OF LETTERS.
ROBERT SOUTH EY.
The character of Southey, as revealed in his biography, is essentially that of a man of letters. Perhaps the annals of English literature furnish no more complete example of the kind, in the most absolute sense of the term. His taste for books was of the most general description ; he sought every species of knowledge, and appears to have been equally contented to write history, reviews, poems, and letters. Indeed, for more than twenty years his life at Keswick was systematically divided between these four departments of writing.
No man having any pretension to genius ever succeeded in reducing literature to so methodical and sustained a process. It went on with the punctuality and productiveness of a cotton mill or a nail factory; exactly so much rhyming, collating, and proofreading, and so much of chronicle and correspondence, in the twenty-four hours. We see Robert Southey, as he paints himself, seated at his desk, in an old black coat, long worsted pantaloons and gaiters in one, and a green shade; and we feel the truth of his own declaration that this is his history. Occasionally he goes down to the river-side, behind the house, and throws stones until his arms ache, plays with the cat, or takes a mountain walk with the children. The event of his life is the publication of a book; his most delightful hour that in which he sees the handsomely printed title-page that announces his long meditated work ready, at last, to be ushered in elegant attire before the
public; his most pleasing excitement to read congratulatory letters from admiring friends, or an appreciative critique in a fresh number of the “Quarterly.” *
Minor pastimes he finds in devising literary castles in the air, projecting epics on suggestive and unused themes, giving here and there a finishing touch to sentence or couplet, possessing himself of a serviceable but rare tome, transcribing a preface with all the conscious dignity of authorship, or a dedication with the complacent zeal of a gifted friend. From the triple, yet harmonious and systematic life of the country, the study, and the nursery, we see him, at long intervals, depart for a visit to London, to confabulate with literary lions, greet old college friends, make new bargains with publishers, and become a temporary diner-out; or he breaks away from domestic and literary employment in his retreat among the hills, for a rapid continental tour, during which not an incident, a natural fact, an historical reminiscence, a political conjecture, or a wayside phenomenon, is allowed to escape him. Though wearied to the last degree, at nightfall he notes his experience with care, as material for future use; and hurries back, with presents for the children and a voluminous diary, to resume his pencraft ; until the advent of summer visitors obliges him to exchange a while the toils of authorship for the duties of hospitality.
To these regularly succeeding occupations may be added the privileges of distinction, the acquisition of new and interesting friends, of testimonies of respect from institutions and private admirers; and inevitable trials, such as occasional assaults from the critics, or a birth or bereavement in the household. Sequestered and harmless we cannot but admit such a life to be, and, when chosen from native inclination, as desirable for the individual as can be imagined, in a world where the vicissitude and care of active life are so apt to interfere with comfort and
At the age of thirty-two, when thus settled at Keswick, Southey gratefully estimated its worth in this point of view: “This is my life, which, if it be not a very merry one, is yet as happy as heart could wish."
* Coleridge once said, “I can't think of Southey without seeing him either mending or using a pen.”
Southey left a somewhat minute and very graphic sketch of his childhood, parts of which are written in his happiest vein. Some of the anecdotes are significant, but more as illustrations of character than genius. He was bookish, moral, and domestic, inquiring, and observant; but seems not to have exhibited any of that delight in the sense of wonder that kept the boy Schiller rocking in a tree to watch the lightning, or the generous ardor that made Byron a schoolboy champion, or the oppressive sensibility that weighed down the spirit of young life in Alfieri's breast. His autobiography, not less than his literary career, evinces the clever man of letters rather than the surpassing man of genius. It is characteristic of this that, between the ages of eight and twelve,
, he expressed the conviction that "it was the easiest thing in the world to write a play." Such is the natural language of talent; that of genius would be, “it is the greatest thing in the world."
The most effective portrait in the part of his memoirs written by himself is that of his Aunt Tyler. It is evidently drawn from the life, and would answer for a character in the very best class of modern novels. As a revelation of himself, the most excellent traits are the disposition, spirit, and state of feeling displayed. Southey obviously possessed steady affections, self-respect, and a natural sense of duty. The embryo reformer is indicated by his essay against flogging in school; and no better proof of his reliability can be imagined than the fact that several of his earliest friendships continued unabated throughout life. His sketches of teachers, classmates, and the scenes of boyhood, are pleasing, natural, and authentic.
Like most literary men, Southey in youth took an intrest in science, and dabbled in botany and entomology; but he soon abandoned insects and flowers, except for purposes of metaphor. His education, too, like that of the majority of professed authors, was irregular. versatile, and unexact, vibrating between the study of text-books in a formal, and the perusal of chosen ones in a relishing manner. His love of the quaint in expression, his taste for natural history, church lore, ballads, historic incident, and curious philosophy, are richly exemplified in the specimens of the “ Common-place Book,” recently published, and especially in that frag. mentary, but most suggestive work, " The Doctor ;" and these
but carry out the aims and tastes foreshadowed in his youthful studies.
Marked out by natural tastes for a life of books, we recognize the instinct in the delight he experienced when first possessed of a set of Newberry's juvenile publications, the zest with which he wrote school themes, invented little dramas, and fraternized with a village editor, not less than in its mature development, when taking the shape of beautiful quartos with the imprimatur of Murray or the Longmans. The sight of a fair finished page of his first elaborate metrical composition, “Joan of Arc,” he acknowledges infected him with the true author mania, and henceforth he was only happy over pencraft or typography.
In his memoirs we find new evidence of the laws of mind and health, and the fatal consequences of their infringement. To Southey's kind activity we are indebted for a knowledge of the most affecting instance in English literature of early genius prematurely lost, that of Kirke White; and two other cases of youthful aspiration for literary honor blighted by death were confided to his benevolent sympatlıy; but the great intellectual promise, rapid development, and untimely loss of his son, is one of the most pathetic episodes of his life. His correspondence at the period explains the apparent incongruity between occasional evidences of strong feeling and an habitual calmness of tone. His nature was so balanced as to admit, as a general rule, of perfect self-control. Ile repeatedly asserts that the coldness attributed to him is not real. In this great bereavement, he seems to have perfectly exercised the power of living in his mind, and finding a refuge from moral suffering in mental activity. But one of the most impressive physiological as well as intellectual lessons to be drawn from Southey's life is in his own personal experience.
We have a striking example of the need of a legitimate hygiene for the assiduous writer, and the fatal consequence of its neglect. To his scholar's temperament and habits may be, in a measure, ascribed Southey's conservatism; and it is equally obvious how the same causes gradually modified his physical constitution, and, through this, the character of his mind. We believe it is now admitted that, where the temperament is not indicated with great
predominance, it may be almost entirely changed by diversity of circumstances and hąbits. The influence of the brain and nervous system is so pervading that, where the vocation constantly stimulates them, and leaves the muscles and circulation in a great degree inactive, remarkable modifications occur in the animal economy; and so intimately are its functions associated with mental and moral phenomena, that it is quite unphilosophical to attempt to estimate or even analyze character without taking its agency into view. The sedentary life and cerebral activity of Southey seem to have very soon subdued his feelings. We perceive, in the tone of his letters, a slow but certain diminution of animal spirits; and, now and then, a prophetic consciousness of the frail tenure upon which he held, not his intelligent spirit, but his mental machinery, the incessant action of which is adequate to explain its melancholy and premature decay. The time will come when his case will be recorded as illustrative of the laws of body and mind in their mutual relations,- a subject which Combe, Madden, and other popular writers, have shown to be fraught with teachings of the widest charity for what are called "the infirmities of genius."
How many pathetic chapters are yet to be written on this proli fic theme, before the world is sufficiently enlightened to know how to treat her gifted children! We need not go to Tasso's cell to awaken our sympathies in this regard; from the fierce insanity of Swift and Collins, to the morbid irritability or gloom of Johnson, Pope, and Byron, and the imbecile age of Moore and Southey, the history of English authorship is replete with solemn warnings to use even the noblest endowments of humanity with meck and severe circumspection. God is not less worshipped by select intelligences, through fidelity to the natural laws, than by celebrating his glory in the triumphs of art.
In a letter to Sharon Turner, in 1817, Southey remarks : "My spirits rather than my disposition have undergone a great change. They used to be exuberant beyond those of every other person; my heart seemed to possess a perpetual fountain of hilarity; no circumstances of study, or atmosphere, or solitude, affected it; and the ordinary vexations and cares of life, even when they showered upon me, fell off like hail from a pent-house.