Coleridge and Southey—Sunshine and Shadow
L ONG before Wordsworth closed his eyes on this world, Coleridge, in some ways a greater poet than his friend, had gone to his last rest. Wordsworth had a happy, loving understanding of the little things of real life. He had an "exquisite regard for common things," but his words have seldom the glamour, the something which we cannot put into words which makes us see beyond things seen. This Coleridge had. It is not only his magic of words, it is this trembling touch upon the unknown, the unearthly beauty and sadness of which he makes us conscious in his poems that marks him as great.
And yet all that Coleridge has left us which reaches the very
highest is very little. But as has been said, "No English poet
can be put above Coleridge when only quality and not quantity is
Of The Ancient Mariner I have already told you,
although perhaps it is too full of fearsomeness for you to read
yet. Next to it stands Christabel, which is unfinished. It is
too full of mysterious glamour to translate into mere prose, so I
will not try to tell the story, but here are a few lines which
are very often
Coleridge's singing time was short. All his best poetry had been
written before he went to live at Keswick. There his health,
which had never been good, gave way. Unhappy in his home, and
racked with bodily pain, he at length began to use opium in order
to find relief. The habit to which he soon became a slave made
shipwreck of his life. He had always been unstable of purpose
and weak of will, never keeping to one course long. He had tried
journalism, he tried lecturing, he planned books which were never
written. His life was a record of beginnings. As each new plan
failed he yielded easily to the temptation of living on his
friends. He had always been restless in mind, now he became
as restless in body as in mind. He left his home,
and after wanderings now here now there, he at length found a
home in London with kind, understanding friends. Of him here we
have a pathetic picture drawn by another great man.
man—he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps, and gave you
the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life
And yet to this broken-down giant men crowded eagerly to hear him talk. Never, perhaps, since the great Sam had held his court had such a talker been heard. And although there was no Boswell near to make these conversations live again, the poet's nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, gathered some of his sayings together into a book which he called Table Talk. With his good friends Coleridge spent all his remaining life from 1816 till 1834, when he died.
Meanwhile his children and his home were left to the care of others. And when Coleridge threw off his home ties and duties it was upon Southey that the burden chiefly fell. And Southey, kindly and generous, loving his own children fondly, loved and cared for his nephews and nieces too. We cannot regard Southey as one of our great poets, but when we read his letters, we must love him as a man. He wrote several long poems, the two best known perhaps are The Curse of Kehama and Thalaba, the one a Hindoo, the other a Mahometan story, but he is better remembered by his short poems, such as The Battle of Blenheim and The Inchcape Rock.
For forty years Southey lived at Greta Hall, and from his letters
we get the pleasantest picture of the
He loved his books and he loved the little
And so we see him spending long hours, long years, among his books, hoping for lasting fame from his poems, and meantime earning with his prose food for hungry little mouths, shoes for nimble little feet, with just a trifle over for books, and still more books. For Southey loved books, and his big library was lined with them. There were thousands there, many in beautiful bindings, glowing in soft coloring, gleaming with pale gold, for he loved to clothe his treasures in fitting garments. When a new box of books comes he rejoices. "I shall be happier," he says, "than if his Majesty King George IV were to give orders that I should be clothed in purple, and sleep upon gold, and have a chain about my neck, and sit next him because of my wisdom and be called his cousin."
We think of Southey first as a poet, but it is perhaps as a prose
writer that his fame will last longest, and above all as a
biographer, that is a writer of people's lives. During the busy
Another book which Southey wrote is called The Doctor. This is a
whimsical, rambling jumble, which can hardly be called a story; a
mixture of quotations and original work, of nonsense and earnest.
And in the middle of it what do you think you come upon? Why our
old nursery friend, The Three Bears. Southey trusts that this
book will suit every one, "that the lamb may wade in it, though
the elephant may swim, and also that it will be found 'very
entertaining to the
And ye who are neither so little nor no good, favete linguis,
for here follows the story of the Three Bears." So there it is.
"One of them was a Little, Small, Wee Bear; and one was a
Middle-sized Bear, and the other was a Great, Huge Bear"—and from the
way it is told, I think we may be sure that Uncle Robert or
comical papa often told stories with a circle of eager, bright
faces round him. For he
As the years went on Southey received other honors besides the
Laureateship. He was offered a baronetcy which he refused. He
It is sad to think that this kindly heart had to bear the
buffetings of ill fortune. Two of his dearly loved children
died, then he was parted from his wife by worse than death, for
she became insane and remained so until she died. Eight years
later Robert Southey was laid beside her in the churchyard under
the shadow of Skiddaw. "I hope his life will not be forgotten,"
says Macaulay, "for it is sublime in its simplicity, its energy,
its honour, its
Books To Read
Southey: Poems, chosen by E. Dowden.
Southey: Life of Nelson (Everyman's Library).
Coleridge: Lyrical Poems, chosen by A. T. Quiller-Couch.