Gateway to the Classics: English Literature for Boys and Girls by H. E. Marshall
English Literature for Boys and Girls by  H. E. Marshall

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 demanded." 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 quoted—

"Alas! they had been friends in youth;

But whispering tongues can poison truth;

And Constancy lives in realms above;

And Life is thorny; and Youth is vain;

And to be wroth with one we love,

Doth work like madness in the brain.

And thus it chanced, as I divine,

With Roland and Sir Leoline.

Each spake words of high disdain

And insult to his heart's best brother:

They parted—ne'er to meet again!

But never either found another

To free the hollow heart from paining;

They stood aloof, the scars remaining,

Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;

A dreary sea now flows between;—

But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,

Shall wholly do away, I ween,

The marks of that which once had been."

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. "The good 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 heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration, confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute, expressive of weakness under possibility of strength, . . . a heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much suffering man."

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 home-loving, nonsense-loving "comical papa" who had kept the heart of a boy, even when his hair grew gray—

"A man he is by nature merry,

Somewhat Tom-foolish, and comical very;

Who has gone through the world, not mindful of self,

Upon easy terms, thank Heaven, with himself."

He loved his books and he loved the little curly-headed children that gathered about him with pattering feet and chattering tongues, and never wished to be absent from them. "Oh dear, oh dear," he says, "there is such a comfort in one's old coat and old shoes, one's armchair and own fireside, one's own writing-desk and own library—with a little girl climbing up my neck, and saying, 'Don't go to London, papa—you must stay with Edith'; and a little boy, whom I have taught to speak the language of cats, dogs, cuckoos, and jackasses, etc., before he can articulate a word of his own; there is such a comfort in all these things, the transportation to London for four or five weeks seems a heavier punishment than any sins of mine deserve."

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 years at Greta Hall he wrote about a hundred books, several of them biographies—among them a life of Nelson, which is one of the best short lives ever written. Some day I hope you will read it, both for the sake of Southey's clear, simple style, and for the sake of the brave man of whom he writes. You might also, I think, like his lives of Bunyan and Cowper, both of whom you have heard of in this book.

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 ladies.' " Indeed he flatters himself that it will be found profitable for "old and young, for men and for women, the married and the single, the idle and the studious, the merry and the sad; and that it may sometimes inspire the thoughtless with thought, and sometimes beguile the careful of their cares." But if it is to be quite perfect it must have a chapter for children—

"Prick up your ears then,

My good little women and men;

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 says—

"And 'twas in my vocation

For their recreation

That so I should sing;

Because I was Laureate

To them and the King."

As the years went on Southey received other honors besides the Laureateship. He was offered a baronetcy which he refused. He was "ell-ell-deed" by Oxford, as he quaintly puts it in his letters to his children. And when he tells them about it he says, "Little girls, you know it might be proper for me now to wear a large wig, and to be called Doctor Southey and to become very severe, and leave off being a comical papa . . . . However, I shall not come home in my wig, neither shall I wear my robes at home."

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 affection. . . . His letters are worth piles of epics, and are sure to last among us, as long as kind hearts like to sympathise with goodness and purity and love and upright life."

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.

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: Wordsworth and Coleridge—The Lake Poets  |  Next: Scott—The Awakening of Romance
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.