Most people have heard of Byron, Coleridge, and Wordsworth … but the now lesser-known Robert Southey used to be among them as England’s foremost poets. Southey died on 21 March 1843, which brought him to mind today.
During his life he was one of the most influential writers of the Regency period, and was Poet Laureate of Great Britain for three decades. He was one of the Lake Poets, a Romantic, but he got in all kinds of a spat with Lord Byron, who thought Southey’s work to be drivel of the worst sort. Naturally, I had to have my poetry-loving Byron-adoring heroine of Mansfield Parsonage, Mary Crawford, discuss Southey with her rather more stuffy anti-Byron beau, Edmund Bertram:
“Perhaps,” Mary was not invested enough in the subject to pursue it and risk disagreement, so she changed the topic. “This talk of the Dandy club puts Lord Byron in my mind, which reminds me of his poetry, and which leads me to remember that it is rumoured that should Sir Walter Scott refuse the honour, Robert Southey will be named the Poet Laureate. Do you like poetry Mr Bertram?”
Edmund smiled at her. “That is a circuitous route of thought, and reminds me that a lively mind is an altogether good thing. To answer your question, yes, I read poetry, and in anticipation of your next question, yes, I like the work of Southey.
“Reading poetry is, for me, a favourite pastime. In truth, it is second only to music in my pursuits. I must confess that, in spite of my lively mind,” she gave Edmund a flirtatious look to acknowledge his compliment, “I enjoy most the poems that are clearly the work of blue devils; the more wracked with sorrow the poet and the more sorrowful the subject, the more I enjoy it. It is some perversity in my makeup that I should be blessed with a naturally sanguinary temper, but revel in the melancholy and horrid. Odd, I know, but since it is so, I am not an avid reader of Southey.”
“You do not find the subject of Joan of Arc sorrowful enough?”
Mary shook her head. “Not the way the Southey writes it, no. There is an element of hope that threads his work, a belief that change can be effected, that does not allude to true despondency in my opinion. However, I will concede that he is a very good wordsmith and that I did read “After Blenheim” with great satisfaction.”
“You prefer the romantic poets, then?”
“Oh yes. I have often thought,” Mary continued, “that my lukewarm feelings for Southey are the children of my zealous admiration for Byron.”
“Because the style between the two is so dissimilar?”
“Sadly, no,” Mary replied. “That would at least be rational. I believe it stems more from Byron’s distaste for Southey’s work. My enthusiasm for Byron allows his taste to influence mine. Because Byron mocks Southey as a ballad-monger, I am prejudiced when I read his works. It makes me feel as though my opinion is a very malleable, will o’ the wisp thing. Yet if I try to convince myself to like Southey’s poems before I read them, that is just as much a reaction to Byron’s sentiments, although in the opposite direction, and does not lessen Byron’s influence over me a jot less.”
“Does Byron have so strong an opinion on Southey, then?” Edmund asked in surprise. “I did not know.”
“Byron wrote an anonymous satirical poem about Southey in ‘09, which was found to be his work within weeks. My governess shewed it to me; it had been reprinted in several newspapers. My fervour for poetry was still fresh and had the sharp edge of a schoolgirl’s fancy, and because I enjoyed Byron’s Hours of Idleness his estimations were given the most serious attentions by me. I read it so often that I believe I can still recite the last quarter or so of the poem.” Actually, she knew she could. She had often done so to amuse friends in the drawing-room once Byron had published Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and become monstrously famous almost overnight. Nonetheless, she had been repeatedly warned by her aunt that it was not advisable to display her erudition too flagrantly to an admirer and did not want to reveal her prodigious memory to Edmund so openly.
“Can you then? Would you be willing to do so for me?”
“I am willing, but I must beg your indulgence for any mistakes.” Mary gave a small cough to clear her throat and began, “Oh! Southey! Southey! cease they varied song! A bard may chant too often and too long; As thou art strong in verse, in mercy spare! A fourth, alas! were more than we could bear. But if, in spite of all the world can say, Thou still wilt verseward plod thy weary way; If still in Berkley ballads most uncivil, Thou wilt devote old women to the devil, The babe unborn thy dread intent may rue: ‘God help thee,’ Southey, and thy readers too.”
Edmund laughed. “That is satirical condemnation indeed. It is not surprising that such words influenced you. But does not our education mark us all?”
Mary was thoughtful. “I believe it is one thing for my respect for my aunt or the words of some sage author of antiquity to mark my opinions, but I feel it is overly-compliant to be so influenced by satire or comedy. It bespeaks a weakness of character that I should not like to admit to in myself.”
“I cannot concur,” Edmund said. “Comedy or satire can contain as much wisdom as the writings of St Augustus or Plato. The truth coated in a jest is still the truth. In my opinion, a farcical tale can prove as educational as a tomb of philosophy. Look at Aesop’s fables; they contain morals that are of great service in dealing with the world. Or think upon Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels; its mockery of pretension and vanity is highly instructive.”
Mary’s dimples winked once more into captivating existence. “I have no choice but to be persuaded by you, Mr Bertram. Firstly, your examples are incontrovertible. Secondly, your opinion flatters me, and therefore must be true.”