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It has been well said,“ that the Life of ROBERT SOUTHEY is a picture the very first sight of which elicits boundless satisfaction; frequent and very close inspection qualifies delight; a last and parting look would seem to justify the early admiration."
Robert Southey was born on the 12th of August, 1774; through both his parents he descended from respectable families of the county of Somerset. His father was in business as a linendraper in Bristol, but though a man of the highest integrity, was unsuccessful in trade ; and the care of young Southey in his childhood was undertaken by his mother's maiden aunt, Miss Tyler. Of this lady, Southey, in his Autobiography, has drawn a very speaking portrait. She appears to have had a great passion for theatres and actors, and as the Bristol stage was frequently honoured by visits of the great actors of the day, they became visitors at Miss Tyler's, and at those times her appearance and manners were those of the well-bred lady; but at other times she lived in her kitchen, and her attire was literally rags. But ragged as she might be, yet her notions of uncleanness were rigid in the extreme: a chair used by one she thought an unclean person was sent to the garden to be aired; and on one occasion, a man who had called on business, and had the temerity to seat himself in the lady's own chair, threw her into a paroxysm of wild distress and despair; and Southey tells us that she once buried a cup for six weeks in order to purify it from the lips of some one (no favourite, we suppose) who was considered dirty. With this oddity Southey lived till his sixth or seventh year, and to keep him from contact with dirt, he was not permitted to have playmates, nor to make any noise that might disturb the old lady. He hail no propensity for boyish sports. However, as soon as he could read, he was furnished with the History of the Seven Champions of England, Goody Two-shoes, and much more such delectable literature for children, all which was splendidly bound in the flowered and gilt Dutch
of former days. Trivial as this kind of reading may now appear, it laid the foundation of a love of books which grew with the child's growth and ceased not in age. As the boy accompanied his aunt before he was seven years old, he had been to the theatre more frequently than from the age of twenty till the day of his death. This familiarity with the drama of course directed his reading, so that by the time he was eight years old, he had read through Shakspeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher; and at nine he set about a tragedy, the subject of which was the Continence of Scipio. He had in the meantime been sent to a small day-school in Bristol, and afterwards removed to another at Corstone, near Bath. So ardent was his pursuit of knowledge, that at thirteen he had mastered Spenser, and, through translations, Tasso and Ariosto, and become acquainted with Ovid and Homer, besides all the light literature of the day that came in his way. In 1787, when in his fourteenth year, Southey was sent to Westminster School, where he remained four years, when he
was dismissed for contributing a sarcastic article on corporal punishment to a publication the boys had set on foot. In 1792 he returned to Bristol, having formed some most enduring friendships at Westminster: one was a Mr. Grosvenor Bedford, and another Mr. C. W. Wynn. By the latter an annuity of 1601. was for many years generously allowed Southey_in fact, until provision was made for him by the government. His father died shortly after he had left Westminster, ruined and broken-hearted.
The kindness of a maternal uncle, the Rev. Mr. Hill, supplied his father's place, and provided for entering him at Baliol College, Oxford, where he proceeded in 1793; it was his uncle's wish he should go into the church, but Southey had no religious opinions to justify this:-he, however, was assiduous in his studies, and at first turned his attention to medicine, but the dissecting-room turned his stomach from that direction. At Easter, 1794, Coleridge, who had just abandoned Cambridge, came on a visit to Oxford, where his fame for extraordinary powers of conversation and his stupendous talents had preceded him. He was visited by the young Oxonians, more particularly those who were admirers of the French revolution, and among them the author of the Satire on corporal punishment, who had gone to Oxford an honest republican. These young
and ardent lovers of liberty formed a society among themselves, mutually addressing each other by the title of Citizen, and set up a club to debate questions, meeting at each other's rooms. This jacobinical assembly created great alarm among the heads of the university, and the more so, as the exemplary moral conduct of the members prevented notice being taken of their proceedings. Southey soon after abandoned his studies at the university, and joined Coleridge at Bristol. The result of this intimacy was the suggestion of a wild scheme for the regeneration of society. In conjunction with Robert Lovell a young quaker, Robert Allen, George Burnett, and some few others, they formed a plan-worthy of Robert Owen—to establish a pantisocratical society on the banks of the Ohio, and there in the New World establish a community on a thoroughly social basis. The intended colonists were all to marry, and as Southey had become acquainted with a family of the name of Fricker, in which there were three daughters of a marriageable age,it was proposed that Lovell should be united to the elder, that Coleridge should marry Sara, and Southey Edith. The ladies were to cook and perform all household work, and the men cultivate the land, everything being in common; but as money—that huge evil, as Southey calls it—was needed, Lovell engaged to supply it. In this poetical paradise they were to live without either kings or priests, or any of the other evils of the Old World society, and to renew the patriarchal or golden age. However, Lovell’s death shortly afterwards put an end to this grand scheme, which died where it was born in the heads of its concoctors. Miss Tyler, when she became acquainted with her nephew's intended marriage and his socialist opinions, shut the door in his face, and never opened it to him again.
In 1795 was published a post 8vo volume of 125 pages: “Poems; containing The Retrospect, Odes, Sonnets, Elegies, &c. By Robert Lovell, and Robert Southey, of Baliol College, Oxford. Printed by R. Cruttwell, Bath.” At the end of the preface there is a note: the signature of Bion distinguishes the pieces of R. Southey; Moschus, R. Lovell.
Southey, Coleridge, and Burnett lived together with great simplicity in Bristol, in 1795, and to obtain means for existence, they started as public lecturers, Southey on History, and Coleridge on Politics and Ethics; the lectures are said to have been well attended. Southey had two years before written Joan of Arc, an epic of considerable length, but had not means to get it printed. He however became acquainted with Joseph Cottle, a bookseller in Bristol, who, to his praise be it recorded, not only assisted Coleridge with money, but offered fifty guineas for Joan of Arc, and fifty copies for the author's subscribers. Joan of Arc was published in 1796; a work,” says Mr. Hazlitt, "in which the love of liberty is inhaled like the breath of Spring, mild, balmy, heaven-born—that is, full of fears, and virgin-sighs, and yearnings of affection after truth and good, gushing warm and crimsoned from the heart.”
Soon after the sale of the copyright of his poems, Southey's uncle, the Rev. Mr. Hill, who held the appointment of a chaplain in Portugal, arrived in England. He found his nephew with but little belief in revealed religion, and with political sentiments of the wildest order. Acting the part of a father, Mr. Hill proposed a visit to Portugal, to wean him from what was supposed to be an imprudent attachment; and to gratify his mother, who urged the removal, Southey consented, but on the morning of the day of his departure, he was married to Edith Fricker. They parted immediately after the ceremony, and the wife retired, wearing her wedding-ring attached to a ribbon round her neck. After a stay of six months in Lisbon, Southey returned, and, accompanied by his wife, went to London, and entered himself a student at Gray's Inn, to begin the study of the law, by the wish of his uncle, who