« AnteriorContinuar »
he prepared a second edition of his poems, omitting nineteen and adding twelve. The best of these additions was the Ode to the Departing Year, written in December 1796, and already published in the Cambridge Intelligencer and in pamphlet. It is in the regular Pindaric form adopted by Gray with ode and epode, strophe and antistrophe. It apostrophises the "spirit who sweepest the wild harp of Time”, and “divinest Liberty”; and he attacks the allied enemies of France again with fierce invective; he calls upon an avenger for Afric's wrongs”; he mourns over Albion “not yet enslaved, not wholly vile”; his heart warms to his “mother isle”; yet he tells her, "the nations curse thee” and “thy predestined ruins rise”; he must give up this “loud lament”, and “recentre his immortal mind”, “in the deep sabbath of meek selfcontent". In its barren eloquence it is a great contrast to the rich fervour of “France, an Ode”, dated February 1797, but really belonging to 1798, when it appeared in The Morning Post under the title of “Recantation”. In it he showed that within two years he had reversed his attitude to France, and was as violent against her as he had been passionate in her cause. It was the beginning of his recession into the hardest conservatism both in politics and religion. He had been the most vehement of the young revolutionary poets; he suffered the quickest and most complete apostacy. The immediate cause of the change was the attack made by the French Directory on the freedom of the Swiss republic at the close of 1797. The ode is truly Miltonic in its apostrophes to Freedom; the opening piece is the finest; he appeals to the clouds "whose pathless march no mortal can control”, to the ocean waves that yield homage only to eternal laws", to the woods "that listen to the night-birds singing", to the “rising sun”, to the “ blue rejoicing sky”, to witness
“With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest Liberty”. At the French Revolution he “sang unawed” his “lofty gratulation”, “amid a slavish band", and when Britain
“ joined its foes, in spite of the friendships and loves that
flung a magic light o'er all her hills and groves”, he sang defeat and wept for his country; he cared not for the
atheistic blasphemy of the revolutionists; he loved liberty; but now that France attacks freedom and a patriot race, he will curse her ; his dream is broken; he must seek liberty ༤ “on the sea cliff's verge”; there as he stands and shoots his
'being through earth, sea, and air,
Possessing all things with intensest love his spirit feels freedom. He has reached his most majestic power of expression in this ode.
17. Two of the finest of his blank-verse pieces are also dated 1798, Fears in Solitude, and Frost at Midnight. The former was written during the alarm of an invasion, and mourns over the wrongs and sins his country has committed,
Bartering freedom and the poor man's life for gold”, making “the book of life":5, a superstitious instrument” on which “we gabble o'er the oaths we mean to break”; he laments the clamour for war and bloodshed, the “ dainty terms for fratricide”, and he prophesies evil days; but, echoing the prayer of Henry the Fifth in Shakespeare's play, he begs Heaven to " spare us yet awhile”, and repel“ an impious foe, impious and false, a light yet cruel race”. He has spoken, and yet speaks, bitter truth to his brethren, and he closes with a fervid burst of patriotism, and a return to the religion of nature, with which he opened ; as he looks over the scene,
“all my heart Is softened, and made worthy to indulge
Love, and the thoughts that yearn for human kind”. For he has found “religious meanings in the forms of nature". In the other poem he ponders over the flickering fire and the “numberless goings on of life inaudible as dreams”; he thinks of his “sweet birth-place and the old church tower"; and, addressing his babe "that sleepest cradled by my side”, he tells it of his rearing in the great city, where he " saw nought lovely but the sky and stars”;
“But thou, my babe, shalt wander like a breeze
Of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds"; there to learn “that eternal language which thy utters ” ; “there all seasons shall be sweet to thee". He had evidently resolved to give up pantisocracy and retire to the Lake district with Wordsworth.
18. But meanwhile he went to Germany and learned German and German metaphysics. His “Lines written in the Hartz Forest” on the Brocken, though touched with his insight into the spirit of nature, is ominous of the decline of his poetic power, it is so forced and so unfelicitous in its blank verse. When he returned to England in 1799 he began to contribute to The Morning Post again ; and the humorous poem The Devil's Thoughts, and the War Eclogue “Fire, Famine and Slaughter" denouncing Pitt again, show what a low ebb his imagination could reach. The best work he did in the last year of the century was to translate two parts of Schiller's Wallenstein, The Piccolomini, and The Death of Wallenstein. He inaugurated the era of a new and more elevated Germanism in English literature.
19. Thus all the best of Coleridge's poetry was produced before 1800. His poetic impulse sprang from the Revolution, and, as antagonism to it grew upon him, died out. His imagination had that sensitive tenuity which must have an atmosphere exactly adapted to it. Great passion was alone capable of keeping it from domination by the intellect. For he was by nature as much critical as creative. Had his youth fallen in any other decade than the last of last century, we should never have known him as a poet. At no other time did idealism and passion coalesce and rise to unaccustomed heights. It is well too that he belonged to the resurgent middle class, the new audience, and felt the warm influence of its finest ideals. Had he been born to Toryism and opposition to the revolutionary currents of the time, he might have been a satirist or a political orator for a time; but he would never have been a romantic poet or a poet of nature and love and ideality. It is generally supposed that the opium habit killed the poet in him and developed the metaphysician; after a full analysis of his poetry it seems more likely that the change was due to the evanescence of so great a revolutionary passion as he experienced ; only such intensity could have overcome his constitutional lethargy and fired his nature to such a glow that his active intellect with its bent towards abstract thought became suffused with passion and was willing to work in the mould that passion and the new spirit and the new audience gave. Each of his finest poems came from an imaginative mood worked to a white heat till it had most of the characteristics of a dream. However heterogeneous the reading and instincts and materials that appear in it, it is all unified by this passionate dream-faculty. His time and his class and audience were the soil out of which he grew; only the tropical noon of the revolutionary passion could ever have brought his lethargic, metaphysical imagination to such exotic bloom as The Ancient Mariner and his finer poems.
1. Southey's nature lay under the same wealth of revolutionary sunshine and felt its effect ; but it was more methodic, active, and intellectual ; it was incapable of great inspirations and could work without the appropriate atmosphere or the great passion. He was therefore more versatile, and unfailingly industrious, but seldom rose above the even level of his powers. Without the revolutionary fervour he would have been a Grub Street hack of the commonest kind. With it he was able to become a poet; but when his sympathy passed into antagonism he naturally preferred prose as his medium of thought. His great poetic period was practically over by the end of the century just as Coleridge's was. He wrote his best epic after that,
'Roderic, the Last of the Goths”, and, what he considered the best epic since Paradise Lost, Madoc; but it was prose into which he put his best thoughts and powers; and his Conservative reaction had begun by the beginning of our century and completed itself by 1807, when he accepted a government pension.
2. He had the misfortune to catch early in life the eighteenth century passion for long narrative or didactic poems, chiefly in blank verse, and the still greater inisfortune to be capable and desirous of the encyclopedic ambitions of the new learning. The two have practically buried him under his huge epics and countless volumes. And yet great bonfires of manuscript had punctuated the history of his boyhood and youth. Like Wordsworth's, his poems need ruthless sifting, and in the productions of the last decade of last century will be found far the most interesting and the most illustrative of the period.
3. Of his longer poems, his Joan of Arc was his first. In 1792 he had been expelled from Westminster School for attributing the invention of flogging to the devil, and in 1793 he was at Balliol College, Oxford, when he conceived the idea of an epic about the French heroine ; in that year he went to stay with an old schoolfellow at Brixton, and he carried out the conception in six weeks. Cottle of Bristol offered to publish it, and it appeared in 1796, but completely rewritten; he took six months to revise what he had written in six weeks. It was the product of his revolutionary fervour, which had been roused into great activity by the alliance against the young republic, and by the accession of England to the ranks of her enemies. A French subject like this was the opportunity he required; and in the early editions of the poenı there were passages that he felt it necessary to expunge when he became the pensioner of the government; but even in its emasculated form it bears many traces of his republican ardour, and the new spirit of benevolence. The heroine is ever crying out against the miseries and cruelties of war, and again and again restrains the troops she leads, when they would follow up victory. She is especially indignant against England and Henry the Fifth for the curse they have brought upon France by their ambition. And this is not the only poem in which Southey expresses his condemnation of that much-praised monarch. shall hear the widow's groan”, woe to the mighty ones that send abroad their ministers of death”, a little while' shall the lowly "endure the proud man's contumely"; expressions like these run all through the poem. And into the texture of it is woven one of the injustices of the French King Charles; one of the bravest of the warriors, Conrade, has had his betrothed Agnes Sorel drawn from him and made the royal paramour; early in the story he comes to court to express his wild indignation ; Joan pities him, and the two fight side by side, protecting each other; and at the close she reads a lesson to the king on his duties, not to tear his people from their homes to slaughter, not to let avarice grind the poor. One of Conrade's speeches, in