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Christopher J. P. Smith, A Quest for Home: Reading Robert Southey. Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1997. ISBN: 0-85323-511-2 (hb) 0-85323-521-X (pb). Price: £30.00 (hb) £17.50 (pb).

  • David Chandler

…more information

  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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'Let noise and folly seek the reign / Where senseless riot rules', Robert Southey wrote in one of his earliest poems ('To Urban', published 1795):

Let them enjoy the pleasures vain

Enjoy'd alone by fools.

URBAN! those better joys be ours,

Which virtuous science knows,

To pass in milder bliss the hours,

Nor fear the future woes.

'Each joy domestic bliss can know / Shall deck the future hour' he assured his friend in the last stanza. Such sentiments were pure cliché by the mid-1790s, so the poem would be quite unremarkable save for one telling point: Southey meant it. The young poet who rather awed Coleridge with his 'perpendicular Virtue' never did follow the path of 'senseless riot', and his whole life - and a good deal of his posthumous reputation - centred on his pursuit of 'virtuous science' and domestic joys. (There is an interesting story to be told of how Southey's celebrated 'Virtue' boosted his reputation in the nineteenth century and damaged it in the twentieth.) Of course Southey's biographical proximity to a literary convention presents the critic with a tricky problem of sourcehood, specifically the question of the role of culture (including his own writing) in the construction of that sentient, authorial and moralising entity 'Robert Southey'. A further, related question would be this: why, given that domestic pleasures and principles seem to have been Southey's literary 'home', is his best-known (if little read or appreciated) poetry so taken up with the remote and foreign? Granted that his unjustly neglected novel The Doctor (1834-47) makes some amends, one might still have expected Southey to have written rather another Task than Thalaba the Destroyer and Madoc.

Christopher J. P. Smith has written a critical biography of Southey in the years 1794-99, 'focussing upon poetry preoccupied with home in its literal, political and psychological senses' (1), which makes a preliminary engagement with these questions. His first chapter, a study of the early 'Retrospect' (1794), shows how Southey was, as it were, drawn into writing in a hackneyed 'autobiographical' mode, that could not, however, quite contain his real fear that his might be only 'a fragmented self' (22), his life 'a series of expulsions' (26). Thus the poem expresses 'the difficulty of the youth's attempt at reconciliation with the past' (33) and negatively maps out the need for 'home'. The second chapter is an account of the 'regenerative' Pantisocracy project which concludes that 'America was... more of a way back than a way out' (79). The main literary work examined is the collaborative (with Coleridge) Fall of Robespierre (1794). The third chapter considers Joan of Arc (1795) and argues, not altogether convincingly, that 'Regeneration and domestic stasis are literally at war in the text' (86). The fourth chapter, largely a reprint of an earlier article, examines some of Southey's protest poetry, but does nothing to advance the main theme. The fifth chapter starts to get the book back on course with a study of 'Musings on a Landscape of Gaspar Poussin' (1795) as a poem 'which apparently catches the poet just at the point when Pantisocracy has failed him' (138); Smith then digresses into a comparison of this poem with poems by Coleridge and Wordsworth. The sixth chapter is concerned with the 'Hymn to the Penates' (1797) and reads the poem as a 'Progress of Domesticity' (183), a reorientation into more purely domestic and 'English' values after the political disappointments of the mid-1790s. It is the most connected and focussed chapter since the first, of which, in many respects, it can be read as a straightforward continuation. The seventh chapter continues with Southey's 1797 'Inscriptions', read as attempts 'to identify with England itself or to create a version of England for himself, from little potent episodes in the entire tapestry of historical discourse' (223). Chapter eight looks at Southey's Westbury year (1798-9), 'where hospitality, domesticity and poetry worked together harmoniously' (255), and Southey expressed his 'patriotism of the hearth' (256) in a series of short poems. Smith then digresses at length on Southey's relationship to Lyrical Ballads. Chapter nine is an account of Madoc (1794-99) that seems to move towards an explanation of the poem's story as Pantisocracy turning into colonialism, then climaxes in a paragraph of unanswered questions (327). An 'Epilogue' attempts to draw various threads of the book together and to reflect more widely on Southey's place in literature.

If any publicity is good publicity, then anyone concerned with Southey's reputation - as I am - ought to welcome a new book on him. But one has to be careful with this maxim where supposedly 'lesser' (or minor, or second-rate) cultural figures are concerned, because they are all too frequently elevated into 'interest' in a preface only to be argued back into mediocrity over three or four hundred pages - to the point where it is left doubtful whether the reader has any further business with them. Fortunately, this is only partly the case with A Quest for Home. Smith has mapped out a theme that ought to interest more scholars in Southey, and in doing so he establishes a useful model against which to assess other writers of the 1790s. He also argues quite strongly for a new edition of Southey's poems, which, he hints, he will be happy to edit, and which will presumably woo further readers. Unfortunately, though, the 'home' theme goes underground so often, and for such long periods, that only a very attentive reader will follow it through all the surrounding material. One wishes that it could have been isolated for publication as a vigorously-argued and consistently theoretically-underpinned article of some thirty pages or so (at present the several references to Freud occur only in the early and concluding parts of the book, while Witold Rybczynski's Home: A Short History of an Idea (1986) is introduced to the discussion in the 'Epilogue'). The result would be an account of 'struggle against banishment-love' (338) bound up with post-Reflections politics. The long digressions on Southey's relationship to Wordsworth and Coleridge are, for the most part, distracting, and also seem better suited to separate treatment in an article. [1] There would be left a book diminished by a quarter, but more homogeneous: an introduction to Southey in the 1790s.

It is as an introduction that A Quest for Home acquires something of the air of embarrassment which affects, and cripples, most of the critical writing on Southey. Readers will find the 'home' theme interesting, the account of poetic relations with Wordsworth and Coleridge illuminating, but they will not lay down the book with an enhanced opinion of Southey's poetry. This is perplexing in a study that advocates the republication of that poetry; the more so, because Smith knew what was wanting. 'If the poet was at home with his influences and styles', he writes in his 'Epilogue', 'then the critic, if honest, must follow suit' (338). This sounds good, but seems to have been a late realisation, for it has little to do with the critical procedure of the book as a whole. Smith pays scanty attention to Southey's strong roots in eighteenth-century literature, and not much more to the wider (non-Wordsworthian and Coleridgean) literary culture of Southey's own day. Of the main literary influences on the young Southey, Bowles and Cowper are given some, but not nearly enough, attention; Frank Sayers and Richard Glover are merely named. On the other hand, the slightest 'allusions' to Shakespeare and Milton are eagerly pursued, and any possible side-comparison to Wordsworth or Coleridge introduced. Far from joining Southey 'at home', then, Smith places him in an alien (roughly 'Romantic') environment: one that can naturally make the hapless 'Laker' look as pathetic as a fish gasping in an angler's net. At times he will twist the intertextual knife to an extent that fully reveals his desire to preserve Southey's existing status as a second-rater, new edition of the poems or not. Smith will hunt up allusions and parallels not to enrich appreciation of Southey qua poet, but to diminish him, to reveal him as a fumbling pretender to 'high' cultural status. He finds, for example, in Southey's '"Know ye not Him who laid / The deep foundations of the earth?"' (from Madoc ) an allusion to Paradise Lost : 'Know ye not then said Satan, filld with scorn / Know ye not me?'. Making no comment on the much larger - and clearly more relevant - debt to the Book of Job, Smith pronounces it 'odd that satanic pronouncements should inform the discourse of a Welsh emigrant speaking about his God' (327-8). If a rhetorical figure like 'Know ye not' counts as an allusion, then naturally the whole of Madoc can be analysed as a mass of incongruous literary reference - but to what end? Perversely, this would be Coleridge's 'ferrumination ' writ backwards as critical practice. But the fact that Smith wants to source 'Know ye not' in Milton should be contrasted with his reading of Southey's beautiful and reasonably well-known sonnet 'To Winter' (255-6), where a purely biographical account veils the large and profound debt to Book Four of The Task . His is a critical procedure, in other words, which maintains that the slightest debt to Paradise Lost is worth documenting, while a very large debt to The Task is not. The result is a 'Romantic' criticism that will always make Southey a loser.

Smith's general 'Romantic' distaste for late eighteenth-century poetry, and the effect this has on his readings of Southey, is well illustrated in his account of another sonnet, 'Thou lingerest, spring! still wintry is the scene', of which he quotes the whole (262). The octet expands the idea of the scene's still being 'wintry', before the sestet continues:

Sweet Spring, thou lingerest! and it should be so -

Late let the fields and gardens blossom out!

Like man when most with smiles thy face is drest,

'Tis to deceive, and he who knows ye best,

When most ye promise, ever most must doubt.

Smith's commentary is as follows:

His [Southey's] observation of the retarded spring is a kind of rueful and wishful thinking. His anticipation of the year's changes suggests anxiety about further changes in his own domestic affairs. When the martins return, the Southeys will soon have to quit the house [at Westbury]. The sonnet is nevertheless awkwardly worded. Southey seems to mean by 'lingerest' that the spring is late, that the landscape remains wintry and that this lack of 'promise' in the year's physical appearance has bearing upon some metaphorical truth. Friendly appearances (the usual blooms of spring), like friendly human faces, often betray the observer.

262; my emphases

I find it remarkable that such an attractively simple poem is made to sound feeble and clumsy in a book calling for a new edition of Southey's poems. This is, as it happens, a very good example of Smith's negatively-keyed criticism. The effect of his 'nevertheless', following three sentences of perfectly neutral biographical criticism, is to casually, but rather drastically, inform the reader that the best case for the poem has been made. Then 'seems' and 'some' are introduced to suggest that Southey's achievement, if any, is vague and questionable. The sonnet is read with no attempt at historical sympathy, no attempt to evoke a cultural environment in which it might be viewed as successful.

Like many other 'magazine' (that much-maligned category) poems, Southey's sonnet gently plays with a convention. One does not need to have read widely in eighteenth-century poetry to realise that there was an entire sub-genre of poems addressing 'Spring' (inevitably associated with hope, love, creativity and other positives) and imploring her early arrival to dispel the hardships of 'Winter'. Any reader of magazine poetry in the 1790s would have known the convention, and have had no problem with 'lingerest' (always implied in the usual 'hasten!'). There was, further, what might be called an 'anti-convention'. Metastasio, so popular in England, provided a model in his cantata 'La Primavera' ('Oh Dio, Fileno, oh Dio!'), where a girl finds the beauty of spring unwelcome because it is the season that will see her lover leave for the war: not everybody's life, the poem lightly hints, can be accommodated to literary convention. Read against such poems - instead of an abstract New Critical ideal of what a poem should be - there is no reason to consider Southey's sonnet 'rueful', and its 'anxiety' is surely of the softest kind. Southey sets up a generic expectation, disappoints it, neatly insinuates that the genre courts deception, then turns a final (semi-serious) 'moral' - roughly 'all that glisters is not gold'. Southey was very good at this sort of poetry.

It might be harsh to suggest that Smith's critical procedure is always to start with the assumption that there must be something second-rate or inadequate about the poem under review, but it is close to the truth. This is the embarrassment that Southey almost inevitably seems to inspire. To do proper justice to him as a poet would require a completely fresh account of how eighteenth-century literature became nineteenth-century literature, and this is what timid champions like Smith shy away from. How much easier to join the comforting orthodoxy that regards Southey (largely in ignorance) as a sort of failed Wordsworth or Coleridge! He is certainly not 'at home' in the terms of our present criticism, and I feel it is time we made up our minds about him. If we, as scholars of the 'Romantic' period, regard our proper subject as those literary works that can still be considered 'great' (profound, moving, life-enhancing, or what have you) today, then Southey's work should be respectfully consigned to the attic of obsolete culture. If, on the other hand, our subject is a historical period (not the canon thrust into history of much New Historicism) then Southey should be discussed without embarrassment, and with critical impartiality, as a major writer (this is my own view). Unfortunately, I suspect that the decision will not be made for some time yet, and that such studies of Southey as appear will continue to shuffle uneasily between these poles, as A Quest for Home does.