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).[Notice]

  • David Chandler

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  • David Chandler
    Corpus Christi College, Oxford

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

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