ページの画像
PDF
ePub

The Chronicle of the Cid entitled him at least to the glory of having discovered all the Homeric spirit which belongs to the simplicity of the chivalric poets. Even amidst the pomp of poetic romance, Mr. Southey, as a laker, has not sacrificed natural feeling to the artificial sentiments of conventional heroism; but, unfortunately, he rested his claims to originality, on the singularity and novelty of his subjects, rather than on the resources of his genius. If his cosmopolitan muse had but concentrated her powers on national subjects, Southey's originality would have been more decided. By turns, French, Arabic, Indian, and Spanish, Southey's muse assumes the garb of every nation she adopts ; but her borrowed robes do not always sit easily upon her. She sometimes betrays an air of constraint, though she endeavours to conceal it by forced energy. She reminds one of an actor, whose whole attention is engrossed in arranging his drapery and studying his attitudes. The muse of the Scottish bard, on the contrary, is always animated and perfectly at ease beneath the folds of her plaid; she never sacrifices her natural inspirations, but shews herself in all her native grace and dignity. Then again with regard to style. Scott's is never studied; his common places pass off like the current coin of conversation, and contribute to the illusion. Southey, who always seems to be translating a foreign language, requires to be continually supported by ideas; and the filling up phrases, which are requisite in all sorts of composition, often appear in

VOL. II. R

Southey's writings merely trivial verbosity; while his use of antiquated words and turns of expression sometimes produce a kind of patchwork effect. These faults are never observable in Scott's writings. I feel the more confident in pronouncing these opinions on Southey's talent, owing to the peculiar charm of his detached poems and tales, which present the expression of his own individual ideas, whether as a lake poet, as for instance in his Address to the Penates and his Landscape of Poussin, or whether he assumes a philosophic tone, half serious, half ironical, as in his tale of San Gualberto. His ballads on popular and local superstitions are also very impressive, as for example, Lord William, or the History of the Old Woman of Berkeley. As a prose writer, Southey is generally natural, easy, and free from all affectation. I willingly bestow my tribute of praise on his excellent articles in the Quarterly Review; and this is the more generous in me as a Frenchman, since I strongly suspect Southey of being at least an accomplice in certain illiberal attacks on France, which have appeared in that publication. But these articles have, on the other hand, been ably refuted by the Edinburgh reviewers, and by the satires of Lord Byron. I cannot help repeating the fact, that Southey became an indifferent poet only after he turned a ministerial writer. Let Southey, the poet laureate and pensioned writer, be compared with Southey the author of Joan of Arc. The French have certainly reason to be grateful to him for that production. Shakspeare is unjust towards the heroine of Domremi; but Southey's muse has made her ample amends.

The poem of Joan of Arc was written by Southey at the age of nineteen, and was published in 1795, under the influence of the republican principles, which the author at that period professed. In subsequent editions of the poem, Southey has, however, been candid enough not to retrench his liberal allusions, and those maledictions against English tyranny, which could not be very favourably received in England at a moment when the stern policy of Pitt, and the chivalrous policy of Burke, had excited among the English a strong prejudice against the French revolution. A hue and cry was raised against Southey's abuse of talent.” Who could then have foreseen that the young gallomanic poet would one day become the furious enemy of French glory 2 The liberal avenger of Joan of Arc does not however appear, from his poem, to have been precisely a girondist or a patriot of 1789. From his religious opinions, and his union of the spirit of the feudal chronicles with the solemn style of the Paradise Lost, he may be more properly termed an independent of Cromwell's time, and a disciple of Milton. The philosophic principles of the day are plainly recognisable in that admirable vision, in which Despair appeals to Joan of Arc in favour of Suicide, and in which the Maid of Orleans borrows from Rousseau's Julie some portion of her eloquent refutation. But the general character of the work is religious. It is curious to find the future biographer of Wesley, the Methodist, making Joan of Arc almost a mystical enthusiast. But was that really her character? Who can read her wonderful history without feeling the conviction of her heavenly inspiration 2 Where is the Frenchman who will venture to deny, that there was something divine in the patriotism of Joan of Arc P Southey has made his heroine cherish the recollection of a terrestrial passion, which gives her a charming air of melancholy, without in any way diminishing her purity. It is of course unnecessary to describe the incidents of a poem, the subject of which must be familiar to every one. The poet has not had recourse to any fantastic agency. Joan simply relates to Dunois the signs she has received of her mission, and her mysterious dreams under the tree of the fairies. The ninth canto was originally a long vision, which transported the reader to an imaginary world. The author afterwards retrenched it, and gave it in an appendix, because he was of opinion that it contributed to retard the events of the poem ; but perhaps, after all, he was not quite right in making this alteration. Coleridge had some share in the invention of this allegorical part of the poem. It presents several sublime images, as, for instance, the personification of despair, and the hall of glory in which Henry V. expiates his conquests. The author has here indulged in a satirical attack on the church, and the prerogatives of its dignitaries, of which he is now so ardent a defender. He has placed in hell the English prelates in their surplices, together with our cardinals in full costume, and there they are all condemned to a scrupulous fulfilment of those duties, which they converted into sinecures in those earthly paradises. I must also notice the ingenious allegory of the frail thread of life, which, with fearful swiftness winds upon a fatal wheel, which two genii lave with water contained in two urns. From the ebony urn flows the bitter water from the spring of evil, and the genius who pours it out has a gloomy smile on his countenance. A more benign spirit has charge of the other urn, the contents of which are of a less baneful nature, and which are augmented by the tears the spirit sheds in compassion for the lot of man. The style of Joan of Arc is an imitation of the occasionally stiff rhythm of Milton. In his second poem, Southey has steered clear of all imitation, either in the measure of the verse or the subject. The scene is laid in the east, for this writer has made the tour of the world in his poems, and has availed himself of the traditions, the history, and the faith of every nation. The prodigious learning displayed in each of his works, proves the absurdity of those poets who are constantly endeavouring to retrace the footsteps of Homer and Virgil, instead of availing themselves of the various new paths

* Miss Seward, in one of her admirable letters, alluding to Southey's Joan of Arc, styles it “a twin miracle in juvenile poetic excellence to the inspirations of Chatterton. But (she adds) this later prodigy is in design a parricide, aiming envenomed shafts at the bosom of his country, her constitution, and the character of her inhabitants.”

« 前へ次へ »