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Wordsworth And Southey: Affinities And Differences
by [?]

(An Early Paper.)

Of late the two names of Wordsworth and Southey have been coupled chiefly in the frantic philippics of Jacobins, out of revenge for that sublime crusade which, among the intellectual powers of Europe, these two eminent men were foremost (and for a time alone) in awakening against the brutalizing tyranny of France and its chief agent, Napoleon Bonaparte: a crusade which they, to their immortal honour, unceasingly advocated–not (as others did) at a time when the Peninsular victories, the Russian campaign, and the battle of Leipsic, had broken the charm by which France fascinated the world and had made Bonaparte mean even in the eyes of the mean–but (be it remembered!) when by far the major part of this nation looked upon the cause of liberty as hopeless upon the Continent, as committed for many ages to the guardianship of England, in which (or not at all) it was to be saved as in an Ark from the universal deluge. Painful such remembrances may be to those who are now ashamed of their idolatry, it must not be forgotten that, from the year 1803 to 1808, Bonaparte was an idol to the greater part of this nation; at no time, God be thanked! an idol of love, but, to most among us, an idol of fear. The war was looked upon as essentially a defensive war: many doubted whether Bonaparte could be successfully opposed: almost all would have treated it as lunacy to say that he could be conquered. Yet, even at that period, these two eminent patriots constantly treated it as a feasible project to march an English army triumphantly into Paris. Their conversations with various friends–the dates of their own works–and the dates of some composed under influences emanating from them (as, for example, the unfinished work of Colonel Pasley of the Engineers)–are all so many vouchers for this fact. We know not whether (with the exception of some few Germans such as Arndt, for whose book Palm was shot) there was at that time in Europe another man of any eminence who shared in that Machiavellian sagacity which revealed to them, as with the power and clear insight of the prophetic spirit, the craziness of the French military despotism when to vulgar politicians it seemed strongest. For this sagacity, and for the strength of patriotism to which in part they owed it (for in all cases the moral spirit is a great illuminator of the intellect), they have reaped the most enviable reward, in the hatred of traitors and Jacobins all over the world: and in the expressions of that hatred we find their names frequently coupled. There was a time, however, when these names were coupled for other purposes: they were coupled as joint supporters of a supposed new creed in relation to their own art. Mr. Wordsworth, it is well known to men of letters, did advance a new theory upon two great questions of art: in some points it might perhaps be objected that his faith, in relation to that which he attacked, was as the Protestant faith to the Catholic–i.e., not a new one, but a restoration of the primitive one purified from its modern corruptions. Be this as it may, however, Mr. Wordsworth’s exposition of his theory is beyond all comparison the subtlest and (not excepting even the best of the German essays) the most finished and masterly specimen of reasoning which has in any age or nation been called forth by any one of the fine arts. No formal attack has yet been made upon it, except by Mr. Coleridge; of whose arguments we need not say that they furnish so many centres (as it were) to a great body of metaphysical acuteness; but to our judgment they fail altogether of overthrowing Mr. Wordsworth’s theory. All the other critics have shown in their casual allusions to this theory that they have not yet come to understand what is its drift or main thesis. Such being the state of their acquaintance with the theory itself, we need not be surprised to find that the accidental connection between Mr. Wordsworth and the Laureate arising out of friendship and neighbourhood should have led these blundering critics into the belief that the two poets were joint supporters of the same theory: the fact being meanwhile that in all which is peculiar to Mr. Wordsworth’s theory, Mr. Southey dissents perhaps as widely and as determinately as Mr. Coleridge; dissents, that is to say, not as the numerous blockheads among the male blue-stockings who dignify their ignorance with the name of dissent–but as one man of illustrious powers dissents from what he deems after long examination the errors of another; as Leibnitz on some occasions dissented from Plato, or as the great modern philosopher of Germany occasionally dissents from Leibnitz. That which Mr. Wordsworth has in common with all great poets, Mr. Southey cannot but reverence: he has told us that he does: and, if he had not, his own originality and splendour of genius would be sufficient pledges that he did. That which is peculiar to Mr. Wordsworth’s theory, Mr. Southey may disapprove: he may think that it narrows the province of the poet too much in one part–that, in another part, it impairs the instrument with which he is to work. Thus far he may disapprove; and, after all, deduct no more from the merits of Mr. Wordsworth, than he will perhaps deduct from those of Milton, for having too often allowed a Latin or Hebraic structure of language to injure the purity of his diction. To whatsoever extent, however, the disapprobation of Mr. Southey goes, certain it is (for his own practice shows it) that he does disapprove the innovations of Mr. Wordsworth’s theory–very laughably illustrates the sagacity of modern English critics: they were told that Mr. Southey held and practised a certain system of innovations: so far their error was an error of misinformation: but next they turn to Mr. Southey’s works, and there they fancy that they find in every line an illustration of the erroneous tenets which their misinformation had led them to expect that they should find. A more unfortunate blunder, one more confounding to the most adventurous presumption, can hardly be imagined. A system, which no man could act upon unless deliberately and with great effort and labour of composition, is supposed to be exemplified in the works of a poet who uniformly rejects it: and this ludicrous blunder arises not from any over-refinements in criticism (such, for instance, as led Warburton to find in Shakspeare what the poet himself never dreamt of), but from no more creditable cause than a misreport of some blue-stocking miss either maliciously or ignorantly palmed upon a critic whose understanding passively surrendered itself to anything however gross.

Such are the two modes in which the names of these two eminent men have been coupled. As true patriots they are deservedly coupled: as poets their names cannot be justly connected by any stricter bond than that which connects all men of high creative genius. This distinction, as to the main grounds of affinity and difference between the two writers, was open and clear to any unprejudiced mind prepared for such investigations, and we should at any rate have pointed it out at one time or other for the sake of exposing the hollowness of those impostures which offer themselves in our days as criticisms.