Two Reviews of Robert Southey's _Wat Tyler_

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Wat Tyler, a Dramatic Poem by Robert Southey Electronic Edition Edited by Matt Hill


Two Reviews of Robert Southey's Wat Tyler
by William Hone and William Hazlitt


Review #1: William Hone, Reformists' Register and Weekly Commentary, 22 February 1817, pages 157-8.

Wat Tyler is attributed by the Morning Chronicle, to no less a person than the Poet Laureate, one Mr. Robert Southey, a gentleman of credit and renown, and, until he became Poet Laureate, a Poet. The present poem appears to have been written many years ago, when Mr. Southey had not merely reforming opinions, but very wild notions indeed. In consideration of a Court pension, he now regularly inflames his muse, in praise of official persons and business, at certain periods throughout the year, as precisely stated and rehearsed in verse, as the days whereon his pension is made payable and receivable. His present muse, however, is no more like to that which he formerly courted, than the black doll at an old rag shop is like Petrarch's Laura. Poor Southey! a pensioned Laureate! compelled to sing like a blind linnet by a sly pinch, with every now and then a volume of his old verses flying into his face, and putting him out! I have no doubt, he would at this moment exchange his situation, fleshpots and all, for that of the Negro, who earns his "daily," by sweeping the crossing at Mr. Waithman's corner!


Review #2: [William Hazlitt], Review of Wat Tyler. The Examiner, 9 March 1817, pages 157-9.

So was it when my life began,
So is it now I am a man;
So shall it be when I grow old and die.
The child's the father of the man;
Our years flow on
Link'd each to each by natural piety.
—Wordsworth[1]

According to this theory of personal continuity, the author of the Dramatic Poem, to be here noticed, is the father of Parliamentary Reform in the Quarterly Review. It is said to be a wise child that knows its own father; and we understand Mr. Southey (who is in this case reputed father and son) utterly disclaims the hypostatical union between the Quarterly Reviewer and the Dramatic Poet, and means to enter an injunction against the latter as a bastard and impostor. Appearances are somewhat staggering against the legitimacy of the descent, yet we perceive a strong family likeness remaining in spite of the lapse of years and alteration of circumstances. We should not indeed be able to predict that the author of Wat Tyler would ever write an article on Parliamentary Reform, nor should we, either at first or second sight, perceive that the Quarterly Reviewer had ever written a poem like that which is before us: but if we were told that both performances were literally and bona fide by the same person, we should have little hesitation in saying to Mr. Southey, "Thou are the man" [sic]. We know no other person in whom fierce extremes meet with such mutual self-complacency; whose opinions change so much without any change in the author's mind; who lives so entirely in the "present ignorant of thought," without the smallest "discourse of reason looking before or after." Mr. Southey is a man incapable of reasoning connectedly on any subject. He has not strength of mind to see the whole of any question; he has not modesty to suspend his judgment till he has examined the grounds of it. He can comprehend but one idea at a time, and that is always an extreme one, because he will neither listen to nor tolerate any thing that can disturb or moderate the petulance of his self-opinion. The woman that deliberates is lost. So it is with the effeminate soul of Mr. Southey. Any concession is fatal to his consistency; and he can only keep out of one absurdity by the tenaciousness with which he stickles for another. He calls to the aid of his disjointed opinions a proportionable quantity of spleen; and regularly makes up for the weakness of his own reasons, by charging others with bad motives. The terms knave and fool, wise and good, have undergone a total change in the last twenty years: the former he applies to all those who agree with him now. His public spirit was a prude and a scold; and "his poor virtue," turned into a literary prostitute, is grown more abusive than ever. Wat Tyler and the Quarterly Review are an illustration of these remarks. The author of Wat Tyler was an Ultra-jacobin; the author of Parliamentary Reform is an Ultra-royalist: the one was a frantic demagogue; the other is a servile court-fool: the one maintained second-hand paradoxes; the other repeats second-hand commonplaces: the one vented those opinions which gratified the vanity of youth; the other adopts those prejudices which are most conducive to the convenience of age: the one saw nothing but the abuses of power; the other sees nothing but the horrors of resistance to those abuses: the one did not stop short of general anarchy; the other goes the whole length of despotism: the one vilified kings, priests, and nobles; the other vilifies the people: the one was for universal suffrage and perfect equality; the other is for seat-selling and the increasing influence of the Crown: the one admired the preaching of John Ball; the other recommends the Suspension of the Habeas Corpus, and the putting down of the Examiner by the sword, the dagger, or the thumb-screw,—for the pen, Mr. Southey tells us, is not sufficient. We wonder that in all this contempt which our prose-poet has felt at different times for different persons and things, he has never felt any dissatisfaction with himself, or distrust of his own infallibility. Our differing from others sometimes staggers our confidence in our own conclusions: if we had been chargeable with as many contradictions as Mr. Southey, we suppose we should have had the same senseless self-sufficiency. A changeling is your only oracle. Those who have undergone a total change of sentiment on important questions ought certainly to learn modesty in themselves and moderation towards others: on the contrary, they are generally the most violent in their opinions, and the most intolerant towards others; the reason of which we have shewn elsewhere, to the satisfaction of the proprietor of the Old Times. Before we have done, we shall perhaps do the same thing to the satisfaction of the publisher of the Quarterly Review; for these sort of persons, the patrons and paymasters of the band of gentleman pensioners and servile authors, have "a sort of squint" in their understanding, and look less to the dirty sacrifices of their drudges or the dirtier they are ready to make, than to their standing well with that great keeper, the public, for purity and innocence. The band of gentlemen pensioners and servile authors do not know what to make of this, and hardly believe it: we shall in time convince them.

[Hazlitt then quotes extracts from Wat Tyler].
 

Notes

1. Wordsworth: William Wordsworth (1770-1850), English poet and close friend of Southey. The passage is misquoted from "My heart leaps up," lines 2-9; here are the actual lines:

So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a Man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is Father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.

Stephen Gill, in his note to "My heart leaps up," points out that lines 7-9 are " the very lines Coleridge had emphasized when he printed the poem in The Friend, Essay v, as an expression of the truth that 'men are ungrateful to other only when they have ceased to look back on their former selves with joy and tenderness. They exist only in fragments'" (i.40). (The Oxford Authors: William Wordsworth (Oxford UP, 1984), 703n.)

Published @ RC

August 2004