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Robert Southey

Title:     Robert Southey
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

Let no man write
Thy epitaph, Emmett; thou shalt not go
Without thy funeral strain! O young and good,
And wise, though erring here, thou shalt not go
Unhonored or unsung. And better thus
Beneath that undiscriminating stroke,
Better to fall, than to have lived to mourn,
As sure thou wouldst, in misery and remorse,
Thine own disastrous triumph * * * *
How happier thus, in that heroic mood
That takes away the sting of death, to die,
By all the good and all the wise forgiven!
Yea, in all ages by the wise and good
To be remembered, mourned, and honored still!

---Southey to Robert Emmett

Most generally, when I travel, I go alone--this to insure being in good company. To travel with another is a terrible risk: it puts a great strain on the affections.

I once made the tour of Scotland with a man who was traveling for his health. He had kidney-trouble belief. I had known the man in a casual way for several years, and we started out the best of friends, anticipating a good time. We were gone three weeks, and when we got back I hated the fellow thoroughly, and I have every reason to believe that he fully reciprocated the sentiment.

And yet he was an honest man, and I am, too, although not an extremist. There was nothing to quarrel about; it began at Euston Station, where I bought third-class tickets. He said he preferred to ride first-class, or second, at least--there was such a thing as false economy.

I asked him why he had not said something along this line before I had purchased the tickets.

He retorted that I had not consulted his preference in the matter. I brought in a mild rejoinder by moving the previous question, and showing that he, himself, had proposed that I should take entire charge of the arrangements, using my own good judgment at all times.

He said something about his error in supposing he was traveling with a discerning person. Just then the guard came along, slamming the doors, and we were pushed into a third-class carriage, where we enjoyed an all-day journey together.

At Edinburgh my companion wished to ascend the Scott monument, visit a friend at the University, and buy a plaid rug at one of the shops in Princess Street; while I proposed to look up the footprints of Bobbie Burns and John Knox. He said, "Confound John Knox!" I answered, "You evidently think I am referring to Knox the Hatter!" He grew mad as a hatter, and I had to defend John Knox, and later had to do the same for Rab and his friends, as well as for Christopher North.

And so it went--he pooh-poohed my heroes; and I scorned the friend he wished to find at the University, smiled patronizingly on the Scott monument, and said, "hoot mon" at the idea of buying a plaid rug in Princess Street.

All this was many years ago; since then I have been very cautious about entering into any Anglo-American alliances. Yet to travel alone often seems to be dropping something out of your life. When the voyage is rough, the weather bad and the fare below par, my spirits always rise. I say to myself: "My son, this is certainly tough--but who cares! We can stand it, we have had this way right along year after year--but just imagine your plight if there were some one in your charge expecting a good time!"

Then I drink to Boreas and all the fiends of Gehenna, and am supremely content.

But suppose the night is resplendent with stars, the waves tremulous with reflected beauty, and as the great ship goes gliding across the deep--proud, strong and tireless--there come to you thoughts sublime and emotions such as Wagner knew when he wrote the "Pilgrims' Chorus."

But you are not happy, simply because you want to tell some one how happy you are. What is the starlight for, save to call some one's attention to, or the phosphorescent sheen except to be pointed out and enjoyed by two? Exquisite beauty, as revealed in music, painting, sculpture or beautiful scenery, affects me at times to tears; and there always comes creeping into my life a profound sadness, a dread homesickness, to think that in this wealth of peace and joy I am alone--alone.

Can you stand by yourself on a hillside and look across a beautiful little lake to the woods beyond; or walk through a pine-forest, where the needles sink as a carpet beneath your feet, and the air is full of the pungent odor of the pine, and the gently swaying tree-tops overhead croon you a lullaby--can you enjoy all this without an exquisite melancholy, and a joy that hurts, piercing your soul? It's homesickness, that's all; you want to go home and tell some one how happy you are. Give me solitude, sweet solitude, but in my solitude give me still one friend to whom I may murmur, Solitude is sweet.

* * * * *

That about the sea and the forest, the wooded hillside and the little lake may not be the exact words, but the thought is there just as White Pigeon expressed it to me that evening when we sat on the mossy bank of the lake at Grasmere and threw pebbles into the water.

I had come up from Liverpool to Bowness, walked over to Ambleside and along the lake to Grasmere. My luggage consisted of a comb, a toothbrush and a stout second-growth East Aurora hickory stick.

At Grasmere I applied at the Red Lion Inn for supper and lodging. The landlady looked at my dusty, rusty corduroys, paused, coughed and asked where my luggage was. Wishing to be honest, I displayed the luggage aforementioned. She did not smile. She was a large person, sober, sedate, sincere and also serious, with a big bunch of keys dangling from a waist that once was Grecian. And she told me right there that if I wanted accommodations I would have to pay in advance. I demurred, pleaded and finally explained that I had lost my money and had sent to New York for a remittance, I was a remittance-man. Had this been true, it were sad, yet I had a hundred pounds sterling in my belt; but it just came to me to see how it would feel to be penniless and friendless and plead for charity. It is not hard to plead for charity when one has a pocket full of money.

So I pleaded. But it was of no avail.

I requested a drink of water. This was denied. Then I asked if I could wash in the lake; and this favor was granted, and the advice volunteered that it would be a good thing to do. And further the kind lady made a motion toward a dangling red tassel that hung from a rope, and suggested that I get me to a gunnery and quickly, too, otherwise she would have to call the porter.

I felt to see that my money was all right--to assure myself it was no jest in earnest--and departed. Being singularly psychic to suggestion I followed the thought that I wash in the lake, and started in that direction, along a footpath that led across a meadow, over a stile. A thick growth of bushes lined the lake for aways, and then the footpath seemed to follow right through the undergrowth. I pushed the green branches aside, and continued along for about a hundred feet, when I stood on the green, grass-covered bank of the beautiful "Windermere." Daffodils lined the water's edge--the daffodils of Wordsworth--down the lake were the white wings of several sailboats; the sun had gone down, but his long rays of gold still pierced the sky, while across the water arose, silent and majestic, the dark purple hills.

It was a beautiful sight--so full of quiet and peace and rest. I stood with hat in hand, the evening breeze fanning my face, enjoying the scene. Just then there was a little splash in the water, and looking down I saw a woman with back toward me sitting on a boulder, tossing pebbles into the lake. By the side of the woman were her hat and book. I was on the point of softly backing out through the bushes, when it came to me that I had seen that head with its big coil of brown hair somewhere else--but where, ah, where!

Why, in Paris, two years before. It was White Pigeon.

She had not seen me. I retraced my steps, and then came crashing through the juniper, straight over to the bankside, where I sat down about twenty feet from the good lady. I was whistling violently and throwing pebbles into the water, not even glancing toward her. She let me whistle for a full minute and then said gently: "Do not be absurd! I know you." Then we both laughed, and I, of course, did the regulation thing, and asked, "When did you arrive, and where are you going, and how do you like it?"

"You see what I am doing here, and as for when I arrived and how long I'll stay, and how I like it--what difference is it? There, you are surprised to see me, aren't you? I thought you had gotten past being surprised at anything, long ago--only silly people are surprised--you once said it, yourself!"

Then White Pigeon ceased to speak and we simply gazed into each other's eyes. White Pigeon has gray eyes that sometimes are blue and sometimes amber--it all depends upon her mood and the thoughts reflected there. The long, sober gaze stole off into a half-smile and she said, "You got things awfully mixed up in that Rosa Bonheur booklet--why not stick to truth?"

"Truth," I replied, "is hideous, and facts are like some men, stubborn things. But what was the matter with the Bonheur Little Journey?"

"You will not be angry with me?"

"How could I be?"

"You promise?"


"Well, you said my cousin was a conductor on the Lake Shore--you knew perfectly well it was the Michigan Central!"

I apologized.

It had been two years since I had seen this woman, and not a letter had passed between us. I had sent her a book now and then, and she had sent me a sketch or two.

White Pigeon knows nothing about me, and never asked concerning my history, which is a blank, my lord! Does the lily inquire of the humming-bird, "Hast hummed and fluttered about other flowers?"

That is a charming friendship that asks nothing, makes no demands, needs no assurances, never falters, and is so frank that it disarms prudery and pretense.

I said as much.

White Pigeon made no answer, but flung a pebble into the lake.

And all I know of White Pigeon is that she was born in White Pigeon, Michigan, and had left there ten years before to study art for a short time in Paris. The short time extended to ten years.

White Pigeon does not call herself an artist--she only copies pictures in the Louvre and gives lessons. "Not being able to paint, I give lessons," she once said to me. The first pictures she copied were sold to kind gentlemen who make many wagons at South Bend, Indiana; other pictures went to men who have interests at Ivorydale; and some have gone to the mill-owner at Ypsilanti, for the mill-owner is interested in art, as all patrons of the "Hum Journal" know.

White Pigeon lived at Paris because one must needs live somewhere, and rich Americans sometimes send her their daughters to "finish." That was what took her over to the Lake District--she was traveling with two young women from Grand Rapids. And so these three women were doing Great Britain, and White Pigeon was acting as courier, chaperone and instructor.

"I need 'finish,'" I suggested in one of the long pauses.

"I was just going to suggest it," said the lady.

"You say you are going to Southey's old home tomorrow--may I go, too?" I ventured.

And the answer was, "Of course--if you will promise not to work me up into copy."

I promised.

I found lodgings that night at "Nab Cottage." Being well recommended, the landlady did not hesitate, but gave me the best accommodations her house afforded.

Hartley Coleridge does not live at "Nab Cottage" now--a moss-covered slab marks his resting-place up at the Grasmere Churchyard, and only a step away in a very straight row are similar old headstones that token the graves of William, Dorothy and Mary Wordsworth. Hartley Coleridge had most of the weaknesses of his father, and only a few of his better traits. Yet Southey brought up the children of Coleridge and gave them just as good advantages as he did his own.

"It is not 'advantages' that make great men--it is disadvantages!" said White Pigeon. We were eating breakfast at the table set out under the arbor, back of the Coleridge cottage--Grace, Myrtle, White Pigeon and I.

Grace and Myrtle were the Grand Rapids girls, and fine girls, too--pink and twenty, with diaries and autograph-fans. Girls of that age are charming, but they only interest me as do beautiful kittens or colts. Women do not become wise or discreet until they are past thirty. White Pigeon was past thirty.

We took the stage that morning at nine o'clock for Keswick. The stage started from the Red Lion Inn. It is a great event--the starting of a four-horse stage. The guests came out, and so did the boots, and chamber-maids and waiters, and the cook came also. They stood in line and bade the parting guests godspeed, and all the guests were supposed to express gratitude tangibly. The landlady was busy, flying about like a Plymouth Rock hen with a brood of ducks. She saw me handing up the pink-and-white Grace and Myrtle and the dignified, tailor-made White Pigeon, and she came out and apologized profusely for not having had room to accommodate me the night before.

At last all the hatboxes and bloomin' luggage were safely stowed, the trunks were lashed in place behind, and I climbed to the top of the stage and took my seat beside my charges. A merry blast was blown from the tallyho horn. A man with a red coat, high white hat, kid gloves and a brick-dust complexion mounted the box and gathered up a big handful of reins. The hostlers at the heads of the leaders let go, twenty feet of whiplash went singing through the air--and we were off!

We swung through the village with more majesty and clatter than the Empire State Express ever assumed, stopping just an instant at the post-office for a bag of mail that the brick-dusty driver caught with his feet, and then away we went.

I am sorry I did not live in stagecoach times--things are now so dead and dreary and prosaic. Yet I sometimes have imagined that today the stagecoach business in England is a little stagey--many things are done to heighten effects. For instance, the intense excitement of starting is not exactly necessary--why the mad rush? No one is really in a hurry to reach a certain place at a certain time! And all this is apparent when you notice that a mile out of town the pace subsides to a lazy dog-trot, and the boots has jumped down and unchecked each horse so as to make things easy. I was glad the boots got down, for whenever I see a horse's head checked up in the air my impulse is to uncheck him--and once on Wabash Avenue in Chicago I did.

I was arrested, and it cost me five.

The road to Keswick bristles with history. Coleridge, Wordsworth and Southey tramped it many a time, and since their day, thousands of literary pilgrims have come this way. That two poets-laureate should have come from this beautiful corner of the earth of course is interesting, but the honor of being poet-laureate to the King is a shifting honor, depending upon the poet. No title can ever really honor a man, although a man may honor a title, and no King by taking thought can add a cubit to a subject's stature. The man is what he is. Southey succeeded the poet Pye, who was laureate before him.

A weaker nature than mine might here succumb to temptation and play pleasant philological pranks concerning the poet Pye, but I am above all that. Pye was a good man, and if I could remember any of the lines he wrote, I would here introduce them; but this is doubtless unnecessary, for the gentle reader can recall to suit.

White Pigeon claimed that Pye was greater than Southey, and she further said that Tennyson's reputation suffered by consenting to act as successor to this line of men in whom felicity and insight were the exception. The tierce of Canary was no pay for acting as successor to Pye, but Southey jumped at the Canary and slipped his last vestige of radicalism quickly.

"Oh, what a funny little church," exclaimed Myrtle; "can't we stop and go in?"

It is a curious little building--that church at Wythburn.

It looks like a little girl's playhouse, that might have belonged to her great-great-grandmother.

Opposite this lovely little church is a tavern, where a lovely barmaid in white apron and lovely collar and cuffs stood in the doorway, ready to serve the thirsty. The red-coated driver pulled in on the tavern side, and men in neckerchiefs, hobnailed shoes, blue woolen stockings and knee-breeches made fussy haste to water the horses. Old Brick-Dusty climbed down to see a man in the tavern, and the Michigan contingent and Colonel Littlejourneys slid down the other side and went into Wythburn Church. There isn't another church in England so peculiar and so interesting. A pew is marked sacred to Wordsworth, and one also to Harriet Martineau, who I did not know before ever went to church. The silver service was the gift of Southey, and is inscribed with his name and crest. Southey was a vestryman of Wythburn Church for many years, and sometimes read the service there. I stood in the pulpit where Southey stood, and so did White Pigeon, and I reminded her that she would never be allowed there on Sunday, for Deity is most easily approached and influenced by men, as all theologians know and have ever stoutly held. One of the busy hostlers came in, pulling his forelock, and apologizing, in a voice full of cobwebs, said that the coach was ready to start. We did the proper thing, and also as much for the red-coated driver, who, in spite of great dignity, we saw was open to reward for well-doing. It was a great mistake, though, to "cross his palm," for he began a lecture on the Cumberland Kings, that lasted until we got to Thirlmere, where he stopped at the Pumping-Station, and told us how the city of Manchester got its water-supply from here. To him all things were equally interesting. He was still deep in the fight between Manchester aldermen and the 'Ouse of Commons when we reached Castle Rigg. The Vale of Keswick opened before us. We implored the well-informed driver to stop, and then we got down and begged him to go on without us.

Seated there on the bankside we viewed the beautiful scene of lake, valley and village stretching out so peacefully before us, all framed in the dark towering hills. Even Grace forgot to say, "How lovely!" but sat there, chin in hand, rapt and speechless.

Down in that valley, just a little to one side of the village, Southey lived for over forty years, and all the visitors he really liked he took to Castle Rigg, to show them as he said, "the kingdoms of the earth." It was a view of which he never tired. Coleridge came up this way first, and took lodgings with a Mr. Johnson, who owned Greta Hall. It is not on record that Coleridge paid any rent, but he was so charmed with the location that he induced Southey to come and visit him. Southey came and liked it so well that he remained. He performed here a life-task that staggers one to contemplate: fifty volumes or more of closely set type are shown you at the Keswick Museum, duly labeled, "The Works of Southey," Charles Lamb's "Works" were the East India ledgers, but he wrote one little book of Essays that are still sweet and fresh as wood-violets--essays written hot from the heart, often in tears; written because he could not help it, or to please Mary--he did not know which.

No man ever divided his time up more systematically than Southey. He produced political and theological essays, histories, poems, diatribes, apologies and criticisms, and worked as men work in the Carnegie Consolidated Steel Works.

Robert Southey was the precocious son of a Bristol linen-draper. Being rather delicate, his parents did not set him to work in a drygoods-store, but gave him the benefit of Oxford. The thing that brought him first into prominence was an article he wrote for "The Flaggellant," a college paper, wherein he ridiculed the idea of a devil. Now the powers did not like that--the creed called for a "personal devil," and they wanted one. They summoned young Southey before them to account for speaking disrespectfully of the devil. The youth was found guilty and expelled.

He was a reckless young man, but recklessness is its own check--in fact, all things in life are self-regulating, everything is limited. Southey's secret marriage with Edith Fricker tamed him. Nothing tames men like marriage; and when babies came, and Coleridge went to Germany, leaving Mrs. Coleridge and young Hartley in his charge, Southey realized he was dealing with a condition, not a theory. Then soon he had the widowed Mrs. Lovell with her brood on his hands, and his old dream of pantisocracy was realized, only not just as he expected.

Too much can not be said for the patience and unflinching fidelity shown by Southey in shouldering the burdens that Fate sent him.

"Any man can succeed with three good women to help him!" said White Pigeon.

"True," said I, "and next in importance to the person who originates a good thing is the one who quotes it." Men weighted with responsibilities fight for the established order. Southey's pension and his steady income came from the men in power, and he made it his business not to offend them. Southey was a scholar; he associated with educated people; and once he complained because he could not get acquainted with workingmen--they shut up like clams on his approach. Of course they did, for we are simple and sincere only with our own.

Learned, scholarly and cultured men are to be pitied, for they are ever the butt, byword and prey of the untaught, who are often the knowing. As success came to Southey he lost the sense of values, that is to say, the sense of humor. He attacked Byron with great severity, and Byron's reply was the dedication of Don Juan, "To the illustrious Poet-Laureate, Robert Southey, LL.D." It was as if the play of "Sappho" were dedicated to the Reverend Doctor Parkhurst.

Southey came out with a card declaring he had given Lord Byron no permission to dedicate any of his detestable works to him. Byron replied, acknowledging all this, but saying he had a right to honor the name of Southey, if he chose, just the same. No taint of excess or folly marks the name of Southey; his life was filled with good work and kind deeds. His name is honored by a monument in the village of Keswick, and in Crosthwaite Church is another monument to his memory, the inscription being written by Wordsworth.

* * * * *

Were Heaven a place, I still politely maintain, it would probably be located in the Lake District of England.

Every man of genius the world has ever produced has come from a little belt of land in the North Temperate Zone. Snow and cold, rock and mountain, danger and difficulty--these are the conditions required to make men. The heaven of which I can conceive is a place with plenty of oxygen, sunshine and water. In a mountainous country water runs (I hope no one will dispute this) and winds blow, and running water and air in motion are always pure.

When I have no thoughts worth recording I take a walk, and the elements, which seem to carry soul, fill me to the brim.

The Tropics may have much to offer in way of soft, luxurious creature comforts. But the Tropics supply sundry and divers discomforts as well, and really offer too much; for with the flowers, vines, fruits and never-ending foliage go mosquitoes, tarantulas, and snakes that wiggle and sometimes bite.

The climate of Cumberland does not overpower one--the air is of a quality that urges you on to think and do.

By no reach of imagination can one conjure forth anything more beautiful in Nature than is to be realized in vicinity of Keswick; and no home thereabouts surpasses Greta Hall in charm of location and quiet, simple beauty.

Greta Hall is a rambling pile, constructed partly of stone and partly of wood, evolved rather than built, for evidently the work was done by many hands, and stretched over a century or more of time. Vines and flowers, fruits and shrubbery, stone walls covered close by creeping bellflowers where birds chirrup and cheep and play hide-and-seek the livelong day--all these are there. The house is situated on a little wooded plateau that overlooks the lake, and back of it the solemn and everlasting hills stand guard. There are no such mountains here as one sees in Switzerland, overpowering, vast, awful in their majesty; but just green-topped, self-sufficient and friendly hills that invite you to lift up your eyes and be strong.

Visitors are welcome to the grounds at Greta Hall at all times, and the kind old gardener who showed us about gathered us bouquets of mignonette, rue and thyme, and gave us the history of a wonderful pear-tree that had turned into a vine and now covers one whole side of a stable thirty feet long. Even a tree will lose its individuality if it is not allowed to assert its nature and care for itself. That particular pear-tree, we were told, sprang from a slip planted by Shelley when he once came here on a visit to Southey; and we were further told that the year Shelley was drowned, the leaves of this tree turned pale and withered, and only by patient, loving nursing on the part of our old gardener's father was its life saved. The residence was closed the day we were there, in dread anticipation of Cook tourists with designs on the shrubbery, we had reason to believe, but we lingered around the grounds, listened to the soothing, rippling lullaby of the Greta, watched the strutting peacocks, and ate bread-and-milk, under the trees, out of big bowls supplied us by the old gardener for the most modest of considerations.

Southey never really mixed in the wealth of beauty that covers this beautiful corner of earth. He was learned and profound, and he took himself and the Church and the State seriously. He felt himself a part of an indestructible institution, whereas man and all his works are no more peculiar, no more wonderful than an ant-hill--and last only a day longer. He never realized that he was a part of the great whole that made up mountain, lake, globe, wooded glen and tireless river. He differentiated. He considered himself a man, an educated man, and therefore a little better, and a little above, and a little outside of it all--otherwise how could he have withered at the top at the early age of sixty-seven?

This question White Pigeon asked as we sat in the dim quiet of Crosthwaite Church, down in the village. I did not attempt to reply--people do not ask questions expecting, necessarily, to have them answered. We ask questions in order to clarify our own minds.

The warning blast of the coach-horn was heard, and we went out into the sunshine. I bade my three friends good-by (first placing my autograph on Grace's and Myrtle's fans), and they climbed to the top of the coach. I sat on the stone wall and watched them until they disappeared around the bend of the road, waving handkerchiefs. That night I made my way over to Penreith on the way to Carlisle. It had been a day brimming with thought and feeling, and beauty expressed and unexpressed, and the kindness of kind friends who understand. That night as I dozed off into deep, calm sleep I said to myself: "They were great men, those Lake Poets, and the world is better because they lived. But there will come other men and they will be greater than those gone--the best is yet to be."

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Robert Southey