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26 June, 2013
The Glory Of English Prose
18. Robert Southey
by Coleridge, Stephen


My Dear Antony,

To-day I will write about Robert Southey, and, as he and Coleridge married sisters, you may claim a distant relationship with him. His personal character was beautiful and unselfish, and his dwelling at Keswick was the home that for years sheltered Coleridge's children.

With hardly an exception the poets of England have had an easy and royal mastery of prose; and in the case of Robert Southey there are some, and they are not the worst critics, who anticipate that his prose will long outlast his poetry in the Temple of Fame.

We may suppose that to a man whose whole private life was stainlessly dedicated to a noble rectitude of conduct, and whose every act was sternly subjected to the judgment of an unbending conscience, some circumstances of the private life of Nelson must have been distasteful and open to censure; but no such reservations dimmed the splendour of Southey's tribute to the public hero who gave his life in the act of establishing, beyond reach of dispute or cavil, the throne of England as Queen of the Sea.
"The death of Nelson was felt in England as something more than a public calamity; men started at the intelligence, and turned pale, as if they had heard of the loss of a dear friend. An object of our admiration and affection, of our pride and of our hopes, was suddenly taken from us, and it seemed as if we had never, till then, known how deeply we loved and reverenced him.

"What the country had lost in its great naval hero—the greatest of our own, and of all former times, was scarcely taken into the account of grief. So perfectly, indeed, had he performed his part, that the maritime war, after the battle of Trafalgar, was considered at an end; the fleets of the enemy were not merely defeated, but destroyed; new navies must be built, and a new race of seamen reared for them, before the possibility of their invading our shores could again be contemplated.

"It was not, therefore, from any selfish reflection upon the magnitude of our loss that we mourned for him; the general sorrow was of a higher character. The people of England grieved that funeral ceremonies, public monuments and posthumous rewards, were all which they could now bestow upon him whom the king, the legislature, and the nation, would alike have delighted to honour; whom every tongue would have blessed; whose presence in every village through which he might have passed would have wakened the church bells, have given schoolboys a holiday, have drawn children from their sports to gaze upon him, and 'old men from the chimney corner' to look upon Nelson ere they died.

"The victory of Trafalgar was celebrated, indeed, with the usual forms of rejoicing, but they were without joy; for such already was the glory of the British Navy through Nelson's surpassing genius, that it scarcely seemed to receive any addition from the most signal victory that ever was achieved upon the sea; and the destruction of this mighty fleet, by which all the maritime schemes of France were totally frustrated, hardly appeared to add to our security or strength, for while Nelson was living to watch the combined squadrons of the enemy, we felt ourselves as secure as now, when they were no longer in existence.

"There was reason to suppose from the appearances upon opening the body, that in the course of nature he might have attained, like his father, to a good old age. Yet he cannot be said to have fallen prematurely whose work was done; nor ought he to be lamented, who died so full of honours, and at the height of human fame. The most triumphant death is that of a martyr; the most awful, that of the martyred patriot; the most splendid, that of the hero in the hour of victory; and if the chariot and the horses of fire had been vouchsafed for Nelson's translation, he could scarcely have departed in a brighter blaze of glory.

"He has left us, not indeed his mantle of inspiration, but a name and an example which are at this hour inspiring hundreds of the youth of England; a name which is our pride, and an example which will continue to be our shield and our strength."
Nelson left England the Queen of the Sea, and the great war with Germany has failed to displace her from that splendid throne. For the plain fact of history remains that, after the battle of Jutland, the German High Seas Fleet never ventured out of port again till the end of the war; and when it did emerge from its ignominious security, it sailed to captivity at Scapa Flow, there ultimately to repose on the bottom of the sea.

Your loving old
G.P.

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