Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Herodotus of the South American Republics

Following up on yesterday's post about Bagehot and Gibbon, I found myself distracted by Bagehot on Shakespeare.  The thing about Shakespeare, Bagehot argues, is his what you might call (my words) his empiricism, his facticity, his openness to, well, his openness to everything (it's more or less what Bagehot admires in Gibbon too, I think, and for what it's worth, in a different way it is the defining quality of Bagehot himself).
The reason why so few good books are written, is that so few people that can write know anything. In general an author has always lived in a room, has read books, has cultivated science, is acquainted with the style and sentiments of the best authors, but he is out of the way of employing his own eyes and ears. He has nothing to hear and nothing to see. His life is a vacuum. The mental habits of Robert Southey, which about a year ago were so extensively praised in the public journals, are the type of literary existence, just as the praise bestowed on them shows the admiration excited by them among literary people. He wrote poetry (as if anybody could) before breakfast; he read during breakfast. He wrote history until dinner; he corrected proof-sheets between dinner and tea; he wrote an essay for the Quarterly afterwards; and after supper, by way of relaxation, composed the " Doctor "—a lengthy and elaborate jest. Now, what can any one think of such a life—except how clearly it shows that the habits best fitted for communicating information, formed with the best care, and daily regulated by the best motives, are exactly the habits which are likely to afford a man the least information to communicate. Southey had no events, no experiences. His wife kept house and allowed him pocket-money, just as if he had been a German professor devoted to accents, tobacco, and the dates of Horace's amours. And it is pitiable to think that so meritorious a life was only made endurable by a painful delusion. He thought that day by day, and hour by hour, he was accumulating stores for the instruction and entertainment of a long posterity. His epics were to be in the hands of all men, and his history of Brazil, the "Herodotus of the South American Republics." As if his epics were not already dead, and as if the people who now cheat at Valparaiso care a real who it was that cheated those before them. Yet it was only by a conviction like this that an industrious and caligraphic man (for such was Robert Southey), who might have earned money as a clerk, worked all his days for half a clerk's wages, at occupation much duller and more laborious. The critic in The Vicar of Wakefield lays down that you should always say that the picture would have been better if the painter had taken more pains; but in the case of the practised literary man, you should often enough say that the writings would have been much better if the writer had taken less pains. He says he has devoted his life to the subject—the reply is: "Then you have taken the best way to prevent your making anything of it." Instead of reading studiously what Burgersdicius and Enoesidemus said men were, you should have gone out yourself, and seen (if you can see) what they are."
I actually read a bit of Southey once--no, not the history of Brazil, but his little biography of Nelson, once, I surmise, immensely popular.  It's actually quite remarkable as a period piece, an artifact of its time.  But at the end of the day, well yes, it's pretty boring. In the end, maybe the best thing about Southey is Lewis Carroll's parody of Southey:


No comments: