1056. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 9 April [1805]

1056. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 9 April [1805] ⁠* 

My dear friend

There is that moral mannerism which you have detected. [1]  Thalaba is a male Joan of Arc, & little Barbauld thought Joan of Arc was modelled upon the Socinian Christ. [2]  he was mistaken. Early admiration – almost adoration of Leonidas [3]  – early principles of Stoicism derived from the habitual study of Epictetus, [4]  & the French revolution at its height when I was just eighteen, – by these xxxx my mind was moulded. But are not the characters in Madoc those which the circumstances would form? my Aztecs have not a jot more heroism than the two Mexicans who grappled with Cortes on the terrace of the palace, to precipitate themselves with him, [5]  – nor than some score of other American Indian heroes whom you may recollect in Spanish history. disinterestedness, ardent affection, contempt of life, & love of glory are the virtues peculiar to – or predominant in men above barbarism & not yet arrivd at civilization when they happen to be made of good materials. I could xxxx find out historical likenesses enough to justify Coanocotzan & his successor. Tlalala has more of the savage in him, – Ocelopan yet more – Amalahta is all savage. [6]  the differences are of disposition. Neolin is the common mixture of rogue & madman to be found in all from Zerdasht [7]  to Richard Brothers, [8]  with the courage & presence of mind of Mohammed. Tezozomac an Indian St Domingo. [9]  the rest are all common characters except Erillyab. [10]  her character I had at first conceived very differently – meaning to make her of an yielding nature, – governed by her son against her own better judgement, & after his death resigning the power in confession of her own weakness. What she now is grew up as I wrote. Once my design was to kill Amalahta by her hand – & this also was altered when I came to the execution – whether for the better or not I am still doubtful.

In classing Madoc in Wales with the historical plays of Shakespere you bestow the highest praise, & what I feel to be the most appropriate. It has the historical verisimilitude, & the dramatic truth. the other part – which is sui generis, [11]  you over- & under-rate. It is below Milton & Homer – infinitely below both, for both are unapproachably above my strength of wing. it is below Tasso [12]  in splendour & in structure of fable, above him in originality, & equal in feeling even to Spenser. [13]  With the others I will not admit comparison. Virgil [14]  & Camoens [15]  are versifiers <language-masters> both of the first order – nothing more – & the Messiah – pardon me if I say that of what you admire in that poem at least 9 tenths appears to me bubble & bladder & tympany, – just what I should produce for a mock-heroic, & could produce with facility. there is one uniform substitution of bulk for sublimity. [16] 

What you say of Erillyabs [17]  abated veneration, you will see on reperusal is erroneous. The time from his return to the death of her son being not many days. Once I thought – as you advise – of marrying them; but Erillyab is at least eight & thirty – too old to produce an heir, – xxxx first of all I designed Llaian for his wife – but at last I felt it xxxx xxxx preserved his character xxxx <better> to let the line of Kings proceed from Malinal & Goervyl. [18]  – Caradoc & Senena were suffered to remain for the sake of the Ladies [19]  – yet perhaps I should not have relaxed my sentence of extermination had it not been for the incident of the harp & Tlalala. [20] 

The language is I hope pure English undefiled – always straight forward to the point. the style certainly my own – as much as is the Bees honey – for I read too little English poetry to catch the manner of any predecessor. it savours more of chronicles & romances Spanish as well as English.

I now think the second part wants similies in all its land battles – & if I continue to think so will pour in learning enough – & bedeck it with diamonds from Golconda [21]  & gold from Ophir [22]  & topazes from Brazil & amber from Scandinavia, the furs & feathers of the wild Indian & the woven air of the voluptuous Orientalist – You see I have recovered my state of desertion, & think at least as well of my poem & myself as any body else is likely to do.

Longman calls for a third edition of Joan of Arc. [23]  I am squeezing out the whey, & shall xxxx cut out unsparingly. I have not much to add – tho much might be added had I the history of that period by Godefroy [24]  – & time to go thro Monstrellet, [25]  & no worthier employment, & none more urgent. To weed out as many of its faults as I can is a work of duty as well as of gratitude for what it has done for me.

You say you miss mythology <machinery> which surprises me. I hoped my <the> snake, mythe ventriloquism, & the priest craft at Patamba, & the earthquake so timed as to appear a judicial visitation of vengeance – would have had the effect of machinery without the absurdity, which is to me intolerable except in Romance, there it is of the essence of the fable, & you shall have your fill in Kehama. [26]  – I repent the size of the book & am not pleased at the price [27]  – one half of the edition is thereby condemned to be furniture in noblemens libraries – the other to collect dust on the publishers shelves. I ought to have relied enough upon myself to have known that it no more needed a quarto page to attract get it notice – than I need a cocked hat to get into company. Next time I will try a five shilling plan & print for the people. [28]  I think Pelayo the Restorer of Spain [29]  – have thought of Egbert the Trojan Brutus, [30]  of Egbert, [31]  Athelstan [32]  & your Edmund Ironsides [33]  – now this moment for the first time think of the Barons & King John. [34]  Oh for an English subject! If we had beat the Spaniards in 1588 by land instead of sea that had been the story.

It would be well if I could write tragedy – the true chrysopoetic [35]  vein; – there are plans by me – & one opening scene – but I never had courage to proceed, & the sense of fear & the disgust at the thought of trimming it to the taste of some Green room critic have deterred me. Besides if I know my own strength it is in narrative, – & dramatic parts introduced into narrative are widely different from the drama. – Yet if I had any well founded hope that Mr Kemble [36]  would be propitious or that Master Helisabad (the true name of the young Roscius as somebody has very wittily discovered – corrupted into Betty!) [37]  – would be my magnus Apollo [38]  & study a part – I would bring my stomach to it.

The Iris is wanting for Lord Melvilles sake. [39]  – poor Tom is in the thick of the danger. he wrote to me on the 19th Feby – saying he had sent prizes in which would enable him to remit a bill for 1000 £, little thinking that the French were then among the Islands, & in all probability will sweep away the foundation stones of his fortune!  [40] 

RS. April 9th


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr/ Surry Street/ Norwich
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: Ansd 26 Aug
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4873. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), II, pp. 82–87. BACK

[1] Southey is replying to a letter of Taylor’s, dated 5 April, expressing admiration and offering detailed criticism of Madoc (1805). Taylor noted the similarity of Southey’s poetic heroes and asked, ‘is there not a perpetual tendency to copy a favourite ideal perfection’? For Taylor’s letter, see J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), II, pp. 79–81. BACK

[2] Southey’s second edition of Joan of Arc (1796) was reviewed by Anna Laetitia Barbauld’s brother, John Aikin, in the Analytical Review, 23 (February 1796), 170–177. Aikin attributed to Joan the moral qualities that Unitarians (or ‘Socinians’) who disbelieved Christ’s divinity, attributed to Jesus the man. BACK

[3] Leonidas (c. 540–480 BC): the Spartan king who, with three hundred of his warriors, made a heroic stand against the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae, fighting on until all were killed. He was the subject of a verse epic by Richard Glover (1712–1785; DNB), Leonidas, A Poem (1737), which Southey admired. BACK

[4] Epictetus (55–135): a Greek Stoic philosopher. Epictetus taught in Rome and Greece, living a simple life and arguing that fate decides events, which must be accepted calmly and dispassionately. BACK

[5] Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro (1485–1547) was seized during fighting on the upper platform of the Teocalli, or mound-temple, by two Aztec warriors who attempted to throw him, and themselves, to their deaths. The story is told in several of the books Southey owned, which he used in researching Madoc: Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1559–1625), Historia General de los Hechos de los Castellanos en las Islas y Tierra Firme del Mar Oceano (Amberes, 1728), vol. II, book 10, chapter 9; Juan de Torquemada (c. 1557–1664), Monarquia Indiana, con el Origen y Guerras de los Indios Occidentales, de suas Problaciones Descubrimiento, Conquista, Conversion (Madrid, 1723), book 4, chapter 69; Antonio de Solis y Ribadeneyra (1610–1686), Historia de la Conquista de Mexico (Madrid, 1798), book 4, chapter 16. BACK

[6] A list of characters from Madoc. BACK

[7] Zoroaster/Zarathushtra, the Iranian prophet, revered by Parsis, who lived in the tenth or eleventh century BC, according to most scholars. Southey had long intended to write an epic poem on his life, events from which were revealed to the West by Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron (1731–1805), the French Orientalist, who caused the sacred texts of the Parsis, the Avesta, to be translated into Persian by Brahmins when he resided in India. He then translated them into French, as the Zend-Avesta in 1771, thus introducing Zoroastrianism to Europe for the first time. Southey owned a copy of this book but did not carry out his plan, for which see letter 925 of this edition. BACK

[8] Richard Brothers (1757–1824; DNB), the self-proclaimed prophet of millennial destruction, who attracted a large following in 1795 before being confined to an asylum by government order. BACK

[9] Saint Dominic (Domingo Félix de Guzmán) (1170–1221), the founder of the Dominican friars, a man who made zeal, self-denial and militant proselytism central to his life and to the order he founded. BACK

[10] The ‘queen’ of the Hoaman tribe in Madoc. BACK

[11] Meaning ‘unique’. BACK

[12] Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), author of the epic La Gerusalemme Liberata, translated as Jerusalem Delivered (1580). BACK

[13] Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; DNB), author of the epic The Faerie Queene (1590–1596), and one of Southey’s favourite authors. BACK

[14] Publius Vergilius Maro (70–19 BC), author of the revered Latin epic, the Aeneid (19 BC). BACK

[15] Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), author of the Lusiads (1572). BACK

[16] Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) wrote the epic Messias (1748–1773). BACK

[17] See note 10. BACK

[18] Southey is explaining the reasons why his eponymous hero, Madoc, does not marry in his poem. BACK

[19] The characters are lovers in Madoc (1805). BACK

[20] Madoc (1805), Part 2, Book 11, lines 54–79. BACK

[21] Golkonda, a city of south-central India, now ruined, once the centre of the world diamond trade and legendary for its wealth (c. 1364–1512). BACK

[22] A city of gold mentioned in the Bible (1 Kings 10. 11–12), from which Solomon received gold, silver, sandalwood, precious stones, ivory, apes and peacocks every three years. In Paradise Lost Milton identifies the city with Sofala in Mozambique (Book 11, 399–401). BACK

[23] The third edition of Joan of Arc was published by Longmans in 1806. For the alterations, see Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), I. BACK

[24] Autre Histoire, d’un Autheur Inconnu, Contenant Partie du Regne du Mesme Charles VII Sçauoir Depuis l’an 1422. Iusques en 1429. Dans Laquelle se Voyent Diuerses Circonstances Curieuses ... sur tout de la Pucelle d’Orleans, du Surnom de Laquelle cette Histoire est Communement Appellée, ed. Denis Godefroy (1549–1622) in Jean Chartier (fl. 1558–1574), Histoire de Charles VII. Roy de France (1661). BACK

[25] Enguerrand de Monstrelet (c. 1390–1453), author of a chronicle of French history, translated by Thomas Johnes (1748–1816; DNB) as The Chronicles of Enguerrand De Monstrelet; Containing an Account of the Cruel Civil Wars Between the Houses of Orleans and Burgundy; Of the Possession of Paris and Normandy by the English; Their Expulsion Thence; And of Other Memorable Events That Happened in the Kingdom of France, as well as in Other Countries (1809–1810). BACK

[26] Southey’s poem The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[27] Madoc was published in a two-guinea quarto. BACK

[28] The second edition of Madoc was produced more cheaply, in duodecimo, rather than quarto. BACK

[29] A thought that eventually led to Southey’s poem Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[30] Brutus of Troy, the legendary founder and first king of Britain, described by the twelfth-century chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100–c. 1155) in his Historia Regum Britanniae (c. 1136). BACK

[31] Egbert (d. 839, King of Wessex from 802 until 839; DNB), who, through victory in battle, achieved control of the neighbouring kingdom of Mercia, and the submission of the Northumbrian people. Egbert was described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (late 9th century onwards) as the ‘Ruler of Britain’. BACK

[32] Athelstan (893/4–939, King of England c. 924 to 939; DNB), whose success in battle against the Scots led to his claiming the title ‘King of all Britain’. BACK

[33] Edmund II (d. 1016; DNB): king of the southern part of England from 23 April to 30 November 1016 and known as ‘Edmund Ironside’ because of his defence of Wessex against the Viking invasion from the north. BACK

[34] King John (1167–1216; DNB) faced a rebellion by his barons which led to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. BACK

[35] A play on the word ‘chrysopoeia’ meaning transmutation into gold. BACK

[36] John Philip Kemble (1757–1823; DNB), actor-manager of Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres. BACK

[37] William Henry West Betty (1791–1874), a child actor, was termed ‘young Roscius’ after the Roman actor Quintus Roscius (c.126–62 BC). He caused a sensation when he made his Drury Lane debut in 1804. ‘Helisabad’ is a Latinate pun on ‘Elizabeth’, the full form of the colloquial name ‘Betty’, as well as the name of the hero’s companion in Amadis of Gaul, translated by Southey in 1803. BACK

[38] Meaning Southey’s mentor or luminary. BACK

[39] Southey regrets the closure of the newspaper that Taylor had edited, The Iris; or, Norwich and Norfolk Weekly Advertiser, depriving him of a source of news about the censure, resignation and impeachment of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742–1811; DNB), Secretary of State for War 1794–1801 and First Lord of the Admiralty from 1804. During 1802–1805, Melville’s use of public funds while Treasurer of the Admiralty (1782–1800), was investigated by a Royal Commission. After its report, on 9 April 1805, Melville was censured in the House of Commons for allowing Alexander Trotter (dates unknown), the naval paymaster, to misuse public funds. Melville resigned and impeachment proceedings were commenced against him. BACK

[40] In December 1804 HMS Amelia, of which Thomas Southey was a lieutenant, captured the Spanish brig Isabella and the ship Conception, both laden with wine and brandy, and the ship Commerce, laden with cotton. It was customary for naval officers to be allotted a share of the value of ships and cargo captured in armed conflict, but Southey was concerned that the French Mediterranean Fleet, which had sailed from Toulon to the West Indies in March 1805 under Vice-Admiral Pierre-Charles Villeneuve (1763–1806), would gain possession of these vessels. BACK