1090. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [July-August 1805]

1090. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [July-August 1805] ⁠* 

Dear Rickman

Have you not been somewhat precipitate in commencing the house hunt for me? – there are ugly contingencies still in the way, – the prizes may still miscarry, [1]  – the bills not arrive, – not be honoured when they come, or prove good for nothing, like those of which you speak.

Your objections to the exordial lines are not valid: [2]  I say there of what the poem is to treat, not affirming that it is historically true. Just as I might have said in an introduction to Thalaba [3]  that he destroyed the Domdaniel & so put an end to all sorcery. – The want of numerals is a fault – I confess. not so the namelessness of the divisions – nor indeed are they nameless, for in the notes they are referred to as Sections, – & that each has not its specific name, from its subject matter <affixed to it,> is you know the effect of your own advice. However call them Sections, Cantos, Canticles, Chapters – what you will, & then consider in what is the mode of division objectionable? it differs only from that of other poems in having shorter sections – in travelling by miles instead of leagues the primary division into parts is unavoidable.

I am not surprized at your little-liking the poem. – on the contrary I am more surprized that at those who like it, – because what merit it has is almost wholly that of execution, which is infinitely better than the subject, – now every body can feel if a story be uninteresting or flat, whereas there are very few who can judge the worth of the language & versification. I have said to somebody – perhaps it was to you yourself – that had this been written since Thalaba, (for as you know the plan was formed & the key pitched before Thalaba was begun or dreamt of) I should have thought it ominous of declining powers, it is in so sober a tone, its colouring so autumnal, its light every where that of an evening sun. But as only the last finish of language, the polishing part is of later labour, the fair inference is that instead of the poets imagination having grown weaker, he has improved in the mechanism of his art. A fair inference it is – for I am no self-flatterer Heaven knows. – That you may see what is my own deep & intimate conviction about the poem I send what I had written as the beginning of a preface: – the remarks are Wynns. I acceded easily to the common-sense which they contained & readily forbore telling the reader what he was likely enough to find out. But the truth it is. – I had chosen my subject ill, & nothing could ever overbalance that radical & constitutional defect.

Having confessed thus much I ought to add that the poem is better than you think it, & is certainly not of the patchwork-texture you describe. Compare it with the Odyssey – not the Iliad – King John or Coriolanus, not Macbeth or the Tempest. [4]  The story wants unity, & has perhaps too Greek – too Stoical – a want of passion, – but as far as I can judge <see> with the same eyes wherewith I read Homer & Spenser & Shakespere & Milton, it is still a good poem, & must live. – You will like it better if ever you read it again.

You speak of Gobwin as you should speak. [5]  Certainly I would not have spoken of him in the Malthusian article as I did speak, had I supposed he would have ever known me to be the author [6]  – but as certainly xxx I would xxx have written the same reviewal of his Chaucer. [7]  You seem to over-rate our former acquaintance – I never liked the man, & he never liked me. I did like his wife – I did like & do like what is good in his first book. [8]  but in proportion as I value what is true there, do I abominate the cursed mingle-mangle of metaphysics & concubinism & atheism with which he polluted it. Once I dined at his wifes by her invitation – except this a half a dozen morning calls outsums all my visits, & those I <had> discontinued, thinking him intolerably dull, & tho without any harm equally good-for-nothing. As for any violation of decorum, he is the aggressor, & he knows it, & assuredly if it could be proper for him to speak contemptuously of me to Coleridge, it cannot have been otherwise in me to write him down a fool. The plea in formâ pauperis is valid, [9]  were the effect possible. But all that criticism can do against a man so notorious is to beat him down from biography or history – to his proper work, that of manufacturing novels, – a manufactory in which such journeymen will never lack employment. Enough – You have seen all the ink he shall cost me, & may admire the self denial which I exercised in forbearing from answering his letter as I could have answered it. [10] 

The History of Portugal fits me better than that of my own country. [11]  England will not for ever want a worthy historian, – but it is not likely that Portugal would ever again find one so qualified, – for if a foreigner possess the knowledge of a native he is better qualified. – My brother Harry – if he ever does any thing – will write the history of the Crusades. he has it in his mind, & I have just at a country sale provided him with an Arabic grammar to [MS obscured] upon. this is a worthy subject. he does not want talents, & has only too much ambition. if it should settle in this channel, much might be expected from him. that & the history of the Caliphate are works worth living for. xxxxxx My work is cut out. – I shall write more poetry – because I also have certain wants to supply, & being obliged to do something for money will do that which I can do best. Therefore will I give over reviewing after this current year, & instead finish my series of romances, of which Thalaba is the first. Each will not cost much more labour than a years drudgery at dull publications, certainly not more than the xxx proportion of profits will answer. for the sale of 500 <within the year> is certain, & the after profits, tho if slow coming in, would always be something, whereas the labour of reviewing once paid is paid for ever.

I have just received from Lisbon a collection of the Barbarorum Leges Antiquae with notes glossaries &c. in five thin but full folios, edited between 1781 & 1793 at Venice by F. Paulus Canciani, a Monk, – & xxxxx one who does honour to Monachism. [12]  Had this arrived in time I would have sent it to Turner for his last volume [13]  for it contains the laws of all the Gothic branches. – His volume has not yet found its way here. I shall urge him to add to it a Welsh history. – if he would rewrite his first volumes, adding thereto all that his present increased knowledge would enable him, – no Gobwin nor any body else could ever profit by pillaging him, his reputation would stand too high.

Thank you for Aylesbury, Ilchester & Knaresborough. I should still like to have Nottingham, – for tho D Manuel cannot enter into any detail of either, the more matter of fact there is in his general picture, or rather in the particular part of it the better [14]  – & the Spensering should be taken from the life. Is the Middlesex 1st report any ways remarkable? [15]  – I will wait awhile for the Feyjoo [16]  &c – in case any thing should induce me to carry D Manuel myself to town, which indeed is not likely, but still not impossible. – You did not send me my beginning of a Catalogue – it would be well to have it to add-in what additional books are here. light labour now, & lightening what will be heavy hereafter. thank you for the journey from Salisbury [17]  – it enables me to finish the first journey – which I shall now do without farther delay & send off to you to interpolate. – It is not impossible that I may be urged to write upon the Slave Trade this summer. I made a promise to that effect some year & half ago – if it should be thought useful. if so I shall consult you about it. – Send back – or lay by for me – my unborn preface which is a proof with how foolish an unreserve a man will sometimes write after ten years experience.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS./ July Aug. 1805
MS: Huntington Library, RS 76. AL; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 339–340 [in part]; Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 387–390.
Dating note: dating from JR’s endorsement. BACK

[1] Southey was hoping to move with the financial assistance of his brother, Thomas, whose ship HMS Amelia, in which he was a lieutenant, had 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. BACK

[2] Southey is referring to the exordial lines of his poem Madoc (1805). See Robert Southey. Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), II, p. 8. BACK

[3] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[4] Plays by Shakespeare. BACK

[5] Southey’s habitual misspelling of Godwin’s name was meant to suggest his mouthiness. For the affair that occasioned Southey’s distaste – Godwin’s objection by letter to Southey’s tone in reviewing Godwin’s books – see Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1805 (Letter 1067). BACK

[6] Godwin’s argument, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), that human society might advance towards perfectibility was opposed by Thomas Malthus (1766–1834; DNB), in An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of W. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1803). Southey’s review of Malthus appeared in The Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 292–301. BACK

[7] Southey had reviewed Godwin’s Chaucer ... Including Memoirs of ... John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; with Sketches of the Manners, Opinions, Arts and Literature of England in the Fourteenth Century (1803) in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 462–473. BACK

[8] An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). BACK

[9] A Latin legal term meaning ‘in the form of a pauper or poor man’, used to refer to defendants who have no money to pay for a trial. BACK

[10] See note 5. BACK

[11] Southey’s projected ‘History of Portugal’ was never completed, but he used much of the material he researched for it in his History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[12] No. 483 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s books is Paulus Canciani (dates unknown), Barbarorum Leges Antiquæ, cum Notis et Glossariis, acccendunt Formulari Fasciculi et Selectæ Constitutiones (1781–1792). BACK

[13] Volume four of Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons was published in 1805. BACK

[14] Southey was collecting material on elections in these constituencies for inclusion in Letter 48 of Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella: Translated from the Spanish (1807). BACK

[15] Southey is referring to the recent election of a Member of Parliament for the county of Middlesex. In the general election of 1802 Sir Francis Burdett stood as a Whig candidate on the platform of penal reform. His return was declared void on 9 July 1804, and in the by-election of 23 July he was defeated by a small margin. On 5 March 1805, after challenging this outcome, Burdett was elected, only for the decision to be reversed again soon after. The financial cost to Burdett was huge and he declared that he would never stand for parliament again. The Middlesex election is discussed in Letters from England, Letter 48. BACK

[16] Southey’s fictional traveller refers to Benito-Gerónimo Feyjoo y Montenegro (1676–1764), Teatro Critico (1726–1739) in Letters 49 and 54 of Letters from England. BACK

[17] Rickman’s description of the journey from Salisbury to London is included in Letters 4 and 5 of Letters from England. BACK