1394. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 10 December 1807

1394. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 10 December 1807 ⁠* 

Dec. 10. 1807.

My friend Turner (the Anglo Saxon historian, one of the best men whom I have ever known) wrote to me a few days ago, saying, he had great pleasure in telling me that the Critical Review had gone out of its way to do me justice [1]  – &c. The booksellers too have advertised Madoc, – doubtless in consequence of this article. So it is – the Eagle enjoys sunshine as much as the poor butterfly who cannot live without it. The compliment which Fellowes [2]  has paid you in inserting this retraction is not less than the honour you have done me, for (I know not why) that Review has shown an especial ill-will to me ever since Hunt [3]  became the proprietor. I wrote in it in Hamiltons [4]  time, & when he failed the work was in my debt; – the payment I had was to be called a poetical coxcomb by Mr Hunt himself in one of the first numbers which he published, [5]  & from that time nothing has been too bad for me. It is not long since they said that Holes Arthur failed of success because the Joans of Arc, Alfreds, Coeur de Lions &c had sickened the public of the very name of epic. [6]  Now Holes Arthur was published when I was a boy at school, & this lie was told for the sake of tacking the <a> piece of malice to its tail.

You speak of Wordsworths poems [7]  as I should expect, fairly appreciating their defects & excellencies. William Wordsworth is a most extraordinary man, – one whose powers as a poet it is not possible to over-rate, & who will stand in the first rank of poets. It is the vice of his intellect to be always upon the stretch & strain – to look at pileworts & daffydowndillies thro the same telescope which he applies to the Moon & Stars, & to find subjects for philosophizing & fine-feeling just as D Quixote did for chivalry, in every peasant & vagabond whom he meets. Had I been his adviser great part of his last volumes should have been suppressed, – the storm of ridicule which they would draw down might have been foreseen, & he <is> foolishly & even diseasedly sensible of to the censure which he despises; (– like one who is flea-bitten into a fever. But what must that blindness of heart be which is dead to the noble poetry contained in those volumes! Surely nothing was ever more calculated to deaden & dwarf the mind than that fashion of breeding up xxxxxx xxxxx <all persons> to be a critics! – Did you ever see Dr Aikins Letters to a young Lady upon a course of poetry, [8]  – as if it were a course of physic. They were written I believe to his daughter Miss Lucy, [9]  xxx xxxx xxxxxx xxxxx – & in these letters the Doctor says to his daughter ‘make yourself mistress of the Paradise Lost! – This book fell into Erskines [10]  hands, – & when he came to this passage he repeated the words – ‘make yourself mistress of the Paradise Lost’ – & with a wholesome malediction upon the xxxx xxxx xxxx the author, which flows more pardonably from the tongue than from the pen, – he whisked the unhappy volume behind the fire. – This Miss Lucy now criticises poetry in the Annual Review, [11]  aping the malice of the Edinburgh, & xxxxxx rivalling it in nothing but its pertness. I bear a part in that review & am heartily ashamed of the company wherein I am found.

– God help me – when I was in my youth instead of fancying that I could make myself master of Spenser [12]  & Tasso [13]  & Homer, I looked upon them as my masters: – & when there was any thing <part> which gave me less pleasure than the rest, I past on to what accorded better with my fancy, – never pausing to seek out why there was this difference in the effect produced, & never daring to suspect that the author could be in fault. And when I grew up & found it necessary to learn discover why others had failed in that pursuit on which I was determined: it was not in these Masters that I looked for faults. I borrowed no insects eye to magnify their blemishes, but went at once to those writers where they were to be seen like vermin in a solar microscope – to the Italian Trissino, [14]  & to the French epic & dramatic writers. They taught me what to avoid.

Horace Walpoles letters [15]  I have never seen. Cowpers are very delightful – but they leave a melancholy hold upon impression, because the palsy of his mind is so often evident. [16]  Religion which brings to me gales from heaven had brought to him blasts from hell – I did not remember Gray [17]  when I gave the palm to Lady Wortley, [18]  – & still – poisoned as she was by high life, & perhaps with that warp in her mind which she be bequeathed to her descendants, – still that mind appears to me to have been naturally a stronger one than any of these whom I have named, possessed. – Will [MS torn] agree with me in holding Mrs Hutchinson [19]  to be the best of all female writers? – I can scarcely think of that woman & her noble husband without tears of xxxxx love & admiration.

My Uncle whom I expected from Lisbon has at length arrived. He makes no tarriance in London now, & it will suit him better to meet me there about the beginning of February, – as it will t me to remain at home till then. Before that time I expect a great family event to take place, the expectation of which would lay a heavy weight upon me in absence. I have two children, & look then for a third. [20] 

Of the Sewards who lived at Sapey in Worcestershire – there were four brothers & three sisters. Edmund the youngest brother died the first, – a fever carried him off. – he was almost the strongest man I ever saw, & certainly the most temperate. I used to call him Edmund Ironside. [21]  John the Physician (whom I suppose to be the one you saw) settled at Worcester, & died five <about two> years after his brother of an enlargement of the heart, – a disease which provd fatal to the father, & which one of the sisters also has inherited. John Seward was a man of distinguished ability, – it is believed that he materially injured his constitution by severe application at Cambridge. There remains of him one of the best portraits I have ever seen. drawn by Edridge, & in the possession of Duppa (the biographer of M. Angelo) his kinsman & my friend. William, the elder brother was an Attorney at Ledbury. After the death of John & Edmund I happened to stop a night at the Hundred House, – near Abberley. Mr Severn [22]  the Rector of that sweet place married one of the sisters, & I had been their guest with Edmund. I wished to go to the house, – but with that sort of forefeeling which nothing but experience of the electric shocks of life can give one. – first made enquiry of the Landlord concerning the family. God knows what the shock was which I receivd on hearing that William Seward had that very week shot himself. – He was unhappily married, & the loss of two brothers whom he dearly loved was supposed to have affected his intellects. – The surviving brother is a mere farmer, & I think, has taken a stupid methodistical turn. – The two unmarried sisters live at St Johns – Worcester where I saw them about seven years ago, – the elder lying on a sopha, having it was supposed an enlarged heart, – the younger bearing all the marks of premature old age, induced by watchfulness beside a sick bed, – & by sorrow. – In my next [23]  I will say more of Edmund, – of whom I can never say too much.

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Litchfield
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: Dec.r 10th.
MS: McLennan Library, McGill University. ALS; 4p. (c).
Previously published: Catalogue of the Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents Formed Between 1865 and 1882 by Alfred Morrison, 6 vols (London, 1883–1892), VI, pp. 162–163. BACK

[1] The Critical Review, 12 (November 1807) recanted its former criticisms of Madoc and praised Southey’s originality on pp. 238–239 of its review of James Hogg, The Mountain Bard (pp. 237–244). Palmerin of England; by Francisco de Moraes. Corrected by Robert Southey from the Original Portugueze (1807), Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807) and Amadis of Gaul (1803) were praised the following month: 12 (December 1807), 431–437, 539–540. BACK

[2] Robert Fellowes (1771–1847), editor of the Critical from 1807–1814. BACK

[3] John Higgs Hunt (1780–1859; DNB) was joint-editor of the Critical Review from 1805–1807, with Joseph Mawman (1763–1827). BACK

[4] Samuel Hamilton (dates unknown), owner of the Critical Review 1799–1804. His departure from the Critical left Southey unpaid for reviews he had written. BACK

[5] In February 1805 Southey had been called ‘an egregious poetical coxcomb’ in a review of his Metrical Tales for the Critical Review, 3rd series, 4 (1805), 118–121 (excerpted in Robert Southey: the Critical Heritage, ed. Lionel Madden (London and Boston, 1972), p. 113). BACK

[6] On p. 305 of an article on Rev. Richard Hole (1746–1803), the Critical Review, 10 (March 1807), 302–311, compared Hole’s Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment (1789) favourably to Southey’s Joan of Arc (1796), to Alfred (1800) by Joseph Cottle, and to Sir James Bland Burges (1752–1824; DNB), Richard I. A Poem in Eighteen Books (1801). BACK

[7] Poems in Two Volumes (1807). BACK

[8] John Aikin, Letters to a Young Lady on a Course of English Poetry (1804; 2nd edn 1807). BACK

[9] Lucy Aikin (1781–1864; DNB). BACK

[10] Thomas Erskine, 1st Baron Erskine (1750–1823; DNB), radical Whig lawyer and, from 1806-spring 1807, Lord Chancellor. BACK

[11] The Annual was edited by Lucy Aikin’s brother Arthur Aikin. BACK

[12] Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; DNB), author of The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). BACK

[13] Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), author of La Gerusalemme Liberate (1581). BACK

[14] Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550), a poet, diplomat, and grammarian. BACK

[15] The letters of Horace Walpole (1717–1797; DNB) were published in The Works of Horatio Walpole (1798). BACK

[16] Letters by William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB) were published in William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB), The Life and Posthumous Writings [chiefly Letters] of W. Cowper (1803–1804). BACK

[17] Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB), the poet and tour writer, whose letters were published in William Mason (1725–1797; DNB), The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of his Life and Writings (1775). BACK

[18] In November 1804, Southey read James Dallaway (1763–1834; DNB), ed., The Works of the Right Hon. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu ... Published, by Permission, from her Genuine Papers (1803). BACK

[19] In the Annual Review for 1806, 5 (1807), 361–378 appeared Southey’s notice of Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681; DNB), Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1806), a posthumously published memoir by the widow of Colonel John Hutchinson (1615–1664; DNB), a Puritan commander in the English civil war and a signatory of the death warrant of King Charles I. BACK

[20] Emma, Southey’s third daughter, was born on 9 February 1808. BACK

[21] Edmund Ironside (c. 988/993–1016; DNB), king of England from 23 April to 30 November 1016. Called ‘Ironside’ because of his strength and valour in resisting Danish invasions. BACK

[22] The Reverend Thomas Severn (dates unknown). BACK

[23] This has not been traced. BACK

People mentioned

Wordsworth, William (1770–1850) (mentioned 2 times)
Southey, Emma (1808–1809) (mentioned 1 time)
Seward family (mentioned 1 time)
Aikin, John (1747–1822) (mentioned 1 time)
Aikin, Arthur (1773–1854) (mentioned 1 time)
Edridge, Henry (1768–1821) (mentioned 1 time)
Turner, Sharon (1768–1847) (mentioned 1 time)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 1 time)
Duppa, Richard (c. 1768–1831) (mentioned 1 time)