1461. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 28 May 1808

1461. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 28 May 1808 ⁠* 

The long expected packet is at length arrived, safely but far as I expected but far more slowly. The poem I will transmit to the Courier, [1]  – five thousand copies of that newspaper are printed, & it may be fairly stated that every paper is seen by four persons, – twenty thousand persons therefore will see that Madoc has received the praise of one whose praise is of sterling as well as current value. The Gentlemans Magazine will be the best place for the eulogium, – nor indeed do I know any pl other place for it. It is not compatible with the plan of a R any Review – except the Anti Jacobine, & the worthy wights who conduct that are at issue with me upon a very <the> simple question, ... whether they or I ought to be hanged. – I will direct it to Mr Nichol: [2]  & inclose it in a parcel which will be sent off to Longman on Monday next. [3] 

You ask me for my opinion of Marmion, [4]  – you have yourself pointed out its worst defect, – a want of taste, & of propriety, which almost <in that introduction of the stocking> amounts to a want of feeling. This pervades the whole poem, – he buries his story in his circumstances, just as ladies of old used to be lost under the load of their full dress. Scott is too passionately the Antiquarian, – a painter who has to paint Knights in armour has no need of any anatomical knowledge, – & if he keeps their bevers closed it is of no consequence whether he can even paint a human face, Scott has done wilfully what such a painter might do to hide his ignorance, – he has cased all every thing in costume, & made that the essence of his writings which ought only to be their ornament. – He never narrates perspicuouly, & it is necessary to read slowly, or to read twice before the thread of his story can be comprehended. His language has the unpardonable fault of belonging to no age or country – sometimes rust, sometimes tinsel; – & he spells & accents the same word either in the new fashion or <the> old, & writes Scotch or English, just as happens to be convenient. With all this Scott is a poet of great powers & great originality; when I was in town it fell to my lot more frequently to defend Marmion than to speak of its faults, & I did it more willingly. The story of this poem would be excellent if he had only developed it well, & not given himself time to mature it, & not hurried it up to be in time for the season, – as green geese are fattened for the London market: – yet I would rather have two such poems as Marmion, than one on which he had should bestow twice the time, because the sum total of beauty & of delight would be greater, – & the defects are not worth mentioning in the general estimate.

Gebir [5]  is the only contemporary poem to which I am, as a poet, in the slightest degree indebted, – & it was certainly from Gebir that I learnt ever to have my eye awake, – to bring images to sight, & to convey a picture in a word. I know no poem from which I have ever derived so much improvement. It is so obscure that certainly I suspected the author not to be hardly sane, but after repeated study (for it was almost the only English book which I took abroad with me) I understood the whole, with a very very few exceptions, – that ‘bays body’ is some inexplicable blunder of the press, – the book abounds with them. The Giant who writhes between the Continent & Isle – is William 3. [6]  Landors politics are sufficiently marked, – & still more so in his Chrysaor [7]  than in Gebir. – He & I met like old friends, & if your occasional neighbour who has the impudence to call himself a Critic, & th to profane the word British by prefixing it <to that name>, – if that gentleman had overheard our conversation, – the very hairs in his wig would have stood erect.

I am just now arranging the notes to the Chronicle of the Cid, [8]  – & thus furnishing materials for the poets who will come after me. I have not however yet ceased to be a poet myself. Landor has given my blood a spur which makes it still play the faster. I rise earlier than was my habit, to create time which would not else be afforded, & am advancing with Kehama. [9]  – My old design was to build a metrical romance upon every poetical faith that has ever been established, – & have gone on after the Mohommedan in Thalaba, & the Hindoo in this present poem, with the Persian, the Runic, the Keltic, the Greek, the Jewish, the Roman Catholick & the Japanese. [10] 

Who is the Editor of the Poetical Register? [11]  I took up a volume by chance in town & saw sundry of my own stray poems there, & one of them by some blunder called a translation, – & all of them in the incorrect state in which they had originally been sent to the newspapers. – I had half a mind to write a note to the Editor, ask him for the volumes for the sake of recovering some of my own lost sheep, & tell him I would pay him a peppercorn rent for them, by which means he would get what little of mine was to be got less inaccurately than heretofore. This Register of his was, unintentionally, the death of my Annual Anthology. [12]  On my return from Portugal I was preparing a third volume, – the communications for which are still among my papers – but just as it was going to press I saw this new work upon a like plan advertised & therefore desisted.

The book which Mr White [13]  desired me to return, will set out for London in my Mondays parcel. – accompanied with two others which are worthless – but scarce – I beg my remembrances to him & Miss Fern. –  [14] 

God bless you

R Southey –

I have this moment heard that Joanna Baillie [15]  is in Keswick, & shall set out in quest of her.

Saturday. May 28. 1808.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Lichfield
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Watermark: shield [date obscured by MS binding]/ T BOTFIELD
Endorsement: Illegible.
MS: National Library of Scotland, MS 2521. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 475–477. BACK

[1] In Letter 1496, to his brother Tom, Southey states that the verses have not appeared in The Courier; however, ‘Verses Written in the Blank Leaves of Southey’s Madoc’ appeared in The Poetical Register, and Repository of Fugitive Poetry for 1808–9, 7 (1812), p. 235. BACK

[2] John Nichols (1745–1826; DNB), printer and editor of the Gentleman’s Magazine. BACK

[3] ‘A Letter written by Anna Seward to one of her Literary friends, Feb. 15, 1806, on the subject of Mr. Southey’s “Madoc” and before she had any acquaintance, personal or by pen, with that gentleman’ appeared in The Gentleman’s Magazine, 78.2 (1808), 577–581. BACK

[4] Scott’s new poem (1808). BACK

[5] Landor’s oriental poem of 1798. BACK

[6] William III & II (1650–1702; DNB), Prince of Orange and ruler in the Netherlands before becoming King of England. Landor allegorised him as the ‘giant’ who ‘writhes’ twixt the continent and isle’ in Gebir, Book III, line 151. BACK

[7] ‘Crysaor’ was published in Poetry by the Author of Gebir (1802). BACK

[8] Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid, from the Spanish (1808), which comprised translations from the Crónica particular del Cid (1593), with additions from the Crónica de España of Alphonso the Wise (1541) and Romancero e Historia del Cid (1632). BACK

[9] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[10] This ‘old design’ was never revived. BACK

[11] Richard Alfred Davenport (c. 1779–1852). BACK

[12] Two volumes of the Annual Anthology were published, in 1799 and 1800. BACK

[13] Rev. Henry White (dates unknown), sacristan of Lichfield cathedral, Seward’s cousin and supporter. BACK

[14] Elizabeth Fern, Seward’s companion and housekeeper. BACK

[15] (1762–1851; DNB), the Scottish dramatist, friend of the Aikins and of Scott. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)