962. Robert Southey to William Taylor, [between 6 July–end of July 1804]

962. Robert Southey to William Taylor, [between 6 July–end of July 1804] ⁠* 

I cannot assent to your epic creed, instead of oxifying or assifying myself & crying wonderful at every action of my ‘perfect Prince’, [1]  I take my stand beside him, & point out all his actions to the wonder & comprehension of the beholders, as Dr Smith exhibits the a plant to his auditors, [2]  not the less admiring the subject because he understands it, but rather admiring & praising it with a deeper feeling. – The Critical [3]  never falls in my way. It would have been but civil in Hamilton [4]  to have sent it me, as an old contributor & one who offered at all times to assist him when he needed a Spanish scholar. – If Amadis be not reviewed there already [5]  I would ask you to take care of it, because the book having been helped on by Walter Scott in the Edinburgh & Annual [6]  is selling well, & every breath of wind would be useful. & also because Scott insists that the story is originally French, which I do not think you will do after examining the evidence addressed in the preface.

How can you have read Sharons Turners Vindication without learning that Pinkerton is the man who you have defended, [7]  or his history without seeing that the Anglo Saxon literature manners &c are to form the subject of an xxxx additional volume? [8] 

Henry has made his appearance. his manners are pleasant, & his mind as well stored as it can be at his age. he seems to have chosen his society well in Scotland, & having been accustomed to better, is able to appreciate it fairly. I wish you could mountaineer it with us for a few weeks, & would press the point if Coleridge was also here, but even without him we could make your time pass pleasantly, & here is Wordsworth to be seen, one of the wildest of all wild beasts, who is very desirous of seeing you.

Sir Ywaine will easily xxxx be made to fit a modern dress. [9]  I wish you could see certain versions of Chaucer which Wordsworth has executed, solely with a view of making them easily intelligible, & using no words that appear more modern than Chaucers own age. [10]  He has succeeded admirably. If you are disposed to work upon old materials that work of Ritsons [11]  will supply you with several subjects. so perhaps would Syr Tristram [12]  – if the exceeding brevity of its style be not an objection & its uncouth language too great a difficulty. – If I ever write an English Epic it will probably be some Round Table story: Shape me any thing like a groundwork out of K Arthur – & eris mihi magnus Apollo. [13]  – But I do not like you to be employed upon translations. Shame were it not shame if the K of Spain should mint old plate when he has the mines of Potosi [14]  at command!

Your remarks upon the capture of Surinam [15]  ought to be transplanted, if possible, into the Annual, [16]  which bids fair to become my political bible. – Surely Dryden [17]  is not in the first class – Shakespeare – Milton – Spenser – these form the poetical trinity of England, & these are at an unapproachable distance from all their successors. with reference to these poets I placed Dryden at the head of the second rates. I admire but do not love him. he can mend a versifier but could never form a poet. his moral imbecility kept him down. with powers for painting he chose to be a limner by trade. instead of amending ages to come he was the pimp & pander of his own. – farewell I will employ Harry to transcribe a long ballad for the Iris. [18] 



* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr / Surry Street/ Norwich/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4875. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: John Warden Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 515–518.
Dating note: The letter is dated by Robberds. The letter from Taylor to which Southey is replying is dated 6 July 1804, so Southey’s letter must have been written after that date. Southey states here that Henry Southey ‘has made his appearance’ and in his letter dated 30 July 1804 to Thomas Southey, reports that ‘Harry is here & has been here about three weeks’. BACK

[1] The hero of Southey’s poem Madoc, which Southey had written in 1797–1799 and since then had been intermittently revising. It was completed in October 1804 and published in 1805. BACK

[2] Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828; DNB): botanist, botanical author, founder of the Linnean Society, a man of Norwich, like Taylor. BACK

[3] The Critical Review, for which Taylor reviewed. BACK

[4] Samuel Hamilton (dates unknown), owner of the Critical Review 1799–1804. BACK

[5] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803) had been reviewed in the Critical Review, 3rd series, 1 (January 1804), 45–52. The reviewer, who was almost certainly Taylor, supports Southey’s thesis that the original author was Vasco de Lobeira (d. 1403) a troubador knighted after the Battle of Aljubarrota (1385). BACK

[6] Scott reviewed Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803) in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 600–603, and in the Edinburgh Review, 5 (October 1803), 109–136. BACK

[7] In the 1802 volume of his History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799–1805), Sharon Turner treated recently-published Welsh poems as historical documents detailing real events of the sixth century. He was attacked by John Pinkerton (1758–1826; DNB), a Scottish antiquarian and cartographer whose many publications earned him a reputation for irreligious views, arrogant irritability and personal immorality. Pinkerton believed the Celts were incapable of rising to high levels of civilisation and sought to prove that Scottish place names were not of Celtic origin: he wished to trace the Scottish people to the ancient Goths and to purge Scottish culture of Celticism. Turner replied to Pinkerton’s critique in 1803, in his Vindication of the Genuineness of the Ancient British Poems of Aneurin, Taliessin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrddin. Taylor had reviewed Turner’s Vindication in the Critical Review, 3rd series, 2 (May 1804), 10–17. BACK

[8] The History of the Manners, Landed Property, Government, Laws, Poetry, Literature, Religion and Language, of the Anglo-Saxons (1805). BACK

[9] The twelfth-century Chrétien de Troyes wrote the romance Yvain, the Knight of the Lion, between 1177–1181. A Welsh romance, Owain, or the Lady of the Fountain, possibly derived from Chrétien’s tale, or from the same Celtic source material, appears in the fourteenth-century collection, the Mabinogion. BACK

[10] From late 1801, Wordsworth was engaged upon modernising several of Chaucer’s works: ‘The Prioress’s Tale’, ‘The Manciple’s Tale’, ‘The Cuckoo and the Nightingale’, Troilus and Cresida, Book V, lines 519–686. These versions were not published until 1820, in the case of ‘The Prioress’s Tale’, and 1841 for the others. BACK

[11] Joseph Ritson (1752–1803; DNB), Ancient Engleish Metrical Romanceës (1802). BACK

[12] The twelfth-century Norman poet Béroul’s Le Roman de Tristan (c. 1150–1170) is the earliest extant full text of the romance, but Southey knew the version ascribed (probably erroneously) to Thomas Learmonth (Learmount, Learmont, or Learmounth, or Thomas the Rhymer or True Thomas (c. 1220–1298) from Earlston, Scotland (then called ‘Erceldoune’). This version, in Old French, existing in fragments only, was composed c. 1150–1160 by Thomas of Britain. Southey’s interest in the tale was stimulated by Walter Scott’s edition: Sir Tristram: A Metrical Romance by Thomas of Ercildoune (1804). BACK

[13] The Latin translates as ‘you shall be my great Apollo’: Virgil (70–19 BC), Eclogues, Book 3, 104. Southey did not write an ‘English Epic’ using Arthurian themes. BACK

[14] Potosí, the richest silver mine in Spanish South America; since independence a city in Bolivia. BACK

[15] The invasion of Surinam, the Dutch colony lying between French Guyana and Guyana, took place in May 1804 when a British expedition led by Commodore (later Vice-Admiral) Sir Samuel Hood, 1st Baronet (1762–1814; DNB) attacked and took possession of the colony. Surinam was returned to the Dutch later that year. BACK

[16] The Annual Review. BACK

[17] John Dryden (1631–1700; DNB): poet, dramatist and literary critic. BACK

[18] Southey’s ‘Queen Urraca and the Five Martyrs of Morocco’ was published in the newspaper that William Taylor edited, The Iris, on 3 November 1804. See Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), V, pp. 406–413. For Southey’s frustration about Harry’s inaccurate transcription, see Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 21 November 1804, Letter 991. BACK

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