792. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [5 June 1803]

792. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [5 June 1803] ⁠* 

I have just gone thro the Scottish Border Ballads. [1]  Walter Scott himself is a man of great talent & genius – but wherever he patches an old Poem it is always with new bricks. Of the modern Ballads his own fragment [2]  is the only good one & that is very good. I am sorry to see Leyden’s [3]  so good for little. Sir Agilthorn [4]  is flat, foolish, Matthewish, Gregoryish, Lewisish. I have been obliged to coin vituperative adjectives on purpose, the language not having terms enough of adequate abuse. I suppose the word Flodden-field entitled it to a place here. but the scene might as well have been laid in El-dorado or Tothill Fields, or the country of Prester John [5]  for any thing like costume which it possesses. It is odd enough that almost every passage which Scott has quoted from Froissart [6]  should be among the extracts which I had made.

In all these modern ballads there is a modernism of thoughts & language-turns, to me very perceptible & very unpleasant – the more so for its mixture with modern words – polished steel & rusty iron! this is the case in all Scotts Ballads. His Eve of S John [7]  is a better Ballad in story than any of mine but it has this fault. Elmsley once asked me to versify that or the Glenfinlas – to try the difference of style – but I declined it as waste labour & an invidious task. Mathew G Lewis Esq M.P. sins more grievously in this way. he is not enough versed in old English to avoid it – Scott & Leyden are, & ought to have written more purely. I think if you will look at Q Urraca [8]  you will perceive that without being a Canto from our old ballads it has quite the ballad character of language.

Scott it seems adopts the same system of metre with me, & varies his tune in the same stanza from iambic to anapæstic ad-libitum. [9]  In spite of all the trouble that has been taken to torture Chaucer into heroic metre I have no doubt whatever that he wrote upon this system, common to all the balladwriters. Coleridge agrees with me upon this. the proof is that read him thus & he becomes every where harmonious but expletive syllables en’s & y’s & e’s only make him halt upon ten xxxx lame toes. I am now daily drinking at that pure Well of English undefiled. to get historical manners – & to learn English & poetry.

This volume of the Border Songs is more amusing for its prefaces & notes than its poetry. the Ballads themselves were written in a very unfavourable age & country. the costume less picturesque than chivalry, the manners more barbarous. I shall be very glad to see the Sir Tristram which Scott is editing. [10]  the old Cornish Kt has been one of my favourite heroes for fifteen years. xxxx Those Romances that Ritson published [11]  are fine studies for a poet. this I am afraid will have more Scotch in it than will be pleasant. I never read Scotch Poetry without rejoicing that we have not Welch-English into the bargain & a written brogue.

Tell me by return of post where your Bucellas [12]  is to be directed – & I will write for it by this next packet. Rickman tells me there will be no army sent to Portugal – that it is understood the French may over-run it at pleasure, & that then we lay open Brasil & Spanish America. If indeed the Prince of Brasil [13]  could be persuaded to go over there & fix the seat of his government in a colony fifty times as large & five hundred fold more valuable than the mother country, England would have a trade opened to it far more than equivalent to the loss of the Portugueze & Spanish ports. but if he remains under the protection of France & is compelled to take a part against England, any expedition to Brasil must be for mere plunder. conquest is quite impossible.

Most likely I shall xxx go up to town in about a week or ten days.

God bless you.

R S.



* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr. M.P./ Lincolns Inn/ London
Postmarks: [partial] FREE/ JUN 0/ 1803; BRISTOL/ JUN 09 1803
Endorsements: June 9/ 1803; Mr Wynn
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849-1850), II, pp. 211-213 [in part; dated 9 June 1803].
Dating note: Letter is endorsed 9 June 1803, and was most probably written the Sunday before, ie. 5 June. BACK

[1] Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (1802). Judging from his comments, Southey seems to have been looking at the second edition, which appeared in 1803. BACK

[2] Walter Scott, ‘The Gray Brother, a Fragment’, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vols (London, 1803), III, pp. 402-414. BACK

[3] John Leyden (1775-1811; DNB), linguist and poet. He contributed three imitations of ancient ballads to Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vols (London, 1803): in II, ‘Lord Soulis’, pp. 353-388; ‘The Cout of Keeldar’, pp. 389-408; and in III, ‘The Mermaid’, pp. 297-320. BACK

[4] Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vols (London, 1803), III, pp. 340-351. This poem was by Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775-1818; DNB). The Battle of Flodden (1513), in which an English army defeated the Scots, is mentioned on pp. 345-346. BACK

[5] El-dorado was a mythical kingdom, rich in gold, in South America; Tothill Fields was an area of Westminster, London, with a famous beargarden; Prester John ruled over a legendary Kingdom in Africa. BACK

[6] Jean Froissart (c. 1337-c. 1405), Chronicles (1369-1400). John Bourchier, 2nd Lord Berners (c. 1467-1533; DNB), produced a translation in 1523-1525, and extensive quotations from a later edition of this appeared in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (London, 1803), II, pp. 382-388 and III, pp. 26, 29-40. Southey noted some overlap between the extracts and the notes to Joan of Arc (1798), though he did not use the Berners translation. BACK

[7] Scott’s ‘The Eve of St John’ and ‘Glenfinlas’ appeared in Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border (London, 1803), II, pp. 335-352 and pp. 409-426. Both had been published earlier in Matthew Lewis’s Tales of Wonder (1801). BACK

[8] ‘Queen Urraca, And The Five Martyrs Of Morocco’, Morning Post, 1 September 1803. BACK

[9] The Latin translates as ‘at will’. BACK

[10] Walter Scott, Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border, 3 vols (London, 1803), II, p. 308, announced he would edit the manuscript in the Advocates Library, Edinburgh, of the medieval romance, ‘Sir Tristrem’. It appeared as Sir Tristrem; a Metrical Romance of the Thirteenth Century; by Thomas of Ercildoune, Called The Rhymer (1804). BACK

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

[12] A Portuguese wine. BACK

[13] John VI (1767-1826, King of Portugal 1816-1826). He had been heir apparent, and thus Prince of Brazil, since 1788 and Prince Regent since 1799. He was persuaded to flee to Brazil when France invaded Portugal in 1807 and did not return until 1821. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 6 times)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)
Elmsley, Peter (1774–1825) (mentioned 1 time)