2696. Robert Southey to Richard Heber, 9 January 1816

2696. Robert Southey to Richard Heber, 9 January 1816⁠* 

Keswick. 9 Jany. 1816

My dear Sir

You probably know by this time that the Morte Arthur has fallen into my hands. [1]  The business of a perfect Editor would be to go thro the whole Round Table Library, & point out the originals of this compilation chapter by chapter; – but this is more than can in any conscience be expected from an Editor in these days. When I was formerly meditating this task I read thro four of your romances, Giron, Meliadus, Tristram & Sir Lancelot. [2]  Contrary to my expectation I found the two former very far the best, & Tristram on the whole the worst. I believe great part of the M Arthur is taken from the Brut, [3]  – at least I have somewhere seen this asserted, – & the Brut was written by the author of Giron & Meliadus. – What assistance can you lend me in this business? The books which I know would be useful are the Brut, the San Graal. [4]  Leland book upon Arthur, [5] xx the ‘Ancient Order of Prince Arthur. [6]  & Heywoods Life of Merlin. [7]  I think Perceforest [8]  would be so, – & I should like to see Howards British Princes [9]  of which “incomparable poem” I believe Arthur was the hero, – & a sketch of Arthurs poetical history down to the time of Hole enters into my plan. [10] 

I regretted much that you were not in London during my late visit to the great city, on my return from the Netherlands. During a five weeks journey I saw many interesting places, & some beautiful country. My course was Ostend – Brussels –Waterloo – & the three fields of battle at La Belle Alliance, Les Quatres Bras & Ligny, –Namur, Huy, Liege, Spa, Aix-la-Chapelle, Maestricht, Tongres, Tirlemont, Louvaine, Brussels, Mechlin, Antwerp, Ghent. Courtray Ypres Dunkirk & Calais. I bought some books, & bargained for a set of the Acta Sanctorum, which I hope have <has> reached England. [11]  They gave me little hope of obtaining Waddings Franciscan Annals [12]  in that country, where the destruction of the convent libraries has been such as to remind me of the excesses at our own Reformation. At Ypres I picked up a compleat set of Vondels works: [13]  two of his dramas were probably among those works which suggested to Milton the subject of the Paradise Lost, – & I suspect the Samson Agonistes was suggested by the same author: – but I have as yet given only a cursory glance at the Dutch play, enough to excite my curiosity very strongly, whenever I can find leisure to gratify it. Vondel is not a difficult writer, but the Dutch vocabulary is tremendous, & their capricious orthography greatly increases the trouble of recurring to the Dictionary. Their plain historical prose I can manage with sufficient ease.

As I could not well avoid writing upon the last years great events, I have endeavoured to avoid all possible appearance of competition with Scott, [14]  so I take a wider range, & do not fight the battle. My title is ‘A Poets Pilgrimage to the Field of Belle Alliance’ [15]  – my metre the six lined stanza, consisting of a quatrain & a couplet; – this stanza induces a slight Spenserian [16]  tint of language, in keeping with the title. About 900 lines are written, & I am yet far from the conclusion of my task. You will conclude that it has not proved an irksome one, or that it would not have been thus prolonged.

Several of your books are on my shelves. One of them, an odd volume relating to the affair of the Bp of Paraguay & the Jesuits concerning which so many volumes are written, is just now coming into use. I will return them all when this is done with. [17]  My Brazilian history is about half way thro the press – meantime a Frenchman has done me the favour of stealing the first volume, & abusing me into the bargain. [18]  Woe be to him! As soon as the copy of his book which I bought at Brussels arrives, I mean to send just such a statement to the Courier as will get in be copied into journals & magazines, & find its way into France more surely than by any other conveyance.

Believe me my dear Sir

Very truly & respectfully yours

Robert Southey.


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ Richard Heber Esqre/ xxxxx xxxxx/ Wesminster/ <Post Office/ St. Asaphs> Earl Spencer/ Althorpe/ Northamptonshire
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [partial] 12 JA 12/ 1816
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. d. 215. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: R. H. Cholmondeley, The Heber Letters 1783–1832 (London, 1950), pp. 276–277 [in part]. BACK

[1] The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur (1817). BACK

[2] Round table romances from Heber’s collection: the heroes of Le Roman de Gyron le Courtois (n.d) and Le Roman de Meliadus de Leonnois (1532) both first appeared in the thirteenth century text, Palamedes, attributed to the (probably fictional) ‘Helie de Boron’; Histoire du Tres–Vaillant, Noble et Excellent Chevalier Tristan (n.d), a version of the thirteenth century Prose Tristan, was also attributed to this author; and Le Roman du vaillant Lancelot du Lac, Chevalier de la Table Ronde (1494), a version of the thirteenth century Prose Lancelot. See Robert Southey to Richard Heber, 13 March 1809, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Three, Letter 1599. BACK

[3] In the Prologue to Le Roman de Gyron le Courtois, the author who describes himself as ‘Helie de Boron’ claimed he had already written a Livre de Bret, or Life of Brut, which had been well-received. But the poems that were key sources for the legends of King Arthur were Wace (c. 1110–after 1174) Roman de Brut (c. 1155) and Layamon (late twelfth century/early thirteenth century), Brut (c. 1190). BACK

[4] L’hystoire du Sainct Greaal (1514). BACK

[5] John Leland (c. 1503–1552; DNB), Assertio inclytissimi Arturii Regis Britannia (1544). BACK

[6] Richard Robertson (dates unknown) The Ancient Order, Society and Unity Laudable of Prince Arthur and Knightly Armoury of the Round Table (1583). BACK

[7] Thomas Heywood (c. 1574–1641; DNB), The Life of Merlin surnamed Ambrosius (1641). BACK

[8] Perceforest (c. 1330–1344), a romance in French, written in the Low Countries, connected to the Arthurian cycle. BACK

[9] Edward Howard (1624–c. 1700; DNB), The British Princes (1669), an epic poem that was widely-ridiculed in a series of verses addressed ‘To the Honourable Edward Howard, Esq. Upon his Incomparable Poem of the British Princes’. BACK

[10] Richard Hole (1746–1803; DNB), Arthur: or, the Northern Enchantment. A Poetical Romance, in Seven Books (1789). BACK

[11] Southey hoped he had bought at the massive 53–volume compendium of hagiographies entitled Acta Sanctorum (1643–1794), no. 207 in the sale catalogue of his library; but instead had purchased the 6–volume abridgement (1783–1794), no. 152 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[12] Luke Wadding (1588–1657; DNB), Annales Minorum, seu Trium Ordinum A. S. Francisco Institutorum. Southey eventually acquired two editions, one of 1625–1654, and a second of 1731–1745, nos 2903–2904 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[13] Joost van den Vondel (1587–1689), Dutch poet. Southey possessed his various works in 11 volumes, no. 3091 in the sale catalogue of his library. It has been argued that his plays, Lucifer (1654) and Adam in Ballingschap (1664) were sources for John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Paradise Lost (1667). Southey also suggests that Vondel’s Samson of Heilige Wraeck (1660) was a source for Milton’s Samson Agonistes (1671). BACK

[14] Scott had written The Field of Waterloo; a Poem (1815). BACK

[15] Published as The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). BACK

[16] In the manner of Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599; DNB). BACK

[17] Southey dealt with the struggle between Bishop Bernardino de Cardenas Ponce (1579–1668), Bishop of Paraguay 1640–1663 and the Jesuits in Chapter 25 of his History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), II, pp. 381–448. The work Southey is discussing is unidentified. BACK

[18] Alphonse de Beauchamp, Histoire du Brésil, 3 vols (Paris, 1815), I, p. x; no. 138 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Southey had to be content with denouncing Beauchamp in his History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), II, pp. vi–viii. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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