3154. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 17 June 1818

3154. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 17 June 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 17 June. 1818

I have just received Murrays reply, which is very much what might be expected. [1]  It is in these words “I will have great pleasure in reading the Ladys MSS poem though unless it be very striking indeed, it will not have the smallest chance of succeeding. I receive at least 500 poems every year, out of which I cannot venture to print six, & of those not one half defray the expences of publication.”

Times are very much changed in this country with regard to literature, – or perhaps I should rather say fashions are changed. A book seller would formerly take the opinion of some man of letters, & be guided by his private & unbiased judgement, of the merit of the work. The Trade are grown wiser now they have discovered that the success of poetry does not depend upon its merit, but upon the humour of the season; & they have discovered also, what is not less true that being upon the spot, & being dealers in the commodity, they themselves are the best judges of what will take.

If it were possible I would read this poem with you & explain as we went thro it why {wherein} any expression is faulty, & why any part or passage requires alteration. Generally speaking women write letters better than men, & they write novels better; – I do not mean as to the construction of the story, or the conception of the characters, – but their language is easier & happier, – they express their feelings more readily & therefore more naturally, – & they write the real language of life, when men would be thinking of fine composition, – which has much the same effect upon a mans style, as it would have upon his manners if he were always to be thinking of his clothes. But verse requires a precision of language both of thought & language (very rarely indeed attained, by scarcely by two writers in a generation,) to which women are less accustomed & to which indeed their education has not trained them.

You have the eye, the ear & the heart of a poetess. What is wanting in you is that which I was twenty years in learning, & had hardly acquired when evening prospects & autumnal feelings unfitted me for what requires ardour & an expenditure of spirits xx which I can no longer support with impunity. C[MS obscured] criticism might most materially have abridged my course, – but it was not my fortune to meet with it. – Your poem deserves to be carefully corrected. The first xx point to observe is to strike out whatever is superfluous, whatever adds no strength of beauty to the sentence, or repeats what is clearly implied before. For instance – ‘The stone was full, – no vacant space was there.” [2]  – This line exemplifies the fault. The whole of the catastrophe is very finely conceived, – I do not remember a situation more truly or deeply tragical. Here therefore especially any thing unnecessary or feeble should be avoided: “at lengthconviction came –” is an expression better out of the way.

Another fault to be looked for with a suspicious eye is that of using words, which convey a different meaning from that into which they are pressed for the convenience of the verse. The word have is thus used at the opening of the poem, & the couplet in which it occurs had better be expunged. The only error of diction which I observe is in the use of the word laid instead of lay; the mistake is not infrequently made laid is the perfect tense of to lay, not of to lie – (lie – lay – lay – laid)

Do not be discouraged at what I say, I am sure you would not if I could say instead of writing it. I think I could persuade you to go thro the poem, & resolutely weed out whatever displeased you. I myself rewrote two of my long poems, & a very considerable part of two others. [3]  The best passages of a poem are those which have been felicitously produced in the first glow of composition; but I have found in my own experience that those which have {been} inserted in place of something faulty, have been next to them in merit.

It was at Burton, near Christ Church, that I lodged first for one summer, & afterwards took a cottage, which however, owing to ill health I did not occupy long. [4]  – Once more – do not be discouraged. Tell me that you will correct your poem valiantly, – & if you will make up your mind by this resolution, I will go thro it severely, book by book

farewell & believe me

Yrs faithfully

Robert Southey.


* Address: [deletion and readdress in another hand] To/ Miss Bowles/ Buckland/ near Lymington/ Hampshire/ Lady Burrards/ Ryde I. W
Stamped: LYMINGTON/ 98; KESWICK/ 298
MS: British Library, Add MS 47889. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), pp. 9–10 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey had sent Murray the manuscript poem ‘Ellen Fitzarthur’ that Bowles had sent to him, seeking advice on bringing it to publication. Murray did not publish it; Longman did, in 1820. BACK

[2] This line was changed to ‘Bursts from her heart – another name is there’ in Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 115. BACK

[3] Southey extensively revised Joan of Arc (1796) in the second edition of 1798; Madoc (1805) was very different from the first version written in 1797–1799. The Curse of Kehama (1810) and Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814) both had a long gestation that involved much rewriting. BACK

[4] Southey had lived at Burton in Hampshire June–September 1797 and again October–December 1799, when his health collapsed and he returned to Bristol. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Burton (mentioned 1 time)