3184. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 25 August 1818

3184. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 25 August 1818⁠* 

‘For ever rankled in her heart The poisoned shafts undying smart’ [1]  – It is the shaft that rankles, not the smart, – which is the object of the rankling. The simplest & surest criticism is to bring every expression thus to the test of reason, – ‘Many a filial prayer she traced.’ – This word ought not to be used in this sense: xx & there is an ambiguity in these six lines: the impression which they convey is literally that xx a prayer had been rejected, – xx & in the succeeding couplet it rather surprized me to find the meaning to be that letters had been supprest. These latter circumstances indeed cannot be very easily related in verse – ‘Task’ & ‘past’ are not allowable as rhymes. A monument of snow would be modelled or moulded, not sculptured. ‘That the warm blood forbid to start’, – ‘forbidden’ is the proper word. – ‘By sickness & exaction drained’; – better not interrupt the sense of natural distress by this word which for a moment diverts attention to common roguery in the hardheartedness of vulgar life. ‘Unbroke by sight or sound’; ‘unbroken

The feeling which keeps Ellen from entering the Church is strikingly conceived, but it is too violent a figure to xxxx xxxx represent a gate speaking. – You describe the warm red beams of evening upon the painted windows of the church before evening service which nowhere I believe begins at a later hour than three. [2] 

The picture of the Prodigal Son [3]  is so well introduced that & so naturally, that any embarrassed or forced expression becomes particularly unpleasant, & what would be past over without notice in a less interesting passage, would be painfully felt there. The awkwardness is in these words, – “& bade to deck – his form.”

The long pilgrimage lay before her. – Unbroke(n) by hamlet &c.

The widow speaks of a bloom glowing on Ellens cheek, & compares it to the glow of health & youth. This is an oversight.

These remarks are not worth much in themselves; but it is of some consequence to remove any grammatical inaccuracies however slight, & it is of far more to impress upon a writer the necessity of adhering as strictly to sound sense in verse as in prose. For however brilliant a poem may be in parts, & however popular it may be because of that brilliance, if the poet either from a false system or from the want of system, writes nonsense, his works will inevitably be forgotten, or only remembered to his dispraise.

The judgement therefore must always be exercised in writing, – & it is the last thing which a poet learns to exercise. The world may put up for awhile with something that looks like sense if it be flashy & striking, – & thus it is that every age has had its favourites, whose reputation passes away like that of xxx an actor or a beauty in high life when anyone with equal pretensions comes forward.

When you have revised the poem send it to Murray, & if you do not like that he should know your name & address, say in a note that you send for his inspection the poem concerning which I had written to him, & desire him to make known his determination concerning it to me. And then if he chuses to print it, I will refer him to you. Whether he will or no, or what the reception of the poem may be, if he should, I cannot pretend to augur. The last thirty years have produced a great change in these things. Even when I began to write there was a fair field, & whoever appeared in it was sure to obtain notice. Now it is so crowded, that poems are entirely neglected which would then have been regarded with wonder & applause.

Tell me what else you have written (for you must have written other things) – & what you think of writing, if you have any thing planned. A happy subject may attract attention, – & a word of advice respecting the plan may be worth fifty xxxxxxxxxx after it is executed. – I wish you may be able also to tell me that your health is improved & that with it your heart is recovering strength & genial feelings.

Believe me sincerely yrs

R Southey.

25. Aug. 1818. Keswick


* Address: To/ Miss Bowles/ Buckland/ near Lymington/ Hampshire
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: To Miss Caroline Bowles/ Keswick 25 August, 1818
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. 11–12 [in part; undated]. BACK

[1] Southey here provides further criticism of Bowles’s poem, ‘Ellen Fitzarthur’, which she had sent to him for his opinion. Almost all the deletions and changes that Southey suggested were incorporated when the poem was published by Longman in 1820. BACK

[2] Nevertheless, this image was retained in Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 83. BACK

[3] Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 86. BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)