1743. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 9 February 1810

1743. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 9 February 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick. Feby. 9. 1810

The price of Holmes’s [1]  book if I recollect rightly is 18/. – very little considering its solid contents. It has been reprinted in London, you will find references in it to all the historical authorities which you can want.

It is a curious circumstance that in the subject which you seem disposed to adopt you must necessarily allude to & most probably introduce as a conspicuous personage a namesake of your own – John Elliott, the Apostle of the Indians, a most excellent, venerable, & apostolic man. [2]  Some account of him is given in the second volume of Bogue & Bennets History of the Dissenters, [3]  but Holmes will probably refer you to a more copious biography.

The objections which have been made to the style of Madoc [4]  are ill founded. It has no other peculiarity than that of being pure English, which unhappily in these times renders it peculiar. My rule of writing, whether for prose or verse is the same, & may very shortly be stated – it is to express myself 1st as perspicuously as possible, 2d – as concisely as possible, 3d as impressively as possible. This is the way to be understood & felt & remembered. But there is an obtuseness of heart & of understanding which it is impossible to reach, – & if you have seen the reviewals of Madoc, after having read the poem, you will perceive that almost in every part or passage which they have selected for censure, they have mist the meaning. For instance – the Edinburgh sneers at the beginning of the 3 section Part 2. & the words My own dear Mothers child – as inane. [5]  Now as for the speech itself if Mr Jeffray had not good feeling enough in his nature to feel its dramatic truth & fitness in that place, it is his misfortune, – but that particular expression would to any person who reflected upon its meaning with a moments due attention, give it a peculiar force. For in that state of society most of the Kings children were by different mothers, – of course when Madoc addressed his sister as his mothers child, more affecting remembrances & more love were implied in that single expression, than a whole speech could convey with equal expressiveness. – The Eclectic ridicules ‘Wilt thou come hither Prince & let me feel thy face’ [6]  – I am utterly ignorant of the nature & essence of poetry, if that be not one of the finest scenes that I have ever been able to produce.

The metre has been criticised with equal incapacity on the part of the critics. Milton & Shakespere are the standards of blank verse, – in these writers every variety of it is to be found, & by this standard I desire to be measured. The redundant verses, (when the redundant syllable be <is> any where except at the end of the line) are formed upon the admitted principle that two short syllables are equal in time to one long one. The truth is that tho the knack of versifying is a gift, the art is an acquirement. I versified more rapidly at sixteen than now at six & thirty. But it requires a knowledge of that art to criticise upon the structure of verse, nor is it sufficient <merely> to understand the regular tune of blank <the> metre, – a parrot might be taught that. In the sweep of blank verse, the whole paragraph must be taken into consideration before the merit or demerit of a single line, or sometimes of a single word, can be understood. Yet one of these critics are everlastingly picking out single lines & condemning their cadence as bad. In xxx This might be true if the line could possibly stand alone, – But were I to cut one of the critics fingers off & tell him it was only fit for a tobacco stopper, – that would be true also, – because the act of amputation had made it so.

You appreciate the story with true judgement, & have laid your finger upon its faulty parts. This it is to have the inborn feeling of a poet. Of the language you are not so good a judge because you have not mastered the art, & are not read well read in the poets of Shakesperes age. You cannot read Shakespere, Spenser Milton & the Elizabethan dramatists too much. xxxx There is no danger of catching their faults.

Yrs very truly

Robert Southey.

The Workington notes of Falcon Hodgeson & Co [7]  – are current here.


* Address: To/ Mr E Elliott Junr./ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK 298
MS: Mitchell Library, Glasgow. ALS; 4p. A variant draft is in British Library, Add MS 47891.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 275–277 [in part]. BACK

[1] Abiel Holmes (1763–1837), American Annals; or, a Chronological History of America, from its Discovery in 1492 to 1806 (1808); for Southey’s appraisal see Quarterly Review, 2 (November 1809), 319–337. BACK

[2] John Eliot (c. 1604–1690), Puritan missionary to Native Americans and translator of the bible and other religious writings into Algonquian. His work earned him the nickname ‘the Indian apostle’. BACK

[3] David Bogue (1750–1825; DNB) and James Bennet (1774–1862; DNB), The History of Dissenters, from the Revolution in 1688 to the Year 1808, 3 vols (London, 1809), II, pp. 450–456. BACK

[4] Madoc (1805). BACK

[5] Edinburgh Review, 7 (October 1805), 16: ‘this affectation of babyish gentleness’ as a criticism of Madoc (1805), Part 2, Book 3, line 8. BACK

[6] Ridiculed in Eclectic Review, 1 (December 1805), 906: ‘meagre unharmonious effusions of inspidity’, as a criticism of Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 3, lines 233–234. BACK

[7] A Workington bank, which failed, leading to speculation in its banknotes. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)