1796. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 1 August 1810

1796. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 1 August 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick. August 1. 1810

My eyes, which are somewhat the worse for the wear, have been tasked a little by your first book, [1]  – it tired xxxxxxx nothing but my eyes, – nevertheless my first opinion remains xx unaltered, that the subject is utterly unfit for poetry, & that if you will not be content to regard all that you have written upon it as a heap of old materials in which you may quarry for ready cut stones to employ in a better building upon a happier site, – you had better resolutely throw the whole xxx behind the fire.

The event is so near our own times as to render any machinery not merely improper, but even absurd. We reconcile ourselves easily to the thought of a Greek or Trojan talking to the Gods, & of Jupiter deciding between the two parties, & even willing the death of any individual among them, because the mortal agents are so far removed into the age of fable that xxx the existence of them & their Gods is alike to us, – we hear of both in the same story, & always have heard of them together. But Gods & Grenadiers, or Genii & Grenadiers are a most ill-judged assortment, & to introduce Deity as casting a thought upon the petty squabbles of the French & English in Canada, is both monstrous in taste, & would, I am sure, be offensive to the common religious feelings of the country. Besides, the subject itself is altogether unworthy of any supernatural agency, & your Ghost is misplaced. Neither good nor evil has resulted from the conquest of Canada, – nor is any good to be expected from it while xx French continues the language of the country. I am sure the event is utterly unfit for poetry, & utterly unworthy of it, – & the more you strain & strive to elevate it, – the more gorgeous are the colours with which you embroider the canvas, the more is the coarseness & poverty of the canvas itself displayed.

You appear to me to have an over-anxiety for raising & ornamenting your subject. There are two remedies for this, – chuse a topic so noble in itself as to lead you into no temptation of this nature, – or one so wild that you may weave up with it as much magic & machinery as your heart desires. Try which of these plans you will & when Mrs Elliott [2]  listens to a first book with interest, & is curious to hear the second, you may receive those first fruits as the omen of success. But the drama is the readiest road to popularity, & success in that line would be fortune.

My poem [3]  lingers in the press & I dare say will not be published till autumn is far advanced. I am warning you against a hopeless subject, & yet you will then perceive when this said poem reaches you that I have bestowed my own time & labour upon one in which it is absolutely impossible that the public can be interested.


yrs very truly

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Mr E Elliott Junr/ Rotherham/ Single
Seal: Trace of red wax
MS: Beinecke Library, Osborn MSS File ‘S’, Folder 14118. ALS; 3p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] The first book of Elliott’s unfinished and unpublished poem on the British conquest of Canada in 1759–1763. Southey had expressed his interest in Elliott’s project in his letter of 5 June 1810 (Letter 1783). BACK

[2] Frances (Fanny) Gartside (dates unknown), who had married Elliott in 1806. BACK

[3] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)