3621. Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 30 January 1821

3621. Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 30 January 1821⁠* 

Keswick, 30th January 1821

My dear Sir, – Many causes have prevented me from acknowledging the receipt of your letter so soon as I wished and intended to have done. One of them has been the intention of telling you that you would receive a poem of mine which is at this time in the press, [1]  but has been delayed there somewhat longer than I expected, owing in some degree to my distance from London, which occasions great loss of time when anything is to travel backwards and forwards. In less than a fortnight I trust it will be sent to you. It is an experiment in metre, [2]  upon which I shall like to know your opinion, your unbiased opinion, as to the effect upon your own ear.

The large transcripts which you have made for me serve to prove the same power and superabundant fertility which are exemplified in your printed volume. [3]  What you have to learn is arrangement and compression, or, rather, selection. And when you read, living poets especially, but indeed any poets, seek rather to discover what there is in their style and manner that you should avoid, rather than what you should imitate. The more easily the manner of any poet may be imitated, the more reason is there to suspect that it is faulty – mannerism itself being a fault. It is a chaste and severe style which you should study – not an exuberant one – the perfection of such style is to be seen in Dante, [4]  and if you do not read Italian, you may find the austerity preserved in Cary’s translation, [5]  though the fine movement of the ternal rhyme is wanting.

A ticket is not required for the British Museum. [6]  I believe the form is that you should address a note to the Trustees, requesting permission to read there for some specified purpose; for instance, you might state your wish to consult some works upon British antiquities. There is a translation of ‘Geoffrey of Monmouth,’ in octavo, by a certain Aaron Thompson, if I recollect rightly. [7] 

The most probable method of obtaining distinction by poetry and that competent remuneration which would give you the command of your time would be by writing for the stage. As yet your compositions are too wild and luxuriant, but you might try some kind of romantic drama upon a small scale, a thing of three acts – we have seen fairy tales in pantomime – but something of that line with the charm of poetry has not yet been tried.

With all their great talents, Byron and Keats [8]  are the worst writers you could feed upon. Keats buries himself in the exuberances of his ornaments, and Byron makes the characters of his poems as incongruous in themselves as the actions are monstrous which he ascribes to them. There is no dramatic trait in his characters. He represents his own vices, and endeavours to combine with them virtues which never can exist in such fellowship. Farewell, and believe me, yours faithfully,

ROBERT SOUTHEY.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Edith Heraud, Memoirs of John A. Heraud (London, 1898)
Previously published: Edith Heraud, Memoirs of John A. Heraud (London, 1898), pp. 24–26. BACK

[1] A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[2] i.e. in the introduction of the hexameter into English verse. BACK

[3] Heraud had sent transcripts of his unpublished writings in response to Southey’s offer to read some examples of his shorter works; see Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 16 December 1820, Letter 3584. He had previously sent Southey a copy of his collection The Legend of St Loy, with Other Poems (1820). BACK

[4] Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Divine Comedy (1308–1321). BACK

[5] Henry Francis Cary (1772–1844; DNB), The Inferno of Dante Alighieri: Canto I.–XVII (XVIII–XXXIV). With a Translation in English Blank Verse, Notes, and a Life of the Author (1805), no. 789 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Cary used blank verse, rather than the complex rhyme scheme employed by Dante. BACK

[6] The British Library, a copyright library, was at this time part of the British Museum (founded 1759). BACK

[7] Aaron Thompson (b. 1681/1682), The British History, Translated into English from the Latin of Jeffrey of Monmouth. With a Large Preface Concerning the Authority of the History (1718), no. 1505 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[8] John Keats (1795–1821; DNB). While Southey did not like Keats’s poetry, he was unhappy at his harsh treatment by critics and expressed concern at Croker’s review of Endymion (1818) in Quarterly Review, 19 (April 1818), 204–208; see Southey to John Murray, 18 December 1818, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Five, Letter 3220. BACK

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