3643. Robert Southey to Sir George Beaumont, 1 March 1821

3643. Robert Southey to Sir George Beaumont, 1 March 1821⁠* 

Keswick, 1st March 1821.

Dear Sir George, –

My publishers are directed to send you a copy of the Vision of Judgment, [1]  which I trust you will find on your arrival in Grosvenor Square. It is chiefly as a metrical experiment that I offer it to your notice. You are accustomed to the blank verse of Shakespeare and Milton [2]  and Wordsworth; nevertheless, I venture to hope this will not prevent you from feeling that the heroic measure of the ancients retains something of its dignity and power in our language, though the English is certainly less fit for it than either the Greek, the Latin, or the German. Taking it upon the principle of adaptation which I have followed, it appears to me a fine measure, inferior, indeed, to our blank verse (as every other measure is), but possessing in the union of variety and regularity, an advantage peculiar to itself.

The subject is not one which I should have chosen under other circumstances; but when I accepted the Laureateship, it was with a hope of being exempted from the ordinary worthless taskwork which degrades the office, [3]  and a determination of exerting myself upon other occasions in a manner which, if that hope were gratified, would prove that I had no desire to shrink from labour, or, if it were not, might redeem the office from contempt. Time enough has now elapsed since the death of the King, [4]  and public transactions enough have occurred, to allow of treating the subject in an imaginative manner, which could not have been done without some shock to the feelings, while that event was recent, and had all the awfulness of immediate reality.

You, I am sure, will perceive a want of keeping in that part where the affairs of the Regency are noticed. [5]  This fault was unavoidable. I could not offer a tribute of respect to the late King without a just compliment of this kind to the present, [6]  and I hope that, though it was not possible to soften or harmonise the transition from fancy to fact, it has been done, where alone it was practicable, when the poem passes from fact to fancy, and enters again upon the imaginary world. [7]  The measure, and the subject, and what I have said, and what I have left unsaid, will bring upon me a hailstone chorus of abuse. It will affect me much less than this abominable east wind, which is now making its way through walls, windows, and curtains to my discomfort, and making itself felt in spite of a leathern waistcoat. But against literary assailants I am armed at all points, and proof.

Two French translations of Roderick have been lately published. [8]  One of them has been sent me. [9]  The translator has not Frenchified it by any additions, but it is curious to see how skilfully he has contrived to skip every image and every expression which had any peculiar force or propriety. In this respect the version reminds me of what happens among peacocks where a white bird has crossed the breed—the degeneracy shows itself in the eye of the feather, even when all other parts of the plumage remain untainted. It would surprise me greatly if, after all that has been done to trim it to the French taste, anything so completely anti-Gallican in style, feeling, and composition, should meet with any approbation in France.

At present I am very busy with the Peninsular War, [10]  with which the printer is proceeding steadily; and among other works of secondary import, I am going on with a series of dialogues upon the progress and the prospects of society. [11]  These are interspersed with local descriptions of this immediate neighbourhood, to relieve the subject, and render a wholesome prescription palatable. William Westall has made half a dozen very beautiful drawings of the scenes which are to be engraved for the book. One of them is a view of this house, looking towards Newlands. [12] 

You have probably heard from the Wordsworths [13]  of the death of my poor friend Nash, which has been a great grief to me, as well as a great shock. We had spent a great deal of time together at home and abroad, and had planned other journeys, which it is now painful to think of. I never knew a man more thoroughly amiable in all his feelings, indeed I never saw in him the slightest action, nor heard from him a sentence or a word, which could lower him in my esteem; and then he bore his cross so meekly, that it was impossible to know him, and not to regard him with some degree of admiration as well as with pity. Mrs. S. and Edith join in kind remembrances to Lady Beaumont.—Believe me to be, dear Sir George, very truly and respectfully yours,

ROBERT SOUTHEY.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text taken from William Knight (ed.), Memorials of Coleorton, 2 vols (London, 1887)
Previously published: William Knight (ed.), Memorials of Coleorton: Being Letters from Coleridge, Wordsworth and his Sister, Southey, and Sir Walter Scott to Sir George and Lady Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire, 1803 to 1834, 2 vols (London, 1887), II, pp. 201–205. BACK

[1] A Vision of Judgement (1821), published by Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown. BACK

[2] Blank verse was used by William Shakespeare (1564–1616; DNB) and John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), most famously in the latter’s Paradise Lost (1667). BACK

[3] Southey had hoped to escape the Poet Laureate’s traditional duty of composing annual Birthday Odes and New Year’s Odes that were set to music and performed at court. However, despite the fact that these performances had been suspended since 1810, he had still been compelled to write a New Year’s Ode each year since his appointment in 1813 and Birthday Odes in 1820 and 1821. BACK

[4] George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB) had died on 29 January 1820. BACK

[5] In A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 3, the spirit of Spencer Perceval (1762–1812; DNB), Prime Minister 1809–1812, related some of the events of the Regency period of 1811–1820 to the ghost of George III. During the Regency, George III was incapacitated by madness and thus unaware of crucial events such as the final victory over France in 1815. BACK

[6] i.e. to the nation’s achievements under the leadership of George IV, George III’s son and successor and his Regent 1811–1820. BACK

[7] Southey was particularly proud of this transition from ‘fact to fancy’ at the end of A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 3, lines 50–61; see Southey to John Heraud, 15 March 1821, Letter 3653. BACK

[8] The two translations of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814) were: Antoine André Brugière, Baron de Sorsum, Roderick, le Dernier des Goths (1820), no. 2697 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library; and Pierre Hippolyte Amillet de Sagrie (1785–1830), Roderic, Dernier Roi des Goths (1821), no. 2700 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[9] Pierre Hippolyte Amillet de Sagrie, Roderic, Dernier Roi des Goths (1821). BACK

[10] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). The printer was Thomas Davison (1766–1831). BACK

[11] Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829). BACK

[12] ‘Greta Hall, Derwentwater, and Newlands’, in Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, 2 vols (London 1829), II, before p. 343. BACK

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