1418. Robert Southey to Neville White, 22 January 1808

1418. Robert Southey to Neville White, 22 January 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick, Jan. 22. 1808.

My dear Sir,

Your letter has given me very great pleasure. There are few things of which I am more earnestly desirous than that Henry’s ‘Remains’ [1]  should meet with that respect immediately, which they certainly must sooner or later obtain; and it now appears very probable that this desire will be gratified; for though the rapid sale of this edition must for the most part be attributed to Henry’s personal acquaintance, and Cambridge reputation, the manner in which strangers have been interested by the book may fairly be considered, not merely as a testimony of its intrinsic merit, but as an indication of public and unbiassed opinion. I did not receive the censure till last night, which is the reason your letter has remained unanswered till now. I, as well as yourself, have been affected by the way in which Mr. Brydges mentions the ‘Remains’; his mind seems to be at once so alive to genius, and so sore with wrongs; – wrongs I conclude them to be, as nothing else would occasion such complaints. [2]  The passage on which he comments was written with reference to those poets who are usually mentioned as peculiarly unfortunate; – Otway, Savage, Boyse, Dermody, &c. [3]  Their genius could not save them from untimely and miserable death, but it reprieved them from it. Should the fifth volume of the “Annual Review” fall in your way, you may there see something which I have said upon the subject in reviewing the ‘Life of Dermody’. [4] 

Had it not been for my wish to see this preface, I should have replied immediately to your letter, relating to what you say of unknown persons soliciting a correspondence with you. Upon this subject you speak with thorough good sense. Letter-writing is a favourite amusement with the young; as men grow older they find less leisure for it, and as they cease to want employment for idle hours, their inclination for it ceases also. Your correspondents will drop off, not from disappointment at the letters which they receive, but from this natural cause. Those who were nearly and dearly intimate with Henry, will probably continue to keep up an intercourse with you, as doubtless you will wish to do with them; to all others, whether they were slightly acquainted with him, or not acquainted at all, you may either plead the fair excuse of want of time, or exchange a few letters at longer and longer intervals, till they let the example of stopping short. And this is perhaps the most advisable way; for the interest which these unknown persons feel towards one who had been a good brother to Henry certainly seems to imply some goodness in themselves, and it may be that you may find among them some pleasant acquaintance, or even serviceable friend, for yourself or your brother and sisters. Now though this is such prudent advice that a Scotchman might have given it, do not suppose that I am related to the family of Mr. Worldly Wiseman, [5]  even in the most distant degree.

As for what I have done in editing these ‘Remains’, I cannot express to you the satisfaction it gives me that I obeyed the impulse of my own heart in undertaking that office. Even his own family cannot feel more. One of the MS. volumes I will with great pleasure accept, and place among the choicest treasures of my collection, – and I will not scruple at choosing a large one. Let it, if you please, be that which contains the sonnet addressed to myself, which is among his earliest pieces.

The review will do little harm. The ‘Monthly’ must needs be sore, [6]  and had best be civil; for I will assuredly reply to any attack which it may think proper to make.

I shall see you very shortly. If there be any part of the prefatory account which you would wish altered, it may now be done for the second edition.

Yours very truly,

Robert Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 50–52. BACK

[1] The Remains of Henry Kirke White, of Nottingham (1807), which were edited by Southey. BACK

[2] Sir (Samuel) Egerton Brydges (1762–1837; DNB), author and antiquarian, resented the success of poets such as Kirke White, his own Sonnets and other Poems (1785) (a fourth edition appeared as Poems in 1807) having been met with faint praise. Brydges was also acutely sensitive about his family lineage, his attempts to claim that he descended from the Barons of Chandos having, in 1803, been judged by the House of Lords not to be well founded. Brydges had greeted the forthcoming publication of White’s Remains gushingly in ‘Original Poems by the late Henry Kirke White’, Censura Literaria, 5 (1807) 84–86; in Censura Literaria, 7 (1808), 99, after their publication, he echoed Southey’s implied criticism of the path of study into which White’s evangelical mentors had conducted him: ‘I greatly lament the circumstances that forced him to studies so directly contrary to his natural talents: and, though I admire the resolution with which he compelled his mind to pursuits uncongenial to his soul; I much wish that that resolution had not been strained to so high a pitch’. BACK

[3] A list of poets who met early deaths in circumstances of poverty, debauchery and distress: Thomas Otway (1652–1685, DNB); Richard Savage (1697/8–1743; DNB), Samuel Boyse (1702/3?–1749; DNB), Thomas Dermody (1775–1802; DNB). In the Remains, Southey had criticised the forcing of youthful poetic genius into unsuitable intellectual labours and had suggested (I, p. 55) that ‘[t]hey who are thus lamented as the victims of genius, have been, in almost every instance, the victims of their own vices’. BACK

[4] Southey reviewed The Life of Thomas Dermody (1806) in the Annual Review for 1806, 5 (1807), 383–397. BACK

[5] A character in John Bunyan (1628–1688; DNB), Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). BACK

[6] In the Remains, I, pp. 18–20, Southey had taken the Monthly Review to task for a patronising and ungenerous review of White’s poems it had published (43 (February 1804, 218). BACK

People mentioned

White, Henry Kirke (1785–1806) (mentioned 4 times)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)