1475. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 4 July 1808

1475. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 4 July 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick. July 4. 1808

Mr Wolseley [1]  sent me your welcome letter yesterday morning, & showed me the extract from Mr Mundys [2]  in the evening, when he & his Lady did us the favour of drinking tea in my library. They are not likely to remain here; the lodgings which they had pre-engaged prove to be ill-situated & worse accommodated, & there seems little hope of their procuring any better. I am unluckily a prisoner in the house which prevents me from showing them some of our home scenery, as I should otherwise gladly have done. A violent catarrh seized be me by the nose a fortnight ago; this complaint is with me a very severe one, – the slightest exposure to air or sunshine renews & increases it; fits of sneezing eight – ten – twelve times successively shake me from head to foot, & the house from top to bottom, – & leave me bathed in perspiration; – my eyes suffer, – & all I can do is to sit in a darkened room & play a solo upon the pocket-handkerchief from morning till night.

I will tell you freely & fairly the impression which Mr French’s squib [3]  upon Wordsworth leaves upon my mind. You know that I am not blind to Wordsworths faults; – nor familiar as we are with each other, is there that kind of intimacy between us which would be likely in any degree to blind me. But when I see a man take up the Poems of W. & passing over pieces of such beauty as the Tintern Abbey, – the Leech-Gatherer, – the Brothers, Michael, the Song at Brougham Castle &c., fix upon the weeds of the collection, [4]  & join in with the yelping pack of curs who are attempting to hunt him down, – I cannot but feel that it is no mark of a generous or a good spirit. If Mr French does not admire, & greatly admire, the greater number of these poems, he does not know what poetry is; – in that case his satire is the effect of that common dislike which xx bad poets normally feel towards good ones. But if he has any sense of the merit of these better poems, something of more importance than the understanding will be found in fault. This is a malicious age, an age of slander & of selfishness, & the spirit of the age has infected him. What would he think of a critic who if Milton were mentioned, should immediately begin to ridicule his psalms, & his translation from Horace? [5]  What does every Englishman think of Voltaires criticisms upon Shakespere? [6]  & just such is the jeu d’esprit  [7]  of Mr French: – I give it a French name, for any English one would be too good for its witlessness. – What is the consequence of this prevailing disposition to ridicule the defects of men of genius, instead of giving them the fair praise which they deserve? That those persons who take their opinions from others are deterred from purchasing the books, & the author is disheartened from laying any thing more before an ungrateful generation. This is the case with Wordsworth: he has stopt the publication of his White Doe, [8]  & it is more than probable that, tho he will continue to write as long as he lives, what he writes will be reserved for an age in which justice will be done him. With respect to myself, these things give me no pain as they do him, but they inflict upon me a heavier injury. I cannot subsist with the profits of my pen & in consequence of the total failure of Madoc, [9]  it is tho whole years elapsed in which I did not write a single verse, & in all probability I never should have written another, had it not been for that chance meeting with Landor. Assuredly now I shall go on from poem to poem, but unless I can previously secure the fair price of the manual labour bestowed upon them, not one of them shall go into the world, till I am gone out of it. By this means at least I can lay by some provision for my children, & elude the absurd laws of copyright, which would otherwise rob them of my <the> property just when it will begin to be valuable.

To what you say of the unlucky subject of Joan of Arc [10]  I fully & unequivocally assent. It will always impede my national reputation; at the same time it will gain for me the more desirable applause of those whose morality is not confined within geographical limits. The double negatives to which you justly object are the sins of my youth, – when I thought it <such phraseology> must be good because it was to be found in Milton. – There is nothing I think in the 4th edition so fine as the introduction of the Maid in this. [11] 

The first specimen of narration in irregular rhymes is the Gideon of Aaron Hill: [12]  but his powers were not equal to what he undertook. I versified two Spanish stories in this manner in 1802, – incorrect copies of which are very likely to be found in the Poetical Register under the titles of Garci Ferrandez, & King Ramiro. [13]  But whenever I have the pleasure of showing you Kehama, [14]  you will I think see new modes of rhyming, in which the ear only, & not the eye has been consulted. The line rhyming to its own middle is common common to <in> the ballad stanza. I have not unfrequently thrown rhymes into the middle of the verse, & sometimes made the beginning & end correspond with good effect.

Expecting some new crime, in fear they stood,
Some horror which would make the natural blood
Start, with cold shudderings thrill the sinking heart
Whiten the lip, & make the abhorrent eye
Roll back, & close, prest in for agony. [15] 
[MS torn]is a rattling sample –
Along the mead the hallowed steed
Still wanders wheresoeer he will
Oer hill or dale, or plain:
No human hand hath trick’d that mane
From which he shakes the morning dew;
His mouth has never felt the rein
His lips have never froth’d the chain,
For pure of blemish & of stain,
His neck unbroke to mortal yoke,
Like Nature free, the steed must be
Fit offering for the Immortals he.
A year & day the steed must stray
Wherever chance may guide his way,
Before he bleed at Seeva’s shrine;
The year & day have past away
Nor touch of man hath marr’d the rite divine
And now at noon the steed must bleed,
The perfect rite to-day must force the meed
Which Fate reluctant shudders to bestow.
Then must the Swerga-God
Yield to the Tyrant of the World below,
Then must the Devetas obey
The Rajahs rod, & groan beneath his hateful sway. [16] 

This is an unintelligible extract, but you will give me credit for being previously explained in the poem itself all that requires explanation, – & I have merely copied it to show you what a noise one may make with these bells when it is proper to chime them: – you may judge what an uproar there will be when Kehama drives his brazen chariot in triumph over the burning pavement of Hell.

I very much wish you would amuse yourself & gratify very many persons by collecting your poetical works, many of which are not now procurable. It is better you should do this yourself, than leave it to be done after you, – at what I hope is yet a distant time: because as the proof sheets past under your eye, xxxxxx little improvements might probably suggest themselves, & your own annotations would necessarily be far more valuable than those of any other person. [17] 

The Simpsons [18]  should not have said that I complained of your too-abundant praises. I said that they embarrassed me, & that I knew not how to reply to them, – on this you will readily concede <understand>, & must have perceived; – their full sincerity I never doubted. My own manners sin in the contrary extreme. I have seen so much base flattery in the world, that the fear of being approaching towards that detestable habit has often makes gives me the appearance of coldness & suppression; – & any obnoxious opinions which I happen to have, are sure to find their way beyond what Homer calls the barriers of the [MS obscured]eth, least any persons should suspect me of endeavouring to conceal them.

One word of politics. I have long said that if the deliverance of Europe were to take place in y our days, there was no country in which it was so likely to begin as Spain: because in no other country was <is> there such a feeling of patriotism. From the old coalitions against France I had never the slightest hope; first I rejoiced in their defeature, because of their detestable object; latterly I xxxx despaired of their success, because of the miserable cabinets in which they originated. But the spirit of liberty has now broken out, & it is neither the shameful negligence of this ministry in assisting it, nor all the power of Bonaparte, mighty as he is, that can destroy that indestructible spirit. Spain will deli[MS obscured] itself, & I shall yet live to sing a Nunc dimittis, – which will not be premature like that of Dr Price. –  [19] 

yours very truly

R Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Lichfield
Endorsement: July 4th/ 1st specimen of Kehama/ (throt the 5 vol. of the Poetical Reg. wh. I possess I have carefully searched for Garcia Ferrandez & King Ramiro but in vain)
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Newstead Abbey. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Catalogue of the Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents Formed Between 1865 and 1882 by Alfred Morrison, 6 vols (London, 1883–1892), VI, pp. 163–165. BACK

[1] Reverend Robert Wolseley (d. 1815), son of William Wolseley, 6th Baronet (1740–1817). The family seat was at Wolseley Park, Rugeley, Staffordshire, near Seward’s home at Lichfield. BACK

[2] Francis Noel Clarke Mundy (1739–1815), a landed gentleman of Derbyshire, and a poet friend of Seward’s. BACK

[3] Perhaps the anonymous parody The Simpliciad: a Satiric-Didactic Poem containing Hints for the Scholars of the New School (1808), usually attributed to Richard Mant (1776–1848; DNB) but credited here to French Laurence (1757–1809; DNB). BACK

[4] The poems Southey lists were published in Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1800) and Poems in Two Volumes (1807). BACK

[5] John Milton’s (1608–1674; DNB) translations of the Psalms, some of them schoolboy exercises, were published in his Poems upon Several Occasions of 1673, as was his early translation of Horace’s (Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC–8 BC)), ‘Ode to Pyrrha’ (Odes, I: 5). BACK

[6] Francois Marie Arouet (pen name Voltaire) (1694–1778) disparaged Shakespeare in his Dissertation sur la tragédie ancienne et modern (1748). BACK

[7] Meaning ‘lighthearted witticism’. BACK

[8] Criticisms of the manuscript text by Coleridge and harsh reviews of his 1807 Poems in Two Volumes persuaded Wordsworth to withhold his ‘White Doe of Rylstone’ from publication until 1815. BACK

[9] Madoc (1805) BACK

[10] Southey’s 1796 poem of this name, published while Britain was at war with France, was too revolutionary in its stylistic innovations and too French in its subject matter to win him popularity and reputation. BACK

[11] An excerpt from the ninth book of the first, 1796, edition of Joan of Arc, ‘The Vision of the Maid of Orleans’, was published in the second, 1806, edition of that poem at the end of the second volume. ‘The Vision’ was also published in Poems by Robert Southey. The Second Volume in 1799, the 4th edition of which appeared in 1806. BACK

[12] Aaron Hill (1685–1750; DNB), Gideon, or, the Patriot (1749). BACK

[13] These poems were published as follows: ‘Garci Ferrandez’, in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809 (1811), in Minor Poems (1815 and 1823) and Poetical Works (1837–1838); ‘King Ramiro’ in September 1803 in the Morning Post and on 12 May 1804 in the Iris (edited by William Taylor) and then, revised, in the Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808, Minor Poems (1815 and 1823) and with revisions in Poetical Works (1837–1838). BACK

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

[15] Published as lines 143–147 of Book 8 of The Curse of Kehama (1810). See volume 4 of Robert Southey Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004). BACK

[16] Lines 27–49 of Book 8 of The Curse of Kehama (1810). See volume 4 of Robert Southey Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004). BACK

[17] Seward’s Poetical Works were edited after her death by Walter Scott in three volumes (Edinburgh, 1810). BACK

[18] Charles Simpson (1765–1820) and his wife, members of Seward’s literary circle at Lichfield. Simpson was a lawyer and Seward’s literary executor. BACK

[19] Nunc dimittis: the evening prayer which, in the version in the Book of Common Prayer (1662), contains this prophetic vision: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace: according to thy word. / For mine eyes have seen: thy salvation, / Which thou hast prepared: before the face of all people; / To be a light to lighten the Gentiles: and to be the glory of thy people Israel’. In his A Discourse on the Love of our Country (1789), Richard Price (1723–1791; DNB) had greeted the fall of the Bastille in prophetic tones as a sign of the coming salvation of mankind. BACK

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