1515. Robert Southey to Neville White, 30 September 1808

1515. Robert Southey to Neville White, 30 September 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick, Sept. 30. 1808.

My dear Neville

Your parcel arrived during my absence from home, when I was, with part of my family, performing a long-promised visit twenty miles to the west of Keswick; a longer distance from this place than Edith had yet travelled since we came to it, five years ago – such close housekeepers have we been.

We were very much obliged to you for the Fragments of poor Miss Smith, [1]  which I had heard of and wished to see. In the winter of 1796 I was introduced to her on the South Parade at Bath, by James Losh, a gentleman now settled at Newcastle, and practising as a provincial counsel, – one of the best and most estimable men in all respects whom it has ever been my good fortune to know. He borrowed of her for me Carlyle’s translations from the Arabic, then newly published. [2]  From that time I neither saw nor knew anything of her till about three years ago, when, hearing that one of Mrs. Smith’s daughters, at Coniston, understood Hebrew, I knew that she must be the person to whom I had formerly been made known; but I made no attempt at renewing the acquaintance, because there is a haughtiness and harshness about her mother [3]  which are to me exceedingly offensive. Not many weeks before her death I chanced to meet her and her mother in a one-horse chair, when I was in an open carriage with one of her acquaintance. Death was in her countenance; my friend stopped to talk with them, but I merely bowed my head: that was not a time to remind her of days when she was in health; she had evidently no breath to spare in waste words, and the sight of her made me melancholy for the rest of the day. Indeed I have her, as she then appeared, vividly in my recollection now. You liken her to Henry; but genius is wanting on her part for the resemblance, for of this there is no trace to be found among her Fragments. There is great good sense, great acquirements, prodigious industry, and, what is most admirable, a pure love of knowledge for its own sake, – for the quiet enjoyment, and the holy self-satisfaction which it afforded.

With Crabbe’s poems [4]  I have been acquainted for about twenty years, having read them when a schoolboy on their first publication, and, by the help of the Elegant Extracts, [5]  remembered from that time what was best worth remembering. You rightly compare him to Goldsmith. [6]  He is an imitator, or rather an antithesizer, of Goldsmith, if such a word may be coined for the occasion. His merit is precisely the same as Goldsmith’s, – that of describing actual things clearly and strikingly; but there is a wide difference between the colouring of the two poets. Goldsmith threw a sunshine over all his pictures, like that of one of our water-colour artists when he paints for ladies, – a light and a beauty not to be found in Nature, though not more brilliant or beautiful than what Nature really affords. Crabbe’s have a gloom, which is also not in Nature, – not the shade of a heavy day, of mist, or of clouds, but the dark and overcharged shadows of one who paints by lamp-light, – whose very lights have a gloominess. In part this is explained by his history. He had formed an attachment in early life to a young woman who, like himself, was absolutely without fortune; he wrote his poems to obtain patronage and preferment. In those days there was not much good poetry, and hardly any negligent criticism. He pushed (as the world says) for patronage with these poems, and succeeded; got preferment sufficient, and married. It was not long before his wife became deranged, [7]  and when all this was told me by one who knew him well, five years ago, he was still almost confined in his own house, anxiously waiting upon this wife in her long and hopeless malady. A sad history! It is no wonder that he gives so melancholy a picture of human life.

Mr. Catton [8]  could tell me little of Henry with which we had not previously been made acquainted. He has the merit of having discovered his genius and his good qualities himself, for nothing had been said to him upon the subject; and this is a great merit. It was not till some months after Henry had resided that Mr. C. heard of his little volume; [9]  and when he mentioned it to him, Henry was very much abashed, said that he was heartily sorry he had published it, and heartily ashamed, but that it must be considered that he was very young. Mr. C. requested to see the book, and was much pleased with it. He could not, of course, encourage him in pursuits which might have interfered with his academical studies; – no person in his situation could do that. It is not yet generally understood that of all men, a great poet, such as Henry might probably have been, exercises the most extensive and most useful influence over mankind. Compare the effects produced by Homer and by Alexander the Great.

God bless you.

R. S.


* MS: MS untraced; 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. 89–92. BACK

[1] Elizabeth Smith (1776–1806; DNB), Fragments in Prose and Verse: by a young lady lately deceased (Elizabeth S- ). With some account of her life and character, by the author of ‘Sermons on the Doctrine and Duties of Christianity’ [Henrietta Maria Bowdler] (1808). Smith had been, from 1801, a resident of Coniston in the Lake District with her parents. Smith was an accomplished self-taught linguist, who translated from Arabic, Persian and Hebrew. BACK

[2] Joseph Dacre Carlyle (1758–1804; DNB), Specimens of Arabian Poetry (1796). BACK

[3] Smith’s mother, Julia, née Mott, had been an heiress and had lived a life of great wealth at Piercefield house, near Chepstow, until her banker husband George lost his fortune when Britain went to war with France in 1793. BACK

[4] George Crabbe (1754–1832; DNB), author of The Library (1781) and The Village (1783). BACK

[5] Elegant Extracts: or, Useful and Entertaining Pieces of Poetry, Selected for the Improvement of Young Persons (many editions from the 1780s). BACK

[6] Oliver Goldsmith (1728?–1774; DNB), author of The Deserted Village (1770). BACK

[7] Crabbe’s wife Sarah Elmy (1751–1813; DNB) became a manic depressive in the 1790s after the deaths of three of their children. BACK

[8] Thomas Catton (1758–1838; DNB), tutor of St John’s College, Cambridge, praised in Southey’s Remains for his fatherly solicitude towards White. Catton had visited Southey at Keswick earlier in September. BACK

[9] Henry Kirke White’s Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems (1803). BACK

People mentioned

White, Henry Kirke (1785–1806) (mentioned 5 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Losh, James (1763–1833) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)