1725. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 29 December 1809

1725. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 29 December 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick. Dec. 29. 1809

‘The Quarterly Review’ is the title. If the article has been printed as I wrote it & expect it to appear, [1]  you will see that the subject xxxxxx <impressed> me very deeply, & it will be xxxx likely to impress you in the same manner. The incident of Goff the Regicide [2]  is one of the very finest that ever has been recorded.

You have laid your finger upon the <main> fault of Madoc [3]  with auspicious judgement. A few lines skilfully interwoven will remove it, – for that it is a fault I have long since perceived. All that is required is to make the reader feel that the earthquake [4]  was ordained, & not that it merely happened, – to take away the appearance of x chance & impress that of providence, which has not been sufficiently done. I have failed too in making the reader feel that the destruction of the Aztecas by these natural means was not necessary to the success of Madoc, – that the land victory xxxx <must> have been as compleat as the lake-victory, [5]  – & that it was desirable to exhibit Madoc at the close of the poem in a more interesting & dignified character than that of a conqueror. These things I have well weighed in my own mind, – & by developing x what ought to be made clear, & inserting about three hundred lines to make the concluding interest centre upon Madoc (for it is pre at present too much diverted towards Yuhidthiton) [6]  I hope to satisfy myself with the catastrophe.

I think you will act injudiciously if you publish the Soldiers Love. [7]  In the first place it will not sell. Depend upon it that unless a poem has the good luck to become fashionable (upon which the writer has no more reason to calculate than x upon a prize in the lottery) – there are not twenty copies which sell out of the circle of the authors immediate friends, & very few even of those become purchasers. Of the many volumes of poetry which are published every year there is not one in a score which pays the printers bill. Unless you get a bookseller to take the risk of the work (which it is not likely that you will do) you must lay your account at losing seven eighths of what the publication will cost. This is not all. If the Reviews do not treat you with insolence, they will with neglect; – it is the x humour of these evil days. You will be dismissed with half a dozen contemptuous lines in the monthly catalogue, – or if they make you of more consequence, it will only be for the malicious purposes of displaying their talent at sarcasm. In either case your feelings will be wounded, & perhaps, which is far worse, your heart discouraged. These will be the present inconveniences, & hereafter, even if you escaped from these, you will regret the publication as premature. For I am firmly persuaded that you will accomplish things so much better than the Soldiers Love that you yourself will one day be the last person to acknowledge the merit which it displays. – so strongly will you perceive its defects. I am advising you from my own experience, & that of xxxx other persons with whose literary history I am well acquainted, – & this is the uniform & unavoidable consequence of premature publication.

Madoc is perhaps too severely written. Your nature leads you to a more ambitious style & you will do well to follow it, – but beware of amplifying too much. & do not let the path of your narration be hid by the flowers which you scatter as you go on. Always remember too that whenever your subject reaches the height of passion – all thoughts of ornamenting it must be laid aside. You must then trust to the passion itself, – as painters when they want to express exertion delineate the naked xxxxx muscles.

yrs very truly

Robert Southey.

Keswick. Dec. 29. 1809.

The number of the Quarterly is advertised but I do not see the American Annals in the list of its contents. – it has perhaps been postponed till the next time of publication. [8] 


* Address: To/ Mr E Elliott Junr/ Rotherham
Postmark: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsements: Scott has made good [illegible word] of Madoc in the best book of Marmion; no person [illegible word] ever feels malicious injury more than myself. But the unknown author would only be hurt not depressed. There is a person not born who hurts [illegible words] ––––––––––––– What you say of [illegible word] was forcible & just. there is that difficulty of the drama. In your next I will thank you to say what is the price of Holmes annals, and whether Workington notes issued by Bowes are good & payable in your neighbourhood
MS: Ms Hyde 10 (649), Houghton Library, Harvard University. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Southey reviewed Abiel Holmes (1763–1837), American Annals; or, a Chronological History of America, from its Discovery in 1492 to 1806 in the Quarterly Review, 2 (November 1809), 319–337. BACK

[2] William Goffe (c. 1605-c. 1679; DNB), soldier and one of the signatories of the death warrant of Charles I (1600–1649; King of Great Britain 1625–1649; DNB). Condemned to death at the Restoration in 1660, he fled to New England and died there under an assumed name. Southey was sufficiently expressed by Goffe’s story to make it the basis of his unfinished colonial epic Oliver Newman, which he bagan drafting in 1814. It was published posthumously in 1845 in a volume entitled Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished): With Other Poetical Remains. BACK

[3] Southey’s poem Madoc (1805). BACK

[4] Madoc (1805), Part 2, Book 26. BACK

[5] Events in Madoc (1805), Part 2, Books 15, 18 and 25. BACK

[6] A character in Madoc, Yuhidthiton is the ruler of the Aztec tribe. BACK

[7] Elliott’s unrealised plan for a poem on the British conquest of Canada in 1759–1763. Southey had previously expressed his interest in this project; see Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 13 October 1808 (Letter 1519) and 22 November 1809 (Letter 1711). See also Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 9 February 1810 (Letter 1743) and 1 August 1810 (Letter 1796), The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four. BACK

[8] See note 1. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)