452. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 27 October 1799

452. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 27 October 1799 ⁠* 

You give me a more favourable account of Mackintosh [1]  than I have been accustomed to receive. Coleridge has seen much of him at the Wedgewoods. [2]  he describes him as acute in argument, more skilful in detecting the logical errors of his adversary than in propounding truth himself, – a man accustomed to the gladiatorship of conversation, a literary fencer who parrys better than he thrusts. I suspect that in praising Jeremy Taylor [3]  & in over-rating him, he talks after Coleridge, who is a heathen in literature & ranks the old bishop among his demigods. I am not enough conversant with his writings to judge how accurately he <you> appreciate him – the Holy Living & Dying every body knows – & it has splendid parts; – his Ductor Dubitantium [4]  I procured just before leaving Bristol my departure from Bristol & it lies in my unopened baggage. what Coleridge values in these old writers is their structure of paragraph, where sentence is built upon sentence with architectural regularity, each resting upon the other like the geometrical stairs at St Pauls.

In Davys verses I see aspirations after genius & powers of language, all that can be expected in so young a writer. did I promise more? but it is my common fault usually to over-rate whatever I am newly acquainted with. Towards the close of the Sons of Genius [5]  there are some fine stanzas – as a whole it is tedious & feeble – but it was the production of eighteen – Davy is a surprizing young man & one who by his unassumingness, his open warmth of character, & his all-promising talents, soon conciliates ones affections. he writes me that two paralytic patients have been cured by the gazeous oxyd of azote [6]  – the beatific gas for discovering which if he had lived in the time of the old Persian Kings, he would have received the reward proposed for the inventing a new pleasure. [7]  – the goose & gooseberry bush are mine. [8] 

Perhaps it is the consciousness of a garrulous tendency in writing that impels me with such decided & almost exclusive choice to narrative poetry. the few books of the Italia Liberata [9]  which I read at Norwich, did me more service towards correcting this fault than any other lesson could have done. in Madoc I think I have avoided it. sometimes too it is serviceable, wherever there are passages of prominent merit. there should be a plain around the pyramids. As a poet I consider myself as out of my apprenticeship, & having learnt the command of my tools. if I live I may, & believe I shall, make a good workman, but at present I am only a promising one. it is an unfavourable circumstance that my writings are only subjected to the criticism of those persons whose tastes are in great measure formed upon mine, & who are prepared to admire whatever I may write.

I have now extracted the kernel of the Zend-Avesta. [10]  the outline of the mythology is fine – & well adapted for poetry because the system is comprehensible. How the Hindoo fables could ever appear poetical to Sir William Jones [11]  is to me inconceivable. their intricacy unfits them. much as the ground has been travelled over I doubt whether any one could trace the outline of a map. the Runic x System Edda [12]  is the most magnificent of all these systems – if indeed it ever was more than a poets creed. I will one day graft a story upon it to contrast with the Oriental picture in Thalaba.

My frequent movements have hitherto prevented me from attacking the Noachide, [13]  Dictionaries would have swoln my travelling package too much. now however I will force my way thro & endeavour xxx soon to return you a book which I have already detained too long.

Inclosed is the remaining half of the bill. it was the cause of my writing. In passing thro Dorchester I visited Gilbert Wakefield, whom I found in good health & spirits – & probably Massena [14]  has improved his spirits since. in politics he seemed to have the comfortable faith of an optimist. for myself I have the longing after peace which yo[MS torn] may imagine an invalid feels, who wants to visit the South of France & Italy. the bell ringing for peace should be the signal for my departure.

Burnett I suppose is gone for Edinburgh. – We have found Tom. his capture was a newspaper report – he is returned to Plymouth after a long cruise. [15] 

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

Burton. Oct. 27. 1799.


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr/ Surry Street/ Norwich./ Single
Postmark: E/ OCT 28/ 99
Endorsement: Ansd 1 Nov
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4825. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 302–305 [in part]. BACK

[1] James Mackintosh (1765–1832; DNB), Scottish writer and politician, had gradually retreated from the radical views expressed in Vindiciae Gallicae: a Defence of the French Revolution and its English Admirers (1791). He had been visiting Norwich; see Taylor to Southey, 18 October 1799, J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 297–298. BACK

[2] In 1798 Mackintosh had married Catherine Allen (d. 1830), sister-in-law of Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843) and John Wedgwood (1766–1844) of the Wedgwood pottery manufacturers. BACK

[3] Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667; DNB), clergyman and author of The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650) and the Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651). BACK

[4] Jeremy Taylor, Ductur Dubitantium, or The Rule of Conscience in All Her General Measures (1660). Southey possessed a 1671 edition of this work, no. 2670 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[5] Humphry Davy, ‘The Sons of Genius’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 93–99, signed ‘D. 1796’. BACK

[6] Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. BACK

[7] Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), Tusculanae Quaestiones (45 BC), 5.7 claimed the Persian emperor Xerxes (c. 520–465 BC, Emperor of Persia 486–465 BC) had offered a reward to any philosopher who could invent a new pleasure. Nobody claimed the reward. BACK

[8] Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), Sonnet VI, ‘To a Goose’ (p. 136) and Sonnet XV, ‘That gooseberry-bush attracts my wandering eyes’ (p. 145). BACK

[9] Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478–1550), La Italia Liberata da Gothi (1547–8). BACK

[10] Southey had been reading Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron (1731–1805), Zend-Avesta (1771), a French translation of the sacred writings of Zoroastrianism. BACK

[11] Sir William Jones (1746–1794; DNB), one of Britain’s foremost orientalists. BACK

[12] The 13th-century ‘Poetic Edda’, an Icelandic collection of poens, contains most that is known of Norse mythology. BACK

[13] Johann Jakob Bodmer (1698–1783), Die Noachide (1751). Southey probably did not finish it until 26 March 1800, and then dismissed it as a ‘bad poem’; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 2. BACK

[14] Jean-Andre Massena (1758–1817), French general, commander during the French victory at the Second Battle of Zurich, 25–26 September 1799. BACK

[15] Newspaper reports confirmed Tom Southey’s ship, the Sylph, had not been captured, but had safely returned to Plymouth after a long cruise; see, for example, Morning Chronicle, 26 October 1799. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Norwich (mentioned 1 time)
Burton (mentioned 1 time)