757. Robert Southey to John May, [c. 31 January 1803]

757. Robert Southey to John May, [c. 31 January 1803] ⁠* 

My dear friend

If I am not greatly deceived the Scotch Review [1]  may be answered satisfactorily wherever it forms a specific objection. It is stated as an inconsistency that Thalaba should be saved when his family was destroyed, because the stars appointed that hour for his danger: – Okba began at the wrong end, he knew not which was the Destroyer, & the moment of danger past. [2]  it must be remembered that the most absolute fatalism is the main spring of Mohammeds religion & therefore the principle always referred to in the poem. the same objection is made to the declaration of Azrael, that one must die Laila or Thalaba. [3]  if you remember the dogma that also is clear. Allah, like Popes Deity, Binding Nature fast in fate – left free the human will. [4]  The Simoom kills Abdaldar in spite of the ring. [5]  is providential interposition inconsistent with my story?

Sint licet expertes vitæ sensusque, capessunt

Jussa tamen Superûm venti. [6] 

The Destroyers arrow cannot kill Lobaba, but does kill Aloadins Bird. [7]  whoever has read the Arabian Tales [8]  must know that tho the Talisman gives magical powers, any human hand may destroy a Talisman. it is a brittle & destructible. Lobaba is ‘knockd down by a shower of sand of his own rising.’ [9]  my dear friend you have incautiously admitted ridicule as the test of truth, for the whole force of this review consists only in the apt use of ridicule. could you, or can you perceive any thing of the absurdity implied in this particular instance, when you read that Driven by the Breath of God A column of the Desart met his way? [10] 

Thalaba is enabled to read the unintelligible letters on the ring by the help of some other unintelligible letters on a locust. look at the poem & you will see that this is falsely stated. [11]  the Reviewer does not understand how Thalaba knows he has been commissioned to destroy his fathers murderers. he had only looked over the Poem that to find faults which he might abuse. had he read it with honest attention this objection could not have been invented. the Spirit in the Tent told him We knew from the Race of Hodeirah the destined Destroyer should come. [12]  What other of that Race was left?

I was more pleased than praise usually can please me, when you told me that you liked Thalaba. because it is of approbation like yours that I am most desirous. do not misunderstand this as a flattering compliment – it was not as a critical reader to whose critical opinion I could defer that I looked for your approbation. but as a man who would read with no nine-&-thirty articles [13]  of taste to fetter his free judgement, & who if the poem itself pleased <him> would say so without caring whether it was written after the laws of Aristotle. [14]  If the book were the patchwork piece of absurdity that this Reviewer represents it, could it possibly have pleased you? – If gross misrepresentation be detected in any part of the Review, may you not fairly impute as a disposition <suspect> an unfair disposition in the writers mind? Some instances of such misrepresentation I have already pointed out. there remain enough other such. because I have imitated one passage (& that a most beautiful one) from Bishop Taylor, [15]  he says the poem is made up of scraps of old sermons! because with a very wise pri feeling of pride as well as honesty, I gave in my notes all the hints & traditions of which I had availed myself, he calls the poem says I have versified my common-place book, & allows me no invention, never noticing what of the story is wholly original, nor that the structure of the whole is so. now I will avow myself confident enough to ask you if you know any other poem of equal originality except the Faery Queen, [16]  which I regard almost with a religious love & veneration.

With regard to that part of the Review which relates to Wordsworth, it has obviously no relation whatever to Thalaba. nor can there be a stronger proof of want of discernment, or want of candour, than in grouping together three men so different in style as Wordsworth & Coleridge & myself under one head. the fault of Coleridge has been a too-swelling diction. you who know his poems know xxx whether they ought to be abused for mean language. Of Thalaba the language rises & falls with the subject, & is always in a high key. I wish you would read the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth. some of them are very faulty, but indeed I would risk my whole future fame on the assertion that they will one <day> be regarded as the finest poems in our language. I refer you particularly to The Brothers, a poem on Tintern Abbey, & Michael.  [17]  Now with Wordsworth I have no intimacy – scarcely any acquaintance. in whatever we resemble each other, the resemblance has sprung – not I believe from chance, but because we have both studied poetry, & indeed it is no light or easy study – in the same school – in the works of Nature, & in the heart of Man.

My dear friend I have a full & well grounded faith in the hope you express that my reputation will indeed stand high hereafter. already I have enough, but it will be better discriminated hereafter. Upon Madoc [18]  I am taking <exercising> severe revision. you will see Thalaba corrected whenever it be reprinted. my time is unhappily frittered away in little money-getting employments, of silent & obscure exertion haud facile emergunt quorum virtutibus &c [19]  – . howbeit I am contented – that is too poor a word – I am pleased & satisfied with my lot. in a profession I might have made a fortune. I shall yet make what will be a fortune to me, & that in a way obedient to the call & impulse of my own nature & best adapted to develope every moral & intellectual germ implanted in me. now I must by many be regarded as an improvident man, squandering talents that might have made him opulent & raised him to a high rank. upon their views I confess the charge: but it is a virtue for which I already receive the award of my own applause, & shall receive the highest rewards as the feelings & truths which I shall enforce, produce their effect age after age, whic so long as our language & our literature endure

I have had an unpleasant affair with my publishers. I engaged to make a version of Amadis of Gaul [20]  anonymously. for which I have sixty pounds. forty more on the sale of the edition, & 30 on the sale of a second edition. they very incautiously tho certainly with no mean motive, mentioned my name, & it got into the newspapers. I have been therefore obliged to make a new agreement – to avow the work – receive £100 instead of the 60. fifty when the edition is sold – & half the profit of all after editions.

God bless you my dear friend

Robert Southey

Robert Lovell has no claim to the freedom of London. his father was a Quaker of Bristol. Coleridge is with me, & I believe going abroad for his health which suffers dreadfully from this climate.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry
Postmarks: [partial] o’Clock/ JA 31/ 1803 F.Nn.; B/ JAN 31/ 1803
Endorsement: No 7[MS obscured] 1803/ Robert Southey/ No date/ recd: 31rd Jany/ ansd: 13th Feb.
MS: Boston Public Library, MS C.1.22.5. ALS; 4p. (c).
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 214-217 [dated 1803]. BACK

[1] The review of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) by Francis Jeffrey in Edinburgh Review, 1 (October 1802), 63-83. BACK

[2] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 2, lines 56-86. BACK

[3] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 10, lines 412-418. BACK

[4] Alexander Pope (1688-1744; DNB), The Universal Prayer (1738), lines 11-12. BACK

[5] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 2, lines 393-401 BACK

[6] Pierre Mambrun (1600-1661), Constantinus Sive Idolatria Debellata (1658), p. 54. The Latin translates as ‘Though they have no share of life and feeling, yet the winds adopt the commands of the powers above’. This quotation was used as an epigraph to Book 2 of Thalaba the Destroyer from the second edition of 1809 onwards. BACK

[7] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 4, lines 533-543; Book 7, lines 245-256. BACK

[8] A collection of Middle-Eastern and South-Asian folk tales, known as the Arabian Nights from the first English language edition of 1706. BACK

[9] Edinburgh Review, 1 (October 1802), 76. BACK

[10] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 4, lines 568-569. BACK

[11] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 3, lines 421-450. BACK

[12] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 3, lines 152-153. BACK

[13] The Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion which define Anglican doctrine in the Book of Common Prayer. BACK

[14] Aristotle (384-322 BC), Poetics defined the rules for epic poetry. BACK

[15] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 8, lines 226-237 is a versification of Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667; DNB), ‘The Miracles of Divine Mercy’, Sermon XXV of XXVIII Sermons Preached at Golden Grove (1654), p. 325. BACK

[16] Edmund Spenser (1552-1599; DNB), The Faerie Queene (1590-1596). BACK

[17] William Wordsworth, Lyrical Ballads, with Other Poems, 2 vols (London, 1800), I, pp. 201-210; II, pp. 19-45 and 199-225. BACK

[18] Southey had completed a version of Madoc in 1797-1799. He was revising it for publication, but it did not appear until 1805. BACK

[19] A partial quotation of Decimus Iunius Iuvenal (fl. late 1st century and early 2nd century AD), Satire 3, lines 164-165; ‘They do not easily rise whose virtues are held back by the straitened circumstances of their home’. BACK

[20] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803), published by Longman and Rees. BACK

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