3119. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend [fragment], 12 April 1818

3119. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend [fragment], 12 April 1818 ⁠* 

Keswick, April 12. 1818.

My dear Chauncey.

I have just finished Henry Milman’s poem, a work of great power. [1]  But the story is ill constructed, and the style has a vice analogous to that which prevailed in prose about 170 years ago, when every composition was overlaid with strained thoughts and far-fetched allusions. The faults here are a perpetual stretch and strain of feeling; and the too frequent presence of the narrator, bringing his own fancies and meditations in the foreground, and thereby – as in French landscape-engraving – calling off attention from the main subject, and destroying the effect. With less poetry Samor would have been a better poem. Milman has been endeavouring to adapt the moody and thoughtful character of Wordsworth’s philosophical poetry to heroic narration: they are altogether incompatible; and Wordsworth himself, when he comes to narrate in his higher strains, throws it aside like a wrestler’s garment, and is as severe a writer as Dante, [2]  who is the great master in this style. If Milman can perceive or be persuaded of his fault, he has powers enough for any thing; but it is a seductive manner, and I think that as our poetry in Cowley’s days [3]  was overrun with conceits of thought, it is likely in the next generation to be overflown with this exuberance of feeling.

This is a great error. That poetry (I am speaking of heroic narrative) which would reach the heart, must go straight to the mark like an arrow. Away with all trickery and ornaments when pure beauty is to be represented in picture or in marble; away with drapery when you would display muscular strength. Call artifices of this kind to your aid in those feebler parts which must occur in every narrative, and which ought to be there to give the other parts their proper relief.

Henry Milman was here, with an elder brother, [4]  about four years ago, who lodged at Keswick for some twelve months. He is a fine young man: and his powers are very great. They are, however, better fitted for the drama than for narration; the drama admits his favourite strain of composition, and is easier in its structure. [5]  Indeed, it is as much easier to plan a play than a poem of such magnitude as Samor, as it is to build a gentleman’s house than a cathedral.

Do you know anything of Sir George Dallas? [6]  He has sent me some marvellous verses by a son of his not yet thirteen; [7]  as great a prodigy as I have ever read of. Verse appears as easy to him as speech; Latin verse is at his fingers’ end like English; and he has acted a part in a play of his own composition like another young Roscius. [8]  . . . . . . .

I am busy with history myself, and have written no poetry for many months; why this disuse, there is here hardly room to explain, if it were worth explanation. The account of Lope de Vega in the last Quarterly is mine, as you would probably guess. [9]  I have read widely in Spanish poetry; and might in historical and literary recollections call myself half a Spaniard, if, being half a Portuguese also, this would leave any room for the English part of my intellectual being. I anticipate much pleasure in showing you the treasures with which I am surrounded here upon these shelves. God bless you!

R. S.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 301–303. BACK

[1] Samor, Lord of the Bright City (1818), an epic by Henry Hart Milman. BACK

[2] Dante Aligheri (c. 1265–1321). BACK

[3] i.e. in the seventeenth century, in the time of Abraham Cowley (1618–1667; DNB). BACK

[4] Probably his eldest brother William George Milman (1781–1857), who had spent an extended period in Keswick in 1813; see Southey to Thomas Southey, 24 February 1813, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2224. BACK

[5] Henry Hart Milman’s first poetical publication had been the verse drama Fazio (1815). BACK

[6] Sir George Dallas, 1st Baronet (1758–1833; DNB), expert on Indian affairs. BACK

[7] Robert Charles Dallas (1804–1874), youngest son of Sir George Dallas. His Ode to the Duke of Wellington, and Other Poems was published in 1819. One of the works it contained was part of his drama, Sallust; or the Tyrant Punished, in which Dallas had acted the leading role aged eleven; see Samuel Griswold Goodrich (1793–1860), The Cabinet of Curiosities, 2 vols (Hartford, 1822), II, pp. 117–118. BACK

[8] A generic term for an actor, after the Roman actor, Quintus Roscius Gallus (c. 126–62 BC). BACK

[9] Southey’s notice of Lord Holland, Some Account of the Lives and Writings of Lope Felix de Vega Carpio, and Guillen de Castro (1817), in Quarterly Review, 18 (October 1817), 1–46. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)