3181. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 12 August 1818

3181. Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 12 August 1818 ⁠* 

I was absent from home when your letter arrived, – & much occupied after my return. – Now then for your poem, [1]  – & remember that criticism cannot be too minute, nor too rigid when it is in time to prevent what is faulty from being rendered permanent by the press.

It is not well to rhyme upon the same vowel (if the sound be strongly marked) in succession, as you have done in the first & second four lines: ‘climb’ & ‘divine’, – bare {‘says’} & ‘gaze’. [2]  Perhaps my ear may be the more sensible of this because I am accustomed to Spanish poetry in which the most popular metre requires no other similarity of sound than that the {two} final syllables of the alternate lines should contain the same vowels. [3] 

‘We’ll shroud in dark obscurity’. To shroud is one of those verbs which xxxx xxxxxxxxxxx after them will not admit the omission of the word to which they apply. You mean to say shroud ourselves, – there is another fault in the line obscurity must be dark, & therefore the epithet is superfluous. This is a case in which two faults are better than one, because both are in getting rid of one you will amend the other.

I would rather call them children than cherubs, – we take the resemblance from tombstones only, – this is a mere matter of individual taste, – cottage children are generally chubby enough for cherubs, but seldom clean enough.

To scan a vision is an awkward expression – nor is it well to speak of gazing on the forms of other days, which is confounding too much visible with ideal objects.

Have you not made your father too old? Having been a pastor sixty years he must be at least 82, – but you do not mean Ellen to be over one or two & twenty. – ‘The parent dove’ seems an expression too obviously created by the rhyme. ‘Clear’ is not a happy epithet for the tones of infancy. – It is not from weeds that a germ requires guarding, so much as from other things – all this however is very pretty & with a sweet flow of tender female feeling. I doubt whether in such circumstances the sort of illusion which you describe in looking at his grown daughter could arise, – man himself changes too much for it. – ‘And scattered times unresting feet, with blessings,’ – if I understand this rightly, it is an awkward passage. ‘Hope & ‘spoke’ cannot be allowed as rhymes, tho I would always allow large license: moreover the word ought to be spoken. So also ‘wove’ ought to be be ‘woven’.

You cannot say ‘the tide of the kettle’. Never force a word out of its appropriate meaning, unless there be a peculiar propriety in doing it: ‘Slumber seals his drowsy brain’ get rid of this if you can passages of this kind require an easiness of expression, – any thing forced or violent is out of place, & here the strong metaphor is evidently produced for the sake of the rhyme. – ‘Wove’ is once more used instead of ‘woven’ in this canto. – All that follows, till the last four lines, is evidently fresh from the heart.

Where relief & rest
And needful care might wait him best –

I am {not} sure that I read this word rightly, but if I do it is not well exprest. – And it would be better to say ‘whose lowly home to rest Now welcomed’ &c – than to make rest the welcomer. It is one of the faults of modern poetry that it uses figurative language too lavishly, & thus lessens its effect when it is required.

The lapse of time is marked with right poetical feeling. But the primrose bank & the Orchard cannot pass away. [4]  It is to such improprieties as these that I wish particularly to draw your attention; – most persons are insensible to them & yet they make one great part of the difference between writing well or ill. – I doubt whether ‘hoary hair’ will not strike the reader as being improper, because we always speak of grey hairs. The line which presently follows about the sparrow is a bad one, & appears worse because it brings to mind the beautiful expression in the Gospel. [5]  Confidence & Providence are not rhymes the sound being the same in both words. [6]  – A sigh does not make the lips quiver. – ‘Can mortal designate his own’: – call would be a better word here being the more obvious one. – ‘The heart that trusts in man must bleed – And leans’, &c: – it is not the heart that leans. [7]  – Roof, truth: not allowable as rhymes. A Garlands votive twine, – alter this & the whole passage is xx very pleasing, – only in the beginning of the Canto Ellens youth should not be called gay as well as buoyant, – there was an end of all its gaiety. ‘Disappointed misery’ is an odd combination of words – for misery is never disappointed. – ‘Spark’ will not do with ‘heart’, & in the next couplet the metaphor is changed, which it ought not to be. – Womans heart may be the seat of love, but you would not call it its clime, if the verse had not betrayed you into it. This is the danger which you have to guard against when you write in rhyme, – it continually tempts the writer to forced constructions & a violent use of words out of their proper place. ‘All forgot’ – should be ‘forgotten’. – The conclusion of this Canto serves the metaphor so far, that at first I thought she had thrown herself into the water. The fault may be as likely in the reader as in the writer.

I have thus gone thro three cantos. & as there is not room to conclude the poem upon this sheet, the others must be reserved for another letter which shall follow in a few days. You will find this dull enough, – but do not consider it disheartening, – for if I had not thought that {the} virtues xx {greatly} preponderated I should never have bestowed a moments attention upon the faults – nor would I point them out for any other purpose than that they might be corrected in time.

Farewell. In the course of a few days you shall have the remainder of these unconnected remarks. Be of good heart, – & do not whatever may be the fate of this poem do not be discouraged from planning & executing others.

Yrs faithfully


Keswick. 12 Aug. 1818.


* Address: To/ Miss Bowles/ Buckland/ near Lymington/ Hampshire
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 15 AU 15/ 1818
Endorsements: To Miss Caroline Bowles/ Keswick 12 August 1818; 12 Aug 1818
MS: British Library, Add MS 47889. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] The manuscript poem ‘Ellen Fitzarthur’ that Bowles had sent to Southey, seeking advice on bringing it to publication. Southey sent it to Murray, who did not publish it; Longmans did, in 1820. BACK

[2] Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. [v] changed these rhymes to ‘sublime’ and ‘climb’, and ‘gaze’ and ‘rays’. Almost all the following deletions and changes that Southey recommended were made in the published poem. BACK

[3] The assonant rhyme scheme often used in medieval Spanish romances, as in ‘Cantar de Mio Cid’, which Southey had translated in Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[4] Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 29, made it clear that it was the ‘primrose blossom’ and ‘sheeted bloom of orchard gray’ that actually ‘passed away’. BACK

[5] Matthew 10: 28–31, ‘Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows’. BACK

[6] Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 31, changed the rhyme to ‘pious sense’ and ‘confidence’. BACK

[7] Ellen Fitzarthur: a Metrical Tale, in Five Cantos (London, 1820), p. 38, retained: ‘The heart that trusts in man must bleed,/ And leans upon a broken reed.’ BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)