1778. Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 11 May 1810

1778. Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 11 May 1810 ⁠* 

Durham. May 11. 1810

My dear Scott

Yesterday evening on my return from the Race Ground [1]  I found your Poem [2]  lying on the table, – a provoking engagement called me from it for two or three hours, but notwithstanding this, & my obstinate habit of getting early to bed, I did not go to rest till I had finished the book. Every readers first thought, when he begins to think at all, will be to compare you with yourself, – if I may judge from my own feelings the Lady will be a greater favourite than either of her elder brethren. [3]  There is in all the same skilful inscrutability of story till the artist is pleased to touch the spring which lays the whole mechanism machine open, – but while on the plot is xxx thus well wound up in the xxxxx <new poem> I think the narrative is more uniformly perspicuous than in the two former poems. There is in all the same <a> like originality & beauty of circumstances, – I am not willing to admit that some of the situations in the Lay & Marmion can be outdone, – & if I thought they were outdone last night, & still incline to think so, it is probably because new impressions are more vivid than the strongest recollection.

I wished most of the songs [4]  away when on the first perusal – on recurring to them I was glad they were there; – yet whenever they interrupt the narrative without in any way tending to carry on the business of the story, my admiration of the things themselves does not prevent me from thinking them misplaced. – your title is likely to be a popular one, – & for that very reason I wish it had not been chosen. Of course it led me to expect some tale of Merlin, & <or> King Arthurs days, – but what it is of some <real> consequence to one who loves old lays is that whenever hereafter the Lady of the Lake will be mentioned, most readers will suppose xxxx your Ellen is intended, [5]  – & in this way a sort of offence against antiquity has been committed. This is something in the manner of Momus’s criticism [6]  – to find fault with the trinkets of the Lady & with her name. But I heartily give you joy of the poem & congratulate you with perfect confidence upon the success which you have a right to expect, which you deserve, & which you will find. – The portrait seems more like the more I look at it, – & my friend Camp is <now> doubly immortalized. [7]  This reminds me of the dog in the poem, – an incident so fine that it bears as well as courts xx comparison with one of the most affecting passages in Homer. [8] 

Longman was instructed to send you my Brazil. [9]  I hope to get a long spell at the concluding volume [10]  before it is xxxx necessary to fall seriously to work upon the second Register. [11]  What you will think of Kehama [12] . I am not quite sure, – of what the public will think I can have & never have had the slightest doubt. No subject could have been devised more remote from human sympathies, & there are <so> few persons who are capable of standing aloof from them, that the subject must be admitted to have been improvidently chosen, – if in chusing it I had had any other motive than that of pleasing myself, & some half-a dozen others. xxxx If it had been my intention to provoke censure I could not have done it more effectually, – for without intending any innovation, & or being at first sensible of any I have fallen into a style of versification xxxx as unusual as xxx the groundwork of the story. With this however I am well satisfied. It seems to me to unite the powers of rhyme & blank verse better than has ever before been done. – I have written the first canto of Pelayo, [13]  in blank verse, & without machinery. This promises to be a striking poem, & if it were ready now might perhaps in some degree be a useful one.

The metre of the Lady is to me less agreable than the more varied measure; –there is an advantage in writing in a metre to which you h one has been little accustomed; it necessarily induces xxxx a <certain> change of style, – & this xxx xxx enables the writer to clothe his old conceptions in so different a garb that they appear new even to himself. The alteration which you have made is not sufficiently great to obtain this advantage, & variety is sacrificed without acquiring there is a loss of variety, from which I should have predicted a loss of freedom & a loss of power. This however is amply confuted by the poem, which certainly was is never deficient either in force or freedom.

I shall return home in the course of a fortnight, – a short interval of idleness makes me feel impatient to get once more to my books & my desk.

pray remember me to Mrs Scott & believe me

very affectionately yours

Robert Southey


* Address: To/ Walter Scott Esqr/ Edinburgh
Stamped: Durham 263
Postmark: [partial] MY/ 15
Seal: [partial]
Watermark: shield/ 1805/ T BOTTING
Endorsement: R. Southey/ 11 May 1810
MS: National Library of Scotland, MS 3879. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 284–287. BACK

[1] Southey had been attending the race meeting at Newcastle, particularly to observe the famous Long Main cock fight. BACK

[2] Scott’s The Lady of the Lake (1810). It sold over 20,000 copies in the year of its publication. BACK

[3] The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1808). BACK

[4] The Lady of the Lake embeds a series of separate lyrics and ballads (as well as tales and descriptive set pieces) into the overarching framework of the poem. BACK

[5] i.e. readers will from henceforth think of Ellen Douglas, heroine of Scott’s poem, as the ‘Lady of the Lake’, and not the character from Arthurian legend, who fell in love with Lancelot. BACK

[6] i.e. unfair criticism, in the spirit of Momus, the Greek god of censure, satire and mockery. BACK

[7] Scott’s favourite dog was his bull-terrier, named Camp, who died in 1809. He appeared in a portrait of Scott by James Saxon (fl. 1795–1828) painted in 1805, which was used as the basis for the frontispiece engraving of Scott in The Lady of the Lake. BACK

[8] Stumah (Faithful), a dog who stands guard over the corpse of his master; see Lady of the Lake (Edinburgh, 1810), p. 119. The comparison is with the Odyssey’s portrayal of Argos, the loyal hound who recognises his master, Odysseus, on his return to Ithaca. BACK

[9] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810). BACK

[10] Southey, in fact, still had two volumes of his Brazilian history to write: these were published in 1817 and 1819, respectively. BACK

[11] Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809 (1811). BACK

[12] The Curse of Kehama (1810) BACK

[13] The early incarnation of what became Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK