1881. Robert Southey to John Theodore Koster, 7 March 1811

1881. Robert Southey to John Theodore Koster, 7 March 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. March 7. 1811.

My dear Sir

When Longman remedies his vexatious neglect by sending you the Brazil book, [1]  he will tie up with it a copy of Kehama. [2]  I believe you care as little about poetry as I do about metaphysics, tho perhaps you may not think it quite so mischievous; nevertheless as you have thought it worth while to read a criticism upon this poem, written by a man who is equally incapable of understanding either its merits or defects, you may possibly think it worth while to read the work itself. The criticism in question I have not yet seen, but in speaking thus of Jeffray (who is the writer) I speak from a full knowledge of his incapacity, acquired in conversation with him, and proved to be well founded by every criticism which he has ever ventured to write upon a volume of verses. [3] 

With regard to the metre of the poem, to which your remark applies, it may as well be tried by algebra as by music. There is no connection between an ear for music and an ear for metre. I have heard musicians of established character for eminence in their own science, mis-read and mis-repeat verses, so as to show that they are not only utterly ignorant of metre, but utterly insensible of it, – a thing which I should not have believed, had it not fallen under my own observation. Do not fancy I am dealing in paradoxes if I add that the power of versification is distinct from a genius for poetry. The best versifier of our age was poor Mrs. Robinson, [4]  who wrote nonsense. I have known many men whose fluency in versifying was marvellous, and who were yet vile writers, and on the other hand I could show you works full of thought and feeling and poetical power, which have all been wasted because the authors were incapable of writing verse.

Now whatever may be the merits or demerits of the matter of my poems, the subject of metre is one which I most assuredly understand. No Druid had ever from his earliest youth a greater aptitude for versifying, few have ever practised it more, and still fewer have ever studied it so much. [5]  Men who are not poets, will criticise the metre of a single line, which in most cases is just as absurd as it would be to pass sentence upon its meaning, apart from the context.

The whole paragraph in which it is placed ought to be taken into view, before the relation of (perhaps) a single syllable can be understood.

Kehama is written in a measure which unites the freedom of blank verse with rhyme. You will probably hear it talked of as an innovation, for which (were that true) it would neither be better nor worse. But the fact is that (with one trifling exception) there is no novelty, and the practises at which I doubt not Jeffray’s jog-trot criticism has stumbled, are established usages in the poetry of other countries, not differing from our own in the character of their verses, that is to say whose verses are formed by accent and not by quantity. The exception to which I have alluded is that of making the first and last syllables of the same line rhyme to each other.

For the poem itself you will no doubt be ready to ask me the same question as the Cardinal asked Ariosto, [6]  and your opinion will not be so soon confuted by the public. I wrote it in full expectation that there were not above a dozen persons who would thoroughly enjoy it at present. I was mistaken, for there are at least a score. The reviewal of it in the Quarterly is by Walter Scott. [7]  If it be a Poet’s privilege as well as an Englishman’s to be tried by his peers, I reckon all mine among the score above-mentioned, and have a right to challenge any other jury.

Your pamphlet [8]  is in Mr. De Quincey’s hands, or I would not have written to you without having again examined the point on which you had failed to convince me. I see you have met with a disputant, [9]  who cannot be a very clear-headed one since he sets out on his advertisement by denying what you have so plainly proved about Depreciation. But respecting gold I can have no doubt that you have made a discovery, perfectly original, and of prime importance.

La Pena [10]  is most unreasonably abused. He was only sulking and had some cause for it. The evil lay in putting two men to act together who did not agree.

I thank you for your friendly invitation and shall gladly profit by it whenever we come to Liverpool. But our motions are as yet uncertain.

Believe me, my dear Sir,

Yrs very truly

Robert Southey.


* MS: Instituto Historico e Geografico Brasileiro, Rio de Janeiro; text taken from Sousa-Leão
Previously published: Joaquim de Sousa-Leão, ‘Cartas de Robert Southey a Theodore Koster e Henry Koster, anos de 1804 a 1819’, Revista do Instituto Historico e Geografico Brasileiro, 178 (1943), 41–43. BACK

[1] History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[2] Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[3] Francis Jeffrey’s review of the Curse of Kehama (1810) appeared in Edinburgh Review, 34 (February 1811), 429–465. BACK

[4] Mary Robinson (1757–1800; DNB), poet and novelist. BACK

[5] Druidical training was alleged to consist of learning verses by heart for up to twenty years. BACK

[6] Cardinal Ippolito d’Este (1479–1520) was the patron of Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1533). When the poet dedicated Orlando Furioso (1516) to his patron, the Cardinal’s only response was ‘Where did you find so many stories, Master Ludovic ?’ BACK

[7] Scott’s review of the Curse of Kehama (1810) appeared in Quarterly Review, 5 (February 1811), pp. 40–61. BACK

[8] J. T. Koster, A Short Statement of the Trade in Gold Bullion: with an attempt to shew that bank-notes are not depreciated (1810). BACK

[9] A Letter to J. T. Koster, Esq., in which the arguments used by that gentleman, to demonstrate that bank notes are not depreciated, are considered and refuted; also, in which it is contended, that Mr Huskisson has not determined the extent to which bank notes are depreciated (1811). BACK

[10] The Spanish general, Manuel la Pena (fl. 1808–1811). He was dismissed and court-martialled for his failings at the Battle of Barrosa on 5 Match 1811, but Southey may be referring to his conduct at the Battle of Tudela on 23 November 1808, when he did not move to support General Francisco Javier Castanos, 1st Duke of Bailen (1758–1852). BACK

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