1990. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 29 November 1811

1990. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 29 November 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. Nov. 29. 1811.

Montgomery, I have just laid down your last volume [1]  with a feeling of regret, – not unmingled with something like self-reproach, that you & I should still be strangers to each other. My plans have twice been laid for taking Sheffield in the way to London, for the sole purpose of seeing you, & I each time they have been defeated by unforeseen circumstances; – but I might before this have told you what pleasure it would give me to shake you by the hand, & how proud I should be to do it under my own roof. Come & visit me as soon as the fair season returns. You will find plain fare, books, perfect liberty, & a sincere welcome from persons who already love & admire the poet. You shall have a bedroom from whence you will see the moonlight upon Derwentwater. I will row you upon the Lake, & be your guide upon the mountains.

When shall we see your World before the Flood? [2]  The Deluge is one of those subjects which I had chosen many years ago, before historical pursuits had in a great measure, weaned me from poetry. In 1801 when on my passage from Lisbon to England, the imaginations which had long been floating in my mind matured into something like a plan. [3]  To account for the universal corruption which deserved such a chastisement I supposed an universal monarchy, – such as Louis 14 [4]  or Buonaparte [5]  would establish, – an absolute Tyrant, & a persecuting & atheistic hierarchy. I conceived that the perversion of morals extended even to those who opposed this system, – & that while they were organizing a sort of Irish Rebellion [6]  against it, the Ruling Powers anticipated them, & by a general massacre like that of St Bartholomews day, [7]  filled up the measure of iniquity. Some striking characters & situations grew out of this conception, but two objections I laid it aside feeling how impossible it was to amalgamate in the readers xxxxx mind so much pure fiction with a history so familiar.

Josiah Conder told me your poem is in the couplet. I have no prejudice in favour of any one measure for narrative poetry, – the tone & character of the narrative always with me determine what the metre should be, – but of all measures the heroic couplet seems to me the most unsuitable for narration. You have broken yours by a free admixture of pauses in your West Indies, & in so doing you have gained much; still I dislike it, it continually seduces the writer to commit sins against good sense & good English, he aims at pointing his meaning instead of bringing it distinctly out, gets into all the tricks of antithesis, & when he should be thinking & feeling, passes off a sort of way-jolt of words both upon himself & <his> readers. Our poetry owes half its barbarisms to this metre. You will do with it all that can be done, & I have no doubt will avoid its natural faults as far as they can be avoided. Were I to use a regular rhymed measure for narration, I think it should be the trinal rhyme of Dante, [8]  breaking its endlessness by dividing it into xxxxxx paragraphs, & considering myself as beginning a new anew with every fresh one.

Of your last volume [9]  the Harp of Sorrow, the Cast Away Ship, & the last poem are what I most delight in. Some of the stanzas respecting the Blenheim [10]  are the finest things of the kind in all our poetry, – exceeding the Royal George of Cowper, [11]  which I have was before unrivalled. “On Indias long-expecting strand”, – & the concluding stanza are as fine as they can be. & those lines He sailed above his fathers head Unconscious where it lay, – are to my feelings perfectly sublime. The concluding poem carries me with it throughout. This is one of those pieces which in your own peculiar manner, a manner to which I have never seen any resemblance except in the odes of Klopstock, [12]  as they have been read to me in literal English. Like Klopstock I think you sometimes contemplate things in a solar microscope rather than in their natural proportions. The Mole-Hill [13]  is, to my according to my judgement, an instance of this over-stretch of imagination: – a I fault am perfectly sensible that the desire of avoiding this fault has sometimes led me into an opposite extreme.

You & I have not only contemplated the same subject for a poem, but we have thought upon the same manner of narration. Standert showed me some letters of yours in one of which you described your early notion of a lyrical epic, – I had the same th conception in writing both my romanc mythological poems, [14]  tho not to the full extent to which you seem to have carried it, – Our hopes, as well as our day-dreams, have the same directions. I feel as ardently as you do respecting the Missions, & I look <forward> as you do to a state of things on earth, when the perfect establishment of the system of Christ Jesus shall extinguish moral evil, & therewith that physical evil which is its result.

Come to me in the spring & let us talk over these things. Write to me sometimes, & let us tell each other of our embryo works, & censure them while censure can be useful. I have always one poem in hand, & another brooding. That which at present xxxx employs the little time I can afford for poetry, is upon the foundation of the Spanish Monarchy by Pelayo. [15]  It had long appeared to me a fine subject, & the deep interest which I take in Spanish affairs, induced me at this time to select it, because the circumstances are sufficiently similar to <resemble> those of the present contest to call forth the same feelings. In what spirit it is begun you shall see in my next, – if this should induce you to accept me for a correspondent.


Yours with true esteem

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Mr James Montgomery./ Sheffield.
Stamped: [partial] KESWICK/ 2
MS: Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, KESMG 1996.5.188. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, pp. 12–15. BACK

[1] The Wanderer in Switzerland, and other Poems (1811); reviewed by Southey alongside Montgomery’s The West Indies, and other Poems (1810), Quarterly Review, 6 (December 1811), 405–419. BACK

[2] The World Before the Flood (1813), reviewed by Southey in Quarterly Review, 11 (April 1814), 78–87. BACK

[3] For Southey’s plan for a poem on Noah, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 2–3. BACK

[4] Louis XIV (1638–1715; King of France 1643–1715). BACK

[5] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821). BACK

[6] A rebellion on the lines of that by the United Irishmen in 1798. BACK

[7] The massacre of French Huguenots in Paris that began on 23 August 1572, the eve of the feast of St Bartholomew. BACK

[8] Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Divina Commedia (1308–1321), which has an interlocking three-line rhyme-scheme. BACK

[9] All the poems mentioned in this paragraph appeared in Montgomery’s The West Indies, and Other Poems (1810). The ‘last poem’ was ‘M. S.’, pp. 151–160. BACK

[10] Montgomery’s ‘The Cast-Away Ship’, pp. 142–148, commemorated the loss of HMS Blenheim, a 90-gun second rate ship of the line which sank off Madagascar in 1807 with the loss of 590 crew, and also the unsuccessful voyage undertaken by Sir Edward Troubidge (c. 1787–1852; DNB) the son of the Blenheim’s commander, Sir Thomas Troubridge (c. 1758–1807; DNB), to locate the wreck. BACK

[11] William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB). His ‘The Loss of the Royal George’ (1782) commemorated the sinking of the British flagship with the loss of 800 lives on 29 August 1782. BACK

[12] Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) German poet, whose odes Southey had encountered in a translation by William Taylor. BACK

[13] The West Indies, and Other Poems (1810), pp. 129–141. BACK

[14] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[15] An early idea for what became Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)