2335. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 25 November 1813

2335. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 25 November 1813 ⁠* 

Keswick. Nov. 25. 1813.

My dear Montgomery

When your World before the Flood [1] ). reached me I read it thro before I slept, & intended after the second perusal to have thanked you for it & told you how it had delighted me. Some interruption prevented me from fulfilling this determination, – business prest upon me, – circumstances hurried me to London in such haste, that instead of accomplishing a secret intention of going thro Sheffield I was obliged to take the mail at Penrith, & perform the journey at one stretch. You know what the distractions of London are, even to a man who like me, who take no part in its public amusements, – I could find time to write to none except my own family, & after a whole three months absence, losing not a single day after I was at liberty, took my seat in the mail again, & returned by the same straight road on Sunday week last. – Forgive me a long neglect which proceeded from no unkindness or diminished regard.

Of your poem I will say little, because I am about to say much elsewhere, [2]  – in this instance also performing a long delayed inten duty. You will have reason to be satisfied with its reception, & the rank which it is destined to hold. I could distinctly perceive that it was gaining ground. They who did not find at first that excitement of extraordinary story which the title perhaps might lead them to expect, find afterwards the tenderness which soothes, the piety which ennobles, feeling which is ever present, & beauties which they recur to again & again with delight. What are you meditating next? – Josiah Conder told me of a projected Life of Cowper, [3]  which may be executed by you best of all men. Hayley [4]  was in every respect unequal to the subject. To you it is peculiarly suited, & I doubt not but that you will xxx supply one proof more fact more in refutation of a common & most erroneous opinion, that they who are accustomed to write verse, are thereby in a certain degree unfit themselves for prose composition. The very reverse is the truth.

Let me now say something concerning the Laureateship. When the office was vacated it was not one of those into which a man in power could put any person whom he wished to serve, because certain qualifications were required for it, & tho Heaven knows that of those who can rhyme a large proportion <there are too many who> rhyme badly, a very great majority of mankind cannot rhyme at all. On this occasion therefore it cost nothing to act upon the maxim detur digniori; [5]  the Marquis of Hertford in whom the appointment was vested coun took counsel with Lord Liverpool who was the worthiest, & they agreed that Walter Scott was the man, – a decision in which beyond all doubt the nation would have agreed with them. Unknown to me meantime Mr Croker went to the Prince & asked the office for me, & the Prince observing that I had written well in defence of the Spanish cause, said it should be given me. When it appeared that it had already been offered to Scott, he was offended; his pleasure he said ought to have been consulted, he had given it to me, & have it I should. Mr Croker then represented that he was upon terms of friendly intercourse with Scott as well as with me, that Scott & I were friends also, & that for the sake of all three he must request the Prince to suffer things to remain as they were & take their course. – Scott declined to acceptance, upon the ground that it would be unbecoming in him who was amply provided for in his legal profession, to take an office which seemed exclusively to belong to one who had no other profession than literature. This he did without knowing what had past, & at the same time he urged that it should be offered to me. You would love him if you saw the letter which he wrote to me upon the occasion. [6] 

Upon this I wrote to Mr Croker stating how little likely it was that I could, school boy like, write verses at stated times upon stated subjects, in a manner which could either be creditable to the office or to myself. [7]  But if it were understood, I added, that on great public events I should be at liberty to write, or to be silent, as the spirit might move, in that case the office would become an honourable distinction which I should gladly accept. Accordingly I accepted it, upon an understanding that tho it was not for me to make terms with the Prince, it would be suggested to him that it would be for his honour & for mine to make this desirable reform.

There are fiddlers [8]  & other such persons I fear who stand in the way of it, & luckily for myself I have become very indifferent whether it be xxx placed upon this footing or not, partly from pride, & partly from a deeper feeling. From pride, because I am not unwilling displeased to show how possible it to render derive honour from the office by making it honourable; & substituting in the place of adulatory common place, high moral strains of exhortation: & from a deeper feeling because, having converted the salary (<which> all deductions made, 90 £ amounts to only 90 £) by an annual addition of some 12 £, into a pr life insurance for £3000, the thought of having made this provision for my family would sweeten a more irksome employment. – So I am at present at working upon an Ode, the burden of which is ‘Glory to God – deliverance for mankind!” – & thanks be to God, the present state of public affairs gives ample cause for such a strain of thanksgiving. I think also of prefacing this ode with something which will effectually put those persons to shame; who judging of me by themselves, have thought that I should dishonour myself. [9] 

God bless you Montgomery! tell me that you forgive my long silence & the offence shall not be repeated.

yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Mr James Montgomery/ Sheffield.
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 21. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Montgomery’s religious epic The World Before the Flood (1813). BACK

[2] In a review of The World Before the Flood, in Quarterly Review, 11 (April 1814), 79–87. BACK

[3] An edition of William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB) with a long introductory essay by Montgomery was published in 1824. Southey’s fifteen-volume life and works of Cowper appeared in 1835–1837. BACK

[4] William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB), whose Life of Cowper appeared in 1803. BACK

[5] ‘Let it be given to the more worthy’. BACK

[6] Scott’s letter of 1 September [1813], telling Southey that he had declined the Poet Laureateship and instead recommended him to Croker. He also cautioned ‘I am uncertain if you will like it, for the laurel has certainly been tarnished by some of its wearers, and as at present managed, its duties are inconvenient and somewhat liable to ridicule’, H. C. Grierson (ed.), The Letters of Walter Scott, 1787–1832, 12, vols (London, 1932–1937), III, pp. 335–336. BACK

[7] See Southey to John Wilson Croker, [4 September 1813], Letter 2298. BACK

[8] i.e. Sir William Parsons, Master of the King’s Music, who had the task of putting the Laureate’s New Year’s ode to music, and the orchestra which would perform the work. BACK

[9] Southey’s first official poem as Poet Laureate was extremely controversial and much altered prior to publication. The final five stanzas were considered by Croker and Rickman to be inflammatory. Southey bowed to pressure and deleted them from the version published as Carmen Triumphale in a quarto of 30 pages on 1 January 1814. He incorporated the deleted stanzas into an ‘Ode Written During the Negotiations with Bonaparte’, published in the Courier 3 February 1814. ‘Glory to God, Deliverance for mankind!’ was a repeated line in the ‘Ode’, often used to conclude verses. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)