3238. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 30 January 1819

3238. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 30 January 1819 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

I received your little volume yesterday. [1]  – You may rest assured that you have ascribed the condemnation in the Monthly Magazine to the true cause. [2] 

There are abundant evidences of power in this volume. Its merits are of the most striking kind, – & its defects are not less striking, both in plan & execution. The stories had better each have been separate, than linked together xx without any natural, or necessary connection. [3]  The first is consists of such grossly improbable circumstances, that it is altogether as incredible as if it were a supernatural tale. [4]  It is also a hateful story, – presenting nothing but what is painful. [5]  In the second the machinery is preposterously disproportionate to the occasion. [6]  And in all the poems [7]  there is too much ornament, too much effort, too much labour. You think you can never embroider your drapery too much, – & that the more gold & jewels you can fasten on it, the richer the effect must be. The consequence is that there is a total want of what painters call breadth & keeping. & therefore the effect is lost.

You will say that this opinion proceeds from the erroneous system which I have pursued in my own pxxx writings, & which has prevented my poems from obtaining the same popularity as those of Lord Byron & Walter Scott. – But look at those poets whose rank is established beyond all controversy. Look at the Homeric poems, – at Virgil, – Dante, Ariosto, Milton. [8]  – Do not ask yourself what are the causes of the failure or success of your contemporaries, – their failure or success is not determined yet, – a generation, – an age, – a century will not suffice to determine it. But see what it is by which those poets have rendered themselves immortal, whose after the lapse of centuries are living & acting upon <us> still.

I should not speak to you thus plainly of your fault, – the sin by which the Angels fell [9]  – if it were not for the great powers which are thus squandered injured by misdirection. And it was <is> for the sake of bearing testimony to those powers, & thereby endeavouring to lessen the effect which the <a> rascally criticism which you have undergone may have produced you upon your feelings that I am now writing. That criticism may give you pain if it produces any <because it may> effect upon the minds of persons not very capable of forming an opinion for themselves, & who may either be glad to be encouraged in despising your production; or grieved at seeing it condemned. But in any other point of view it is unworthy of a moments thought.

You may do great things if you will cease to attempt so much; – if you will learn to proportion your figures to your canvas, – cease to overlay your foregrounds with florid ornaments, & be persuaded that in a poem as well as in a picture, there must be lights & shades, – that the general effect can never be good unless the subordinate parts are kept down, & that the life & strength <brilliancy> of the ornaments one part is brought out & heightened by the repose xx of the other. – One word more: – with your powers of thought & language, you need not seek to produce effect by monstrous incidents, or exaggerated c[MS torn]racters. The appetite is soon fuelled by such high xxxxxxxxx. The public have These drams have been administered so often that they are beginning to lose their effect. And it is to truth & nature that we must come at last. Trust to them & they will bear you thro. You are now squandering wealth with which if it be properly disposed you may purchase golden reputation. But you must reverence your elders more, & be less eager for immediate applause.

You will judge of the sincerity of my praise by the frankness of my censure.

Farewell & believe me

Yrs faithfully

R Southey.

Keswick. 30 Jany. 1819.


* Address: To/ Mr E. Elliot Junr/ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Mitchell Library, Glasgow, Special Collections, Ref. No. 763c. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 334–337; Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857), pp. 159–160 [in part]. BACK

[1] Elliott’s Night, A Descriptive Poem (1818). BACK

[2] Monthly Magazine, 46 (January 1819), 532. BACK

[3] Elliott’s poem comprised four books linked not by their subject matter but by their relationship to the overarching theme of ‘the scenery of night’, Night, A Descriptive Poem (London, 1818), ‘Preface’, p. [3]. BACK

[4] The first book of Night, ‘The Lovers’, tells a gruesome tale of murder, execution and suicide. BACK

[5] Southey might have objected to passages such as this description of the murder of Elizabeth (one of the ‘Lovers’ of the title): ‘She fainted. From her neck the snowy lawn/ Fell to the ground; her virgin breast was bare;/ And on that loveliest breast, with deadliest might,/ His dagger’s point impressing, thro’ the bone/ He pierc’d the lungs’, Night, A Descriptive Poem (London, 1818), p. 23; or this description of the treatment meted out to Elizabeth’s lover, who is wrongly accused of her murder: ‘They rear’d his gibbet where Eliza died,/ And many a midnight tempest swung his bones.–/ Doth the Owl like the taste of Felon’s flesh?/ Why let him feed! he cannot tear the soul’, Night, A Descriptive Poem (London, 1818), pp. 29–30. BACK

[6] The second book of Night was entitled ‘Wharncliffe’. Its supernatural machinery included the fiend Anathema. BACK

[7] The remaining two books of Night were ‘The Canadiad’ and ‘Napoleon’. BACK

[8] Southey is recommending as models the following: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey; Virgil (70–19 BC), Aeneid; Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Divine Comedy (1308–1321); Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), Orlando Furioso (1532); and John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Paradise Lost (1667). BACK

[9] Ambition; as in Henry VIII, Act 3, scene 2, line 14. BACK

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