3423. Robert Southey to [Bernard Barton], 21 January 1820

3423. Robert Southey to [Bernard Barton], 21 January 1820⁠* 

Keswick. 21 Jany. 1820.

Dear Sir

You propose a question to me which I can no more answer with any grounds for an opinion, than if you were to ask me whether a lottery ticket should be drawn blank or prize, – or if a ship should make a prosperous voyage to the East Indies. If I recollect rightly poor Scott of Amwell [1]  was disturbed in his last illness, by some hard hearted & sour-blooded bigots who wanted him to repent of his poetry as of a sin. The Quakers are much altered since that time. I know one, a man deservedly respected by all who know him, (Charles Lloyd the elder of Birmingham) who has amused his old age by translating Horace & Homer; [2]  he is looked up to in the Society, & would not have printed these translations if he had thought it likely to give offence.

Judging however from the spirit of the age as affecting your Society, like every thing else, I should think they would be gratified by the appearance of a Poet among them, who confines himself within the limits of their general principles. They have been reproached with being the most illiterate sect that has ever arisen in the Christian world; & they ought to be thankful to any of their members who should assist in vindicating them from that opprobrium. There is nothing in their principles which should prevent them from giving you their sanction: & I will even hope that there are not many persons who will impute it to you as a sin, if you should xxx call some of the months by their Heathen names. I know of no other offence that you are in danger of committing. They will not like virtuous feelings & religious principles the worse, for being conveyed in good verse. If poetry in itself were unlawful, the Bible must be a prohibited book.

I shall be glad to receive your volume, [3]  – & you have my best good wishes for its success. The means of promoting it are not within my power. For tho I bear a part in the Quarterly Review (& endure a large portion of the grossest abuse & calumny for opinions which I do not hold, & articles which I have not written) I have long since found it necessary, for reasons which you may easily apprehend, to form a resolution of reviewing no poems whatever. My principles of criticism indeed are altogether opposite to those of the age. I would treat every thing with indulgence, except what was mischievous. And most heartily do I disapprove of the prevailing fashion of criticism, the direct tendency of which is to call bad passions into full play.

Heartily hoping that you may succeed to your utmost wishes in this meritorious undertaking

I remain dear Sir

Yrs faithfully

Robert Southey.


* Endorsement: To, Bernard Barton
MS: Huntington Library, HM 12256; letter was formerly tipped into a copy of Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (1847), Huntington 111102. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), V, pp. 14–15. BACK

[1] John Scott of Amwell (1731–1782; DNB), Quaker, poet and expert on turnpike trusts and the Poor Law. Southey had drawn attention to the account of the scenes at Scott’s deathbed in Alexander Chalmers (1759–1834; DNB), The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper, 21 vols (London, 1810), XVII, pp. 445–452, in his article for the Quarterly Review, 11 (July 1814), 480–504 (500–501); but Chalmers’s account, which Southey followed, emphasised that Scott had been troubled by fears of his own unworthiness, rather than being harassed by ‘sour-blooded bigots’. However, Southey’s rather different description of events concerning Scott in this letter was repeated, with some similarity of phrasing, in the review of Barton’s Poems (1820) in London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., 170 (22 April 1820), 260–263, so Barton may have passed Southey’s comments on to the reviewer to use in promoting his book. BACK

[2] Charles Lloyd published privately A Translation of the Twenty-Fourth Book of the Iliad of Homer (1807), a translation of Books 1–7 of the Odyssey (1810) and The Epistles of Horace translated into English Verse (1812). BACK

[3] Bernard Barton’s Poems (1820). BACK

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)