3653. Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 15 March 1821

3653. Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 15 March 1821⁠* 

Keswick, 15th March 1821.

My dear Sir, – There is no doubt of your powers; there can be no doubt of your success to the height of your ambition when your judgement is sufficiently matured to choose your subjects well, and to feel that the arrangement is not of less consequence than the execution. And this tact you will not be long in acquiring.

‘The Baron of Kendal’ [1]  is the only one of your plays which I have read – I have not time to read the others (you know not how much I am occupied with works of great labour, more, I verily believe, both in number and magnitude, than any other man ever ventured to contemplate, much less to engage in at one time) – nevertheless I would have read the whole of the manuscripts could it have been of the slightest service to you. But there was no necessity for this. More power cannot be shown than the one displays, and power is all that can be looked for in the productions of one so young.

In the subject which you have now chosen, I am glad to hear that you mean to follow the historical events. You will thus avoid the main difficulties of constructing a drama. The historical drama is a distinct species, and one in which great things may be done. You ask me whether Nero’s poem is extant – the whole story of his setting fire to Rome has every appearance of mere vulgar calumny, and no such poem ever existed. I believe they were not his own verses which he is said to have repeated. [2] 

In ‘The Baron of K.’ the story is too shocking – beware of anything monstrous in your fictions. That incredulity and consequent dislike against which Horace warns the poet, is provoked as much by the monstrous in morals, as in the creatures of fancy. [3]  If the catastrophe of your story (whether narrative or dramatic) is to be mournful, let it at least be just, or of that kind in which the reader will acquiesce with satisfaction, as being the best termination under the circumstances of the tale. To instance in one of my own works, ‘Roderick’ is a tragic poem, but the reader can have no wish for a different catastrophe. [4]  For all the parties in whom he feels interested it is the best that could have been wished them. But choose in preference, if you can, a fortunate conclusion, especially in the drama, when success so much depends upon the spectators. It is only the young who can endure to enter deeply into fictitious sorrows: as we grow older the heart stands rather in need of balm.

The shocking part of ‘The Baron’ is the first crime, which is so monstrous that it would hardly be endured even upon the Spanish stage.

It is a great satisfaction to me that you feel the power of the hexameter, [5]  though I think you overrate it, and I perceive that you attribute more to the management of the pauses than was ever in the mind of the writer. This is an error of the right kind. I thought a great deal of these things at your age; as I advanced in years I learnt to consider the general style, and if that be what it ought, particular effect will grow naturally out of it as fruit upon the tree.

You have hit a blot, in p. 22. [6]  The last line is bad, the one before it worthless, and the whole passage, to say the least of it, not good. I shall strike out the two concluding lines, and let the rest stand. It is not worth the trouble of mending, if I could mend it. And the passage which immediately follows is relieved by it, to use a painter’s term. The first section of the poem is the best, the best lines in point of metre those in p. 29. [7]  The best conception in the poem, that of Junius in his mask; [8]  the parts best managed are the ends of the third section, where the matter-of-fact is well shaded off into the imaginative, and the conclusion which relates to the beginning, so as to produce a feeling of completeness. [9] 

The Deluge is a noble subject for which I formed a plan drawn from the state of the present world, and to have been executed in hexameters as far back as the year 1799. [10]  You will be struck by this coincidence. That plan is laid aside for ever, my race as a poet being nearly run. I meant to have adopted Burnet’s ‘Theory of the Earth,’ [11]  and recommend it to you. If it should not please you for your purpose it will in other respects, as being one of the sublimest works of imagination. God bless you.


I have no more influence in the ‘Q. Review’ [12]  than in the H. of Commons, and could just as soon get you a place in the one as in the other.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Edith Heraud, Memoirs of John A. Heraud (London, 1898)
Previously published: Edith Heraud, Memoirs of John A. Heraud (London, 1898), pp. 27–30. BACK

[1] Heraud had sent Southey his unpublished ‘The Baron of Kendal’, a historical drama; see Southey to Heraud, 13 March 1821, Letter 3650. In the event, his response to Southey’s critique, especially the unpleasant subject matter, was to decide against publication. BACK

[2] According to some accounts, Nero Claudius Caesar Drusus Germanicus (AD 37–68; Roman Emperor AD 54–68) sang the lost Latin epic ‘The Sack of Ilium’ while the city of Rome burned in AD 64; see Gaius Suetoninus Tranquillus (c. 71–c. 135), De Vita Caesarum, ‘Nero Claudius Caesar’, Chapter 37; and Cassius Dio (164–c. 235), Historia Romana, 62: 16–18. Heraud was planning a tragedy on Nero, which he sent to Southey in manuscript in 1822; see Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 9 April 1822. BACK

[3] Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC), Ars Poetica, lines 179–188. BACK

[4] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814); the conclusion of which sees the Moors’ defeat at the Battle of Covadonga (c. 722), the assumption of the throne by Pelayo (c. 685–737; King of Asturias 718–737) and Roderick’s disappearance into obscurity. BACK

[5] Southey had sent Heraud a copy of his A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[6] A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 6, lines 12–13: ‘Not without ingenuous shame, and a sense of compunction,/ More or less, as each had more or less to atone for.’ BACK

[7] A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 1; and Canto 7, lines 47–53. BACK

[8] Junius was the unknown author of the anti-government ‘Junius’ Letters, published in the Public Advertiser 21 January 1769–21 January 1772. He was described in A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 5, lines 65–66: ‘Mask’d had he been in his life, and now a visor of iron/ Rivetted round his head, had abolish’d his features for ever’. BACK

[9] A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 3, lines 50–61, and Canto 12, lines 26–36. BACK

[10] For Southey’s planned, but unexecuted, poem on Noah and the Flood, see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 2–3. BACK

[11] Thomas Burnet (c. 1635–1715; DNB). Southey had planned to make use of his Telluris Theoria Sacra (1681), which speculated about the early history of the earth before and after the Flood; see Southey to William Taylor, 30 May 1799, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 414. BACK

[12] The Quarterly Review (1809–1967), for which Southey wrote regularly. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)