3658. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 25 March 1821

3658. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 25 March 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 25 March. 1821

My dear Sir

There are two classes of persons whose opinions upon the merits of a metre, & of a poem are worthy of regard, – men who have studied the art, & women who judge naturally from the impression which is made upon them. I am therefore very much gratified by your approval of the hexameters, [1]  & by Mrs Elliotts, [2]  whose verdict on such a question, would outweigh the decisions of a whole host of professional critics.

The list of Worthies [3]  is already so long as to occupy a disproportionate share of the poem, – otherwise there are many, very many names which ought to have been included. But I must confess that I had forgotten Watt, which I ought not to have done, especially as I was introduced to him some four & twenty years ago, & had also some slight acquaintance with both his sons, – Gregory, who has been dead many years, & James the elder, who challenged Robespierre, & actually went out with him, but the duel was prevented by Danton. [4]  Pitt [5]  & Fox I designedly omit, because tho eminent men, they were in my judgement very very far from being great ones; & were I asked which of the two was most mistaken in his views; or most mischievous in his conduct, I should find it very difficult to decide. The youth of Loch Leven is Michael Bruce, [6]  whose poems are in Andersons Collection, [7]  & of whom Mackenzie has written a very affecting account, either in the Mirror or Lounger, [8]  I forget which. Grahame whom I knew & whose memory I respect xxxx was somewhat more than a middle aged man when he died. [9] 

I have not received your Peter Faultless, [10]  – otherwise I should – certainly have written to thank you for it. Your last letter reached me in the south, when I was in <a> perpetual hurry of engagements – flying from one place to another, with a txxxx & for more than two months seldom sleeping three nights successively in the same place. [11]  This must be my excuse for not replying to it. – I have neither seen the volume, nor the account of it in the Literary Gazette, but I know too well what periodical criticism is ever to be influenced by it, & as I am sure that whatever you write must bear evident proofs of power, so I believe that nothing of yours would have a bad tendency. [12] 

I too have long been busy with King Philip, – grafting a fictitious story upon his war. [13]  A young American has lately published a poem upon the same ground – or rather it has been completed since his death, & published for him by a friend: the father of the deceased poet [14]  writes to say he has sent me a copy, – but the book has never arrived. It is published at New York. The authors name is the Revd James Wallis Eastburn; – the title of the poem I cannot decypher, – what it looks most like is Yaur[MS missing] a Tale of the Wars of K Philip, in six cantos. [15] 

Your couplets have great point & vigour. I do not sufficiently remember Mrs Radcliffes novels to know how far Ld Byron has been poaching on her ground. [16]  But I know that in this also he is a great offender. The London literatuli express their astonishment at my folly in attacking him, & expect to see me swallowed up quick by his vengeance. [17]  Woe be to him, if he calls forth mine. If I drag him to judgement, it shall be without a mask. [18] 

The next poem which I shall have to send you will be a Tale of Paraguay, – a calm meditative poem in Spensers stanza, which I am now resuming, with a determination of carrying it to the end. [19]  – If you ever travel this way I trust that you will give me an opportunity of assuring you in person, as I now do by pen, of my unfeigned respect & good will

Farewell. Yours very truly

Robert Southey.

You suspect a neighbour of xxxxxxxxxxx reviling your book in the Lit: Gazette. I dare say you are mistaken, – because such suspicions are very frequent, & almost always erroneous. There is so much general malice at work in the world of letters, that one never need look for <explain these attacks by> personal ill will. I happen to know that the most purely malicious criticisms which were ever levelled against me were written by men whom I never offended, whom I never saw, & who had no conceivable motive for their malice. Polwhele was the one, [20]  the Catholic Dr Geddes the other. [21] 


* Address: To/ Mr E. Elliott Junr/ Masbro/ near/ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Sheffield City Libraries and Archives, MD 2191–27. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: E. R. Seary, ‘Robert Southey and Ebenezer Elliott: Some New Southey Letters’, Review of English Studies, 15 (October 1939), 414–416. BACK

[1] Southey’s A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[2] Frances (Fanny) Gartside (dates unknown), who had married Elliott in 1806. BACK

[3] A Vision of Judgement (1821), Cantos 9–11, devoted to ‘The Elder Worthies’, ‘The Worthies of the Georgian Age’ and ‘The Young Spirits’. BACK

[4] James Watt (1736–1819; DNB), engineer and scientist, and his sons Gregory Watt (1777–1804) and James Watt (1769–1848; DNB). The latter had, in his youth, been a radical and in 1792 travelled to France, where he presented an address from the Manchester Constitutional Society to the Club des Jacobins. Southey later told the story of the duel in a rather different form in his letter to Archibald Alison (17 April 1833). In this later version, it was the two French revolutionaries, Georges Danton (1759–1794) and Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre (1758–1794), who quarrelled and James Watt who prevented their duel. In this later letter, Southey stated that he heard of these events from the younger James Watt himself. BACK

[5] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806. BACK

[6] A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 11, lines 65–67, commemorated Michael Bruce (1746–1767; DNB), cowherd and poet, whose most celebrated composition was ‘Lochleven’, based on the area in which he spent most of his short life. BACK

[7] Robert Anderson (1749–1830; DNB), Works of the British Poets, with Prefaces Biographical and Critical, 14 vols (London, 1792–1807), XI, pp. 273–294, no. 355 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[8] ‘Reflections on genius unnoticed and unknown; anecdotes of Michael Bruce’ appeared in The Mirror, 36 (29 May 1779), see The Mirror. A Periodical Paper, Published at Edinburgh in the Years 1779 and 1780, 6th edn, 3 vols (London, 1786), I, pp. 266–269. It has been attributed not to The Mirror’s editor Henry Mackenzie (1745–1831; DNB), but to William Craig, Lord Craig (1745–1813; DNB). The Lounger was another periodical published at Edinburgh by Mackenzie in 1785–1786. BACK

[9] Grahame was not mentioned in A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[10] Elliott’s Peter Faultless to His Brother Simon, Tales of Night, In Rhyme, and Other Poems (1820), no. 2024 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. This was a presentation copy, with the pages still uncut. BACK

[11] When Southey was in London from May–June 1820. BACK

[12] The short, but hostile, review of Peter Faultless in the Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., 181 (8 July 1820), 439, had accused Elliott of offending public decency by publishing ‘filth and obscenity’. BACK

[13] Metacomet (d. 1639–1676), leader of the Wampanoag people in New England, used the name ‘Philip’ in his dealings with the English colonists. He gave his name to King Philip’s War of 1675–1676, a conflict between various native American peoples and the settlers. Southey’s poem was never finished, and a fragment was published posthumously in Oliver Newman: a New-England Tale (Unfinished): with Other Poetical Remains by the Late Robert Southey (London, 1845), pp. 1–90. BACK

[14] James Eastburn (dates unknown), New York bookseller and stationer. BACK

[15] Yamoyden, A Tale of the Wars of King Philip, in Six Cantos (1820). The authors were James Wallis Eastburn (1797–1819) and Robert Charles Sands (1799–1832). Southey’s copy was no. 886 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[16] Elliott had probably sent Southey a draft of parts at least of his poem ‘The Giaour’, later published in Love. A Poem, in Three Parts. To which is Added, The Giaour, a Satirical Poem (London, 1823), p. 163, which accused Byron of plagiarism, claiming he used to ‘filch from Radcliffe’s pages hour by hour’. Ann Radcliffe’s (1764–1823; DNB) gothic writings certainly influenced Byron, among many others. The close resemblance between Byron’s Lara (1814) and Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) was pointed out in a letter to the Gentleman’s Magazine, 88 (February 1818), 121–122. The author was ‘A. Dyce’, probably the literary scholar Alexander Dyce (1798–1869; DNB). The discussion was continued by ‘C.C.’, whose letter concluded that there was, after all, ‘“no new thing under the sun”’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 88 (May 1818), 390–391 (391). BACK

[17] A Vision of Judgement (London, 1821), ‘Preface’, pp. xvii–xxii, where Southey denounced ‘the Satanic school’ of poetry without naming any one poet. Southey received this information about the reaction in literary circles from Wynn; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 23 March 1821, Letter 3657. BACK

[18] Unfortunately for Southey, a dispute with Byron did ensue from A Vision of Judgement (1821). Byron attacked Southey in the ‘Appendix’ to ‘The Two Foscari’, Sardanapalus, A Tragedy. The Two Foscari, A Tragedy. Cain, A Mystery (London, 1821), p. 328, and Southey responded with his letter to the Editor of the Courier (5 January 1822). The letter appeared in the Courier on 11 January 1822. Byron’s parody, The Vision of Judgment (1822), however, provided him with a crushing victory. BACK

[19] A Tale of Paraguay (1825), which used the verse form of Edmund Spenser’s (c. 1552–1599; DNB), The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). This consisted of nine-lined stanzas, the first eight in iambic pentameters and the ninth an iambic hexameter. BACK

[20] The loyalist writer Richard Polwhele (1760–1838; DNB). Southey is probably referring to his hostile review of Southey and Lovell’s Poems (1795), English Review, 25 (March–April 1795), 230–232, 389–393; see also, Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 8 December 1815, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2678. BACK

[21] The notice of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) in the British Critic, 18 (September 1801), 309–310, was a sustained attack on ‘this complete monument of vile and depraved taste’. Southey believed it to be by Alexander Geddes (1737–1802; DNB), Catholic priest and scholar; see Southey to William Taylor, 11 November 1801, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 625. BACK

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