1338. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 30 June 1807

1338. Robert Southey to Anna Seward, 30 June 1807 ⁠* 

Keswick. June 30. 1807.

It is not without much pride as well as much pleasure that I have heard from many quarters Miss Sewards opinion of Madoc, [1]  & now receive from Mr Charles Lloyd so very flattering a proof of it. No man can be more indifferent to the censure of his contemporaries, nor more sensible to their praise; – the one I set down to the score of ignorance is <or> malevolence, the other I take as earnest of what posterity will give me, & if this be not the most impartial way of considering the case, it is certainly the most convenient. But whenever they who censure & they who praise have been <are> known, – I have am justified in it, & in no instance more than in the present.

The applause which you give me is more than I deserve. – It was at one time my intention to have stated in the preface my own sense of the imperfections of the poems. I was xxxxxxxxx This was what I should have said, after relating how long the poem had been in hand, how often interrupted, & how often corrected. ‘Perhaps at a more advanced age I might have chosen a story which could have been carried on in one unbroken & continuous narrative; I might have framed a better & more coherent fable; I might have made my own country the theatre of action that the scenery might have been that which I understood, & the manners those to which my earliest studies had familiarized my imagination. Nor have the early choice of subject & predestination of story been the only disadvantages arising from the slow growth of the poem. Unsparingly as I have endeavoured to weed out the defects of early composition, many must inevitably have escaped. I fear I have yet to discover barbarisms of language, false ornaments, & passages feeble or superfluous, which have still deceived me by reviving the associations with which they were originally accompanied. Perhaps no author ever sent into the world a production with so humiliating a sense of its imperfection. When my first poem was published I had too much confidence, & too little knowledge, to feel any distrust or diffidence of its merit; & in Thalaba [2]  all which had been promised to myself was certainly & satisfactorily performed. But I had ever considered both as only preludes to this greater work, – as exercises which were to strengthen & prepare me for this serious effort. I looked to this as the monument which was to perpetuate my memory; the proof that should justify the determination with which I had abandoned all common pursuits of fortune to devote myself to literature. – However I may disappoint the reader he may be assured that I have disappointed myself farx more. His expectations can have been raised only by what I have already done; but I compare what is executed with what was designed; remembering the hopes which have made many an hour of labour delightful; & feeling, imperfect as this poem is, there is little likelihood that I shall ever produce a better.’

Our world, Miss Seward, is so little accustomed to this sort of plain speaking & serious feeling, which I have acquired, or rather preserved, by living out of it, – that this would have been put down to the sense of affected humility. I send it you, as being precisely what I feel concerning Madoc, which I begun in 1789 at the age of fifteen. Since it was published I have written no poetry: disuse has now generated disinclination, & perhaps in a little time my hand may lose its cunning.

There are many causes for this. I have been long employed in historical composition, & think it so certain that I shall stand in the first rank of historians, that this hope goads me on. Half my Ways & Means must be raised from the Booksellers, & half my time is employed in raising them. I am far from complaining of this. Any other profession would have exacted from me the whole, – except that of divinity from which my religious opinions deterred me: & tho’ time employed in writing for money is unworthily employed, yet as man must live & that not by bread alone, there is no other way by which I could have lived so congruous to my own inclinations & pursuits. – I have therefore no leisure for poetry, for that is not a marketable article; – this mischief a reviewer can do me. My profits upon Madoc after a years sale amounted to 3. 17. 1. Mr Jeffray the Edinburgh Advocate, I a gentleman who is up to my elbow in stature, & in intellectual stature, as far as regards all matters of taste, up to my ancle, – Mr Jeffray had said in his Review ‘if Mr Southey will continue to write in this manner, really we cannot help it!’ [3]  – This was very true. But if it had so happened that I had been a friend of Mr Jeffrays, & it had pleased him to say I was a great poet, the book-buying world (who are a different world from the book-reading one) would have believed him, & I should have been enabled to have produced something better than Madoc, & more answerable to that power which I feel to be in me.

You would think me a renegado & a heretick were I to tell you that history is a worthier pursuit than poetry; – if however this sheet were not so nearly at an end, some reasons might be assigned in support of this heresy, which if they did not win your belief – might at least moderate your censure. Your letter to Lloyd has not been without some effect; – it roused me – as the cry of <the> hounds would do an old hunter, when turned over to be killed-up in the mail-coach-service, & standing in harness at the inn door; he thinks of the chase, – till crack goes the whip over him, & he shakes his neck at the lash & begins starts upon his humbler career. I have lying by me about the fourth part of a rhythmical romance, in the wild way of Thalaba (only that it has an occasional intermixture of rhymes) & founded built upon Hindoo, as that is upon Mohammedan ground. [4]  It was once my intention to have gone <thro> all the great mythologies in this manner, – I had formed the plan of the Persian – that is the Magian one, the Runic & the classical, would have followed, & I should (far from irreverently) have complicated the series with a Rabbinical & a Roman-Catholick one. A great plan, but easily accomplishable, as a year for each would have been time sufficient. For a work of higher proof I am undeceived about the story: sometimes that of the Deluge [5]  seems pleases me, sometimes Pelayo the restorer of the Spanish monarchy, [6]  – more frequently the delivery of Portugal from the Spaniards under John 1.st [7]  – You know now as much of my poetical dreams as I do xxxxxxx myself, & could I talk them over with you, it is very possible that your advice might determine me in favour of one subject or the other, & stimulate me to begin. Allow me when I travel southward to half a day at Lichfield & try the experiment –

yours with great respect

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Litchfield
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: June 1807
MS: Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library, Misc MS. 3921. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] See Southey to Edith Southey, 5 April 1806, Letter 1172 on Seward’s opinion of his poem Madoc (1805). BACK

[2] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[3] Jeffrey reviewed Southey’s poem Madoc (1805) in the Edinburgh Review, 7 (October 1805), 1–29. BACK

[4] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[5] Meaning the Biblical flood; Southey did not write a poem on this subject. BACK

[6] An early reference to the project that became Roderick Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[7] John of Avis (1358–1433), who repelled and largely annihilated Castilian invading forces at the battle of Aljubarotta of 1385. He ruled as John I, 10th king of Portugal and the Algarve from 1385–1433. This plan was not adopted. BACK

People mentioned

Lloyd, Charles (1775–1839) (mentioned 2 times)
Seward, Anna (1742–1809) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)