1700. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 24 October 1809

1700. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 24 October 1809 ⁠* 

Dear Senhora [1] 

It is saying little – that I would pay some deference to your opinion when Mr. Pratts [2]  would not weigh more with me than the sound of the wind. You have exactly said of this poor Blacket [3]  what I should judge from these extracts, – there is force & rapidity in them, & he is in earnest. – As for my knowing him, the time when that could have been of any service is past, as he has, by your account found friends & richer ones than I could have found for him. If his book were to be bought I would send for it, & then were you here to bid me do it, would perhaps write him a letter – for the sake of giving him half a days happiness. Poor fellow I have little hope of his recovery, that phrase of ‘very fearful health’ hath so consumptive a complection, & consumption is the disease which doth so easily beset us poets, that I generally account the first symptom of it to be fatal.

When a young Poet is cut off, Senhora, it appears to me like the death of a young Hero, – a new & permanent interest is thrown over all that he has done, & he escapes the chance of disappointing the expectations built upon the promises which he had given. There is plenty of genius in the world, – I am sure you will not suspect me of undervaluing it, in any particular instance, for saying so. – there is plenty of it, – but God knows it is a melancholy consideration to think how very little comes to maturity. – What would have been Henry Whites fate if Heaven had not mercifully taken him? – he would either have let his fanaticism extinguish the light that was in him, & have become a mere Evangelical, – or that light would have occasioned a struggle which must have overset either his worldly fortunes, if he had followed it; – or his moral principles if he had shut it up within the dark Lanthorn of expediency, & gone on praying & preaching when it would have been only lip-worship. – And death is no evil to the Dead; – they are at their journey’s end, – rather to be envied than lamented for having got there. Of all other disagreeable things we say ‘I wish it was over’ – When you have heard me say Senhora that I wished the year 1900 were come – the same feeling was implied. – Yet that I am a very happy man you know. That good Lady who as you remember, physiognomised me so luckily for ‘a man of sorrow & acquainted with woe,’ [4]  – did not happen to know that my acquaintance with Woe has been broken off long since. We certainly did keep company once, & I have been in as many situations of real suffering as falls to any mans lot between the years of 17 & 22. – But since that time no mans life can have passed more smoothly. – Sorrows I have had – but only such as came in the ordinary course of nature, & which resulting from the laws of Nature bring with them their own cure in a sense of the necessity as well as duty of resignation. Suffering arising out of the evils of Society are of a different character, – they call up resentment indignation & a whole host of turbulent feelings.

This has led me from the matter. What I should have said is that Henry White excites more love & admiration now than he could have done under any other circumstances. You feel more from his fragments than you would have done had they been finished, – his heart & his hopes have all been laid open to the world, – which had he lived never would have been the case, – & every body is ready to praise & regret him, because he is no longer an object of envy. His history poor fellow shows what death will do for a poet! He published a little volume while he lived, & it was neglected or abused. [5]  Nobody noticed it for praise except a few young Poets of kindred aspirations, – & a certain poor man who having written poetry till he could afford it no longer, was engaged in humble prose among the Cumberland mountains. He died, – two volumes were published, [6]  nine tenths of which consisted of pieces which he himself rejected from his own publication – & now it is who can admire him the most.

I incline to think that if poor Blacket dies, as I suppose he will ere long, more laurels will grow about his grave, than he could ever have earned for his brow. For look you Senhora, Genius is not all that is required to make a man a poet. The best poets have been always the most learned & the wisest men of their time. Shakespeare alone excepted as to learning, – but intuition in him, & in his peculiar walk, supplied its place, – as there has been but one Shakespeare since the Creation it is not altogether absurd to suppose that there may not be another till the day of Judgment. All that Blacket hitherto has done I conceive to be imitation, produced indeed by genuine feeling, – but still such close imitation, as to render it doubtful whether he be capable of anything original. He can have no learning, no store of knowledge of his own, – & I am afraid with more powers than Robert Bloomfield, & an intellect of higher pitch, he will yet rank below him, because Bloomfield is after all a writer of a distinct character, formed by himself. As for the drama which Pratt talks of, [7]  Pratt, who hath written tragedy himself, little knows what is required in dramatic composition.

Let me talk of something else. I would lend one of my ears to any person who wants such a quick little moveable for the rest of the evening, – if I could have you here, & read Kehama to you. It is all but finished [8]  – I have heroically adhered to my resolution of never writing it except before breakfast, & the child often disturbs me & prevents me from rising. Soon it will go to press, & you will see that I shall be paid for it with plenty of abuse, & less money than will be got by others for abusing it.

Poor Jackson is gone. In my own mind I always look on to having you for our next door inhabitant hereafter. [9]  & have a good many dreams upon the improvements which are there to be made.

You wrote to me about the Scudamore Pedigree: [10]  of which I know as much as the Man in the Moon, & care as little as I know. The butcher of Norfolk [11]  is alive & well, the question therefore appertains more to Sir E.’s heir [12]  than to himself. – & you will not be very anxious about it for him. You tell me of pictures & drawings. N.B. my chimney piece will speedily have five of Miss Bethams pictures. [13]  Whereof one is to be the portrait of – George Dyer. [14]  Are not you a vile Senhora that there should be nothing of yours there? – Send me the crayons-portrait [15]  – as you hope to be forgiven for having assassinated me.

God bless you



* Address: To/ Miss Barker
MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 326–331.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 171–175. BACK

[1] Southey’s mode of address for Barker after first meeting her in Portugal. BACK

[2] Samuel Jackson Pratt (1749–1814), miscellaneous writer under the pseudonym of ‘Courtney Melmoth’. BACK

[3] Joseph Blacket (1786–1810), shoemaker’s apprentice and poet. Pratt published Specimens of the Poetry of Joseph Blacket (1809) and The Remains of Joseph Blacket (1811). BACK

[4] From Isaiah 53:3. In an 1807 letter to Charles Danvers, Southey writes of what ‘Mrs Fletcher in Edinburgh – (Miss Smiths friend) said of me? – that xxx I was “all that was intellectual, but that it was plain from every feature in his face that he was a man acquainted with woe.” This tickled me not a little’; see Southey to Charles Danvers, 25 May 1807, Letter 1326. BACK

[5] Clifton Grove, a Sketch in Verse, with other Poems (1803). The book was violently attacked in the Monthly Review (February 1804), after which Southey wrote to White offering encouragement. BACK

[6] Southey’s edition of The Remains of Henry Kirke White, of Nottingham with an Account of his Life (1807). BACK

[7] Probably Blacket’s play The Earl of Devon; or The Patriots, which was not published until after his death in 1811. BACK

[8] Southey’s poem, The Curse of Kehama, was published in 1810. BACK

[9] Barker lived at Greta Lodge in Keswick, next to Greta Hall, between 1812 and 1817. BACK

[10] The Scudamore family (c. 1500–1820; DNB): gentry descended from a Norman ancestor who settled at Upton Scudamore in Wiltshire, the family became established in Herefordshire and the southern marches of Wales. The most prominent member of the family at this time was Frances Fitzroy-Scudamore (1750–1820; DNB), who in 1771 married Charles Howard, later 11th Duke of Norfolk (1746–1815; DNB) and immediately succumbed to mental illness. BACK

[11] See note 10. BACK

[12] Sir Edward’s heir was the politician Edward John Littleton (1791–1863; DNB). The son of Moreton Walhouse, Edward changed his name to Littleton in 1812 in order to comply with the terms of the will of his great uncle Sir Edward Littleton, the bulk of whose estates he inherited. He was elected MP for Staffordshire in 1812, and supported Canning and Catholic emancipation. In 1835 he was created Baron Hatherton of Hatherton. BACK

[13] Matilda Betham painted miniatures for Southey of himself, Edith, Edith May and Herbert. See letter 1680 of this edition. BACK

[14] Untraced. BACK

[15] Southey is referring to Barker’s portrait of him, which has not been traced; see Southey to Mary Barker, 8 September 1809, Letter 1679. BACK

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