1727. Robert Southey to Neville White, 31 December 1809

1727. Robert Southey to Neville White, 31 December 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick, Dec. 31. 1809.

My dear Neville,

I should be more sorry at having unintentionally occasioned a quarrel between you and _______, [1]  if there were anything in his correspondence which either you or any person could possibly regret. That poor unlucky man is strangely wrong-headed; – with the best disposition in the world he is always getting into hot water. He has sent Coleridge a communication for the ‘Friend,’ and quarrelled with him because he could not read it; if it could have been read there would have been another ground of quarrel, I will venture to say, in consequence of its non-insertion. [2]  As for the passage which has given him offence (God knows how innocently on my part!), do you alter the words ‘would probably’ into ‘might possibly,’ in the next edition, and then I think neither he nor any one else can object to them. [3] 

Our difference of opinion respecting that part of Dr. Collyer’s ‘Lectures’ [4]  has nothing to do whatever with any difference of faith, our faith being the same respecting the Crucifixion; and the simple question is, whether it be not a very forced, unlikely, and unnatural interpretation to allegorise a high-wrought fiction of temporal prosperity into a prophecy of that event. If the same latitude be allowed, any conclusion may be drawn from any premises. It has nothing to do with Calvinism nor Arminianism, [5]  nor any of the other isms; being wholly a matter of opinion – of critical judgment – not a joint of faith. That he might have more talents for poetry than for prose, was a mere supposition founded on no other ground than this – that he seemed at all times to trust more to the exertions of fancy than of any other faculty; and this ground I readily admit to have been insufficient.

It is the printer’s fault that my first volume has not already made its appearance. [6]  He goes on so slowly that I dare not say when it will be completed. My poem is gone to the press. [7]  The first proof has not reached me yet; and the interval between the first and last is so completely at the printer’s mercy, that there is no guessing at its length. Young authors are apt to be very impatient upon these occasions. For my part, I wait with as much tranquillity as the public themselves, and no work of mine can possibly occasion less sensation in its appearance than it does on me. I have the satisfaction of composing it, of correcting it, sheet by sheet, from the press, and finally of seeing the finished volume: then my solicitude ends – the brood is fledged, and has left the nest.

You have probably seen ‘The Friend,’ and, after Miss Smith’s book, [8]  would be interested by the account of Klopstock, [9]  and the heads of his conversation with Wordsworth. If Coleridge should fulfil his intent of criticising the ‘Messiah,’ [10]  you will be convinced that Klopstock’s merits as a poet have been ridiculously exaggerated. I, who am no German, have heard enough read, and seen enough translated by his admirers, to be convinced that he is full of buckram and bombast. Not that this, in the slightest degree, lessens the interest one feels in his admirable wife. His reputation has long been on the wane in Germany. Henry’s ‘Christiad’ [11]  would have been worth fifty ‘Messiahs.’ Sacred epics seem likely to be the fashion. Some gentleman gives his plan for ‘The Deluge’ in the last ‘Monthly Magazine.’ [12]  In 1801 I formed a plan upon the same subject while on my voyage home from Lisbon. It will never be executed; [13]  but it was not ill conceived, and had many grand situations. This in the ‘Magazine’ is thoroughly common-place, and nothing good can come of it. In fact, there exists, against all stories connected with the great facts of Scripture history, the objections which I have stated before the ‘Christiad.’ You cannot blend fiction with truths which are so universally and definitely known. [14]  Every person instantly feels when the truth ends and the fiction begins. ‘The Deluge’ and ‘The Last Day’ are also subjects too vast; no canvas can hold – no imagination conceive them.

I have not seen the two last ‘Quarterlies.’ The publisher has been out of town, and they have not been sent me. There ought to be an article of mine upon Holmes’ ‘American Annals’ in this fourth, but I do not see it advertised. [15]  The great ‘Life of Nelson’ is come down to me for this review. It is a book which never can be read, from its bulk. [16]  His life and his letters are so intermixed, that the work is neither the one nor the other; and what is worse, the time is not yet come when either the one or the other could, with propriety, be fully laid before the public. Both, therefore, are not only mingled injudiciously together, but both are unavoidably incomplete.

I hope you saw Coleridge’s letters in the ‘Courier,’ especially that in which he justifies himself for speaking of Buonaparte in terms of abhorrence. [17]  This man is continually giving the surest proof of intellectual weakness in altering his plans. He builds up kingdoms and pulls them down, just as children serve their card houses: aiming at nothing permanent, and incapable of producing anything that can be so. Many happy new years to you and yours.

God bless you.

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 182–185. BACK

[1] Capel Lofft (1751–1824; DNB), Whig landed gentleman, lawyer and poet, notoriously testy of disposition. Lofft was the patron and editor of Robert Bloomfield , Kirke White and a number of other writers from poor backgrounds. He was a regular contributor to the Monthly Mirror. Lofft was offended by a paragraph in which Southey praised himself, rather than Lofft, for bringing White’s poetry to notice after the setback of a cruel review. For further details, see Southey to Neville White, 28 November 1808, Letter 1545. BACK

[2] Coleridge’s periodical, The Friend, was published in 26 instalments from 1 June 1809 to 15 March 1810. Lofft’s hand was notoriously illegible. BACK

[3] In his ‘Account of the Life of H. K. White’ in the third edition of the Remains of Henry Kirke White, Southey states, ‘It is not unworthy of remark, that this very reviewal, which was designed to crush the hopes of Henry, and suppress his struggling genius, has been in its consequences, the main occasion of bringing his Remains to light, and obtaining for him that fame which assuredly will be his portion. Had it not been for the indignation which I felt at perusing a criticism at once so cruel and so stupid, the little intercourse between Henry and myself would not have taken place; his papers would probably have remained in oblivion, and his name, in a few years, have been forgotten’, Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life, 2 vols (London, 1808), I, p. 27. In later editions of the Remains ‘would probably’ was not changed to ‘might possibly’. BACK

[4] William Bengo Collyer (1782–1854; DNB), congregational minister and religious writer, who published Lectures on Scripture Prophecy (1809). For Southey’s thoughts on these, see Southey to Neville White, 10 October 1809, Letter 1691. BACK

[5] Wesleyan Methodists and some Anglicans espoused beliefs set out by Jacobus Arminius (1560–1609) in the significance of faith, and of the acceptance of grace, in salvation. Evangelicals, both Anglican and Methodist, tended to accept the Calvinist doctrine of a predestined elect. BACK

[6] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil was published in 1810. BACK

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

[8] Elizabeth Smith (1776–1806), Memoirs of Frederick and Margaret Klopstock. Translated from the German by the Author of ‘Fragments in Prose and Verse’ (1808). BACK

[9] In the eighteenth number of The Friend, dated 21 December 1809, an account is included by ‘Satyrane’ of Coleridge’s and Wordsworth’s visit to the German poet, Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803) in 1798. See Coleridge, The Friend; A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper (London, 1809), pp. 276–288. See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), II, pp. 239–247. BACK

[10] Klopstock, Der Messias (1748–1773). BACK

[11] Henry Kirke White’s poem, ‘The Christiad, A Divine Poem’, remained unfinished on his death and was included in Southey’s Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life, 2 vols (London, 1807), I, pp. 171–191. BACK

[12] A letter titled ‘Outline of a Poem on the Deluge’ and signed ‘J. B.’ was published in the Monthly Magazine (1 December 1809), 409–411. BACK

[13] Southey never did write this epic poem. BACK

[14] Southey’s prefatory comments to Kirke White’s ‘Christiad’, included the observation that ‘the mixture of mythology makes truth itself appear fabulous’, in the Remains of Henry Kirke White … with an Account of his Life (London, 1807), I, p. 172. BACK

[15] Southey reviewed Abiel Holmes (1763–1837), American Annals; or, a Chronological History of America, from its Discovery in 1492 to 1806 in the Quarterly Review, 2 (November 1809), 319–337. BACK

[16] Southey is referring to James Stanier Clarke (c. 1765–1834; DNB) and John McArthur (1755–1840; DNB), The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, K.B. from his Lordship’s Manuscripts (1809). He reviewed this work, as well as several other books about Nelson in his article for the Quarterly Review, 3 (February 1810), 218–262. These included John Charnock (1756–1806; DNB), Biographical Memoirs of Lord Viscount Nelson, &c., &c., &c.; with Observations, Critical and Explanatory (1806); James Harrison (d. 1847), The Life of Lord Nelson (1806); T. O. Churchill (fl. 1800–1823), The Life of Lord Viscount Nelson, Duke of Bronté, &c (1808). Southey’s article was later expanded into a full-scale Life of Nelson (1813). BACK

[17] Stuart had authored several letters on the Peninsular war in the Courier in 1808. These took issue with the negotiations and peace arguments of the Whigs and radicals. See the Courier, 8, 9, 26, 29 November (‘The Campaign in Spain’); 14, 15, 16 November (‘The Court of Inquiry’); 1 December (‘The Apstoacy of Don Cevallos’), 2 December (‘Apostacy of the Edinburgh’), and 22 December (‘Spain and Revolutions’). Coleridge also praised these articles and responded to them with his own ‘Letters on the Spaniards’ in the Courier of 7, 8, 9, 15, 20, 21, 22 December 1809 and 20 January 1810. See S. T. Coleridge, Essays on his Times, ed. David V. Erdman, 3 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1978), II, 41 and 44–100. BACK

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