395. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 5 April 1799

395. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 5 April 1799 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

My last letter which was written before I received your accusation of laziness will I think acquit me of it. Queen Mary [1]  I have begun − & but begun. for my way is not clear thro the first act. the story has great advantages & it would be difficult to select any so unlike that of other dramas. The elder Brutus has been dramatized by Lee. [2]  Lee lived at that time when the French Romances were in vogue & made more use of them than a man of such genius ought to have done. he has made his play out of Clelia, [3]  & bad enough it is, with some brilliant exceptions as in every thing he wrote. the subject would be very difficult. his sins are scarcely dignifyed enough for tragedy − & his character seems almost above it. it is for the painter − not the poet. I have seen an account of a picture by David [4]  on this subject which appeared to me more finely conceived than any thing I ever saw or heard of else. Rousseau thought of dramatizing the story of Lucretia. [5]  in that case Brutus would be a strikingly dramatic character. but these subjects will not do − unless indeed one was to write a loyal play & make Tarquin [6]  the hero, & introduce God save the King.

The difficulty I find in every subject that has occurred to me is to make enough of it. I cannot wire-draw a subject story. this will seem odd to you who think me prolix & dilated. however in Queen Mary there is enough I have no other doubt respecting it but that of its suiting the feelings of an audience. there will be no clap-traps. no loyalty − nothing about Britannia rule the waves. & however orthodox my sufferers may be, they were dissenter then − & that will be sorely against them.

The theatrical taste of the public is certainly very bad. & but the managers are more to blame than the public. they never give them an opportunity of supporting any thing good. they bring forward Boadens Tragedies & Reynolds’s Comedies! [7]  − the play which they rejected of Coleridges  [8]  was very faulty in delineation of character – but it abounded with stage effect, with passages equal to any in our language – & with poetry even to an excess. I do not think an audience could have condemned it.

Your story of the old man dying at Elizabeths [9]  succession is new to me. it is very fine. one could have died with joy at such an event.

You know I am fond of Monodramas. the dramatic turn which my thoughts have for some time taken, has suggested to me the thought of narrating in <dialogue> poems not much longer, such historical, or other, facts which <as> would make noble scenes only.

The German plays have always something ridiculous − yet Kotzebue [10]  seems to me possessed of unsurpassed & unsurpassable genius. I wonder his plays are acted here − they are so thoroughly Jacobinical in tendency. they created Jacobinical feelings − almost irresistibly − in every one that I have yet seen (Benyowsky excepted) some old prejudice or old principle is attacked. there is a very good comedy of his lately translated − the Reconciliation. full of those quick strokes of feeling that like Sterne [11]  surprize you into a tear before you have finished a smile.

The Song of which I had the credit [12]  proves to be Sothebys. [13]  a man with whom I am sometimes confounded. he gave me his address some months since & I shall visit him when I come to London. Sotheby has considerable talents as a poet − but he is not [MS torn]kely to improve − as I judge him to be forty. his Ober[MS obscured] translated as well as the admirers of Wieland ever expect it to be − but it falls sadly short they tell me. & all the puffs in the world will never make it popular. Oberon must not stand next to the Orlando Furioso. [14]  I shall beg leave to put my own Dom-Danael [15]  between them.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately


Friday. Apr. 5. 99.

I do not continue to mend. the Spring has been too cold as yet. We have no news of Ediths brother − & little hope of any except that he may be a prisoner.


* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr/ Chester Circuit
Postmark: BRISTOL/ APR 5 99
Endorsement: April 5 99
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 66–68 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey’s proposed play on ‘The Days of Queen Mary’, set in the time of Mary I (1516–1558; Queen of England, 1553–1558); see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192. BACK

[2] Nathaniel Lee (1653–1692; DNB), Lucius Junius Brutus, Father of his Country (1681), based on the life of one of the legendary founders of the Roman Republic in 509 BC. BACK

[3] Madelaine de Scudery (1607–1701), Clelie (1654–1661). BACK

[4] Jacques-Louis David (1748–1825), The Lictors Bring to Brutus the Bodies of His Sons (1789). BACK

[5] Legendary Roman noblewoman and sister of Lucius Junius Brutus. She was raped by the son of the last King of Rome and this event precipitated the rebellion led by Brutus and the foundation of the Roman Republic. BACK

[6] Lucius Tarquinius Superbus, in legend the last King of Rome, 534–509 BC. BACK

[7] James Boaden (1762–1839; DNB) and Frederic Reynolds (1764–1841; DNB), popular playwrights of the 1790s. BACK

[8] ‘Osorio’ (1797). BACK

[9] Elizabeth I (1533–1603; reigned 1558–1603; DNB). Wynn’s letter has not survived, and his story is untraced. BACK

[10] August von Kotzebue (1761–1819), German playwright. English translations of his works included Count Benyowski, or the Conspiracy of Kamtschatka (1798) and The Reconciliation, or Birth-Day (1799). BACK

[11] Laurence Sterne (1713-1768; DNB). BACK

[12] ‘On a Golden Cup, with Embossed Figures, Dedicated to the God of Mirth by the Harmonic Club’, Courier, 11 March 1799. BACK

[13] William Sotheby (1757–1833; DNB), poet. He published Oberon, a Poem, from the German of Wieland (1798), a translation of the poem by Christoph Wieland (1733–1813). BACK

[14] Lodovico Ariosto (1474–1534), author of Orlando Furioso (1532). BACK

[15] An early plan for Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

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