433. Robert Southey to Humphry Davy, [4 September 1799]

433. Robert Southey to Humphry Davy, [4 September 1799] ⁠* 

Your Mounts-Bay, my dear Davy, disappointed me in its length. [1]  I expected more & wishd more, because what there is is good. there is a certain swell – an elevation in the flow of the blank verse, which I know not how, produces an effect like the fullness of an organ-swell upon the feelings. I have felt it from the rythm of Milton [2]  – & sometimes of Akenside [3]  – a pleasure wholly independant of that derived from the soul of the poetry, arising from the beauty of the body only – I believe a man who did not understand a word of it would feel pleasure & emotion at hearing such lines read with the tone of a poet. the character drawn of Theora is I think out of place – it is not a common character. & the story is no ways influenced by it. the passion to be excited is pity, not admiration.

I must not press the subject of poetry upon you – only do not lose the feeling, & the habit of seeing all things with a poets eye. at Bristol you have a good society – but not a man who knows any thing of poetry. Dr Beddoes’ taste is very pessimism. Cottles only likes what his friends & himself write. Every person fancies himself competent to pronounce upon the merits of a poem. & yet no trade no science requires so long an apprenticeship, or involves the necessity of such multifarious knowledge. I want an equal reader to judge my poems, one whose knowledge & taste is commensurate with mine, who has thought as much upon the subject – or else one who pretends not to criticise but will surrender his feelings to me & follow the impulse they receive.

It gave me pain to see Dr Beddoes’s Domiciliary Verses inserted in the Anthology. [4]  when I left Bristol a variance subsisted between myself & Coleridge. I had therefore reason on the score of delicacy not to make myself the means of publishing any thing designed as a ridicule either upon him or his friend Wordsworth, & those lines at the time they were written were handed about as such. this I requested Cottle to mention to Dr B. as a reason for not inserting them. he did so & Dr B replied that unless they were inserted, nothing of his should. the epigram [5]  was then already printed & Cottle did right not to offend the Doctor himself. But had I been then in Bristol, his poems should have been immediately returned & what was already printed cancelled. I respect Dr Beddoes – but in this instance he has acted with an indelicacy & a kind of arrogance which I never before experienced. for the second volume [6]  of course no application shall be made to him.

The second volume I hope to send to press early in November. sometimes remember this, & let it prevent <save> a poetizing impulse from being repelled.

I have been long idle, or rather lying fallow. after writing to you I walkd to the Valley of Stones & to Ilfracombe. on my return we remained a fortnight at Stowey with Coleridge, where Edith gradually recovered, & where with walking & talking I was compleatly occupied. we travelled together to Ottery St Mary – & after vainly seeking lodgings on the coast or in the villages near I found lodgings on Monday last at Mr Tuckers. Fore-Street-Hill. Exeter. [7]  whither direct. Coleridge is eleven miles distant at his brothers. he will pass some time here. we have formed the plan of a long poem to execute in hexameters. but this you had better not mention as it will need a strong preliminary attack to bully people out of their prejudices against innovations in metre. our story is Mohammed. [8] 

At Lymouth I saw Tobins [9]  friend Williams [10]  who opened upon me with an account of the gazeous oxyd. [11]  I had the advantage of him, having felt what he it seems, had only seen. Lymouth where he is fixd is certainly the most beautiful place I have seen in England – so beautiful that all the after scenes come flat & uninteresting. it may xxxxxx the Valley of Stones is about half-a-mile distant, as a strange & magnificent which ought to have filled the whole neighbourhood with traditions of giants & devils & magicians. but I could find none – not even a lie preserved. I know too little of natural history to hypothesize upon the cause of this valley: it appeard to me that nothing but water could have so defleshed & laid bare the bones of the earth. that any inundation which could have overstopped these heights must have deluged the kingdom – but the opposite hills are clothed with vegetable with vegetable soil & verdure – therefore the cause must have been partial. a water-spout might have occasioned it perhaps – & there my conjectures rested – or rather took a new direction to the Preadamite Kings, [12]  the fiends who married Diocletians fifty daughters – their giant progeny [13]  – old Merlin [14]  & the builders of the Giants Causeway. [15] 

For the next Anthology I project a poem on our Clifton Rocks. [16]  the scenery is fresh in my sight – & these kind of poems derive a more interesting cast as recollections than as immediate pictures.


yours truly

Robert Southey.

Exeter. Thursday May [17]  4. 99.


* Address: [deletion and readdress in another hand] To/ Mr Davy/ Pneumatic Institution/ Hot Wells <Post Office minehead>/ Bristol. / Single
Stamped: EXETER
Endorsement: May 99/ Exeter
MS: Royal Institution, London, Davy MSS. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Davy (ed.), Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (London, 1858), pp. 34–36 [in part; misdated 4 May 1799].
Dating note: Southey dates this letter as ‘May 4.99’. But its contents, including references to the recently-published Annual Anthology (1799), Southey’s walking-tour in north Somerset and his new lodgings in Exeter, all date the letter to early September 1799. BACK

[1] Humphry Davy, ‘Extract from an unfinished poem upon Mount’s-Bay’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 281–286. BACK

[2] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB). BACK

[3] Mark Akenside (1721–1770; DNB). BACK

[4] Thomas Beddoes’s ‘Domiciliary Verses’ appeared in Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 287–288. BACK

[5] Beddoes’s ‘On Some Modern Improvements in a Celebrated Spot in Gloucestershire’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), p. 248. BACK

[6] The second volume of the Annual Anthology was published in 1800. BACK

[7] Possibly the retired stationer and bookseller Richard Tucker (fl. 1779–1784), whose business had occupied premises on Fore-Street, Exeter. BACK

[8] Coleridge and Southey’s plan for a jointly-written poem in hexameters on Muhammad (570–632), the Prophet of Islam, did not make much progress. A fragment by Southey was published posthumously in Oliver Newman: a New-England Tale (London, 1845), pp. 113–116; and 14 lines by Coleridge in The Poetical Works of S. T. Coleridge, 3 vols (London, 1834), II, p. 68. For Southey’s notes for, and early sketch of, the poem see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 18–20. BACK

[9] Either the abolitionist James Webbe Tobin or his brother John Tobin (1770–1804; DNB), playwright. BACK

[10] Williams (first name and dates unknown) was the ‘natural son’ of Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester (1743–1805; DNB), Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 521. BACK

[11] Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. BACK

[12] Both Christian and Muslim theologians had speculated about the existence on earth of non-human civilizations before the creation of Adam. William Beckford’s (1760–1844; DNB) An Arabian Tale, From An Unpublished Manuscript: With Notes Critical and Explanatory (London, 1786), pp. 196, 205, had popularised the notion and used the specific phrase ‘Pre-Adamite Kings’. BACK

[13] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), ‘History of Britain’, The Works of John Milton, Historical, Political, and Miscellaneous. ... To Which is Prefixed, An Account of His Life and Writings, 2 vols (London, 1753), II, pp. 2–3. BACK

[14] Legendary wizard at the Court of King Arthur. BACK

[15] In legend, the Irish giant Finn McCool built the causeway in order to walk to Scotland to fight the Scottish giant Benandonner. BACK

[16] A series of rocks and cliffs in the Avon gorge, near the Bristol suburb of Clifton. For the plan of this poem see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 195–196. BACK

[17] May: Southey misdates, the letter was written in September. BACK

People mentioned

Beddoes, Thomas (1760–1808) (mentioned 6 times)
Cottle, Joseph (1770–1853) (mentioned 3 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Coleridge, George (1764–1828) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Stowey (mentioned 1 time)