486. Robert Southey to William Taylor, [c. 3 February 1800]

486. Robert Southey to William Taylor, [c. 3 February 1800] ⁠* 

My dear friend

I thank you for your Eclogue. [1]  with the beginning I have often been pleased, & the remainder pleases me not less. Some lines will not scan – Men who against Kings &c – is a foot short. Surely the dome of the Invalides – a foot too long, &, We poor Jews when it went, in the same fault. I have scannd these lines so often as to be satisfied the error is not in my toning. In Hexameters of a loftier tone I should object to such the placing a verb like “batter” at the end of one line & the “down” at the beginning of the next – as it is almost splitting a word: but in this place the effect is rather good than otherwise. I think you estimate rightly the powers of this metre. perhaps no other is so well adapted for the sort of domestic poetry, if the term be understandable, in which I believe Voss has written his Luise. [2]  I have sometimes thought Mohammed [3]  too high a subject for the metre – & Robin Hood [4]  a better hero for a hexametrical poem.

The second Anthology [5]  is very far advanced, eleven sheets being printed. the sooner therefore, you send me the correction of the halting lines, the better. you asked me in a former letter, & I forgot to answer the question, if epigrams were admissible. – every thing except translations, & I reserve the few epigrams already collected to go together near the end of the book. [6] 

Harry is much improved in manners & in mind since my visit to Yarmouth. I am however uneasy lest he should contract habits of expensiveness, <of> which it will be difficult to divest himself, & which if indulged must be subversive of independance & perhaps integrity. my attempts to correct this are rather by example, than by precept. you have considerable influence <over him,> & I say this to you that you may bear in mind his failing & his danger. make but independance his pride, & he will do well. you will perhaps smile to hear that the first book that ever seriously influenced my opinions & my conduct was the Manual of Epictetus. [7]  Harry is very quick – he has talents enough if well directed, to render himself useful & respectable. the marks of genius are not, I think, to be found in there him. Do you approve the plan of sending him to a German University after x previous studies chemical & anatomical in England?

I am seriously thinking of quitting England in search of health. either to wait till Autumn & then revisit Lisbon, or to employ the summer in xxxx travelling thro Vienna to Trieste. something I must do lest habits of sickliness affect my mind as well as body. I use stimulants enough – from porter to the gaseous oxyd, [8]  & certainly am better for them – indeed unable to do without them. My employments are perforce contracted. I have given up rhyming a guineas-worth a week for the Morning Post. it was become an oppression which harrassed me. With Thalaba [9]  I proceed leisurely, & therefore it is a pleasure & relief. eight books are written to my own mind well; when it is compleated & corrected I will send you the manuscript.

To return to the hexameters – the structure which Klopstock disapproves [10]  is to my ear then only unpleasant, when a pause in the sense makes it perceptible, & then it is equally offensive in any of the four first feet. I recollect but one instance in the fragment of Mohammed – Disturbs him – so deep his attention. the pause, breaks the dactyl into a trochee. you are right I think in recommending the long syllable-ending to precede the superfluous beginning one of the next line, & this liberty seems inevitable. I meant it to be read Waš thȳ spīrīt. the “Souňds thāt rung” make a licentious foot – an amphimacer – & for these are anomalies a preface must plead excuse & demand acquittal. I sent you all that I have written & you must not forget that they are the apprencticeship-verses. it is evident that their perceptible harmony is obtained by no forced accent or unnatural construction of language. they would very soon become as easy to me & as wieldable as blank verse. & when Thalaba is finished I shall certainly give them the trial of a long and important poem. Whether Mohammed be a hero likely to blast a poem in a Christian country is doubtful. my Mohammed will be, what I believe the Arabian was in the beginning of his career, sincere in enthusiasm – & it would puzzle a casuist to distinguish between the belief of inspiration & the actual impulse. from Coleridge I am promised the half, & we divided the books according as their subjects suited us – but I expect to have nearly the whole work. his ardour is not lasting, & the only inconvenience that his dereliction can occasion will be that I shall write the poem in fragments & have to seam them together at last. the action ends with the capture of Mecca. the mob of his wives are kept out of sight – & only[MS torn] the Egyptian [11]  introduced. Ali [12]  is of course my hero – & if you will recollect the prominent characters of Omar & Abubeker & Hamza [13]  you will see variety enough. Among the Koreish are Amron & Caled. [14]  from Maracci’s curious prolegomena to his refutation of the Koran [15]  I have collected many obscure facts for the narrative. Still however tho the plan is well formed & interesting I fear it would not give the hexameters a fair chance. a more popular story, & one requiring not the elevation of thought & language which this demands would probably succeed better. a sort of pastoral epic, which is one of my boy-plans yet unexecuted. there is no need to make enemies to the poem, when the metre will have so many. give me your judgement upon this point which it is almost time to decide, for a few weeks will finish Thalaba.

I should have been glad of your Dr Faustus. [16]  in general these Beelzebub stories require a mixture of the ludicrous with the terrific, which it is difficult, if possible, to avoid. I have been reprehended for writing such tales, because they encouraged superstition – an idle remark, − for surely making free with the Devil is not the way to preserve his respectability.

You probably learnt from Coleridges letter the rascally conduct of Sheridan about your Norwich riots. [17]  at Bristol we have always something new in the way of chemical experiment. Davy has been very busy in examining the effects of the different gasses in respiration, & the oxygen-mania must I think be exploded by them. he has ascertained that by <in> breathing pure oxygen, less oxygen is absorbed than in breathing common air. I wish you knew the young man – I never saw one who promised so much, who possessed so compleatly the power powers which make a great man.

Another campaign – & another expedition! [18]  Amen. so be it! & if bleeding be a cure for frenzy, I think this promises to sanity <make> the people of England sane.


yrs Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr/ Surry Street/ Norwich./ Single
Postmarks: BRISTOL/ FEB 3 1800; B/ FEB 3/ 1800
Endorsement: Ansd 7 Feb
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4826. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 322–327. BACK

[1] William Taylor’s ‘The Show, an English Eclogue, in hexameters’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 200–210. BACK

[2] Johann Heinrich Voss (1751–1826), Luise (1795). BACK

[3] Muhammad (570–632), Prophet of Islam, subject of a proposed poem in hexameters by Southey and Coleridge; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 18–20. BACK

[4] Legendary medieval outlaw. For Southey’s interest in him as a subject for poetry see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 215. He later collaborated on a Robin Hood poem with Caroline Bowles. It was never finished; a fragment was published in 1847 by Bowles, by then Southey’s widow. BACK

[5] Annual Anthology (1800). BACK

[6] Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 267–272. All seventeen epigrams were by Southey, Coleridge or James Webbe Tobin. BACK

[7] Epictetus (55–135), Greek Stoic philosopher. His works are known through his pupil Lucius Flavius Arrianus’s (c. 86–after 146) Enchiridion, or ‘Handbook’ of Epictetus’s thought. BACK

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

[9] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[10] Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock (1724–1803), German poet. Klopstock disapproved of a dactyl and spondee as the second and third foot of a hexameter; see Taylor to Southey, December 1799, J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, p. 312. BACK

[11] Maria al-Qibtiyya (d. 637) Egyptian Christian slave who became Muhammad’s wife or concubine. BACK

[12] Ali ibn Abi Talib (598/600–661), cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad; Caliph 656–661. BACK

[13] Umar (586/590–644; Caliph 634–644); Abu Bakr As-Siddiq (573–634; Caliph 632–634); Hamza ibn Abd al-Muttalib 568/572–625), key early followers of Muhammad. BACK

[14] The Quraysh were the dominant tribe in Mecca. Khalid ibn al-Walid (592–642) and Amr ibn al-Ab (c. 583/9–664) were military commanders in the tribe and were initially hostile to Muhammad. BACK

[15] Lodovico Maracci, Alcorani Textus Universus ex Correctioribus Arabum Exemplaribus Summa Fide, atque Pulcherrimis Charecteribus Descriptus, ... in Latinum Translatus, 2 vols (Padua, 1698), II, part 2, pp. 76–77 and appendix. This material was used as a note in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 11, line 114. BACK

[16] William Taylor’s unfinished ballad on Dr Faustus, the legendary German who made a pact with the devil (Taylor to Southey, December 1799, J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, p. 327). BACK

[17] Coleridge’s letter to William Taylor, 25 January 1800, E.L. Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols (Oxford, 1956–1971), I, pp. 564–566. It mentioned an ‘Extract of a Letter from Norwich, Saturday, January 18 1800’, published anomymously in the Morning Post, 22 January 1800, but written by the Whig playwright and politician, Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816; DNB). The ‘Extract’ gave an account of conflicts between local radicals and the 9th Regiment of Foot, in which the conduct of the soldiers was highly praised. BACK

[18] A new invasion of the Continent by an Anglo-Russian expedition, following on the invasion of Holland in 1799, was being widely rumoured at this time. BACK

People mentioned