556.1 Robert Southey to George Dyer [fragment], 2 November 1800

556.1 Robert Southey to George Dyer [fragment], 2 November 1800 ⁠* 

(Infxxxxx.) George Dyer

6 Cliffords Inn.

Lisbon Nov. 2. 1800

[MS missing] George Dyer my first business is to abuse you for writing me half a letter, whereby you made Rickman guilty of the same fault & deprived me of a whole one.

If it is your intention to dip at all into the bottomless & muddy lake of Spanish poetry I should recommend Quevedo  [1]  as the best author for sundry reasons. the editions of his works are so numerous that I believe no Spanish writer is to be procured so easily & so cheaply in England; & if his poetry be not of much value, his prose is good. moreover in Quevedo you will find the sportive as well as the serious, a sort of comic poetry peculiar to the Spaniards. I probably shall reap a rich harvest in this field – but there will be little left for another to glean. the little that is good I shall lay hold of, & the absurdities most characteristic will enliven a literary history. The Portugueze have reprinted most of their early poets, a circumstance very unaccountable, as they cannot possibly have repaid the publisher. The excessive & miserably & absurdity & baldness of these poets, the cotemporaries of Shakespere & Spenser!  [2]  you would hardly credit. the French writers who are a century older excel them in every thing but versification – I do not believe that the Pursuer of Literature,  [3]  had ever read more of Ercilla than is translated by Hayley.  [4]  neither do I think that he had read Dante,  [5]  or he never could so have extolled these authors.

The [MS missing] I hear gladly of his good fortune. the Farmers Boy [6]  has not the miraculous powers of Burns,  [7]  but still it is the work of no common writer; there were several single lines in it which cd not have been written without an eye & an ear, – many more celebrated rhymers write as tho they were blind & deaf. “The Pleasures of Hope” has been over praised. I think highly enough of the Author to believe he will get into a better school.  [8] 

Of Portugueze Literature I can perhaps give you an outline in the compass of a letter. as in Italy & France & England so in Portugal the aera of national power & splendour & enterprize, awakened individual talents. the first Poets – that is the Chaucers & Petrarchs & Ronsards [9]  of the country, for ragged rhymes they had from time immemorial like all savages – the first Poets had to struggle with a barbarous jargon. The Portugueze language say their writers, is the legitimate daughter of the Latin. the truth of this pedigree is of little consequence – she had been the wife of the Goth & the slave of the Moor, & her fathers language was corrupted by this barbarian intercourse. Sa de Miranda & Ferreira [10]  gave shape & syntax to the jargon of the country – they made words from the Latin – they enriched it with metaphors – adopted the Italian metres, & made their language vie with the best European tongues – as themselves did with the best European writers. With more genius Camõens [11]  cooperated – this is the great merit of Camoens & this no foreigner can pretend to understand. I can intimate the structure of his story – the merit of every part – & the justice of every thought, – but I cannot as I read the poem point out for what expressions – what words – & what syntax the language is indebted to Camoens. We build with ready materials – he dug in the quarry & cut the stones for his edifice. At the same time the Chroniclers improved their prose – never had language or nation a more rapid rise – but suddenly the nation sunk – & the literature never advanced. from the days of Sebastian [12]  it has been stationary.

Thus then the great merit of these writers is the improvement of their language. Another circumstance is equally unfavourable to their foreign fame: like all writers at the revival of letters, they imitated & translated largely from the classics: this too had its use – but to us, these, the then best passages, were as a tale twice told. They began with Sonnets, odes, Epistles, & Satires. above every other species of poetry, the sonnet requires the utmost polish of language – & in proof of this, the old sonnets are almost without an exception bad. Even Shakesperes & Spensers have only beautiful lines. Moreover, 999 sonnets of 1000 were love-sonnets – & love poems are usually miserable stuff. the mob of Portugueze sonnets therefore are good for nothing. there are perhaps about 30 in the language which deserve to be translated – chiefly by Camõens, or in imitation of him by Diogo Bernardes.  [13]  & these are assuredly the best poems in the language. Odes – you know my opinion of lyrical poetry – & agree with it I trust so far as to allow that mediocrity is more fatal to the ode than to any other poem. I have found none that are good. Familiar Epistles interest me always in proportion to the importance of the writer – they are valuable from Horace [14]  – they are good for nothing from an imitator. Satire is a perishable commodity. We take pains to understand the roman satirists – because we are interested about the Romans – but {who} will perplex himself about the vices & follies, & knaves & fools, of a semi-barbarous age & country. Eclogues – of all rhyming nonsense this is the most insufferable – & the portugueze & Spanish Eclogues are the worst of the sort – because they are the longest – they extend from 500 to 1500 lines – & all about nothing! Glosas. this is the main branch. to glose is to take some given lines & spin them into a poem of which every stanza shall conclude with one line or more of the last till it be gone thro. a way of wire-drawing poetry or stretching it upon the rack. Elegies – usually personal – of course forgotten as soon as the person upon whom they were written. a dead king or duke seldom stinks long in the nostrils of posterity – xxxx Plays. – they have scarcely any – & yet Spain is deluged with them. will you believe that no tragedy was written from the days of Ferreira till the present generation? Epic Poems – this is a numerous class, & rich in examples of all that is absurd. I recollect [MS obscured] the species except the Romances – so called from their metre – which are rigmaroles above love or religion.

For their prose – in old historians we mind the matter more than the mañer – they are excellent quarries. Barros [15]  is famous, & writes with genius, but he swells & puffs too much. Their best prose writer [16]  – & I have seen passages of great beauty from his works – unhappily wrote only eleven volumes of sermons! Of them I hope to lay hold of some – Jeremy Taylor has taught me not to despise old sermons, & Vieyra was the Jeremy Taylor [17]  of Portugal. There is not a novel in the language – nor ought resembling one. nor a volume of essays, nor a book of travels less than 150 years old. of the pastoral romance there are some five or six specimens. vile imitations of the Diana [18]  – being little but dialogues about love. I am grieved at the loss of Amos Cottle. [19]  God bless you.

Yrs R Southey

Thank you for your arithmetical Greek epigrams.  [20]  they will find a place in my chapter on the absurdities of literature.  [21]  I had never heard of them.


* MS: Bibliotheca Nacional, Rio de Janeiro. TR; 4p.
Note on MS: the letter survives only in an undated copy in an unknown hand. Our text is taken from this. BACK

[1] Francisco de Quevedo (1580–1645), Spanish politician and writer, well-known for his satirical works. BACK

[2] Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599; DNB), author of the Faerie Queene (1590–1596). BACK

[3] Thomas James Mathias (1754–1835; DNB) had described Alonso de Ercilla y Zuniga (1533–1594), author of La Araucana (1569–1589), as one of ‘the three greatest masters of heroick verse’, see The Pursuits of Literature (London, 1799), p. 27. BACK

[4] William Hayley (1745–1820; DNB). His Essay on Epic Poetry (London, 1782), pp. 214–273, contained a lengthy description of, and translated extracts from, Ercilla’s, La Araucana. BACK

[5] Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), author of the Divine Comedy (c. 1308–1321). BACK

[6] Robert Bloomfield author of the phenomenally successful The Farmer’s Boy (1800). BACK

[7] Robert Burns (1759–1796; DNB), Scottish poet. He, like Bloomfield, worked on a farm in his youth, though in Burns’s case it was a farm of which his father was the tenant. BACK

[8] Thomas Campbell (1777–1845; DNB), Scottish poet, whose The Pleasures of Hope (1799) had been a great success. BACK

[9] Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1343–1400; DNB), The Canterbury Tales (c. 1400); Francesco Petrarca (1304–1374), Italian poet; Pierre de Ronsard (1524–1585), French poet. All three men were regarded as key to the creation of their respective national literatures. BACK

[10] Francisco de Sa de Miranda (c. 1481–1558), Portuguese poet, who introduced Renaissance verse forms into Portugal; Antonio Ferreira (1528–1569), Portuguese writer, inspired by the classics, and author of the first tragedy in Portuguese, Ines de Castro (1587). BACK

[11] Luís Vaz de Camões (c. 1524–1580), Portuguese poet, author of The Lusiads (1572). BACK

[12] Sebastian (1554–1578; King of Portugal 1557–1578). BACK

[13] Camões’ posthumous Rimas (1595) contained 58 sonnets. Diogo Bernardes (c. 1530–?1605), Portuguese poet. When he published his volume O Lima (1596), it was so similar to that of Camões that he was accused of passing off the elder poet’s work as his own. BACK

[14] Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC), Epistularum liber primus (20 BC) and Epistularum liber secundus (14 BC). BACK

[15] Joao de Barros (1496–1570), Portuguese historian, famous for his Decades of Asia (1552–1615). BACK

[16] Antonio Vieira (1608–1680), Portuguese Jesuit and writer. His Sermons, 15 vols (1679–1748) are considered the height of Portuguese prose, but he wrote many other works. Southey acquired a copy of Vieira’s Sermons, no. 3771 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[17] Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667; DNB), Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore 1661–1667 and author of Holy Living and Holy Dying (1651). BACK

[18] Jorge de Montemayor (c. 1520–1561), The Seven Books of the Diana (1559), the first pastoral novel published in Spain. BACK

[19] Amos Cottle had died on 28 September 1800. BACK

[20] Probably a reference to the 45 Greek epigrams on mathematical problems preserved in the medieval Anthologia Graeca, many attributed to Metrodorus (fl. 6th AD). BACK

[21] Southey’s planned, but never completed, volume on obscure and ridiculous poems, especially epics. BACK

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