765. Robert Southey to John May, 9 March 1803

765. Robert Southey to John May, 9 March 1803 ⁠* 

My dear friend

You have indeed had a trying season – but I trust it is not now prematurely done when I thank God that it has ended no worse. the loss of a child [1]  is at all times a serious loss, but the earlier it happens the less is the calamity. it is th in your case rather a subtraction from future, than from present happiness. it is better to see the bud wither, than to behold the blossom cankered, or the fruit blighted. You have had so much to apprehend that the real loss is comparatively little. Your letter did not quite say that Mrs May [2]  was out of danger – & in such cases one looks with some reliance for the regular formula of words. your next will I trust be to this effect – & do not let it be long before it arrives.

I have no connection with the Literary Journal [3]  whereof you speak. the Prospectus pleased me & I bought the first number which did not. they set out by the grave information that man is an animal who requires food & clothing [4]  – that same wise sentence has been so often xxxxx <repeated> in print, that the repetition now offends me almost as much as the inanity of the thing itself. In that the notice they take of poetry [5]  in that number they make a sort of declaration of war against me – which they are welcome to do & with perfect safety – I being a very Quaker in literature. At present I am prest hard to supply the new Annual Review, [6]  which will probably be more honestly done than any of the other critical journals. William Taylor is doing something for this also. You will find me close to my text, very conscientious in good or evil censure, always analytical, & to the best of my judgement selecting the most characteristic, or most important, or most interesting passages of every book under xx examination. this is profitable labour, but not pleasant for one capable of & aspiring to better things. When I am dead, & my works estimated with no personal reference, it will be regretted that I should ever have been obliged to review dull books & write dull verses for a newspaper. yet I would not exchange such journey-work for any professional employment.

I shall not defend myself versus the Scotch Review [7]  before any court but you – but in that court I shall cast the plaintiff. in every specific accusation against the plan of Thalaba the critic is wrong. Is he less so in his general attack of my system of poetry? This is to be considered.

There certainly is a design in the most part of my poems to force into notice the situation of the poor, & to represent them as the victims of the present state of society. the object is to make my readers think & feel – as for the old Antijacobine cry that it is to make the poor rebellious that is too absurd to require answer. the Poor do not read books of poetry upon fine paper, nor are the poems addressed to their capacities of understanding. the charge which the Scotch critic makes applies to me far more than to Coleridge & Wordsworth – for it is I who in the language of Mr Canning [8]  & Mr Cobbet [9] am κατ εξοχην [10]  the Jacobine poet. but you possess every poem which I have every published. except some of those verses which appeared without a name in the Morning Post & were never collected into the Anthology [11]  because they were too worthless – & very few indeed of these <have> any political or moral tendency, if they had I should have reprinted them. I will particularize my most marked poems – there is the first Botany Bay Eclogue, the Soldiers Wife & the Widow – in the first volume. [12]  in the second the Complaints of the Poor – the Victory [13]  which poem has been printed at Carlisle on a halfpenny sheet & sold about the North by the hawkers – & this I consider the highest & most valuable mark of approbation that any of my poems have ever yet received) & that English Eclogue called the Funeral, one of my very best productions. [14]  in the Anthology the Wedding. [15]  these have all one object in view. now have I in any of these exaggerated human misery? or ascribed it to wrong causes? or attempted to palliate the crimes of the poor by the plea of necessity? a doctrine which I do not hold.

So much for the life & soul of the poetry. as for the body & garb of it I & the Scotchmen differ about that also – tho in their last number they assert all that I want them to admit, in their Review of Boyds Dante. [16]  that poetry is distinct from metre, & may & does exist without it. it follows that prose & poetry are not antithetic terms, but instead prose & metre. But the majority of Critics are for passing an act of uniformity for all metrical language. & my system is to “suit the word to the action.” for dialogue – for the language <expression> of natural feeling, natural language must be appropriate, & it should be as little distorted from the natural sequence as possible. When the Poet himself speaks it is different – my palace-work – my jewelry – my paradise – my music – if these have not a gala-dress of language, I know not in what Potosi [17]  the riches of language are to be found.

The single phrases to which they object are not worth defending. I could point out fifty worse instances, for they have overlooked the real defects & blotches in the poem, & some of the passages to which they object are in themselves very good.

I have taken him food for charity
And never a word he spake.
But yet so ghastly he lookd
That I have awakend at night –  [18] 

xxx this passage they have selected for censure – & here they have left off without adding the line which finishes the sentence & gives it all its force – “With the dream of his [MS torn] <ghastly eyes”> [19]  this is dishonest criticism – wilfully dishonest – it is as if some atheistical anatomist were to examine a leg distinct from the body, & abuse the mechanism of the disjointed lim[MS torn]

My Uncle has been confined with a cold & cough since Xmas – to which, he said in his last letter, he saw no end. This has made me anxious about him – let me hear if you receive any accounts of him. Edith is better than she has for some time been. your goddaughter in excellent health, spirits & temper. a better tempered child I never saw – & her spirits are almost too high – she is all life & motion.

I hope soon to hear of Mrs Mays more certain & more speedy amendment. possibly to see her in April – for it is possible that I may be obliged to visit London Libraries before I can write finish the preface to Amadis [20]  – but this I shall endeavour to avoid.

God bless you –

your affectionate friend

Robert Southey.

I also read the Iris. [21] 

March 9. 1803.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmarks: [partial] B / MAR/ 1803; 1803/ o’Clock
MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] John May’s second son, Richard, was born on 11 February 1803, but died ten days later. BACK

[2] Susanna Frances Livius (1767-1830). BACK

[3] The Literary Journal (1803-1806) began publication on 6 January 1803 as a sixteen-page weekly magazine and was edited by James Mill (1773-1836; DNB). John May had possibly identified the ‘R.S.’, author of an article on ‘Manners’, Literary Journal, 1 (6 January 1803), 15-20, as Southey, who had used this signature elsewhere. BACK

[4] Literary Journal, 1 (6 January 1803), [1]. BACK

[5] Literary Journal, 1 (6 January 1803), 13, criticised ‘a tendency to corruption in our taste, which obviously appears in an affected novelty of versification and sentiment, which seems daily to gain ground’. BACK

[6] Annual Review for 1802, 1 (1803). BACK

[7] The review of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) by Francis Jeffrey in Edinburgh Review, 1 (October, 1802), 63-83. BACK

[8] George Canning (1770-1827; DNB), Foreign Secretary 1807-1809, 1822-1827, Prime Minister 1827. A leading contributor to the Anti-Jacobin 1797-1798. BACK

[9] William Cobbett (1763-1835; DNB), editor of the Weekly Political Register 1802-1835 and at this time a Tory. BACK

[10] The Greek translates as ‘Par excellence’. BACK

[11] Annual Anthology (1799) and (1800). BACK

[12] Poems (Bristol, 1797), pp. 77-82; 145-146; 147-148. BACK

[13] Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. 81-84; 174-176. BACK

[14] ‘The Funeral’, Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. 202-205. BACK

[15] Annual Anthology (London, 1800), pp. 119-126. BACK

[16] Henry Boyd (1748/9-1832; DNB), The Divina Commedia, Consisting of the Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso, Translated into English Verse (1802); reviewed in the Edinburgh Review, 2 (January 1803), 307-314. BACK

[17] City in South America famous for the wealth of its silver mines. BACK

[18] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 8, lines 12-15; censured by Francis Jeffrey (1773-1850; DNB) in Edinburgh Review, 1 (October, 1802), 69. BACK

[19] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 8, line 16. BACK

[20] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

[21] Norwich newspaper which William Taylor had begun publishing on 5 February 1803. BACK

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