1757. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 11 March 1810 

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

1757. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 11 March 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick, March 11. 1810.

My dear Sir,

Your account of the Monthly Review interested me very much. [1]  If they rest the truth of their criticism upon that school poem in plain, direct, tangible language, I will most assuredly favour them with a few lines, first through the medium of as many magazines as we can get access to, and ultimately in a note to the Life. [2]  With regard to my own works, I am a perfect Quaker, and fools and rogues may misrepresent and libel them in perfect security; but upon the subject of Henry, the M. Review shall find me a very Tartar.

Till you informed me of it, I did not know that Lord Byron had amused himself with lampooning me. [3]  It is safe game, and he may go on till he is tired. Every apprentice in satire and scandal for the last dozen years has tried his hand upon me. I got hold of the Simpliciad [4]  the other day, and wrote as a motto in it these lines, from one of Davenant’s [5]  plays which I happened to have just been reading: –

Libels of such weak fancy and composure,
That we do all esteem it greater wrong
To have our names extant in such paltry rhyme
Than in the slanderous sense.

The manner in which these rhymesters and prosesters misunderstand what they criticise, would be altogether ludicrous, if it did not proceed as often from want of feeling as from want of intellect.

I want your assistance in a business in which I am sure it will interest you to give it. A youth of Bristol, by name William Roberts, died of consumption about two years ago, at the age of nineteen. He was employed in a bank, and his salary, 70/. a year (I believe), was materially useful in assisting towards the support of his father [6]  and mother, [7]  and a grandmother, and one only sister. [8]  The family had known better days … and one calamity following another, has reduced them very greatly. Yet still there remains that feeling which, if I call it pride, it is only for want of a better word to express something noble in its nature. William was a youth of great genius, and a few days before his death he bequeathed his poems in trust to his two intimate friends to be published for the benefit of his sister, that being all he had to bequeath, and his passionate desire (like that of Chatterton) [9]  was to provide for her. You must remember that at that time he did not foresee the subsequent distresses of his father and mother. These friends were a young physician of the name of Hogg, settled somewhere near London, and James, a banker of Birmingham, an acquaintance of mine, the author of that sweet poem upon the Otaheitean Girl, of which some stanzas were quoted in the third Quarterly Review. [10]  James has arranged the poems and letters of the poor fellow for the press, and will draw up a biographical memoir. [11]  He has consulted me upon the subject, and the plain statement which I have here made of the circumstances has interested me very deeply … My opinion is that great things might have been done by William Roberts; that every one will acknowledge this; but that his Remains will not obtain a general sale. Of Henry’s I foresaw the success as much as such a thing could be foreseen. But Roberts has left nothing so good as Henry’s best pieces; in fact he died younger, and was precluded from the possibility of advancing himself as Henry did, in choosing a learned profession because his salary was wanted at home. There is another reason too against their general sale; though he was most exemplary in all his duties, and, as far as I can discover, absolutely without a spot or blemish upon his character, and a regular and sincere churchman, there is nothing of that kind of piety in his writings to which the Remains are mostly indebted for their popularity. …

My hope is that such a sum may be raised as will be sufficient to place Eliza Roberts in a situation respectably to support herself and her parents. I do not yet know what extent the publication will run to, but as soon as this is settled, I will beg you to beg subscriptions. … This whole account is written with such a cautious fear of saying too much, that I fear I have said too little, and may unwittingly have led you to think slightingly of what poor William Roberts has left behind him. If I have done this I have done wrong, for certainly he was a youth of great genius and most uncommon promise, which it is my firm belief, founded upon the purity of his life and principles and the rectitude of his feelings, that he would amply have fulfilled, if it had not pleased God to remove him so early from this sphere of existence.

God bless you!

Yours affectionately,

ROBERT SOUTHEY


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 278–281 [in part]. BACK

[1] An article on the fourth edition of Southey’s Remains of Henry Kirke White (1808) had criticised both Southey and White and dismissed the latter’s ‘On Being Confined to School’ as showing ‘no evidence of extraordinary poetic genius’, Monthly Review, 61 (January 1810), 71–84 (esp. 81). BACK

[2] Southey neither sent a letter to magazines nor added a note to his biography of Henry Kirke White. BACK

[3] In English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (London, 1809), pp. 17–18: ‘Oh! SOUTHEY, SOUTHEY! cease thy varied song!/A Bard may chaunt too often and too long:/As thou art strong in verse, in mercy spare!/A fourth, alas! were more than we could bear.’ BACK

[4] Richard Mant (1776–1848; DNB), The Simpliciad: a Satirico-Didactico Poem (1808). It attacked Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth as leaders of the ‘Anti-Classical School’ of poets. BACK

[5] Sir William Davenant (bap. 1606–1668; DNB). The quotation is from his The Cruel Brother (1630), Act 1, scene 1, lines 193–196. BACK

[6] William Roberts (dates unknown). He had been made bankrupt in 1793. BACK

[7] Ann Roberts (dates unknown). BACK

[8] Eliza Roberts (dates unknown). BACK

[9] Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770; DNB), whose works had been edited by Southey in Cottle in 1803 for the benefit of Chatterton’s sister and niece. BACK

[10] ‘The Otaheitan Mourner’: ‘Peggy Stewart, daughter of an Otaheitian Chief, and married to one of the Mutineers of the Bounty. On Stewart’s being seized and carried away in the Pandora Frigate, Peggy fell into a rapid decay, and in two months died of a broken heart, leaving an infant daughter, who is still living’, published in Monthly Magazine, 26 (December 1808), 457–458. Two stanzas were quoted by Southey in his ‘Transactions of the Missionary Societies in the South Sea Islands’, Quarterly Review, 2 (August 1809), 50 n*. BACK

[11] Poems and Letters: by the Late William Isaac Roberts, of Bristol, Deceased; with Some Account of his Life (1811). BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013