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

1783. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 5 June 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick. June 5. 1810

Your letter of Feby. 21st ought not to have been so long unacknowledged. The truth is that my time is very much occupied, & I have but little leisure for correspondence, – nevertheless I ought to have replied to your last, on account of the xxxxxxx bill which it contained, because my silence may perhaps have led you to suppose that I was in some degree offended. Certainly it was by no means my intention in sending you a copy of Madoc [1]  that you should pay me for it, – nor should you have done so. To have sent back the note would have hurt you, & implied xx a displeasure which I did not feel, – as however you have overpaid by seven shillings that which was intended as a mark of respect to a man of genius, – you must allow me to send you the poem which I have in the press & which will appear in the course of two or three months. [2]  You will find something unlike any poem which you have never seen before, – by examining its structure & versification you may derive some advantage in your own compositions, by learning what faults you have to avoid. That spirit of criticism which looks only for faults, & delights in exaggerating & ridiculing them, is more mischievous to the critic who employs it, than to the author on whom it is employed: – the man who suffers himself to be actuated by such a spirit, if he does not begin with an incapacity of feeling what is good, is sure to render himself incapable as he proceeds. But if you read other poems in the same temper with which you scrutinized Madoc, every great work which you peruse will render you more equal to the task which you have projected for yourself.

& I have not, I fear, made myself quite intelligible as to what I consider the laws of blank verse. It is of no consequence whatever be the number of syllables they must not be more than ten to the ear, or x eleven if the line ends with a trochee, xx which is very frequent in our dramatic blank verse, & makes its main difference from that of the epic. Thus in the often quoted instance

And many an amorous, many a humorous lay [3] 

there are fourteen syllables, but they run into each other so as not to take up more time than ten. A line with fewer than ten xxxxxxx is inadmissable, – your [4] 

In prospect, There too serpents strayd

That which foll

is defective, that which follows it is redundant

And vast, & dreadly-lovely hissing wove i’the sun

remove the two syllables which begin the line – to the end of the former & both are then legitimate. Some of your lines in this specimen are not reducible to any laws of metre, nor is it possible so to read them as to make them harmonious.

Climes unexplord. Mountains gloomy as night
Mountains enormous immeasurable, frownd

The first of {Both} these is {lines are} so unmusical that I should not venture them to But there need no rules upon this subject, – your own ear & the study of good poets must lead you right. Read them for yourself, & never take the opinion of a critic, whether dead or living, x upon their merits, as valid, till you xxx xxxx see that the passage to which he refers when examined in its place will bear him out.

I shall be glad to hear that you are thinking seriously of the American poem, [5]  – that you have conceived its characters, – sketchd the outline, – & are at work upon it. Have you seen the Lady of the Lake? [6]  – It pleases me on the whole better than either of Scotts former poems, [7]  the situations are more forc striking, & there is a worthier interest excited. Its metre seems to me less happy, – the regularity seems to have tempted him to throw off many incorrect expressions & feeble lines. There is one lesson xxx which you should especially learn from our great poets, – that of purity of style, – & the charm of giving not only a meaning, but its own mean peculiar meaning to every word, – in which almost all your contemporaries are grievously, most grievously deficient. Campbell’s Gertrude [8]  has scarcely a sentence of good English in it.

I have begun a poem in blank verse upon Pelayo, [9]  the founder of the Spanish Kingdom, a noble subject, – a single canto is all that is yet written. I never allow myself any other time for poetry than what is fairly won from sleep in the morning, – so that my progress is necessarily slow. History is my favourite employment, – the quiet interest which it excites is more congenial to me now than any thing which affects & agitates me. This sort of feeling comes with the first grey hairs.


yours very truly

Robert Southey


* Address: To/ Mr E Elliott Junr./ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Mitchell Library, Glasgow
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Madoc (1805). BACK

[2] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[3] An example widely quoted in eighteenth century manuals of prosody. BACK

[4] Elliott had presumably sent Southey some of his verse. The lines quoted in this letter were not published. BACK

[5] Elliott’s unrealised plan for a poem on the British conquest of Canada in 1759–1763; see Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 1 August 1810, Letter 1796. BACK

[6] Scott’s Lady of the Lake (1810). BACK

[7] The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1808). BACK

[8] Thomas Campbell (1777–1844; DNB), Gertrude of Wyoming (1809). BACK

[9] Pelayo (c. 685–737), founder of the Kingdom of Asturias, who is credited with beginning the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. The poem eventually mutated into Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013