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

1813. Robert Southey to [Ebenezer Elliott], 7 October 1810 ⁠* 

Keswick. Oct 7. 1810.

I do not happen to posses Jornandes, [1]  or I would have sent you a translation of the immediate part concerning which you are anxious to obtain a full account. I suspect this author has never been translated, & that there are hardly any more particulars of so early an event in Gothic history to be found, than you have in Gibbon, [2]  – for on referring to what books I have at hand, I could find nothing more. With the historical facts you may inweave whatever you think fit. for your mythology if you take that of the Edda, you will find every thing you can want or wish for in Mallets Northern Antiquities. [3]  That mythology I believe is the invention of a later age, but you are justified in ascribing it to the earlier Goths, – if for no other reason for the valid one that there is no known system to supply its place.

You will of course avail yourself of the persecution under Decius, [4]  there should be something to your purpose in Foxes Martyrs, [5]  – & an old translation of Eusebius’s Ecclesiastical History [6]  in small folio, is a book frequent enough in catalogues at a low price.

Go on with the drama. It is the surest way to reputation, & the only one in which reputation brings with it remuneration in a tangible shape. Epic poems may bring credit to their author, – but they bring nothing else.

I expect to send you Kehama [7]  in November, – at least they tell me it will be published in that month, – which it well may be, the last proofs having been corrected a fortnight ago. It cannot be compared with Madoc. [8]  the two poems are compleatly different in kind; – it bears a nearer relation to Thalaba. [9]  but even Thalaba can give you no conception of its wildness. Its merit consists in the construction of the story, & in a certain moral character which I think is peculiar to it. A human being is represented suffering to the very height of human endurance, & even cut off from that hope of reward which makes the Martyr exalt at the stake. Yet in the progress of the work you cease to regard him as an object of compassion, & every other feeling is lost in admiration for the strength of virtuous principle. – This I believe will be felt by those who are capable of relishing in any degree a work x which carries them so utterly out of all common conceptions & associations: – such readers are necessarily very few, & I anticipate not merely a cry, but even a hoot of astonishment.

Have you ever read Landor’s Gebir? [10]  a poem scarcely heard of, – upon a bad story, & very obscurely told, yet containing more true poetry than has appeared in any narrative poem since the days of Milton. It is the only modern work from {by} the study of which I felt myself sensibly benefitted & improved.

Yrs very truly

R Southey.


Notes

* MS: Houghton Library, MS Hyde 10 (656)
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Jornandes (c. mid C6th), a Roman bureaucrat who wrote two Latin histories: De Getarum (Gothorum) Origine et Rebus Gestis (c. 551) and De Regnorum ac Temporum Successione (c. 551–552). Both were widely used by later historians. At this time the first of these works had been translated into French, as Histoire Generale des Goths (1703), by Jean Baptiste Drouet de Maupertuy (1650?–1730); and Swedish, as Doctor Jordans, Biskopens i Ravenna, Beskrifning om Gothernas uhrsprung och bedrifter (1719), by Johan Frederik Peringskiold (1689–1725). BACK

[2] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB), whose History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789) charted the origins and customs of the Goths and their relationship with Rome. He made some use of Jornandes’s, De Getarum as a source. BACK

[3] Paul-Henri Mallet (1730–1803), Northern Antiquities: or, a Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations (1770). The Old Norse Poetic Edda and Prose Edda, both written in Iceland in the thirteenth century, contain much that is known of Viking mythology. BACK

[4] The Roman emperor Decius (c. 201–251; ruled 249–251). In 250 he issued an edict for the suppression of Christianity. Decius and his son and co-emperor, Herennius Etruscas (c. 227–251), were killed in battle against the Goths in the Battle of Abrittus (251). This may have been the setting for the drama proposed by Ebenezer Elliott. BACK

[5] John Foxe’s (1516/17–1587; DNB) Acts and Monuments (1563); widely known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. Southey owned an edition of 1684, no. 975 in the sale catalogue of his library. Foxe’s book included a chapter on ‘The Seventh Persecution Under Decius’. BACK

[6] Eusebius of Caesarea (c. 263–339), historian and Christian polemicist, who became Bishop of Caesarea c. 314. His Historia Ecclesiastica provided a chronological account of the development of the early Christian church and was widely translated. Southey owned an edition of 1636, no. 960 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

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

[8] Madoc (1805). BACK

[9] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[10] Landor’s Gebir (1798). BACK

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August 2013