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

1866. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 7 February 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. Feby. 7. 1811.

I will willingly find fault with your play [1]  when you can find means of sending it me. – that is, I will gladly, if it be in my power, point out in what manner it may be fitted for representation, should it require alteration & appear capable of being so altered. Of managers & green rooms I know nothing. Old Cumberland [2]  once said to me in his characteristic way – “whatever you do Sir, never write a play! the torments of the damned are nothing to it.” – I myself suspect that if a man suffers any thing like purgatory from {in} a green room, it must be his own fault. I would send my play then, – if it were accepted, they might mutilate it as they pleased, – because the actors (generally speaking) must be the best judge of what will tell on the stage, – & because the author can always restore the piece to its original state when he prints it.

I am sorry you should have suspected any thing like a reproach upon female “single-blessedness’ in women, – in what is said of Lorrinite. Nothing could be farther from my thoughts. The passage has nothing beyond in an individual reference to the Witch herself, therein described as a ‘cankerd rose’. [3]  You may find abundant proofs in my writings, – & would require none if you knew me, – that no man can be more innocent of such opinions as you seem to have suspected, – So far {am I} from not regarding continence as a virtue.

Those unaccountable clinks, as you call them, in the middle of the lines, are as you must have seen too frequent to be accidental. [4]  I went upon the system of rhyming to the ear, regardless of the [MS obscured] have throughout the poem availed myself of the power which this gave me. The verse was no bondage to me. If I do not greatly deceive myself it unites the advantages of rhyme with the strength & freedom of blank verse – in a manner peculiar to itself. – As far as I can judge (which is of course must be from very imperfect & partial means) the story seems not to have shocked people as much as I expected; Scott tells me he has reviewed it for the next Quarterly [5]  – this will have some effect upon its sale & immediate estimation, but that it should become popular is impossible. Many years must elapse before the opinion of the few can become the law of the many.

I have fallen in love with the American subject which did not strike your fancy – & have half moulded it into a story of which a primitive Quaker is the hero, – a curious character you will say for heroic poetry, – certainly an original one. [6] 

If you ever think upon political subjects I beseech you read Capt Pasleys Essay on Military Policy, – a book which ought to be not only in the hands but in the heart of every Englishman. [7] 

farewell

yrs very truly

R Southey.

– Respecting Jornandes [8]  I said nothing more than I meant. The accounts of those times are so short & unsatisfactory, that it could not possibly be the employment of more than half an hour to translate every thing relating to this point of history in that author, – if he were at hand. Nothing (I am sure) would be to be found but the naked fact without detail of circumstances


Notes

* Address: To/ Mr E. Elliott Junr/ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Watermark: Crown
MS: Morgan Library, MA 63
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 297–298. BACK

[1] A play by Elliott of which no record has survived; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [before 14 December 1811], Letter 1998. BACK

[2] The playwright and novelist Richard Cumberland (1732–1811; DNB). BACK

[3] Elliott had interpreted the following description of the enchantress Lorrinite as an attack upon unmarried women: ‘She was a woman whose unlovely youth,/ Even like a cankered rose, which none will cull,/ Had withered on the stalk; her heart was full/ Of passions which had found no natural scope,/ Feelings which there had grown but ripened not;/ Desires unsatisfied, abortive hope/ Repinings which provoke vindictive thought,/ Those restless elements for ever wrought,/ Fermenting in her with perpetual stir,/ And thus her spirit to all evil mov’d’, The Curse of Kehama (1810), Book 11, lines 27–36. BACK

[4] The paragraph deals with the metre of Kehama. BACK

[5] Quarterly Review, 5 (February 1811), 40–61. BACK

[6] The poem was ‘Oliver Newman’, left incomplete at Southey’s death. For Elliott’s proposed poem on an American subject, see Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 5 June 1810 (Letter 1783), and 1 August 1810 (Letter 1796). BACK

[7] Sir Charles William Pasley (1780–1861; DNB), Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire (1810), reviewed by Southey in Quarterly Review, 5 (May 1811), 403–457. BACK

[8] Jornandes (c. mid 6th century), 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. Elliott had expressed interest in writing an epic poem that drew on events described by Jornandes, possibly the death of Decius (201–251; Emperor of Rome 249–251) in battle with the Goths. For Southey’s advice see Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 7 October 1810, Letter 1813. BACK

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August 2013