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

1870. Robert Southey to Walter Savage Landor, 12 February 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. Feby. 12. 1811.

I am not disappointed in Count Julian, [1]  – it is too Greek for representation in these times, but it is altogether worthy of you. The thought & feeling which you have frequently condensed in a single line is unlike any thing in modern composition. The conclusion too is Greek. I should have known this play to be yours had it fallen in my way without a name. There was one written ten years ago [2]  by Rough which aimed at being what this is; – this has the profundity which was attempted there. I see nothing to be expunged, but I see in many places {of} what a school boy would call hard passages. Sometimes they are like water which however beautifully pellucid may become dark by its very depth, – your own vase of burnished gold is a better illustration, – the very richness of the metal occasions its darkness. Sometimes they are like pictures, unless you get them in precisely the right point of view, their expression is lost. I cannot tell how this is to be remedied, if it is remediable: it is what makes the difference between difficult & easy authors. – I will not yet specify what the passages are which are obscure, because upon every fresh perusal, some of them will flash upon me.

Never was a character more finely conceived than Julian, – that image of his seizing the horses is in the very first rank of sublimity, – it is the grandest image I ever {of power} that ever poet produced.

You could not have placed the story in a finer dramatic light, – but it has made you elevate some vile renegados into respectability. In my plan Sisabert [3]  will die by Florindas hand, for attempting to imitate Rodrigo, [4]  before the battle of Covadonga, [5]  & Opas [6]  will be cut down by Rodrigos own hand. I go on very slowly – what I have done is too good to be sacrificed, but it will make the poem as faulty in structure as Shakespere J Cæsar, [7]  – & I shall be a third of the way thro it before Pelayo appears. – My pace will soon be quickened, for the way opens before me, hitherto there has been but one personage in view, tomorrow I introduce another {others}, & shall soon get into the business of the poem. – You wonder that I can think of two poems at once, – it proceeds from weakness – not from strength. I could not stand the continuous excitement which you have gone thro in your tragedy – in me it would not work itself off in tears, – the tears would flow while in the act of composition, & they would leave behind a throbbing head, & a whole system in the highest state of nervous excitability, which would soon induce disease in one of its most fearful forms. From such a state I recovered in 1800 by going to Portugal, & suddenly {changing} climate, occupation & all external objects, & I have kept it off since by a good xxxx intellectual regimen.

When I have read Pelayo [8]  again & again I will then make out a list of the passages which appear so difficult that ordinary readers may be supposed not to incapable of understanding them. When you perceive that they may be difficult to others it will be easy, in most instances, to make the meaning more obvious. Then you must print the Tragedy. It will not have many more admirers than Gebir, [9]  but they will be of the same class & cast, & with Gebir it will be known hereafter, when all the rubbish of our generation shall have been swept away.

What will you do next? I do not cannot reconcile myself to the abandonment of the Phocæans, – the fragments of which are so masterly. [10]  – Narrative is better than dramatic poetry, because it admits of the highest beauties of the drama; – there are two characters in Roman history which are admirably fit for either, but in both cases their history suits the drama better than the epic, – Sertorius [11]  & Spartacus. [12]  When I was a boy the abortive attempt at restoring the republic by Caligulas death [13]  was one of my dramatic attempts. Another was that impressive story in Tacitus of 300 slaves (I think this was the number) put to death for not preventing the murder of their master, whom one of them xxxx for xxxxx xxxxxxxx death had killed. [14]  The Emperor Majorian is a fine character. [15]  B I wish I could throw out a subject that would tempt you, – but rather to a poem than a play, for tho your powers for both are equal, & the play the more difficult work of the two, yet in my judgement the poem is the higher kind preferable species of composition.

God bless you

RS.


Notes

* Address: To/ Walter Savage Landor Esqr/ South Parade/ Bath
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Art Library, London, MS Forster 48 D.32 MS 11
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 299–301 [in part]. BACK

[1] Count Julian: A Tragedy (1812). BACK

[2] Rough’s The Conspiracy of Gowrie, published anonymously in 1800. BACK

[3] A character in Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). In legend he was the son of King Witiza (c. 687–710; King of the Visigoths 694–710) and sided with the Moors when they invaded Spain. Southey did not carry out his intention for Sisibert’s death. BACK

[4] i.e. to attempt to rape Florinda. BACK

[5] Pelayo’s (681–737) victory over the Moors at the battle of Covadonga in 722. It is now regarded as the beginning of the Reconquista. BACK

[6] Oppas (d. after 712), allegedly Bishop of Toledo; the model for Orpas in Southey’s Roderick. In Book 25, lines 95–109, Roderick’s horse tramples Orpas to death. BACK

[7] The Tragedy of Julius Caesar (c. 1599). BACK

[8] The early incarnation of Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[9] Gebir (1798), which Southey had admired since its publication. BACK

[10] Landor’s epic ‘The Phocaeans’, two fragments had appeared in Poetry, by the Author of Gebir (London, 1802). The poem told the story of the inhabitants of a Greek city in Asia Minor, who, faced with a Persian invasion, sailed westward, taking refuge initially in Spain, then Corsica and Italy, before settling in southern France where they triumphed over the natives and established their society. Modelled on the Aeneid, Landor’s poem also had similarities to Southey’s own attempt at a foundation epic, Madoc (1805). ‘The Phocaeans’ was never finished. BACK

[11] The Roman general and statesman Quintus Sertorius (c. 126–73 BC), who established an independent state in the Iberian peninsular in 83–73 BC. BACK

[12] Spartacus (c. 109–71 BC), leader of slaves in the Third Servile War. BACK

[13] The Roman emperor Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (AD 12–41). His assassins attempted – but failed – to restore the republic. Instead, Caligula’s uncle Claudius (10 BC–AD 54) was declared emperor by the Praetorian Guard. BACK

[14] Publius Cornelius Tacitus (AD 56–117), Annals, 14: 42–45. In AD 61 the prefect of the city of Rome, Pedanius Secundus, had been murdered by one of his slaves. As a punishment, his entire household of 400 slaves was executed; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 26 –[c. 29] April 1794, Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part One, Letter 88. BACK

[15] Iulius Valerius Maiorianus (c. 420–461), ruler of the Western Roman empire from 457 to his death. He was the last effective Roman Emperor in the west and re-conquered Spain. BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013