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

1886. Robert Southey to John Mitford, 20 March 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick. March 20. 1811.

My dear Sir

Seeing your volume [1]  {advertised} as on the point of publication I would not reply to your letter till I {could} thank you for it, & say something of the smaller poems which it contains. Last night I received it. Both in the Indian Captive & in the song of “those mighty Grecian peers” [2]  there is great power & great promise; yet high as the expectations were that these would lead me to form of what you may produce hereafter, I draw still higher hopes from the sonnets. They give stronger indications of those habits of thought & feeling without which no man can become a true poet however expert he may be in all the mechanism of the art. I read & re-read them, & the xxxx they xxxxx xxxx xxxx the conviction which they left upon my mind was that I had never seen a first volume publication which augured so well. It gives me very sincere pleasure to add that Wordsworth, who happens at this time to be my guest, perfectly agrees with me in this opinion, – there is no other man living whose opinion is worth so much.

An edition of Grays work which should give us more of his correspondence, & trace the imitations in his poetry would be exceedingly valuable. [3]  Surely his letters are still recoverable, they would naturally have been entrusted to Mason [4]  by the persons to whom they were addressed, & returned by him when his work was done. If the Dr Wharton [5]  who seems to have been the most frequent of his later correspondents be (as I suppose) father to, (or at least of the family of the present Sec. of the Treasury, [6]  I think I could make enquiry for you in that quarter. What became of Horace Walpoles [7]  papers? – Upon all plans of this kind the first thing to consult is your own inclination for the task, – the second the disposition of the booksellers. If there be any new materials forth coming they would certainly find their advantage in such a work.

Mr Coleridge once expressed an opinion to me that the Achilleid [8]  was not a fragment as is generally supposd, but that Statius designed only to write the Mocedades  [9]  as the Spanish would say of Achilles. My recollections of the poem led me to a different conclusion. But it is xxx now long since I have had leisure for classical studies. The age is over in which it was possible for a man to be make himself an universal scholar, & know all that was known in Europe. In our days there must be a division of learning as well as of labour. There are many things which I must be {am} content never to learn, & classical learning is among those which I must be contented to forget. The most melancholy feeling which the lapse of time has brought with it to me is that I have much to do, & the day is short.

You say you have no participator of your studies. – look on it is t[MS torn] peculiar blessing of literary pursuits that they can be enjoyed without participation. By following them with ardour & with perseverance I have made myself far happier than any other circumstances could possibly have made me. – Go on as you have begun, – write always to your own judgement whether it be that {the taste} of the day or not, & content yourself with the approbation of the few. The better your write, the fewer you will please at first; – but praise thus obtained goes on {increases} in the ratio of compound interest, whereas they who are paid in present popularity receive {exhaust receive} their whole capital at once.

believe me

Yrs truly & with respect

Robert Southey.


Notes

* Address: To/ The Reverend John Mitford/ Benhall/ Saxmundham/ Suffolk
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Seal: Red wax; design illegible
Endorsement: R. Southey
MS: Beinecke Library, Osborn C18th Bound MSS, Osborn fc 76, vol 2, item 152
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Mitford’s Agnes, the Indian Captive, a Poem in Four Cantos, with other Poems (1811). BACK

[2] Southey quotes the first line of ‘Sonnet X’, Agnes, the Indian Captive, a Poem in Four Cantos, with other Poems (London, 1811), p. 199. Mitford had included two classically-inspired ‘Odes’ in his volume, pp. 169–185; and ten sonnets, pp. [189]–200. BACK

[3] Mitford became a distinguished editor of Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB). His publications included, Poems of Thomas Gray with Critical Notes, a Life of the Author and an Essay on His Poetry (1814), The Works of Thomas Gray (1816) and contributions to the Aldine edition of 1835–1843. BACK

[4] William Mason (1725–1797; DNB) had included bowdlerised and censored version of Gray’s letters in his The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life and Writings (1775). Mason’s combination of ‘life and letters’ was highly influential on later biographers, including Southey, who used a similar format in his edition of William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB). BACK

[5] Gray’s friend and correspondent the physician Thomas Wharton (1717–1794), son of a prominent Durham family. BACK

[6] Richard Wharton (1764–1820), MP for Durham 1802–1804, 1806–1820, was the son of Grey’s friend, Thomas Wharton. He was Junior Secretary at the Treasury 1809–1814. BACK

[7] The author, politician and patron of the arts, Horatio Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717–1797; DNB). BACK

[8] Publius Papinius Statius (c. AD 45–c. 96), whose unfinished epic the Achilleid deals with the early life of the hero Achilles. BACK

[9] ‘Youth’. BACK

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August 2013