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

2172. Robert Southey to John Martyn Longmire, 4 November 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick. Nov. 4. 1812.

I am duly sensible, Sir, of the honour you have conferred upon me by your letter of Oct 29th, & shall be still farther gratified by a communication of the Sketch which is there mentioned. [1]  My aim has ever been xx to diffuse thro my poems a sense of the beautiful & good, (x το καλον και αγαθον [2] ) rather than to aim at the exe[MS missing]fication of any particular moral precept. It has however so happened that both in Thalaba & Kehama, the nature of the story led me to represent examples of faith. [3] 

At a very early age, indeed while I was a school-boy, my imagination was strongly impressed by the mythological fables of different nations. I can trace this to the effect produced upon me when quite a child by some prints in the Christians Magazine, [4]  copied as I afterwards discovered from the great work of Picart. [5]  I got at Picart when I was about fifteen, & soon became as well acquainted with the Gods of Asia & America as {with those} of Greece & Rome. This led me to conceive a design of rendering every mythology which had ever extended itself widely & powerfully influenced the human mind, the basis of a narrative poem. I began with the religion of the Koran, & consequently founded the interest of the story upon that resignation which is the only virtue it has produced. Had Thalaba been more succesful, my whole design would xx by this time have been effected, for prepared as I was with the whole materials for each, & with a general idea of the story, I should assuredly have produced such a poem every year. – For popular praise, quoad praise I cared nothing, – but it was of consequence to me inasmuch as it affected those emoluments with which my worldly circumstances did not permit me to dispense. The sacrifice therefore was made to prudence, & it was not made without reluctance. Kehama lay by me in an unfinished state for many years, & but for a mere accident might perhaps for ever [MS torn]ve remained incompleat.

Whether the design may ever be accomplished is now very doubtful. The inclination & the power remain, but time has past away. My literary engagements are numerous & weighty, beyond those of any other individual, & tho by Gods blessing I enjoy good health, never-failing chearfulness, & unweariable perseverance, there seems to be more before me than I shall ever live to get thro, – for the being of a short-lived race. I have published no poem since Kehama, but have one in considerable forwardness upon the Restoration of Spain by Pelayo, [6]  – of heroic (not mythological) cast x, & bearing by a sort of reflected feeling upon the present struggle in the peninsula.

Mr Lloyd I am sorry to say suffers under a dreadful nervous malady. I have often accompanied him in the car which is now in your possession.

Believe me Sir

Yours with due respect

Robert Southey.

My next mythological poem, should I ever write another, would be founded upon the system of Zoroaster. [7]  A son of the Great King would be the chief personage, I should represent him as persecuted by the Evil Powers, & make every calamity which they brought upon him the means of evolving in him some virtue which would else never have been called into action. In the [MS torn] paths of false religion may be made subservient to the pa[MS torn]ly exciting & strengthening Christian feelings.


Notes

* Address: To/ The Reverend J. M. Longmire/ Hargrave/ near/ Kimbolton
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Robert H. Taylor Collection, Princeton University Library
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 350–352 [in part]. BACK

[1] This had read Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) as an allegory of the powers and virtues of Faith, and drawn parallels between events and characters in Southey’s poem and the bible. BACK

[2] A common phrase in classical Greek, which translates as ‘the beautiful and the good’. BACK

[3] Islam in Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and Hinduism in The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[4] The Christian’s Magazine (1760–1767) was almost entirely the work of William Dodd (1729–1777; DNB). BACK

[5] Bernard Picart (1673–1733), Ceremonies et Coutoumes Religieuses de Tous les Peuples du Monde (1723–1743). BACK

[6] This became Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[7] Southey’s wording here is close to his note in J. W. Warter (ed.), Southey’s Common-Place Book, 4 vols (London, 1849–1851), IV, p. 12. The idea for a poem on the prophet Zoroaster did not proceed any further. BACK

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August 2013