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

2268. Robert Southey to Neville White, 14 June 1813 ⁠* 

Keswick, June 14. 1813.

My dear Neville,

Josiah Conder had told me, though less particularly, the circumstances of your sister’s [1]  happy death, for happy we must call it. The prayer in the Litany against sudden death, [2]  I look upon as a relic of Romish error, the only one remaining in that finest of all human compositions, – death without confession and absolution being regarded by the Romanist as the most dreadful of all calamities, naturally is one of the evils from which they pray to be delivered. I substitute the word violent in my supplications; for since that mode of dissolution which, in the Scriptures, is termed falling asleep, [3]  and which should be the natural termination of life passed in peace and innocence and happiness, has become so rare, that it falls scarcely to the lot of one in ten thousand, instantaneous and unforeseen death is the happiest mode of our departure, and it is even more desirable for the sake of our surviving friends than for our own. I speak feelingly, for at this time my wife’s brother is in the room below me, in such a state of extreme exhaustion, that having been carried down stairs at two o’clock, it would not in the least surprise me, if he should expire before he can be carried up again. He is in the last stage of consumption, – a disease which at first affected the liver having finally assumed this form; his recovery is impossible by any means short of miracle. I have no doubt that he is within a few days of his death, perhaps a few hours; and sincerely do I wish, for his sake and for that of four sisters [4]  who are about him, that the tragedy may have closed before this reaches you. According to all appearance it will. [5] 

Your letter, my dear Neville, represents just that state of mind which I expected to find you in. The bitterness of the cup is not yet gone, and some savour of it will long remain; but you already taste the uses of affliction, and feel that ties thus broken on earth are only removed to heaven.

Montgomery’s poem [6]  came in the same parcel with your letter. I had previously written about it to the Quarterly, and was told, in reply, that it was wished to pass it by there, because it had disappointed every body. I wish I could say that I myself did not in some degree feel disappointed also; yet there is so much that is really beautiful, and which I can sincerely praise, and the outline of the story will read so well with the choicest passages interspersed, that I shall send up a reviewal, and do, as a Frenchman would say, my possible. [7]  Of what is good in the poem I am a competent judge; of what may be defective in it, my judgment is not, perhaps, so properly to be trusted, for having once planned a poem upon the Deluge myself, I necessarily compare my own outline with Montgomery’s. [8]  The best part is the death of Adam. [9]  Oh! if the whole had been like that! or (for that is impossible) that there had been two or three passages equal to it! Montgomery has crippled himself by a metre, [10]  which, of all others, is the worst for long and various narrative, and which most certainly betrays a writer into the common track and commonplaces of poetical language. He has thought of himself in Javan, and the character of Javan is hardly prominent enough to be made the chief personage. Yet there is much, very much to admire and to recur to with pleasure.

God bless you! Remember me to your mother, [11]  and tell James I shall always be glad to hear from him, as well as of him.

Yours most truly,

R. SOUTHEY.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 31–34. BACK

[1] Hannah White (c. 1779–1813), one of Neville’s three sisters. BACK

[2] ‘From lightning and tempest; from plague, pestilence, and famine; from battle and murder, and from sudden death, Good Lord Deliver us’, from the Litany in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1662). BACK

[3] For instance, Acts 13: 36; 1 Corinthians 15: 6; 1 Thessalonians 4: 15; 2 Peter 3: 4. BACK

[5] George Fricker died on 24 June 1813; see Southey to Charles Danvers, 28 June 1813, Letter 2274. BACK

[6] The World Before the Flood (1813). BACK

[7] Southey reviewed The World Before the Flood (1813) in Quarterly Review, 11 (April 1814), 79–87. BACK

[8] For Southey’s plan for a hexameter poem on ‘Noah’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 2–3. BACK

[9] The death of Adam, the first man, is related in The World Before the Flood (1813), Canto 4. BACK

[10] Rhyming couplets. BACK

[11] Mary White, née Neville (1755–1833). BACK

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August 2013