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

2415. Robert Southey to Josiah Conder, 4 May 1814 ⁠* 

Keswick, May 4, 1814.

Thank you for the Reviews. [1]  . . . They contain much to repay a perusal, and a man need not be as tolerant as I am to excuse a little that he may disapprove, for the sake of a great deal which deserves his approbation.

Like all other journals, it sins sometimes on the side of severity, and drags an unhappy author into notice for the mere purpose of disgracing him. If it professed to notice every work which comes out, it would, of course, be proper to condemn all that deserved condemnation; but even in that case, it is condemnation enough to be merely noticed without praise. Beyond this, severity is unnecessary (except where there be some especial demerit), and therefore, I think, not to be justified. . . .

Faults of this kind will never injure the sale of the journal, for even in that portion of the public for whom it is more particularly designed, the more amusing it is the better it will be received. [2]  In this point of view I think there are some theological articles which would have been better adapted to the Evangelical Magazine. Professing to be eclectic, it is certainly not necessary to notice works which have no other merit than that of being orthodox according to the creed of the Review. Of divinity, I should think that one article for controversy and one for edification would be a sufficient proportion for each number – speaking entirely with reference to the interests of the publisher. The publisher also should write more in it himself.

In the October number, page 368, I was pleased to see that you had said of artists exactly what I had said of men – that, to judge their works fairly, we must look at them in the same light in which they were considered by the authors. You will find my sentence, with its wide application, in the reviewal of Bogue and Bennet, page 91. [3]  There is another remark of yours which shows that your thoughts and mine have been travelling in the same direction; it is when you ask whether the character of a poem determines its form, or the form determines its character. No man but a poet could have asked the question. I find the metre influences the style so materially, that nothing ever embarasses me so much as the choice of the mould in which a new poem shall be cast. The only thing of which experience has made me certain is, that blank verse, of all measures the easiest to a beginner, is the most difficult to a proficient in versification.

Montgomery (he is easily recognised) has given me the best kind of praise, though he has considered as an ode a poem to which I affixed a generic name purposely, that an ode might not be expected. [4]  The Greeks, on such an occasion, would have had an oration; our custom required something in verse. The circumstances and the subject therefore led me to compose an oration in verse, to which the running strain of thanksgiving gives the unity which is required in a poem. I am at work upon an epithalamium for the Princess’s marriage, which in its moral tone may redeem that class of compositions from their merited contempt. [5] 

I see by the Evangelical Magazine that a Cornish minister is about to travel from Bayonne to Lisbon, distributing Bibles and Testaments and tracts as he goes. [6]  Indeed, this is very rash, and dreadfully ill timed. The partisans of the Inquisition in Spain have by no means given up the hope of recovering the ground which they have lost. In Portugal, on the other hand, those persons who know the evil which that devilish institution has brought upon their country, are endeavouring silently to destroy its power. I know of nothing which would tend so materially to defeat the efforts of the good in one country, and to assist the persecuting party in the other, as the appearance of this heretical missionary. He himself may be thrown into prison (which no doubt he would cheerfully encounter) – this is a light evil; but he may bring his own country into most unpleasant difficulties with the Spanish Government; and I am perfectly sure that he must impede the good work which he is desirous of accelerating. God knows, there never was a man who felt a more rooted abhorrence than I do for the abominations of Popery, or who longs more earnestly to see the Bible brought into action against them. But this mode of proceeding is madness. The only way to get the Bible into use there is through the agency of persons of their own religion and their own country. There are some priests who are really pious enough to do it. An Englishman settled in Spain might have an edition of the licensed Spanish Bible printed there, and distribute it through such persons. There is no other way in which we could interfere safely, and even this might involve him in some difficulties. If you should ever, as you talked of, embark in a Magazine, let it be a part of your plan to collect for the missionary societies as much previous information as can be found to direct their future or assist their present establishments. At this time, a paper upon the state of religion in the Peninsula, written with proper knowledge of the subject, might perhaps prevent this very injurious and mischievous experiment.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857)
Previously published: Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857), pp. 166–169. BACK

[1] Copies of the Eclectic Review of which Conder was proprietor. BACK

[2] The Eclectic Review was non-denominational, but it was founded and run by Nonconformists and clearly aimed at this market: all profits were donated to the British and Foreign Bible Society. The Evangelical Magazine (1793–1904) looked to a similar audience, but lacked the Eclectic’s broad view of literature, focusing more on missionary endeavours and religious publications. BACK

[3] A review of Walter Scott’s The Bridal of Triermain, or the Vale of St. John (1813), Eclectic Review, 9 (October 1813) argued: ‘it is necessary, in order to obtain a fair estimate of the artist’s powers, or to appreciate his success, that his readers understand his intentions – the effect he designed, and the object to which this effect was to be subservient’. Southey compares this with his own assessment of David Bogue (1750–1825; DNB) and James Bennet (1774–1862; DNB), The History of Dissenters, from the Revolution in 1688–to the Year 1808 (1812); Walter Wilson (1781–1847; DNB), History and Antiquities of Dissenting Churches (1808–1814); Neal’s History of the Puritans (1812), Quarterly Review, 10 (October 1813), 91: ‘To write history as it ought to be written, requires a power of intellectual transmigration with which few persons are gifted. The author, if he would deal justly toward those whose actions he professes to record, should go back to their times, and, standing where they stood, endeavour, as far as is possible, to see things as they appeared within their scope of vision, in the same light, and from the same point of view, and through the same medium’. BACK

[4] The review of Carmen Triumphale (1814) in Eclectic Review, n.s. 1 (May 1814), 431–436 (esp. 432, 435–436). BACK

[5] The Prince Regent’s only child Charlotte Augusta (1796–1817; DNB), had been engaged since December 1813 to the Hereditary Prince of Orange, William (1792–1849; King of the Netherlands 1840–1849), the husband selected for her by her father and his advisers. As Poet Laureate, Southey was required to write on the occasion. He started the required poem (The Lay of the Laureate. Carmen Nuptiale) but in the event it was not needed as the engagement was broken off in June 1814. The Lay was recycled in 1816 to celebrate Charlotte’s marriage to Leopold of Saxe-Coburg (1790–1865; DNB). BACK

[6] The minister was a Mr Smith of Penryn (dates unknown). The Evangelical Magazine, 22 (February 1814), 155, asked readers to donate money and to pray for the success of his endeavours: ‘Here new channels of benevolence may be opened; and if the smiles of Heaven descend on the undertaking, Bigotry may receive a more fatal wound’. BACK

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August 2013