152. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, [May 1796] *
THE majority of your English readers must be well acquainted with Nos. XI and XII of the Microcosm.  They contain Observations on the Reformation of the Knave of Hearts, a poem, and are the production of Mr. George Canning,  a gentleman, full as respectably known in the capacity of a schoolboy as in that of a senator. Having observed that it was customary among periodical writers, to display their abilities by criticisms on poets either of acknowledged or obscure merit, he declares his intention of expatiating on “an object as yet untreated of, by any of his predecessors.”  It is needless to say, that he has executed his task in a manner amusing to his readers, and, consequently, creditable to himself. But you may not have heard that there has long existed in the French language, a composition precisely the same in design, and in execution very nearly corresponding with Mr. Canning’s, as far as the latter goes. The title is, Le chef d’oeuvre d’un inconnu, poeme, &c.  Its object to expose the jargon of criticism. It seems to have been written early in the present century. The fictitious approbations of the censors of the press, are dated in 1714. The fourth edition was published in 1758, in 2 vols. 12mo. The poem has an affected silliness (niaiserie) of thought and style. Here it is. The scarcity of the work will, I believe, justify you in reprinting it.
For two pieces thus similar in conception, EPIC honours are claimed, on the grounds of their having a beginning, middle, and end; and both commentators confidently appeal on this head to the established canons of criticism. The freedom from the incumbrance of episodes is noticed by both. In speaking of the beginning, “can any thing,” exclaims Mr. C. “be more clear; more natural; more agreeable to the true spirit of simplicity? Here are no tropes; no figurative expressions — not even so much as an invocation to the muse. He does not detain his readers by any needless circumlocution; by unnecessarily informing them what he is going to sing; or still more unnecessarily enumerating what he is not going to sing.”  In the same vein the French writer: “What beginning can be more simple than that of our author? It is more simple than Homer’s. It is more modest than Virgil’s, who, with all his simplicity, sets himself foremost. I sing. Cano. What need to tell that one sings? Is it not self-evident?”  Both critics remark, how their poets come to the point at once; and both on this occasion quote from Horace in media res — auditorem rapit. If Mr. C. presses the morality of his poem, his predecessor, with greater boldness, lays claim also to this praise. “The fable, he asserts, is reasonable and probable, it imitates a complete and important action, and besides involves a point of morality, which may serve the purpose of instruction.”  Mr. C. comments on the studied felicity of the phrase, All on a summer’s day; and so does Mr. ——— on L’autre jour. The latter has, moreover, a profusion of annotations, in ridicule of heavy commentators on the classics, like those of Martinus Scriblerus.  But the general remarks, as well as the style of the poems themselves, have that degree of difference and of resemblance, which perfectly suits the hypothesis of Imitation.
An independent coincidence which would naturally follow from a single leading idea, is certainly possible. Mr. Canning, when he assisted in writing the Microcosm, may neither have read French, nor have had any acquaintance capable of furnishing a suggestion from the chef d’ouevre. In this case, he will be the person most surprised at the circumstances I have stated. It would not degrade him to explain. He knows that the propensity ascribed to the knave of hearts is not unexampled among authors; and here are special appearances sufficient to induce many a grand jury to send a bill into court. Should he and his friends be silent, the public will have to choose between the opposite improbabilities, a schoolboy meeting with a scarce book, or of his inventing a new mode of composition. I have no enmity to Mr. C.; of his public conduct, I do not think with respect. But this feeling I venture to believe that I have in common with some of those, whom he calls his friends. Nor is it any disparagement to his abilities, to affirm, that his other essays, his university prize poem, and his speeches, exhibit more of imitative than of inventive talent.
It is always curious to trace the origin of ideas; and this communication, if it serve no other purpose, may excite some more learned correspondent to produce an earlier specimen of this species of burlesque criticism.
 Thémiseul de Saint-Hyacinthe (1684–1746), Le Chef-'Oeuvre d’un Inconnu: Poème, Heureusement Découvert & Mis au Jour, Avec des Remarques Savantes & Recherchées par M. le Docteur Chrisostome Matanasius, 2 vols (Paris, 1732), I, pp. –3. BACK
 The French verses translate as: ‘The other day Colin was sick/ In his bed/ With a severe illness/ Thinking he would die// From reflecting too much on his love,/ And not sleeping any more;/ He wanted to hold the one he loved/ All through the night// The gallant being clever/ He got up/ And went to the door of his beauty/ And knocked three times// Country girl, ‘Catos’, Beautiful-Shepherdess/ Are you asleep ?/ The promise you have made/ Will you keep?// The girl being delicate/ She got up/ All naked in a shirt/ And opened the door// Walking sweetly, talking softly,/ My sweet friend,/ Listen for the coach of my father / Or I am dead.// The gallant, who knew honesty/ Straight to bed/ Between the arms of his beauty/ Lay to rest// Ah! I have not lost my sorrow/ Or my step/ Because I took the one I love/ Into my arms// I heard her sing Allouette/ At that point of the day/ Lover, you are honest/ Go away// Tread softly, speak lowly,/ my dear friend,/ for if my papa hears you/ I am dead.’ BACK