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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

175. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 6 September 1796 ⁠* 

SIR,

PERMIT me to make a few remarks on the observations of your correspondent MEIRION upon the Welsh Language. [1] 

There are in the Welsh (he says) words perfectly similar in sound, to the mythologic names of the ancient world, answering exactly to most of the explanations given by Gebelin and Bryant. [2]  Mr. Bryant is a very learned man, but though his system may amuse us by its ingenuity, it is not accurate enough to convince. Sanconiathon, Manetho, and Berosus, afford but bad premises on which to erect a demonstration. The explanations which Mr. Bryant has given of what he calls the Ammoniat particles, and on which he founds his system, are entirely conjectural; and his conjectures have been proved by Mr. Richardson, [3]  the ablest of our oriental scholars, to be totally unfounded.

Meirion says, “there is not the least difference between the language of the laws of Howell in the tenth, or Geoffrey of Monmouths history in the twelfth century, and that now spoken in Wales;” but, Geoffrey of Monmouth [4]  wrote in latin, and the British History which he is said to have translated, was brought from Armorica, by Walter Mapæus, [5]  the celebrated archdeacon of Oxford, and at that time carried marks of great antiquity. A copy of this original history is said to exist at Wynnestay; if Meirion means this copy, he has confounded the original with the translation, consequently his dates are wrong, and this proof of the stability of the Welsh language invalidated.

Dr. PERCY in his preface to his very valuable translation of Mallet’s Northern Antiquities, has given the Pater-Noster in the ancient and the modern British languages. [6]  I know nothing myself of the language, but the difference to the eye is as evident, as the difference between Chaucer and Dryden’s translation [7]  would appear to a man who understood neither.

The advocates of Welsh poetry have extolled it too highly. The fair Pilgrim, which EDWARD WILLIAMS [8]  has translated from Dafydd ap Gwilym, is the best specimen I have seen; and a few detached sentences in Llywarch Hen [9]  are very beautiful; but these must not be compared with the wild majesty of the Runic poems, [10]  or the remains of Ossian, [11]  whose exquisite merit has ever been, and ever will be acknowledged, by those who possess, “the eye that can see nature, and the heart that can feel nature.” [12] 

B.

September, 6th, 1796.


Notes

* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), 618 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘B.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215. Meirion’s replies are in Monthly Magazine, 2 (October 1796), 687–688 and Ibid, 2 (November 1796), 776. BACK

[1] Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), 609–611. BACK

[2] Antoine Court de Gebelin (1725–1784), French philologist and author of an incomplete study of ancient language and mythology; Jacob Bryant (c. 1717–1804; DNB), antiquary and classical scholar, author of A New System, or, An Analysis of Ancient Mythology (1774–1776). BACK

[3] John Richardson (1740/41–1795; DNB), A Dissertation on the Languages, Literature, and Manners of Eastern Nations (1778), a response to Jacob Bryant, An Apology to John Richardson, Esq. (1778). BACK

[4] The historian, and Bishop of St Asaph, Geoffrey of Monmouth (d. 1154/1155; DNB), whose works included The Historia Regum Britanniae. BACK

[5] Walter Mapaeus was supposedly Archdeacon of Oxford and a contemporary of Geoffrey of Monmouth. See Richard Brooks, A Dictionary of the World: or, A Geographical Description of the Earth; With an Historical and Biographical Account of its Principal Inhabitants, 2 vols (London, 1772) [unpaginated]. BACK

[6] Thomas Percy (1729–1811: DNB) (transl.), Northern Antiquities: or, A Description of the Manners, Customs, Religion and Laws of the Ancient Danes, and Other Northern Nations, 2 vols (London, 1770), I, pp. xxvi–xlv. BACK

[7] John Dryden’s (1631–1700; DNB) Fables (1700) included translations of five stories by Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1340–1400; DNB). BACK

[8] The Welsh poet and forger, Edward Williams (1747–1826; DNB), wrote under the pseudonym ‘Iolo Morganwg’. His translation appeared in Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, 2 vols (London, 1794), I, pp. 74–84. BACK

[9] William Owen (1759–1835; DNB), The Heroic Elegies and Other Pieces of Llywarç Hen, Prince of the Cumbrian Britons (1792). Southey’s copy is in the Houghton Library. BACK

[10] Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB), Five Pieces of Runic Poetry (1763). BACK

[11] Ossian, the supposed author of a cycle of Celtic heroic poems, probably composed by James Macpherson (1736–1796; DNB). BACK

[12] Edward Williams, Poems, Lyric and Pastoral, 2 vols (London, 1794), I, p. 176. BACK

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March 2009