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

76. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 22 [–24] December 1793 ⁠* 

College Green. Sunday Night. Dec. 22. 1793.

—————

And does my friend again demand the strain?
Still seek to list the sorrow soothing lay?
Still would he hear the woe worn heart complain
When Melancholy loads the lingering day?
Shall partial friendship turn the favoring eye
No fault behold but every charm copy
And shall the thankless Bard his honord strain deny?

“No single pleasure shall your pen bestow.” [1] 
Ah Horace to that thought affords delight
Tis that can sooth the weary weight of woe
Wide as the taper streams its mournful light
For Fancy loves the distant scenes to see
Far from the gloom of Solitude to flee
And think that absent friends may sometimes think {of me}

Oft when my steps have traced the secret glade
What time the pale moon glimmering on the plain
Just markd where deeper darkness dyed the shade
Has Contemplation loved the nightbirds strain
Still have I stood or silent movd & slow
Whilst thro the copse the thrilling accents flow
Nor deemd the pensive Bird might pour the notes of woe.

Yet sweet & lovely is the nightbirds lay —
The passing pilgrim loves her note to hear
When Mirths rude reign is sunk with parted day
And Silence pauses on the vacant ear
For staid Reflection loves the doubtful light
When Sleep & Stillness lull the noiseless night
And breathes the pensive song a soothing sad delight.

Loud blew the blast & loud the torrents roar
And sharp & piercing drove the pelting rain
When wildly wandering on the Volgas shore
The exild Ovid [2]  pourd the plaintive strain.
He mournd for ever lost the joys of Rome
He mournd his widowed wife — his vacant home.
And all the weight of woes that load the exiles doom.

Child of the Muse — the Muse preserves thy name
And gives immortal bays the meed of grief
With searless laurel weaves thy wreath of Fame
Whilst Justice execrates thy tyrant chief.
For aye shall Pity love thy pensive strain
For aye unfading shall thy praise remain
Whilst Freedom hates the wretch who forgd oppressions {chain}.

Oh could my lay like Sulmos minstrel [3]  flow
Eternity might love her Nisus [4]  name.
The Muse should then add dignity to woe
And Griefs steep path should prove the path to Fame
But I have pluckd no bays from Phœbus’ [5]  bower
My fading garland formd of many a flower
May sweetly smile & bloom to last one little hour.

To please that little hour is all I crave —
Loved by my friends I spurn the love of Fame
Let the high grass oerspread my lonely grave
Let cankering moss obscure the rough hewn name
There never may the passing pilgrim go
Nor future minstrel drop the tear of woe
For all would fail to wake the slumbering earth below.

Be mine whilst journeying Lifes rough road along
(Oer hill & dale the wandering Bard shall go)
To hail the reign of Pleasure with the song
Or soothe with sorrowing strains the hour of woe
The song each passing moment shall beguile
Perchance too favoring Friendship deigns to smile.
Let Fame reject the lay — I sleep secure the while.

For what avaunts the monumental bust
The sculpturd column or the voice of Fame
Her trump must fail to rouse the slumbering dust
Dead to the only gift she gives a name.
What tho the world the dues of worth should pay
What tho with heroes Bards & kings I lay
Unconscious of applause where sleeps the senseless clay.

Be mine to taste the humbler joys of life
Lulld in Oblivions lap to wear away
And fly from Grandeurs scene of vice & strife
And fly from fickle Fashions foolish sway
Be mine in Ages drooping hour to see
The lisping children climb their grandsires knee
And train the future race to live & act like me.

Then when the inexorable hour shall come
To tell my death let no deep requiem toll
No hireling sexton dig the venal tomb
Or Priest be paid to hymn my parted soul
No let my children near their little cot
Lay my old bones beneath the turf to rot
So let me live unknown — so let me die forgot.  [6] 

—————

Monday morning. of last nights verses I have two things to say. the metre is that of Ph. Fletchers purple island. [7]  the specimens of the poem in Headleys selection & Warton [8]  are beautiful — you promised me some information relative to a late edition. the other remark is that two more letters will probably grow out of this. the last stanza has given birth to a train of thoughts which wait your next for maturity. your last letter I found on my return from Bath — I had prolonged my stay there to enjoy Lovells company. you know the no-ceremony I stand upon when I wish to make a friend — it may be singular but I am sure to me singularly fortunate. as a poet in some walks I do not know his equal — in the plaintive & soft kinds — elegy & sonnet for instance but this is not his only merit — epistles & various other species he has handled with peculiar delicacy. I do not scruple to say that for elegance & simplicity of versification I know no Author in our language that surpasses him. most probably we shall soon publish together. I am apprehensive he will miss your brother by calling as last Saturday.

and now to the subject of your letter. recollect Horace that Love is a perishable passion & however we may paint its immortality with the vivid colors of youth — must ultimately mellow with friendship. I say must — for it is physically impossible that it should endure. Honor my dear friend is everlasting & immortal & inspires that conscious dignity which will dilate the soul when the less pure flame of Love shall have consumed itself. past errors are always the best future guides. a strong head & a good heart have almost miraculously rescued you from vice & folly — you have experience at eighteen — a constitution naturally good which exercise will brace. tho you have errd that error is reparable. I am more & more convinced that Oxford would be of essential service to you — solitude is the mother of melancholy — hourly experience tells me so too forcibly. the college life is not what I delight in — female society is wanting there but any damnd soul would be happy to avoid hell by flying to purgatory & so I look forward with comparative pleasure to Balliol. indeed with positive pleasure when I reflect that I am going to a society of men who are temperate & liberal — who return my friendship for them & perhaps expect our meeting with the same pleasure felt by me. Seward resides with us six months longer & that {as being} unexpected is doubly agreable. you will seldom Horace find a better acquaintance not to mention your friends at XChurch or mine at Corpus.

I have accomplishd a most arduous task. transcribing all my verses that appear worthy the trouble (except letters). of these I took one list. another of my pile of stuff & nonsense & a third of what I have burnt & lost, upon an average 10-000 verses are burnt & lost — the same number preservd — & 15-000 worthless consider that all my letters are excluded & you may judge what waste of paper I have occasiond. three years yet remain before I can become any way settled in life & during that interval my object must be to pass each hour in employment. the million would say I must study divinity — the Bishops would give me folios to peruse little deeming that to me every blade of grass & every atom of matter is worth all the fathers. I can bear a retrospect — but when I look forward to taking orders a thousand dreadful ideas crowd at once upon my mind. oh Horace my views in life are surely very humble — I ask but honest independance & that never will be my lot.

Tues morn. I was at the play last night more from the wish of sparing my eye sight than from expectation of amusement as I {was} well acquainted with the impossibilities of the play & had laughd four times at the Prize. [9]  of course the space between the acts furnishd most occupation — I looked round & would have physiognomozed but every visnomie was either commonly mediocre or uncommonly dull — so I recalled the actions of the day — laid down the plan of a Platonic ode & slept agreably when I returned upon the prospect. this morning I am yet fasting so the space before breakfast is yours. tomorrow is Xmas day only noticd by me as an obligation of going to church — else here mirth & merriment may reign. next week comes the day that I must celebrate & you & your brother may expect new years verses provided you give me some too. tis an old hackneyd subject pretty nearly exhausted — yet we may possibly strike one spark from the old flint.

I have many epistolary themes in embryo. your brothers next will probably be upon the advantages of long noses & the recent service mine accomplished in time of need — philosophy & folly take me by turns — I spent three hours one night in last week in cleaving an immense piece of old oaken timber — without axe hatchet or wedges. the chopper was our instrument one piece of wood wedged another & a third made the hammer of death — Shad liked it as well as myself so we finishd the job & fatigued ourselves. on Sunday night I amused myself after writing your letter with taking profiles. to day I shall dignify my own & Shads with pasteboard — marbled border & a bow of green ribbonds — to hang up in my collection room. by the by this is an excellent method of taking likenesses it hides all defects {botts &c.}

the more I see of this strange world the more I am convinced that society requires desperate remedies. the friends I have (& you know me to be cautious in chusing them) are many of them struggling with obstacles which never could happen were man what Nature intended him. a torrent of ideas burst upon my mind when I reflect upon this subject — in the hours of sanguine expectation these reveries are agreable but more frequently the visions of futurity are dark & gloomy — & the only ray enlivening the scene beams on America. you see I must fly from thought. to day I begin Cowpers Homer [10]  & write an ode — tomorrow read on & write something else. by the by is CC offended with me? — I shall write to him very shortly taking for granted that his silence rather proceeds from the important occupation of Ch Church than from any childish offence, inconsistent with the goodness of his head & heart. so make my remembrances to him. plague take breakfast.

so now to conclude let me hear from you soon. remember me to all friends — & you {may} give my compliments to my correspondent Mr Miles [11]  if you want something to say to him & tell him that I had 99 minds to answer his letter — but something like diffidence came in & surprized me with silence. remember me likewise to Harry.

yrs sincerely

R Southey.

now for my ode in an excellent mood.


Notes

* Address: Horace Walpole Bedford Esqr/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: ODE/ 25/ 93
Watermarks: G R in a circle; figure of Britannia
Endorsement: Recd. Dec. 25. 1793
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 197–199 [in part; misdated 22 Dec 1793]. BACK

[1] Quotation unidentified. BACK

[2] Publius Ovidius Naso (43 BC–AD 17) was exiled from Rome to Tomis on the Black Sea. BACK

[3] An Italian town, the birth-place of Ovid. BACK

[4] In the Aeneid, Nisus is a follower of Aeneas and famed for his loyalty to his friend Euryalus. BACK

[5] A name given in Greek mythology to Apollo, god of poetry. BACK

[6] A revised version, entitled ‘To Lycon’, was published in Southey and Robert Lovell’s Poems (1795). BACK

[7] Phineas Fletcher (1582–1650; DNB), The Purple Island, or, the Isle of Man (1633). BACK

[8] Henry Headley (1765–1788; DNB), Select Beauties of Ancient English poetry, 2 vols (London, 1787), I, pp. 4–5, 35–36; II, pp. 15–16, 76. Southey borrowed the first volume from the Bristol Library Society between 20–23 December 1793. Thomas Warton (1728–1790; DNB), Observations on the Faerie Queene of Spenser (London, 1754), pp. 54–55, 236, 280–281. BACK

[9] Prince Hoare (1755–1834; DNB), The Prize, or, 2, 5, 3, 8. A Musical Farce, in Two Acts (1793). BACK

[10] William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB), The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, Translated into English Blank Verse, (1791). Southey borrowed the first volume from the Bristol Library Society between 23–27 December 1793 and the second from 27–30 December 1793. BACK

[11] A friend of the Bedford family, he lived at Vanbrugh Fields, Greenwich. His first name is not recorded. BACK

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March 2009