1346. Robert Southey to [Anna] Seward, 25 July 1807

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1346. Robert Southey to [Anna] Seward, 25 July 1807 ⁠* 

Keswick. July 25. 1807.

Had not your letter contained intelligence of your illness it would have been instantly answered, – on the spur of the moment. But on that subject I neither knew what to say nor how to be silent, & have therefore shrunk from writing as from a task, instead of hastening to it as a gratification. I had a friend once who when above the age of seventy had an lesion – abscess of the liver, she was feebler than is usual at that age, & yet recovered so as to enjoy some years of longer life. When an organic disease is not necessarily fatal the chances in a good constitution are for its favourable termination; – & where the heart & the spirit are so young as they are in you, the power of life also will be strong.

I have directed my publishers to send you a book which is just gone into the world under false colours; [1]  – perhaps it may beguile a few weary hours of confinement. It is smuggled into public chiefly with a hope that it may pass unknown thro the hands of those Reviewers who are sure to detract from whatever is mine. My object was to give a picture of the present state of England, but for this I have not left myself room, having for the sake of preserving the assumed character taken up too large a portion in mere travelling. If however it should sell, the work may easily be lengthened so as to compleat the design. You will easily distinguish what is written for the Spaniard from what is written thro him. – The heretical history is really valuable, few persons would have had the patience to collect materials for it; it is written with full knowledge, & the strictest truth.

The great fault of Madoc is in the catastrophe, which is so managed as to transfer the feelings from the hero to Yuhidthiton. [2]  Let me consult you concerning an alteration of this part. Suppose that Tezozomoc encourages the thought of emigrating when it is first hinted at by the King, & plots with Tlalala to kill Madoc & his chiefs at a conference: meaning to kill Yuhidthiton also in the fray, but this part of his design he dares not entrust to Tlalala. The meeting takes place on an Island, – so that all the people are spectators. To make all sure the priests poison their knives. At the moment of danger Yuhidthiton alarms Madoc, who stabs Tezozomoc, but is hurt in the arm, & the priest writhing in death tells him exaltingly the wound is mortal. Madoc heats his sword red hot upon the altar, & burn cauterizes his arm with it. Then he & Yuhidthiton part in friendship, & Tlalala, who seeing the Kings life aimed at in the treason has saved him & turned upon the Priests, gives his wife & child to Madoc’s cares, & terminates the poem as at present.

Another part is ill executed – that sccene at Caer-madoc with the women & Amalahta. [3]  I thought of making Erillyab arrive in time, & killing her son with her own hand, but from this I was dissuaded, – and perhaps justly. I now think of bringing a dog from the field of battle in Arvon, who was found there watching his dead master, – & making him save Goervyl after Malinal can do no more. At any rate this section must be mended. [4] 

These are the only alterations which seem practicable: do you think them good? – I could not give Madoc a wife, – he is past the age at which love is necessary for a hero, & as it is to be taken for granted that he had loved at that age, it would have lowered my conception of the character to have made him marry politically. Otherwise Erillyab would have been his fit wife.

It is not upon the events of this unhappy reign that I am employed – there is nothing in them but what makes the heart sick. My subject is the history of Portugal, its conquests & colonies, – on this I have been for many years occupied, & to this it is that that half of my time is devoted which I can afford to give to labours worthy of myself & of posterity. This work is far advanced – that part of it which relates to Brazil will probably be put to press in the ensuing winter; [5]  – it would properly have been the last in order of publication, but when our ministers are taking such frantic & destructive measures with respect to South America, that information which I possess concerning the country ought not to be withheld, for when the history & real state of it is known, our <true> policy is plain. Of all follies that of hoping to conquer South America is the wildest. all that we are now doing is to bring back the buccaneering spirit, & revive that hatred of England in the Spanish colonists, of which a century of peace had just obliterated.

The Ode [6]  which you mention is Coleridges: the line which led you to impute it to me is my own, pre-existing in Madoc, as compleated in 1799. He I believe shadows out himself both there & in that poem beginning ‘Edmund thy grave with aching eye I scan’. [7]  My Edmund bore your name, & may perhaps have been distantly related to you, as he was of Worcestershire birth. I never can sufficiently reverence his memory nor regret his loss. xxx he was [MS obscured] stay & staff of my moral being, – a sort of second conscience whose reproof I could not have borne. He it was who taught me to lay aside Rousseau for Epictetus; [8]  & he xxx it was who settled & strengthened me in those principles which are & will be the life & spirit of whatever I may leave behind me, – I have acquired a habit of suppressing all outward & visible signs of strong feeling – partly perhaps from <knowing> how little those who indulge in such expressions live as they write, & how different (to use Crowes admirable expression) the Sunday garment of their minds is from the every day dress. [9]  But Hence it is that my sentimental pieces are so few, xxx but what there are are in earnest.

The lines which you addressed to me upon Joan of Arc were sent to me in Portugal immediately as they appeared. [10]  Need it be said that I was well pleased to be so censured for the sake of being so praised! Of that poem it ought to be said that when it was written the combined powers were victorious in every direction, the subject was not chosen for its political bearing, but certainly when I felt how easily it could be <done> I caught with delight the opportunity of pouring out sentiments favourable to what was then the cause of liberty. An ode which I began at the commencement of the war in allusion to this poem never proceeded farther than this stanza –

O dear, dear – England! O my Mother-Isle!
There was a time when, woe the while,
In thy proud triumphs I partook no part;
And even the tale of thy defeat
In those unhappy days was doom’d to meet
Unnatural welcome in an English heart;
For thou wert leagued in an accursed cause
O dear, dear – England! & thy holiest laws
Were trampled under foot by insolent Power.
Dear as my own life-blood wert thou to me
But even thou less dear than Liberty. [11] 

Thus it was that I felt in those days, & that feeling I have never yet repented.

In the course of the winter I must visit London, & tho I never leave home without reluctance nor without feeling that men as well as boys are subject to homesickness, I certainly look to this journey with pleasure, for the sake of taking Litchfield in my way.

yrs truly & respectfully

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Litchfield
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: July 1807
MS: Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library, Misc MS. 3922. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). BACK

[2] Madoc (1805), recently issued in a smaller edition. The catastrophe referred to here is the earthquake which brings about the Aztecas’ defeat at the end of the poem. BACK

[3] Events in Madoc (1805), Part 2, Book 16. BACK

[4] Southey refers to Book 16 of Part 1 of Madoc (1805). The emendations suggested here were not made. BACK

[5] Southey’s History of Brazil was published in three volumes from 1810–1819. BACK

[6] Perhaps, Coleridge’s ‘Hymn before Sunrise’, published anonymously in the Morning Post in 1802. Coleridge’s line ‘with dim eyes suffused with tears’, line 77 of the 1817 text given in S. T. Coleridge, Poetical Works I Poems (Reading Text), Part 2, ed. J.C.C. Mays (London and Princeton NJ, 2001), pp. 717–723, echoes Southey’s ‘He saw his brother’s eyes, suffused with tears/ Shine in the moon beam’ Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 17, lines 113–114). See Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), II, Madoc. BACK

[7] Coleridge, ‘Lines on a Friend, Who Died of a Frenzy Fever, Induced by Calumnious Reports’ (1796). See S. T. Coleridge, Poetical Works I Poems (Reading Text), Part 1, ed. J.C.C. Mays (London and Princeton NJ, 2001), pp. 148–150. BACK

[8] The egotistical sentimentalism of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778); the stoic endurance of Epictetus (55–135). BACK

[9] ‘Our better mind/ Is as a Sunday’s garment, then put on/ When we have naught to do’. William Crowe (1745–1829; DNB), ‘Lewesdon Hill’ (1788), lines 519–521. BACK

[10] Seward had authored a widely-published attack on Joan of Arc, ‘Philippic on a Modern Epic’ (1797). BACK

[11] This poem was never published. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)