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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1392. Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 8 December 1807 ⁠* 

Keswick. Dec. 8. 1807.

My dear Scott

I am very much obliged to you for the offer which you make concerning the Edinburgh Review, & fully sensible of your friendliness & the advantage which it offers {holds out}. [1]  I bear as little ill-will to Jeffray as he does to me, & attribute whatever civil things he has said of me to especial civility, whatever pert ones (a truer epithet than severe would be) to the habit which he has acquired of taking it for granted that the Critic is, by virtue of his office, superior to the {every} writer who comes {whom he chuses to summon} before him. The reviewals of Thalaba & Madoc do in no degree influence me. [2]  Setting all personal feelings aside, the objections which weigh with me to {against} bearing any part in this Journal are these. I have scarcely one opinion in common with it upon any subject. Jeffray is for peace; & is endeavouring to frighten the people into it. I am for war as long as Bonaparte lives. He is for Catholick emancipation – I believe that its immediate consequences would be to introduce an Irish Priest into every ship in the navy. My feelings are still less in unison with him than my opinions. On subjects of moral or political importance no man is more apt to speak in the very gall of bitterness than I am, & this habit is likely to go with me to the grave; but that sort of severity {bitterness} in which he indulges, which tends directly & purposely to wound a man in his feelings, & injure him in his fame & fortune (Montgomery is a case in point) [3]  appears to me utterly inexcusable. Now tho there would be no necessity that I should follow this example, yet every seperate article in the review derives authority from the merit of all the others, & in this way whatever of any merit I might insert there would aid & abet opinions hostile to my own, & there make me art & part in a system which I thoroughly disapproved. This is not said hastily. the emolument to be derived from writing at ten guineas a sheet Scotch measure instead of seven pounds, annual, would be considerable, – the pecuniary advantage resulting from the different manner in which my future works would be handled, probably still more so. But my own moral xxxxxxxx {feelings} must not be compromised. To Jeffray as an individual I shall ever be ready to show every kind of individual courtesy: but of Judge Jeffray  [3]  of the Edinburgh Review I must ever think, speak & speak as of a bad politician, a worse moralist, & a critic, in matters of taste, equally incompetent & unjust.

Your letter was delayed a week upon the road by the snow. I wish it had been written sooner, & had travelled faster, – or that I had communicated to you my own long-projected edition of Morte Arthur. [4]  I am sorry to have forestalled you, – & you are the only person whom I should be sorry to forestall in this case, because you are the only person who could do it certainly as well, & perhaps better, with less labour than myself. My plan is to give the whole bibliology of the Round Table in the preliminaries, & indicate the source of every chapter in the notes.

The reviewal of Wordsworth I am not likely to see, the Edinburgh very rarely lying in my way. [5]  My own notions respecting the book agree in the main with yours, tho I may probably go a step farther than you in admiration. There are certainly some pieces there which are good for nothing, (none however which a bad poet could have written) – & very many which it was highly injudicious to publish. That song to Lord Clifford [6]  which you particularize is truly a noble poem. The ode upon pre-existence is a dark subject darkly handled. [7]  Coleridge is the only man who could make such a subject luminous. The Leech-Gatherer [8]  is one of my favourites; – there he has caught Spensers [9]  manner, – & in many of the better poemets has equally caught the best manner of old Wither, [10]  who with all his long fits of dullness & prosing, had the heart & soul of a poet in him. The sonnets are in a grand style. I only wish Dundee [11]  had not been mentioned. – James Grahame & I always call that man Claverhouse, the name by which the Devils know him below.

Marmion [12]  is expected as impatiently by me as he is by ten thousand others. Believe me Scott, no man of real genius was {ever} yet ye a puritanical stickler for correctness, or fastidious about any faults except his own. The best artists both in poetry & painting have produced the most. Give me more Lays, [13]  & correct them at leisure for after editions, not laboriously, but when the amendment comes naturally & unsought for. It never does to sit down doggedly to correct.

The Cid [14]  is about half thro the press, & will not disappoint you. It is much in the language of Amadis, [15]  – both books having been written before men began to think of a fine style. – This is one cause why Amadis is so far superior to Palmerin. [16]  There are passages of a poets feeling in the Cid, & some of the finest circumstances of chivalry. I expect much credit from this work.

To recur to the Edinburgh Review, let me once more assure you that, if I do not grievously deceive myself, the criticisms upon my own poems have not influenced me. For, however unjust they were, they were xxx less so, & far less uncourteous than what I meet with in other journals; & tho these things injure me materially in a pecuniary point of view, they make no more impression upon me than the bite of a sucking flea would do upon Garagantua. [17]  The business of reviewing, much as I have done in it myself, I disapprove, but most of all when it is carried on upon such a system as Jeffrays. The judge is criminal who acquits the guilty, – but he is far more so who condemns the innocent. In the Annual I have only one coadjutor, – all the other writers being below contempt: In the Edinburgh I should have had many with whom I should have felt it creditable to myself to have been associated, if the irreconcileable difference which there is between Jeffray & myself upon every great principle of taste, morality & policy did not occasion an irremovable difficulty. Meantime I am as sincerely obliged to you as if this difference did not exist, & I could have availed myself of all its advantages, to the importance of which I am fully sensible.

I am very curious for in your life of Dryden that I may see how far your estimation of his merits agrees with my own. [18]  In the way of editing we want the yet unpublished metrical Romances from the Auchinleck MS. of which you have just given such an account as to whet the public curiosity, [19]  – & a collection of the Scotch Poets. K James, [20]  who is the best, has not been well edited, – Blind Harry, [21]  but badly. Dunbar [22]  & many others are not to be procured. Your name would make such a speculation answer, however extensive the collection might be. – I beg my respects to Mrs Scott – & am yours very truly

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Walter Scott Esqr/ Advocate/ Edinburgh
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [partial] DE
Watermark: shield/ 1803/ T BOTFIELD
Endorsement: Southey/ 8th. Decr. 1807
MS: National Library of Scotland, MS 3876
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 124–128. Samuel Smiles, A Publisher and His Friends, 2 vols (London, 1891), I, p. 95 [in part]. BACK

[1] Archibald Constable (1774–1827; DNB), the Edinburgh publisher of the Edinburgh Review and Walter Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805) and Marmion (1807), had asked through Scott whether Southey would become a contributor to the Edinburgh Review; see Southey to John Rickman, 1 December 1807, Letter 1387. BACK

[2] Jeffrey’s review of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) appeared in Edinburgh Review, 1 (October 1802), 63–83; that of Madoc in Edinburgh Review, 7 (October 1805), 1–29. BACK

[3] The Edinburgh belittled the third edition of James Montgomery’s 1806 poem The Wanderer of Switzerland in volume 9 (January 1807), 347–54. BACK

[3] Here Southey deliberately portrays Francis Jeffrey, severe critic, as George Jeffreys, 1st Baron Jeffreys of Wem (1645–1689; DNB), known as ‘The Hanging Judge’ for the severity of the sentences he handed down after the Monmouth rebellion of 1685. BACK

[4] The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur ... With an Introduction and Notes by Robert Southey. (Printed from Caxton’s Edition, 1485) was published in two volumes by Longmans in 1817. BACK

[5] Jeffrey’s unsigned review of Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807) appeared in Edinburgh Review, 11 (October 1807), 214–231. BACK

[6] ‘Song for the Feast at Brougham Castle’ in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807). BACK

[7] ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’, in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807). BACK

[8] ‘Resolution and Independence’, in Wordsworth’s Poems in Two Volumes (1807). BACK

[9] Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; DNB). BACK

[10] George Wither (1588–1667; DNB). BACK

[11] In the sonnet ‘Six thousand veterans practis’d in war’s game’, in Poems in Two Volumes (1807), Wordsworth wishes that Britain could in his own times call upon a ‘single hour of that Dundee’ to defeat its enemy France. On 27 July 1689, John Graham of Claverhouse, 7th Laird of Claverhouse and 1st Viscount Dundee (1648–1689; DNB), nicknamed ‘bluidy clavers’, led the Highland Scots supporters of the Stuart succession to victory over government troops at the Pass of Killiecrankie. He died on the battlefield. BACK

[12] Scott’s new poem was published in 1808. BACK

[13] Scott’s Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), a dashing rather than accurate historical romance, had made his name. BACK

[14] Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid, from the Spanish was published by Longmans in 1808. It comprised translations from the Crónica Particular del Cid (1593), with additions from the Crónica de España of Alphonso the Wise (1541) and Romancero e Historia del Cid (1632). BACK

[15] Southey’s translation of the Spanish romance Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

[16] Palmerin of England; by Francisco de Moraes. Corrected by Robert Southey from the Original Portugueze (1807). BACK

[17] Southey’s rendition of Gargantua, the giant hero of the sixteenth-century novels by François Rabelais (c. 1494–1553), Gargantua and Pantagruel. BACK

[18] The Works of John Dryden ... Illustrated with Notes, Historical, Critical, and Explanatory, and a Life of the Author, ed. Walter Scott (1808). BACK

[19] In Sir Tristrem: a Metrical Romance of the Thirteenth Century, by Thomas of Ercildoune, called The Rhymer. Edited from the Auchinleck MS (1804), Scott gave an account of this manuscript and of the medieval romances therein. BACK

[20] James I, King of Scots (c. 1394–1437; DNB). BACK

[21] Blind Harry (c. 1440–1492), poet of The Actes and Deidis of the Illustre and Vallyeant Campioun Schir William Wallace (c. 1477). BACK

[22] William Dunbar (c. 1460–c. 1520; DNB). BACK

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August 2013