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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1408. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Athenæum, [January 1808] ⁠* 

CRITICAL MISREPRESENTATION.

To the Editor of the Athenæum.

Sir,

YOU have with much propriety declared, that the complaints of offended authors against their critics cannot be inserted in the Athenæum; it is not the place for them. Every critical journal ought to be open to such replies, under obvious restrictions; and if admittance were refused to a fair defence in one, it should be granted in another. Such a regulation would be some check upon the licentiousness of reviewers; as it is now, their gross ignorance and their wilful misrepresentations pass current, and do their work of malice, because there is no place in which they can be exposed. It will not be supposed that this censure of reviewers is meant to be general and indiscriminating; but it cannot be denied, that every existing journal furnishes some proofs of its truth.

Notwithstanding your prohibition, I presume that you will permit an error in literary history to be set right, wherefrom-ever it may occur. It is said in a late number of the Critical Review, that Mr. Hole’s Arthur ‘failed of success, because published at the same time with the Joans of Arc, Alfreds, and Cœur de Lions, which disgusted the world within the very name Epic.’ [1]  Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment, was published in 1790, Joan of Arc in 1796, the Alfreds and Cœur de Lion in 1800. The failure of Mr. Hole’s poem, therefore, is not attributed to the true cause; and it cannot b[e] necessary to point out why this false one has been invented.

Mr. Holes Arthur failed of success because it did not deserve it. The poem had fair play; it appeared before reviews were converted into tools of party, and before the butchers’ phrase, ‘cutting up,’ was supposed to be synonymous with criticising. The journals gave it at least as much praise as it deserved, and it failed in spite of them, as the Epigoniad [2]  had done before it. The subject was not ill chosen (for that we have the authority of Dryden [3] ) but it was ill handled, so ill handled, indeed, that all advantage which it really possessed were made of no use. There is no name with which a chivalrous or a poetical mind associates more delightful recollections than with the name of Arthur, but it is with the Arthur of the Round Table and of Spenser; for there are enough indications in the Faery Queen, that if that wonderful poem had been completed, the hero would have been sufficiently identified with the Arthur of Romance. [4]  Mr. Hole’s bears no more resemblance to him than to Arthur O’Bradley; [5]  and the reader, when he discovers this, feels as if he had met an old friend with a new face.

The world has, perhaps, been ‘disgusted with the very name of epic.’ [6]  Mr. Hole’s could not have suffered from that disgust, because it was published ten years before the swarm was occasioned by the success of Joan of Arc, notwithstanding the great and numerous defects of that poem, defects which have been weeded out in each successive edition, but which never can be totally removed.

S.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Athenæum, A Magazine of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, 3:13 (January 1808)
Previously published: Athenæum, A Magazine of Literary and Miscellaneous Information, 3:13 (January 1808), pp. 1–2. BACK

[1] On p. 305 of an article on Rev. Richard Hole (1746–1803), the Critical Review, 10 (March 1807), 302–311, Hole’s Arthur, or the Northern Enchantment (1789) is compared favourably to Southey’s Joan of Arc (1796), to Alfred (1800) by Joseph Cottle, and to Sir James Bland Burges (1752–1824; DNB), Richard I. A Poem in Eighteen Books (1801). BACK

[2] William Wilkie (1721–1772; DNB), published an Homeric epic on the sacking of Thebes, The Epigoniad, a Poem in Nine Books (Edinburgh, 1757). BACK

[3] John Dryden (1631–1700; DNB) approved of the subject of ancient Thebes as a subject for British poetry when praising Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale in the dedicatory verses to his Palamon and Arcite (published in his Fables, Ancient and Modern 1700). BACK

[4] Southey would revert to this theme in his edition of Morte d’Arthur: The Byrth, Lyf and Acts of King Arthur (1817). BACK

[5] The hero of the comic popular ballad ‘Arthur O’Bradley’s Wedding’, extant by the early seventeenth century. The refrain is ‘O! rare Arthur O’Bradley! wonderful Arthur O’Bradley!/ Sweet Arthur O’Bradley, O!’ BACK

[6] Quoting the Critical Review, 10 (March 1807), 302–311 (p. 305). BACK

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August 2013