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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1459. Robert Southey to Walter Savage Landor, 20 May 1808 ⁠* 

You have bound me to the completion of Kehama, [1]  & if I have health & eye-sight, compleated it will be within twelvemonths. Want of practice has not weakened me, – I have ascertained this, & am proceeding.

I will use such materials as have stood the test, – those materials are the same in all languages, & we know what they are. With respect to metre it is otherwise. there we must look to English only, & in English we have no other great poem than Paradise Lost. Blank verse has long appeared to me the noblest measure of which our language is capable, – but it would not suit Kehama. there must be quicker – wilder movements – there must be gorgeousness of ornament also, – eastern gem work; – & sometimes rhyme must be scattered upon rhyme till the reader is half dozing with the thundering echo. My motto must be Ποικιλον ειδος εχων, οτι ποικιλον δι υμνον αρασσω. [2]  This is not from any ambition of novelty, but from the nature & necessity of the subject. I am well aware that novelty in such things in is an obstacle to success, – Thalaba [3]  has proved it to be so. The mass of mankind hate innovation, they hate to unlearn what they have learnt wrong, & they hate to confess their ignorance by submitting to learn any thing right. I would tread in the beaten road th rather than get among thorns by turning out of it, but the beaten road will not take me where I want to go. What seems best to be done is this, to write mostly in rhyme, – to slip into it rather than out of it, & then generally into some metre so strongly marked as to leave the ear fully satisfied.

One inference I think must be drawn from the obscurity of Pindars [4]  metre that be what it may, the pleasure which it gave did not result from the rhythm. Indeed the whole system of Classical metres seems to have been that of creating difficulty for the sake of overcoming it. We mis-read sapphics without making them worse, – we misread pentameters & make better; & the hexameter remains the most perceptible of all other measures tho in our pronunciation we generally distort four feet out of six.

A great deal more may be done with rhyme than has yet been done with it – there is a crypto-rhyme which may often be introduced with excellent effect, the eye has nothing to do with it, but the ear feels it without perhaps perceiving any thing more than the general effect {harmony}, & not knowing how that effect was {harmony is} produced. Sometimes the sparing inter mixture of rhyme in a paragraph may be so managed as to satisfy the ear, & give greater effect to their after profusion. These are not things which one thinks of in composition, but they are thought of in correcting. They are the touches in finishing off, when a little alteration produces a great difference

Your dislike of the ballad metre is perhaps because you are sick of a tune which has been sung so often & so badly. It is not as capable of dignity, but there is a sort of language which usually goes with it & seems to has the effect of making it so. Kehama is pitched in too high a key for it. I shall weed out all uncouth lines, & leave the public nothing to abuse except the strangeness of the fable, which you may be sure will be plentifully abused. The mythology will explains itself as it is introduced, – yet because the names are not familiar people will fancy there is a difficulty in understanding it. Sir William Jones has not done nothing in introducing it so coldly & formally as he has done. [5]  They who read his poems do not remember them, & none but those who have read them can be expected to have even heard of my Divinities. But for popularity I care only as it regards profit, – & for profit only as it regards subsistence. The praise of ten would have contented you, often have I said that you did not underrate the number of men whose praise was des truly desirable. Ten thousand persons will read my book, – if five hundred will promise to buy it I shall be secure of all I want, – You shall have it in large portions as fast as it is written. [6] 

Yrs

R Southey.

May 20. 1808. Keswick


Notes

* Address: To/ Walter Savage Landor Esqr/ 1. Albemarle Row/ Hotwells/ Bristol
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library, MS Forster 48 D.32 MS 2
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 145–147. BACK

[1] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[2] ‘Nonnus, Dionysiaca, Book 1, line 15: ‘having a diversity of shapes, since I twang my harp to a diverse song’. BACK

[3] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[4] The Greek lyric poet (ca. 522–443 BC). BACK

[5] The linguist and judge (1746–1794; DNB), founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, who had introduced the poetry and mythology of Hindu India to Europe in its journal Asiatick Researches, by his translation of Kalidasa’s Sacontalá (1789) and by poems such as his ‘Hymn to Durga’ (1788). BACK

[6] Southey did send Landor further extracts from the poem; see Southey to Walter Savage Landor, 26 November 1808 (Letter 1543), 13 July 1809 (Letter 1653), 30 September [1809] (Letter 1688), and [25/26 November 1809] (Letter 1715). BACK

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August 2013