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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1468. Robert Southey to [Charles Lloyd Senior], 15 June 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick, June 15, 1808.

I am much obliged to you, Sir, for your translation of the last Book of the ‘Iliad’. [1]  It would be a highly respectable version from any hand, and must be considered as a very extraordinary one for one who has not been long practised in the act of versifying.

In writing verse myself I seldom or never elongate a word to three syllables which is commonly and naturally pronounced as two. It appears to me that any such attenuation of sound weakens the rhythm of the line for instance, you have written, How brave he was, how generous and true: this line is far less sonorous than another in which the same word is used as a dissyllable

Thy form, thy countenance and generous mind.

So also

Pelides satiate at length with grief:

the sound of the line would be strengthened if the word ‘satisfied’ were substituted.

On the other hand, such a word as askest cannot be made into a monosyllable (tho certainly it is often done) without producing a harsh and unpleasant effect. You have authority enough in both cases, but the ear – is the best and only sure criterion, and whenever that is disappointed of the full sound which it expects, or is jarred by a harsh one which it does not expect, unless the passage itself affords an especial reason for the variety, the line may be pronounced faulty.

The couplet is to me a wearying measure, and I have sometimes found that the terza rima of the Italians might with great advantage be used in its stead, in the translation of Homer, Virgil, or any of the classical narrative poets. Stanzas cannot be used, because they require a regular length of period not to be found in the original: the terza rima would have all the charm of rhyme, with the advantage of continuousness. The common quatrain might also be written continuously, after the example of Mason, [2]  and it was the opinion of Dryden that this was the noblest English metre. [3]  I differ from him but the opinion of Dryden on such a subject is a weighty one.

It has often been doubted whether literature be the worthy occupation of a man’s life. I believe it is, and have acted accordingly. But it can never be doubted that it is the worthiest amusement of leisure, after the business of life is done.

Believe me,

Yours with respect,

ROBERT SOUTHEY.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Edward Verrall Lucas, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds (London, 1898)
Previously published: Edward Verrall Lucas, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds (London, 1898), pp. 217–219. BACK

[1] Charles Lloyd, A Translation of the Twenty-Fourth Book of the Iliad of Homer (1807). BACK

[2] William Mason (1725–1797; DNB). BACK

[3] John Dryden (1631–1700; DNB) advanced the cause of the common quatrain, the four line stanza employing alternate rhyme, in the preface to his Anus Mirabilis (1667). BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013