1573. Robert Southey to Ebeneezer Elliott, 3 February 1809 

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1573. Robert Southey to Ebeneezer Elliott, 3 February 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick. Friday night. Feby 3. 1809

Sir

Yesterday I received your note inclosing the specimen of your poem. I have perused that specimen, but my advice cannot be comprized in a few words.

A Literary as well as a medical opinion Mr Elliott must needs be blindly given unless the age, &c of the person who requires it is known. When I advised Henry White to publish a second volume of poems, it was because he had fixed his heart upon a university education, & this seemed to be a feasible method of raising funds for that end, – his particular circumstances rendering that prudent which would otherwise have been very much the reverse. For poetry is not a marketable article, unless there be something strange or peculiar to give it a fashion; & in his case what money might properly have been raised would in almost every instance, have been considered rather as given to the author, than paid for his book. Your poem would not find purchasers, except in the circle of your own friends; out of that circle not twenty copies would be sold, – {I believe} probably not half that number.

You are probably a young man Sir, – & it is plain from this specimen that you possess more than one of those xxx powers which form the poet, & {those} in a far more than ordinary degree. Whether your plans of life are such as to promise leisure for that attention (almost it might be said that devotement) without which no man can ever become a great poet, – you yourself must know. If they should, you will in a very few years have outgrown the poem, & will {would} then be sorry to see it in print, irrecoverably given to the public, because you would feel it to be an inadequate proof of your own talents. If on the other hand you consider poetry as merely an amusement or ornament of youth, to be laid aside in riper years for the ordinary pursuits of the world, with still less indulgence will you then xxx regard the printed volume, for you will reckon it among the follies of which you are ashamed. In either case it is best not to publish.

It is very far from my wish to discourage or depress you. There is great promise in this specimen, – it has all the faults which I should wish to see in the writings of a young poet, as the surest indications that he has that in him which will enable him to become a good one. But no young man can possibly write a good narrative poem, tho I believe he cannot by any xxxx {other means} so effectually improve himself as by making the attempt. I myself published one at the age of six & twenty, [1]  – it made a reputation for me, – not so much by its merits as because it was taken up by one party, & abused by another, almost independently of its merits or demerits, at a time when party spirit was more violent than it is to be hoped it ever will be again. What has been the consequence of this publication? that the poem from beginning {to end} was full of incorrect language, & errors of every kind, that all the weeding of years could never weed it clean, – & that {many} people at this day rate me not according to the standard of my present intellect but by what it was fourteen years ago. – Your subject also has the same disadvantage with mine, – that it is anti-national, & believe me this is a grievous one; for tho bo we have both been right in our feelings, yet to feel against ones own country can only be right upon great & transitory occasions, – & none but our contemporaries can feel with us; – none but those who remember the struggle at the time & took their part in it. And you are more unfortunate than I was, – for America was acting at this time unnaturally towards England, & every reader will [MS torn] this, & his sense of what the Americans are now will make him fancy that you paint falsely in describing them as they were then. [2]  – There is yet another argument – criticism is conducted upon a different plan from what it was when I commenced my career. You live near the Dragon of Wantleys [3]  den; but you will provoke enemies as venomous if you publish & Heaven knows whether or no you are gifted with armour of proof against them. Nor is it the effect that malicious censure & ridicule might produce upon your own feelings which is of {so} much consequence as what they would be produced upon your friends. They who are so only in name will derive a provoking pleasure from seeing you laughed at & abused; they who love you will feel more pain than you yourself, because you will & must have a higher confidence in yourself, & a stronger conviction of injustice than they can be supposed to possess.

The sum of my advice is, – do not publish this poem, – but if you can without grievous imprudence afford to write poetry continue so to do, because hereafter you will write it well. As yet you have only green fruit to offer – wait a season & there will be a fair & full gathering when it is ripe.

Robert Southey

I do not know how to send back your manuscript.


Notes

* Address: To/ Mr E Elliott Junr./ Rotherham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Mitchell Library, Glasgow
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 212–215. BACK

[1] Southey’s dating is ambiguous: ‘twenty six’ would suggest a poem of 1800 or 1801, that is, Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), but later in the paragraph ‘fourteen years ago’ suggests his first published narrative epic Joan of Arc (1796). BACK

[2] Southey refers to ‘A Soldier’s Love’, a poem that remained, on his advice, unpublished. Elliott published, under the pseudonym Britannicus, The Soldier; and Other Poems in 1810. BACK

[3] The seventeenth century parody of medieval romance ‘The Dragon of Wantley’, in which the knight More of More Hall fights and kills the dragon with a well-placed ‘kick on the ….’, see Thomas Percy (1729–1811; DNB), Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 3 vols (London, 1765), III, pp. 277–286 (esp. 285). Elliott lived near the dragon’s den, supposedly at Wharncliffe Crags, five miles to the north of Sheffield, South Yorkshire. Elliott would publish ‘Night, or, The Legend of Wharncliffe’ in 1818. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013