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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1583. Robert Southey to [Anna] Seward, 18 February 1809 ⁠* 

The Fall of Needwood [1]  arrived at an unlucky time, otherwise its receipt could have been acknowledged immediately, for in acknowledgements of this kind I am as punctual as a merchant. But Edith was just taken ill, & from that time till yesterday was confined to her bed by an illness which was the more alarming inasmuch as there was great danger of its bringing on premature labour; thank God she is now on the recovery. When I am unhappy (& nothing but such things as this ever can make me so) I employ myself on more unintermittingly than at any other time, but it must be upon {something} which does not require much more attention than the eye & the hand are sufficient for, – note-making, matters of extract or reference, – anything which will supply constant, but not continuous employment, & which may be broken off & resumed again at any minute. I have no heart for any thing better [MS torn] do not write letters when they cannot be happy ones. – This then is the reason why I have not sooner thanked you for Mr Mundys Poem. Its merits are his own; – its defect is that of all descriptive poems, – a want of necessary connection between the parts, – one paragraph does not grow out of another, – like some of the scenes in Samson Agonistes [2]  they might change places without inconvenience. But a defect which belongs to the class is not to be charged upon the individual. The poem is full of feeling & beauty, – that part particularly pleased me which relates to Swilcar, [3]  – & the author may be assured he will there be remembered as he wishes. – Your own lines abound with that picturesque writing of which you have given so many happy examples. The ‘shadowy shrine’ is not liable to your objection – (supposing that objection valid, which to my ear it is not) for tho sh be two letters, they form but a single sound. [4] 

Thank you for the two Elegies, [5]  – you say they are founded upon a real history, & that knowledge occasions some pain to mingle with the pleasure they give me. They are both very striking, – the first the most beautiful, yet the last the more impressive.

If the plan which the Prospectus on the other leaf announces be carried with effect xxxx xxxxxx, there will be a greater body of philosophical criticism & sound morals brought together, than is yet to be found in any, or all the authors ancient & modern. [6]  There is scarcely any thing which I so earnestly desire as that that which is in Coleridge should in some form or other be got out of him. The Prospectus is not so much to my liking as the Essays themselves will be; – it looks too much as if it really were what it only pretends to be, originally written to a friend. There is something absurd in writing confidentially to the Public, they have not been used to it, they do not understand it, & they will not like it. Neither does the tone of humility which is here assumed accord with what is promised, or with my temper. Such however as the Prospectus is I send it; – with all its faults it is unlike any other, & you I am sure will perceive that it proceeds from a full mind as well as a most extraordinary one.

My next shall contain the second section of Kehama, [7]  – one of the passages to which you object I have altered thus – ‘And thou O Moon thine ineffectual ray! [8]  It is a main advantage of irregular metre that emendations are so much {more} easily made. – In ‘you hear no more the mourners moan [9]  I aimed at a noisy monotony. My meaning in ‘for who could know – what aggravated wrong – provoked the desperate blow’ [10]  – was this, All hearts were deploring the two prisoners, – for there was none ‘Who loved the dead, & none could tell what provocation he had given,– I meant to imply a full belief that Arvalan [11]  had deserved his death, tho the particular cause was not known. In the behaviour of Azla no affection for her husband was meant to be understood, – only that calmness with which most persons bear what they know to be inevitable, & which her fellow sufferer was too young to have learnt. [12]  For the last two months I have added nothing to the poem, – one cause or other by breaking my rest has robbed me of the early hours which I devote to it, soon I expect to run another heat & finish it. My main employment now is transcribing my History of Brazil, [13]  & filling up its blanks, & carrying the first volumes thro the Press, – at a far heavier expence of labour than any person would believe who did not witness it. Neither for this nor for poetry shall I ever receive any thing like an adequate compensation for the time bestowed, nor for any worthy employment, – so true is it that it is impossible to serve God & Mammon at once.

I have long been of opinion that this country is tending towards Revolution, at a time when there is certainly no party, & perhaps not even an individual in the kingdom who wishes for such an event. This affair of the Duke of York [14]  looks as if the Government, & especially the Royal Family were infatuated to their own destruction. Notwithstanding the D of Kents [15]  denial, there is strong reason for xxx believing that he & the Prince of Wales have been concerned in instigating this precious enquiry.

Feby. 18. 1809 R Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Lichfield/ Single Sheet
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Pforzheimer Collection, New York Public Library, Misc MS. 0924
Unpublished. BACK

[1] The Fall of Needwood (1808), by Francis Noel Clarke Mundy (1739–1815), a landed gentleman of Derbyshire and a friend of Seward’s. BACK

[2] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Samson Agonistes (1671). BACK

[3] Swilcar Oak in Needwood Forest, Staffordshire. This landmark was the subject of a copper engraved print in the thirteenth volume of The Beauties of England and Wales (1811). BACK

[4] Seward refers to ‘The well-won meed at Needwood’s shadowy shrine’ in line 72 of her poem ‘To F. N. C. Mundy, Esq. On his Poem, The Fall of Needwood Forest’. BACK

[5] These elegies are untraced. BACK

[6] The prospectus was for Coleridge’s new periodical The Friend, the first number of which was published on 1 June 1809. BACK

[7] This letter has not survived. BACK

[8] This line was eventually published as ‘Pourest, O Moon, an ineffectual ray!’ in The Curse of Kehama (London, 1810), Book 1, line 19. See volume 4 of Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004). BACK

[9] The Curse of Kehama, Book 1, line 38. BACK

[10] The Curse of Kehama, Book 1, lines 111–113. BACK

[11] The son of the Rajah, Kehama, in Southey’s poem. BACK

[12] The dead Arvalan’s two wives, Azla and Nealliny, are burned on his funeral pyre in Book I of The Curse of Kehama. BACK

[13] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[14] Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827; DNB), Commander in Chief of the army. He held the post from 1798–1809, but was forced to resign in the wake of allegations that he had profited by allowing his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke (c. 1776–1852; DNB), to accept money from army officers, in return for which promotion was arranged. BACK

[15] Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn (1767–1820), the fourth son of King George III (1738–1820). BACK

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August 2013