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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1711. Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 22 November 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick. Nov. 22. 1809

My dear Sir

I have had your poem [1]  little more than a week; – yesterday I carefully perused it (not having had leisure before) – & should this evening have written to you, even if your letter had not arrived.

There are in this poem (which appears to me an alteration of that whereof you formerly sent me an extract) unquestionable marks both of genius & the power of expressing it. I have no doubt that you will succeed in attaining the fame after which you aspire, but you have yet to learn how to plan a poem, – when you can do this I am sure you will are able to execute it.

The Soldiers Love, being the title, should have been the main & moving subject of this tale. Its connection however with the conquest of Quebec is merely altogether arbitrary, & purely episodical. The expedition is not undertaken in consequence of your hero’s history, nor is he any otherwise instrumental to its success than as any other soldier who did his duty. Nothing is produced by the passionate state in which you have placed him. – he fights indeed & falls, – but only as he might & would have done had he left Eliza his wife. The circumstance of his killing his fathers murderer is one of those improbabilities which it is always proper to avoid, because they are instantly felt as such. Such an incident is indeed of too high a character to be casually & incidentally introduced, – there should be preparation for it, & it should be made a thing of importance in the main action.

This is my advice to you– lay this poem aside as one whose defects are incurable. Plan another, & be especially careful in planning it. See that your circumstances naturally produce each other, & that there be nothing in the story which could be taken away without dislocating the whole fabric. Ask yourself the question is this incident of any use? does it result from what goes before? does it influence what is to follow? Satisfy yourself compleatly with the plan before you begin to execute it. I do not mean to say that the detail must be filled up. – only make the skeleton perfect. There is no danger of your getting into the faults of common place writers, otherwise I could recommend to you to read some of the bad epic writers, xxx for the sake of learning what to avoid in the composition of a story.

In your execution you are too exuberant in ornament & resemble the French engravers who take off the attention from the subject of their prints by the flowers & trappings of the foreground. This makes you indistinct, but distinctness is the great charm of narrative poetry. – see how beautifully it is exemplified in Spenser our great English master of narration, whom you cannot study too much, nor love too dearly. Your first book reminded me of our old pastoral poet William Brown, [2]  – he has the same fault of burying his story in flowers, – it is one of those faults which are to be wished for in the writings of all young xxx poets. I am satisfied that your turn of thought & feeling is for this higher branch of the art, & not for lighter subjects. Your language would well suit the drama, – have your thoughts ever been turned to it?

I will only notice one minor fault. Regina is not a word to be used as you have used it. Its simple meaning is Queen & nothing else.

Where shall I send your poem? – If when you have planned another you think proper to send me the plan I will comment xxx upon it where it may be of use to point out its defects. It would give me great pleasure to be of any service to a man of genius, & such I believe you to be. If business ever brings you this way, let me xxx see you. Should I ever travel thro Rotherham I will find you out. I have spoken so plainly & freely of your defects that you can have no doubt of my sincerity when I conclude by saying xxx go on, & you will prosper.

yours respectfully & with the best good wishes

Robert Southey

One thing more. forget this poem while you are planning another, lest you spoil that for the sake of appropriating materials from this.


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. 265–267. BACK

[1] Elliott’s unfinished and unpublished poem on the British conquest of Canada in 1759–1763. Southey had previously expressed his interest in Elliott’s projected poem; see Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 13 October 1808, Letter 1519. See also Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 29 December 1809 (Letter 1725), 9 February 1810 (Letter 1743) and 1 August 1810 (Letter 1796) The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four. BACK

[2] William Browne (c. 1590–c. 1645; DNB), pastoral poet. BACK

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August 2013