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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

913. Robert Southey to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 14 March 1804 ⁠* 

Greta Hall, March 14. 1804.

Your departure [1]  hangs upon me with something the same effect that the heavy atmosphere presses upon you – an unpleasant thought, that works like yeast, and makes me feel the animal functions going on. As for the manner of your going, you will be on the whole better off than in a king’s ship. Now you are your own master; there you would have been a guest, and, of course, compelled to tolerate the worst of all possible society, except that of soldier-officers.

I had hopes of seeing you in London; for almost as soon as Edith is safe in bed, [2]  if safe she be (for my life has been so made up of sudden changes, that I never even mentally look to what is to happen without that if, and the optative utinam  [3] ), – as soon, I say, as that takes place, I shall hurry to town, principally to put to press this book of Specimens, [4]  which can only be finished there, for you will stare at the catalogue of dead authors whom I shall have to resurrectionise. This will be a very curious and useful book of mine; how much the worse it will be for your voyage to Malta, few but myself will feel. If it sells, I shall probably make a supplementary volume to Ellis’s, [5]  to include the good pieces which he has overlooked, for he has not selected well, and, perhaps, to analyse the epics and didactics, which nobody reads. Had I conceived that you would think of transcribing any part of Madoc, [6]  you should have been spared the trouble; but, in writing to you, it has always appeared to me better to write than to copy, the mere babble having the recommendation that it is exclusively your own, and created for you, and in this the feeling of exclusive property goes for something. The poem shall be sent out to you, if there be a chance of its reaching you; but will you not have left Malta by the time a book to be published about New Year’s Day can arrive there?

Had you been with me, I should have talked with you about a preface; as it is, it will be best simply to state, and as briefly as possible, what I have aimed at in my style, and wherein, in my own judgement, I have succeeded or failed. Longman has announced it, in his Cyclopӕdic List, [7]  under the title of an epic poem, which I assuredly shall not affix to it myself; the name, of which I was once over-fond, has nauseated me, and, moreover, should seem to render me amenable to certain laws which I do not acknowledge.

If I were at Malta, the siege of that illustrious island should have a poem, and a good one too; and you ought to think about it, for of all sieges that ever has been, or ever will be, it was the most glorious, and called forth the noblest heroism. [8]  Look after some modern Greek books, in particular the poem from which the Teseide of Boccaccio and the Knight’s Tale are derived; if, indeed, it be not a translation from the Italian. [9]  Could you lay hand on some of these old books, and, on old Italian poetry, by selling them at Leigh and Sotheby’s [10]  you might almost pay your travels.

More manuscripts of Davis come down to-day. I have run through his Life of Chatterton, which is flimsy and worthless. [11]  I shall not advise Longman to print it, and shall warn the writer to expunge an insult to you and to myself, which is not to be paid for by his praise. We formed a just estimate of the man’s moral stamina, most certainly, and as for man-mending, I have no hopes of it. The proverb of the silk purse and the sow’s ear, comprises my philosophy upon that subject.

I write rapidly and unthinkingly, to be in time for the post. Why have you not made Lamb declare war upon Mrs. Bare-bald? [12]  He should singe her flaxen wig with squibs, and tie crackers to her petticoats till she leapt about like a parched pea for very torture. There is not a man in the world who could so well revenge himself. The Annual Review (that is, the first vol.) came down in my parcel today. My articles [13]  are wickedly misprinted, and, in many instances, made completely nonsensical. If I could write Latin even as I could once, perhaps I should talk to Longman of publishing a collection of the best modern Latin poets; they were dulli canes  [14]  many of them, but a poor fellow who has spent years and years in doing his best to be remembered, does deserve well enough of posterity to be reprinted once in every millenium, and, in fact, there are enough good ones to form a collection of some extent.

God bless you! prays your

Old friend and brother,

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 273–276. BACK

[1] Coleridge travelled abroad to Malta for his health, taking up a temporary post as private secretary to Sir Alexander Ball (1757–1809; DNB), the naval officer governing Malta. BACK

[2] Southey’s daughter, Edith May Southey, was born on 30 April 1804. BACK

[3] Latin for ‘would that it were’. BACK

[4] A reference to the project that Southey undertook with Grosvenor Charles Bedford and published with Longman in 1807 as Specimens of the Later English Poets. BACK

[5] George Ellis, Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790; 2nd edn 1801; 3rd edn 1803). Due to the poor sales of Southey’s Specimens of the Later English Poets (1807), this plan was not carried out. BACK

[6] The poem Madoc, which Southey had written in 1797–1799 and was revising for publication. It was published in 1805. BACK

[7] Longman regularly published updated versions of The Cyclopædia; or, Universal Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Literature. BACK

[8] The 1565 epic siege by the Ottomans of the Crusader Knights Hospitallers on Malta, who had been granted the island by the Holy Roman Emperor after the fall to the Turks of their previous base, Rhodes. BACK

[9] Giovanni Boccaccio (1313–1375) author of The Teseida (c. 1340–1341). The first vernacular epic in Italian, it dealt with the Greek Theseus and was the chief source for the love story of Geoffrey Chaucer’s (c.1340–1400; DNB) Knight’s Tale. Boccaccio’s Greek sources have not been traced; it is possible that he derived his story from ancient myths and tales collected by his friend Paolo de Perugia (dates unknown). BACK

[10] Samuel Sotheby (1771–1842) and George Leigh (d. 1815), booksellers and auctioneers who set up in business in 1804. BACK

[11] John Davis (1774–1854), The Life of Thomas Chatterton was published in London in 1806 by Thomas Tegg (1776–1846; DNB), rather than Longman. BACK

[12] Southey’s and Coleridge’s derogatory name for Anna Letitia Barbauld, because they attributed to her a hostile review of Charles Lamb’s play John Woodvil; a Tragedy (1802) in the Annual Review for 1802, 1 (1803), 688–692. BACK

[13] Southey reviewed the following in the Annual Review for 1802, 1 (1803): Martin Sauer (dates unknown), An Account of a Geographical and Astronomical Expedition to the Northern Parts of Russia Performed by Joseph Billings in the Years 1785–1796 (1802), 7–17; Alexander MacKenzie (1763/4–1820; DNB), Voyages from Montreal, on the River St Laurence, through the Continent of North America, to the Frozen and Pacific Oceans in the Years 1789 and 1793 (1802), 18–30; Frederick Augustus Fischer (1771–1829), Travels in Spain in 1797 and 1798 (1802), 35–43; Giuseppi Acerbi (1773–1846), Travels through Sweden, Finland and Lapland, to the North Cape, in the Years 1798 and 1799 (1802), 45–56; Maria Guthrie (dates unknown), A Tour Performed in the Years 1795–6, through the Taurida, or Crimea (1802), 62–66; Peter Simon Pallas (1741–1811), Travels through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Years 1793 and 1794 (1802), 66–73; Guillaume Antoine Olivier (1756–1814), Travels in the Ottoman Empire, Egypt and Persia (1801), 89–101; Periodical Accounts Relative to the Baptist Missionary Society (1800–1801), 207–218; Augustin Louis Josse (1763–1841; DNB), El Tesoro Espanol o Biblioteca Portatil Espanola (1802), 557–566; Henry Kett (1761–1825; DNB), Elements of General Knowledge, Introductory to Useful Books in the Principal Branches of Literature and Science (1802), 579–584; Henri Louis Cain (1728–1778), Memoires de Henri Louis Le Kain (1801), 595–599; William Coxe (1748–1828; DNB), Memoirs of Horatio, Lord Walpole (1802), 599–601; Francis Wrangham (1769–1842; DNB), Poems (1802), 655–657; Walter Savage Landor, Poetry by the Author of Gebir (1802), 663–666; Pierre Lambinet (1742–1813), Recherche Historiques, Litteraires et Critiques sur l’Origine de l’Imprimerie (1799), 704–711. BACK

[14] The Latin translates as ‘dull dogs’. BACK

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August 2013