921. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 8 April 1804 

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

921. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 8 April 1804 ⁠* 

I had allotted this evening to dissect old Barbablao – & am sorry the second edition should have arrived before the first was so noticed. but I had no suspicion that you designed to reprint it in the Iris. [1]  What you say of cheap editions is still more applicable to newspaper publication. for short poems it is the best possible vehicle, & those which stand the test may then safely be transferred to a more permanent paper.

Lines 7 & 8 in the old copy are well omitted – but I miss the following couplet, which pleasd my ear & tallied well with the story as you have represented it. for the future number the lines of such poems for the benefit of us critics. – The You know he was brother & – comes clumsily in like the you-knows in the opening of our old plays which always are addrest to the audience & mean you do not know. – his will was withstood. is that word accurately used? surely withstand & disobey are not synonimes. – The one line of Sister Anne which follows is not pleasantly – in fact not well – expressed – & methinks you have made Sister Anne too cool at the discovery – the blood upon the key should alarm her suddenly. the couplet rhyming tomb & doom is in its close cramped & crowded. The tongue trips against it. ‘The key my loose powerless fingers forsook’ a lame & expletive way of saying I dropt the key. Now come two words coupled either of which, in that place, xxx xxx I should have feard to use – shy stare – & both together I believe will strike every reader as very uncouth & disagreable. ‘‘on a peg of black wood’’. needless for hung up is enough, & worse than merely expletive by presenting an image too definite & too trivial. the next lines are very good had they been related by the Poet – but not altogether undramatic. the word clung I do not understand – & the exquisite touch is too technical a phrase – nor could Mrs Bluebeard be so little terrified as to recognize any likeness to the statue. Of the Heads speech I object to nothing but the way in which she expresses her decollation, which is too roundabout. The two first lines of Annes next speech very clumsy. indeed the whole paragraph appears to me incorrigible. The brothers speech is again too poetical for the occasion.

I now come to some smooth sailing – build remission being the next objectionable phrase. then they applaud the sound of the horn when they ought to have dreaded it – & to have turnd pale. And prattling prolongs every gift of the fire – I can affix no meaning to this. all – too plainly for the rhyme – Bluebeard is also too loquacious & too poetical in sudden passion. My decision has never been sympathys fool – this I do not like – it means he be not mislead by compassion when passion is what the sentence requires. framed to confine the couch – awkward. & that vile word spar! which is damned by the slang of pugilists. Say And Sion instead of Even – for it more rapidly combines the thought & more flowingly fills the sentence. You have given too much attachment to the horse – it is impossible – you have raised him to the rank which the Dog holds – & I suspect there are many degrees of transmigration before the soul xxxxx ascends from one to the other. parry is too fencing a phrase. scrape too slow a one. nor do I recollect any precedent for making them stamp like sheep who threaten – or for setting the Knight swearing. His armour big gushes &c – another line of lame expression.

And now having culled the weeds I come to the story. you have hurt it by lessening the atrocity of Bluebeard, who seems, bating his dealings with the Devil, to have been as good as Knight need be. There is too a most incongruous mixture of {the} modern xxxxx & the legendary. Sister Anne we must have – but why Eliza – so modern a name as not to be fifty years old in English? & in her dress the language & – also the looking glasses are all modern. This surprizes me in xxx you, who struck the right key with so unerring a hand in Ellenore! [2] 

In fine you will see that in spite of all the fine lines which are not particularized & in spite of the general power which pervades it the poem does not please me. In all legendary tales I require the absence of all ideas & phraseology which are manifestly modern & force upon me the anachronism. In all dramatic writing or dialogue I require brevity & the breaks of passion & the plainness of, in all, narrative rapidity – & that it be so perspicacious as to be instantaneously understood. – If I had given you the more recondite & metaphysical feelings which make me object to the passages here noted as faulty – you would form some judgement of the care with which I reject in writing. for it is a bad symptom that I am now as solicitous to wound faults as I once was to produce beauties: But again of Bluebeard – I believe a shorter line is better for narration – & wish you had modelled the story upon the old metrical Romances, for which I have a true veneration. – Cinderella is far better  [3]  – I lookd for faults & found none worthy of notice.

My Eclogue [4]  still sticks unfinished. I will send you a rhymed story which was in the Morning Post six months ago [5]  – but has since that copy was sent there receivd more alterations than I found in two Bluebeards – you will it shall come this week & I will thank you to use the scalping knife as unmercifully as the example is here set.

And now to your two last letters. to what you say of Harry I have [MS torn] express a sense of obligation, which is not easily expressed. – I shall soon see John May & will consult with him in what manner Harry had better receive your assistance – for it seems to me it had better come immediately from yourself. I dread his extravagance, & cannot excuse it.

My last crossed yours on the road. I reviewed Malthus for A Aikin  [6]  & he has blundered strangely in sending it to you, for it was settled that I should review it in consequence of a conversation at Longmans table with him. however I hope yours may win the place as I shall be very glad to build upon the timbers of mine with Rickmans aid; who has for the book the same contempt & indignation that I feel – I am sorry you have pleaded for Pinkerton against Turner - for Turner is certainly in the right – & Pinkertons assertions were merely for the sake of contradiction. he is a rogue in private life – & very often a pretender in literature. [7]  his pretensions in Spanish knowledge are perfectly impudent. I catch him sometimes in the Critical telling downright lies. [8]  You will do mischief by rendering the Welsh poems suspected – I have more to say but time presses – & you shall have the rest in a few days with King Ramiro. [9] 

God bless you


Sunday April 8. 1804


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr./ Surry Street/ Norwich/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: 8th April 1804/ Ansd 20 May
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4844
Previously published: John Warden Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 493–498. BACK

[1] Taylor had printed his poem on Bluebeard (‘Barbablao’) in the newspaper he edited, The Iris; or, Norwich and Norfolk Weekly Advertiser, on 17 March 1804. A revised edition appeared three weeks later. It was later published in the Monthly Magazine, 38 (1814), 437–440. BACK

[2] Ellenore, Taylor’s translation of Gottfried August Bürger (1747–1794), Lenore, became popular and influential on its publication in 1796. BACK

[3] Taylor’s poetical version of ‘Cinderella’, which had initially appeared in the Iris, 21 January 1804, was also published in the Monthly Magazine, 35 (1813), 234–236. BACK

[4] ‘The Alderman’s Funeral; An English Eclogue’ originated in a funeral witnessed in Bristol in 1803. The poem was not published until 1810, in The Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1808; see Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), V, pp. 427–432; see Southey to William Taylor, 22 March 1804, Letter 915. BACK

[5] ‘King Ramiro’, published in the Morning Post on 9 September 1803, and on 12 May 1804 in the Iris (edited by Taylor) and then, revised, in the Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1808, Minor Poems (1815 and 1823) and with revisions in Poetical Works (1837–1838). BACK

[6] Southey’s review of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834; DNB), An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of W. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1803) appeared in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 292–301. BACK

[7] John Pinkerton (1758–1826; DNB): Scottish antiquarian and cartographer whose many publications earned him a reputation for irreligious views, arrogant irritability and personal immorality. Pinkerton believed the Celts were incapable of rising to high levels of civilisation and sought to prove that Scottish place names were not of Celtic origin: he wished to trace the Scottish people to the ancient Goths and to purge Scottish culture of Celticism. Pinkerton criticised Sharon Turner for treating, in his History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799–1805), recently-published Welsh poems as historical documents detailing real events of the sixth century. Pinkerton assumed them to be forgeries. Turner replied to Pinkerton’s critique in his Vindication of the Genuineness of the Ancient British poems of Aneurin, Taliessin, Llywarch Hen, and Myrddin (1803). BACK

[8] Pinkerton worked for the Critical Review from about 1795 to 1802, when he went to live in Paris (DNB). BACK

[9] See note 5. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013