November 28th, 1816.
Just as I was about to write to tell you that I had at last found the two volumes I promised you (and they are sent herewith), I received your note, and as you wish for my opinion on one or two points which are connected with the progress of your work, I do not delay to give it, though you will he aware that I shall give it hastily.
I do not think that the fame of Pope, and still less that of Dryden, is on the wane as compared with the taste of fifty years ago. On the contrary, I believe that Dryden rises in the estimation of all good judges. To be sure, every day deprives them more and more of the charm of novelty, and those who read them do not talk about them, because they no longer afford subject for fashionable chit-chat, but I believe they are more read, more profitably, solidly read, than any two of their successors whom you could name. If you mean to say that all our old writers are going out of fashion, it is to a certain degree true, and as must always, to the degree I have mentioned, happen but surely Dryden and Pope keep their relative situations at least, and if they do stand, when compared with their predecessors or contemporaries, as high or higher than they did, the general depreciation (even if it exist) cannot be said to apply to them particularly.
But I believe there is no real depreciation; for my own part I can say, that though I have little time to read poetry, and notwithstanding all the charms of novelty and fashion, I read more of Pope and Dryden than I do of even Scott and Byron; that is to say, I do not return to Scott and Byron with the same regular appetite that I do to the others. You seem to think that the wildness of the latter poets is their great cause of popularity; and you therefore think that the popular taste is for the irregular, the rambling, and the obscure. I deny your major, and even if it were true, I deny the conclusion. Mr. Scott and Lord Byron have adopted subjects to which their peculiar styles are appropriate. Scott's irregularity is an imitation of the Border minstrelsy which he has revived and improved, but he is never obscure. Lord Byron, on the other hand, in his great work, the "Childe Harold," is obscure, because he deals in metaphysics, and in the internal workings of a dark soul; but he is never irregular. So that when you accuse, or rather I should say when you applaud, the taste of the age for tending towards the irregular and obscure, you appear to me to commit the same mistake that one would do who should say that, wonderful to relate, he saw Mr. Jenkins eat salt and sugar to his dinner, because he ate salt to his mutton, and sugar to his fruit. My friend, Mr. Southey, has written several poems; one at least of them, the "Curse of Kehama," unites your two beauties of irregularity and obscurity in so high a degree, that it ought to be very popular, and yet no one reads it, while the "Roderick," which is absolutely regular, is universally read and admired.
But even if there were an epidemic at this hour abroad for the wild, as there was twenty years ago for the Della Cruscan style, and as there was somewhat later for the hobgoblin tribe, ought it to influence a real poet and a sensible man? "Decepit exemplar" — the proverb is somewhat musty. Mr. Scott and Lord Byron are original in their own style, and their styles therefore become them, but those who imitate them only catch their faults. However we bear or even admire (as we often do) a fault which is original and natural, we have no such mercy upon faults which are affected and unappropriate to the wearer.
Add to all this, that the multitude of imitators, good, bad, and indifferent, has palled the public appetite, and I think I see that each succeeding poem of even Mr. Scott and Lord Byron themselves are more coolly received than the former.
I therefore entreat of you to remember that if you suffer yourself to be drawn on by what you conceive to he the taste of the day, you will write a poem which will probably be but little attended to even at the day, and will more probably not survive it. You will write in the same style, aye, and write as well as Scott and Byron, without sharing their success; they are originals, and you will be only a copyist.
But you adduce my example against my argument; let me concede to you that my example is with you, I should still say the argument is good, and the example is bad; but I am not pushed to the painful extremity of confessing my practice to be bad. It is, I think, not irreconcileable with all I have said. My verses are certainly not obscure (not intentionally obscure I mean, for that is the question); they are not even irregular; the recurrence of the rhyme of the short syllable is at different intervals indeed; but it is all one metre, and I well remember having taken a good deal of pains to get rid of a few irregularities, which had escaped me at first, and, if I recollect rightly, there is but one (and that so slight as not to be generally perceptible) which has survived my correction. Then there is no attempt at that misty pomp of language which you appear to think laudable. I believe there is not one inversion in the whole thing (at least, I repeat again, not one intentional inversion), and everything goes by its proper name; a spade is a spade; and a bayonet a bayonet, and if on one or two occasions the French are the Gauls, I am ashamed of it. I will now, since I am on the subject, tell you a fact — that "Talavera" was written in consequence of a conversation at a literary table, at which I insisted that poetry ought not to be fiction, and that so powerful was the charm of simplicity and nature, that if two poems were to he written on the subject of the then recent triumph of Talavera, and that one was to deal in Mars and Bellona, helmets and shields, knights and heroes, and that the other (ceteris paribus) should call everything by its proper name, talk of Wellington and Bellona, bayonet and cap, cavalry and infantry, the latter would be the most popular. This conversation, added to my regard for Sir Arthur and my national feeling, set me to work on "Talavera;" and whatever success it has had I attribute altogether to the truth and simplicity, I might say to the matter-of-factness, with which it is written. One word more on this point. "Talavera" was written seven years ago, before the prolific pen of Mr. Scott and the more prolific pens of a thousand imitators had hackneyed the eight and six syllable metre.
You allude to architecture, and say we are come to a new era of poetical architecture. My good Sir, I should desire no better theme or allusion. The Athenian Parthenon, the Roman Pantheon, will attract for ever the admiration of mankind they have, as Plutarch said two thousand years ago of the former, all the grandeur of antiquity and all the grace of novelty. Not less grand, and little less graceful, are the miracles of Gothic architecture, miracles of littlenesses piled together till they become magnificence and diversity multiplied into sublime regularity. Each style is admirable in its own way and for its peculiar purposes, but the mixture of both — I leave you to draw the conclusion. Excuse the freedom and length of my letter. An anxious desire to be of use to you is at once my motive and excuse.
I have, &c.,
J. W. C.