1808 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Ebenezer Elliott

Robert Southey to Ebenezer Elliott, 13 October 1808; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 3:173-74.



October 13, 1808.

Sir,

A recommendation to the booksellers to look at a manuscript is of no use whatever. In the way of business they glance at every thing which is offered them; and no persons know better what is likely to answer their purpose. Poetry is the worst article in the market; — out of fifty volumes which may be published in the course of a year, not five pay the expense of publication: and this is a piece of knowledge which authors in general purchase dearly, for in most cases these volumes are printed at their risk.

From the specimen of your productions which is now in my writing desk, I have no doubt that you possess the feeling of a poet, and may distinguish yourself; but I am sure that premature publication would eventually discourage you. You have an example in Kirke White; — his Clifton Grove sold only to the extent of the subscription he obtained for it; and the treatment which it experienced drove him, by his own account, almost to madness. My advice to you is, to go on improving yourself, without hazarding any thin: you cannot practise without improvement. Feel your way before you with the public, as Montgomery did. He sent his verses to the newspapers; and when they were copied from one to another it was a sure sign they had succeeded. He then communicated them, as they were copied from the papers, to the Poetical Register; the Reviews selected them for praise; and thus, when he published them in collected form, he did nothing more than claim, in his own character, the praise which had been bestowed upon him under a fictitious name. Try the newspapers. Send what you think one of your best short poems (that is, any thing short of 100 lines) to the Courier or the Globe. If it is inserted send others, under imaginary signature. If they please nobody, and nobody notices them for praise, nobody will for censure, and you will escape all criticism. If, on the contrary, they attract attention, the editor will be glad to pay you for more, — and they still remain your property, to be collected and reprinted in whatever manner you may think best hereafter.

If, however, you are bent upon trying your fortune with the Soldier's Love, can you not try it by subscription? 250 names will indemnify you for the same number of copies. I will give you a fair opinion of your manuscript if you will direct Longman to forward it to me, and will willingly be of what little use I can. But be assured that the best and wisest plan you can pursue is, to try your strength in the London newspapers.

Believe me,

With the best wishes for your welfare and success,

Yours sincerely,

ROBERT SOUTHEY.