1820 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

John Abraham Heraud

Robert Southey to John Abraham Heraud, 16 December 1820; in Memoirs of John A. Heraud (1898) 19-22.



Keswick, 16th Dec. 1820.

MY DEAR SIR,

You will think that I am damping your hopes, because I tell you that they must be tamed and broken-in to the uses of the world. "The service of the Muses," to which you would devote yourself, is in reality very unlike what it appears to a youthful imagination. Their yoke is not easy, neither is their burthen light. Believe me, when I tell you that of all modes of life, that of the man who trusts to his literary exertions alone for support is the most miserable. And the very end at which he aims in his outset — that of improving and exalting his intellectual faculties — is most effectually defeated by the means which he pursues. They are worn and jaded by the daily labour to which they must be subjected; and they are inevitably degraded and polluted by the necessity of writing for immediate effect and sale, and consequently of following the humour of the times. Poetry will be the delight of your life if you cultivate it for its own sake — your bane if you trust to it for subsistence. In the latter case, it would not be expressing myself too strongly, were I to say that there is danger of destruction both to body and mind — in the former you will find hope, strength, consolation; and, if patience be not wanting, ultimately the honour and the remembrance to which you aspire.

You must not be discouraged if your "Legend" finds little or no sale. Not one volume of poems out of twenty that are published pays the expense of publication. Works of this nature which would have obtained general admiration forty and even thirty years ago, are now still-born from the Press: the public appetite being palled, not only by the number of dishes which are set before it, but also by the high spicing with which too many of them are seasoned. And in the poems of a very young writer, the faults lie upon the surface, and are perceived by those (the great majority) who are quite incapable of perceiving the genius which is blended with them, and the seeds of excellence among the rubbish. Be not discouraged at this; but do not think of publishing more at present. At your age the growth of your mind, when under proper culture, will be so rapid, that before a poem had been published six months, you would wish to alter one half of it and perhaps to strike out the other.

The first and most important advice which I would impress upon you is to attend to the business of life. In what business are you engaged? And what prospect or hope have you of bettering your condition in it? Let me know your domestic history. I would serve you, if I could, more substantially than by advice alone, but advice is good for something. You have found time to compose a very great number of verses; you will therefore be able to find time for disciplining and storing your mind and laying in knowledge. The great use of youthful composition is to acquire command of language and of versification. Having so far accomplished this, the next task is to learn how to employ that power — what faults to avoid, and at what excellences to aim. It would be useless to send me your "Astrea" — no bookseller would undertake the risk of publishing so long a poem. In long works the design is of as much importance as the execution; but the art of planning a long work is almost the last which is acquired. In small pieces there is not that difficulty and the power of a youthful mind may as well be shown by a short poem as by a long one, by twenty or fifty lines as well as ten thousand. Take, for example, H. K. White and "The Rosemary," and Herbert Knowles's poem written in Richmond churchyard. If you have among your miscellanies any pieces which you yourself think good of that length, copy one or two of them in your small handwriting, which can put a great deal in a foolscap sheet, and let me have them when next you write. Your reading should be history, travels, and our best old poets, above all others Shakespere, Milton, Spenser — but above all books the Bible, and upon all accounts. In reading contemporary poets there is a danger of catching their manner, that is to say their faults. Wordsworth is the one, and the only one among them, who is to be reckoned with the great names above.

For the present, farewell. Be patient and prudent. Remember that happiness is of more importance than fame, and ought to be your first object. With patience and prudence you will attain both. God bless you.

Your sincere well-wisher,

ROBERT SOUTHEY.