Allan Cunningham

Robert Southey to Allan Cunningham, 10 July, 1819; Life and Correspondence (1849-50) 4:349-51.

Keswick, July 10, 1819.

It is no easy task, Mr. Cunningham, to answer a letter like yours. I am unwilling to excite hopes which are but too likely to end in severe disappointment; and equally unwilling to say anything which might depress a noble spirit. The frankest course is the best. Patience and prudence are among the characteristic virtues of your countrymen: the progress which you have made proves that you possess the first in no common degree; and if you possess a good share of the latter also, what I have to say will neither be discouraging nor useless.

Your poem [Cuthbert Southey: The Maid of Elvar as originally written] contains incurable defects, but not such as proceed from any want of power. You have aimed at too much, and failed in the structure of the story, the incidents of which are impossible for the time and place in which they are laid. This is of little consequence if you are of the right mould. Your language has an original stamp, and could you succeed in the choice of subjects, — I dare not say that you would obtain the applause of which you are ambitious, but I believe you would deserve it.

Let me make myself clearly understood. In poetry, as in painting, and music, and architecture, it is far more difficult to design than to execute. A long tale should be everywhere consistent, and everywhere perspicuous. The incidents should depend upon each other, and the event appear like the necessary result, so that no sense of improbability in any part of the narration should force itself upon the hearer. I advise you to exercise yourself in shorter tales, — and these have the advantage of being more to the taste of the age.

But whatever you do, be prepared for disappointment. Crowded as this age is with candidates for public favour, you will find it infinitely difficult to obtain a hearing. The booksellers look blank upon poetry, for they know that not one volume of poems out of a hundred pays its expenses; and they know also how much more the immediate success of a book depends upon accidental circumstances than upon its intrinsic merit. They of course must look to the chance of profit as the main object. If this first difficulty be overcome, the public read only what it is the fashion to read; and for one competent critic — one equitable one — there are twenty coxcombs who would blast the fortunes of an author for the sake of raising a laugh at his expense.

Do not, therefore, rely upon your poetical powers as a means of bettering your worldly condition. This is the first and most momentous advice which I would impress upon you. If you can be contented to pursue poetry for its own reward, for the delight which you find in the pursuit, go on and prosper. But never let it tempt you to neglect the daily duties of life, never trust to it for profit, as you value your independence and your peace. To trust to it for support is misery and ruin. On the other hand, if you have that consciousness of strength that you can be satisfied with the expectation of fame, though you should never live to enjoy it, I know not how you can be more happily employed than in exercising the powers with which you are gifted. And if you like my advice well enough to wish for it on any future occasion, write to me freely; I would gladly be of use to you if I could.

Farewell, and believe me,

Your sincere well-wisher,