1816
ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

[To Chauncy Hare Townshend, 10 February 1816, on completing the Faerie Queene.

Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey. 6 Vols [Charles Cuthbert Southey, ed.]

Robert Southey


Writing to a young poet who had traveled to Keswick to make his acquaintance, Robert Southey briefly comments on Thomson's Castle of Indolence and Beattie's The Minstrel, and describes his youthful plans to complete the Faerie Queene. If anyone was capable of finishing all those unwritten books, it would have been Robert Southey. The letter is dated "Keswick, July 22, 1816." Southey had already mentioned Spenser in his correspondence with Townshend, writing 10 February 1816: "Do you love Spenser? I have him in my heart of hearts" 4:152. Imagining a meeting in the afterlife, on 31 October 1817 Southey wrote to Townshend, "As for us poets, they have not condescended to to think of us; but we shall find one another out, and a great many questions I shall have to ask of Spenser and of Chaucer. Indeed, I half hope to get the whole story of Cambuscan bold; and to hear the lost books of the Faery Queen. Lope de Vega and I shall not meet with equal interest, and yet it shall be a pleasant meeting" 4:284. Townshend would later attend Cambridge where he won a prize for his poem "Jerusalem"; his Poems (1821) is dedicated to Southey.

Oliver Elton: "It is easy and too true to say that Robert Southey (1774-1843) is a dead poet, a bookman, a journeyman in verse; that he has no magic, that he betrays his procedure, and that he sinks under his learning and his ambition. Still the picture of high poetical effort in this age is incomplete without him. He has some of the qualities and aims which, had he only been a better poet, would have made him considerable. First and above all, he has in a high degree the instinct for emancipating and purging language. He is a purer writer than many greater ones. We can measure in his average performance the success of the revulsion against the false eighteenth-century styles — the cumbered artificial style in verse, the pompous periodic style in prose. Southey carries out this new ideal in his verse and his prose alike. Any one can see how in his verse he failed nevertheless, and how well in his best prose he succeeded. He had no conception of the difference of his achievement in the two kinds. He was as sure as Milton that he was a poet born to last. Even of his prose not much has lasted; but this is our loss; though it is partly his own fault, for he wrote too much" Survey of English Literature 1780-1830 (1912) 2:1-2.




... This country is very imperfectly visited by many of its numerous guests. They take the regular route, stop at the regular stations, ascend one of the mountains, and then fancy they have seen the Lakes, in which, after a thirteen years' residence, I am every year discovering new scenes of beauty. Here I shall probably pass the remainder of my days. Our church, as you may perhaps recollect, stands at a distance from the town, unconnected with any other buildings, and so as to form a striking and beautiful feature in the vale. The churchyard is as open to the eye and to the breath of heaven as if it were a Druid's place of meeting. There I shall take up my last abode, and it is some satisfaction to think so — to feel as if I were at anchor, and should shift my berth no more. A man whose habitual frame of mind leads him to look forward, is not the worse for treading the churchyard path, and a belief that along that very path his hearse is one day to convey him.

Your comments upon the Castle of Indolence express the feeling of every true poet; the second part must always be felt as injuring the first. I agree with you, also, as respecting the Minstrel, beautiful and delightful as it is. It still wants that imaginative charm which Thomson has caught from Spenser, but which no poet has ever so entirely possessed as Spenser himself. Among the many plans of my ambitious boyhood, the favourite one was that of completing the Faery Queen. For this purpose I has collected every hint and indication of what Spenser meant to introduce in the progress of his poem, and had planned the remaining legends in a manner which, as far as I can remember after a lapse of four or five-and-twenty years, was not without some merit. What I have done as a poet falls far short of what I had hoped to do; but in boyhood and in youth I dreamt of poetry alone; and I suppose it is the course of nature, that the ardour which this pursuit requires should diminish as we advance in life. In youth we delight in strong emotions, to be agitated and inflamed with hope, and to weep at tragedy. In maturer life we have no tears to spare; it is more delightful to have our judgment exercised than our feelings.

God bless you! Come and visit me when you can. I long to see you.

R. S.


[4:191-92]