[To G. C. Bedford, 7 August 1814; on poetical Imitation.]

New Letters of Robert Southey. 2 Vols [Kenneth Curry, ed.]

Robert Southey

As Grosvenor Charles Bedford, Southey's schoolfellow, prepares to review Roderick of the Goths for the Quarterly Review, the poet outlines his position on originality and imitation, and declares that the diction used by the Lake School "would bear the assay of Q. Elizabeths mint."

Walter Scott had recently congratulated Southey on his receiving the laurel (which Scott had declined): "I do not delay, my dear Southey, to say my 'gratulor.' Long may you live, as Paddy says, to rule over us, and to redeem the crown of Spenser and Dryden to its pristine dignity. I am only discontented with the extent of your royal revenue, which I thought had been £400, or £300 at the very least. Is there no getting rid of that iniquitous modus, and requiring the butt in kind? I would have you think of it; I know no man so well entitled to Xeres sack as yourself, though many bards would make a better figure at drinking it" 13 November 1813; Lockhart, Life of Scott (1837-38; 1902) 2:356.

William Taylor of Norwich to Robert Southey: "Of the Carmen Triumphale, I admired most the sixth stanza about the Carmelite; there are others very fine; yet I thought the whole too long and the doxology too often repeated. How you have overcome your prejudices against military excellence! Time was, when in reviewing your Metrical Tales in the Annual, I abused the 'Battle of Blenheim' for its cowing tendency. It is not in everything that our opinions are beginning to diverge. You display correct taste in consecrating the New Year's Ode to the country, and to the sovereign the Birth-day Ode. Are you sure that Spenser wore the laurel?" 13 March 1814; in Robberds, Memoir of William Taylor (1843) 2:420-21.

If Gifford lets you review Roderick, you may notice that it is a poem sui generis — which is the case indeed with all my poems except Joan of Arc (that as far as the story goes, being almost without invention and in its battles very selon les regles). Heroic poems have usually been things of mere imitation and therefore worthless. But as times change what delighted one age would no longer delight another. We admire Homer (and deservedly too, as might be very easily shown by a good analysis of the two poems), but if Homer were living now, he would write very differently. Book after book of butchery, however skilfully performed is unsuitable to the European state of mind at present, and the raw head and bloody-bone-monster of the Odyssey are not better. In this age Homer would address himself more to our feelings and reflecting faculties.

If you say any thing of my stile and "the school" as it is called, there would have been a good opportunity if some egregious nonsense upon this subject had not got into the last number of the Quarterly. The history of my style is simply this. In all young poets it is and ever must be, mere imitation. We imitate what we admire, and as we admire (when young) in wholesale, defects become the easiest objects of imitation. Thus they who imitate Milton succeed in writing something very stiff, very pedantic and anti-English. My favourite poet was Spenser but at the age of what might be termed poetical puberty when the voice of song began to be fixed, I had Bowles by heart. Perhaps I have read more poetry than any man living — much Italian, much French, almost every thing Spanish Portugueze Latin and English, and in former times a proper share of Greek. But for many years I had entirely laid it aside till within these few months. My mature style aims at nothing but to express in pure English what I have to say: and I profess nothing but to avoid the barbarisms and nonsense which have so long past current in verse. Briefly the subject being such as seems good to me, and the manner of treating it my own, I endeavour to write in such English as would bear the assay of Q. Elizabeths mint, and it is this, and in this only, that the resemblance between my poetry and Wordsworths exists. Whether we write well or ill in other respects, all that we write is English, and this cannot be said of Scott, Ld Byron, Campbell, etc. etc. It may be good for nothing, but it is not bad in itself; the sense may be worthless, but it is not nonsense. . . .