March 26, 1812: Southey to Montgomery

On March 26, 1812, Robert Southey writes to fellow poet James Montgomery. 

Robert Southey (August 12, 1774– March 21, 1843) was well known poet, biographer, historian, reviewer and, later, poet laureate.  He was the first to popularize the story of Goldilocks and the Three BearsSouthey was also a friend of  Coleridge and Wordsworth and member - even if a lesser one - of the Lake Poets. Southey is an extremely interesting writer in that he follows the trajectory of other writers of the time going from a youthful radicalism of supporting the French Revolution to high Tory views as he soured on that revolution. In his Toryism, Southey also voiced some sharp criticisms of  "industrialization" and its effects revealing a common source for such views with radical writers who otherwise disagreed with his politics and his support for the established church. In this regard, he would clash with Thomas Babington Macaulay who wrote in 18129 a very critical review of the Southey's book Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society. 

Southey would also clash with Lord Byron when Southey wrote a preface to his poem the Vision of Judgment attacking those "Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations" who had set up a "Satanic school" of poetry. Everyone understood him to be speaking of Byron who responded with his own Vision of Judgment satirizing Southey. The excerpts to the letter that follow give an unusual candid expression from Southey that financial necessity drove a lot of his writing.  In contrast, Byron made boastful claims that he did not write for money which was something that an aristocrat would never do. Byron may have triumphed in terms of the lasting nature of his work and reputation but it is Southey that points the way to a future class of professional writers. Excerpts from Southey's letter are reproduced below:  

          Keswick, March 26. 1812. 

My dear Montgomery, 

...Thank you for your comments on 'Kehama.' The best reply I can make to what you say of the line — ' Never should she behold her father more,' is to say that it is altered upon your suggestion. You say Kailyal is a Christian, — is it not because the poem, supposing the truth of the mythology on which it is built, requires from her faith and resignation? I know not how it was that in my youth the mythologies and superstitions of various nations laid strong hold on my imagination and struck deep root in it ; so that before I was twenty, one of my numerous plans was that of exhibiting the most striking fiction of each in a long poem. Thalaba and Kehama are the fruits of that early plan. Madoc partakes of 

it, but only incidentally. If I had gained money as well as reputation by these poems, the whole series would ere this have been completed. Do not misunderstand me — when I talk of gaining money, nothing more is meant than supporting myself by my labours; and the literal truth is, that for many years I did not write a line of poetry, because I could not afford it! 'Kehama' was written before breakfast in hours borrowed from sleep ; and so is 'Pelayo,' as far as it has yet proceeded. The world is brightening upon me now.
I get well paid for prose; and yet even in this the capricious humour of the times is apparent. Some of the best years of my life have been devoted to the 'History of Portugal and its Dependencies,' in a series of works of which only one volume is yet before the public, but upon which as much labour and scrupulous research has been bestowed as ever was or will be given to historical compilation. These works will scarcely, while I live, pay for their own materials ; whereas I might be employed, if I chose, from morning till night in reviewing the productions of Messrs. Tag, Rag, and Bobtail, at ten guineas per sheet. 
From the age of eight, my heart was set upon poetry, a passion owing, in the first instance, to Shakespeare, and which would have taken a dramatic turn, if it had not soon been diverted by our execrable modern versions of Tasso and Ariosto, and then fixt by Spenser, for whom I have as entire a love as you can have — and if you had not loved him as I do you would not have spoken of Una. No writer has ever given me such hours and days of intense delight as Spenser. Before I was fifteen I had resolved to finish the 'Faerie Queene.' Three cantos of the intended continuation was part of a huge pile which some years ago I committed to the flames. I rather regret that the memoranda for this notable undertaking were destroyed also, for, young as I was, they were a good deal in the spirit of Spenser; and I had in the course of repeated perusals gathered together every hint which can be found throughout the whole six books, that affords the least intimation of what the author designed to do in the other half. Nothing that I have done ever gave me so much delight as the dream of what I intended to do. I lived in a fairy land with Timias and Belphoebe, and Prince Arthur, and the Satrap man, and young Tristram, and Sir Sophy, and Arthegal who won Achilles' arms. Time has produced little change in my feelings of poetry ; but it has left me little feeling to spare for it. I have learnt to prefer that calmer pleasure which is to be found in historical pursuits, which seldom excites any passion, but when it does, excites it with all the impressions of truth. My expectations are as ardent about the 'History of Portugal 'as ever they were about ' Joan of Arc,' and on far better grounds. Then the creatures of my own imagination delighted and deceived me: as a historian I may be deceived concerning my own power; but knowing what the duties of a historian are, those duties I know I have performed. 
Dear Montgomery, you say you wrote of nothing but yourself; only look back upon the great I's which I have sent you in return. I have always said that we English are the honestest people in the world, because we are the only people who always write that important word with a capital letter, as if to show every man's sense of its consequence. I long to see your antediluvian work. Do not talk to me of Alfred, — for I am engaged three subjects deep after Pelayo, and Heaven knows when that will be completed. The next in order is Philip's war in New England, with a primitive Quaker for the hero. 

Farewell. Yours most truly, 

R. Southey. 

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