December 15 1814: Southey and Byron

On December 15 1814, Robert Southey writes to C. W. W. Wynn. He opens the letter with some misogyny, and then proceeds to take a rather tepid shot at Lord Byron, whose fault appears to be to have liked Southey’s ‘Roderick, Last of the Goths’ but not ‘Madoc’. “Lord Byron’s commendations are repeated to me from all quarters,” Southey writes, and then adds, “I regard them precisely as I did his condemnation of “Madoc;” the one opinion just serves to show the worthlessness of the other; for if one of these poems be bad, it is quite impossible that the other can be good.” Logic appears to not be one of the areas that Southey had mastered.

My Dear Wynn, You must take the old lady’s comfort in Shakspeare respecting your daughter, “‘Tis a girl—promises boys hereafter.”  There is yet time before you, and chance in your favour.

After the inquiries which you have made it is very clear that no such person as Greeton Evans is to be found; the letter, therefore, must have been a trick, and never was a more witless one, for in what was the jest to end? The letter which I directed to the postoffice at Manchester was not called for, and came back to me in due course of time as having been unclaimed. The handwriting had certainly a female appearance, and the beginning of the letter had a turn of expression not much in character; but in all the rest it was well done, and bore a character of sincerity which showed at least some skill in the writer.

I trust you have received “Roderick” long ere this. According to the reports which reach me, most persons are better satisfied with it than I am myself. A small edition is gone to press; and Longman apprehends that the quarto will be gone before this is ready. But as for anything like a great sale and a fashionable reputation, I never look for it, and indeed am perfectly assured that no work of this character can possibly attain it. Lord Byron’s commendations are repeated to me from all quarters. I regard them precisely as I did his condemnation of “Madoc;” the one opinion just serves to show the worthlessness of the other; for if one of these poems be bad, it is quite impossible that the other can be good.

You will perhaps like to know what I am thinking of for my next essay. The New England story, for which the first memoranda were made in January, 1811, is now formed into something like a plan, sufficient to begin upon, if I had more time to spare from more urgent employments. The chief personage is Oliver Newman, a son of Goffe, the Regicide, and god-son of old Noll; he has learnt the better parts of Quakerism from William Penn, and acquired a higher character from Milton, and at the age of about twentyfive, after his mother’s death, sails for America to seek his father. On board the same ship there are Randolph, a man well known in the history of Massachusetts, who was a keen hunter of the regicides in America, and the wife and daughter of a fine old cavalier, whom they are going to join in the country to which he, having been totally neglected by Charles, has retired. The mother dies upon the voyage, and leaves her daughter to Oliver’s protection, and the poem will open with the funeral at sea.

Before the ship reaches Boston, she is driven into Cape Cod, where Oliver expends the greater part of his little money in redeeming an Indian woman and her child from slavery, in order to restore her to her tribe.

Goffe married Whalley’s daughter. Leverett, the Governor of Massachusetts (an old Oliverian), had been attached to her before her marriage, and she to him. He is acquainted (so he is believed to have been) with Goffe’s hiding-place, and Oliver brings a letter to him. The scene that ensues explains the danger of New England from Philip’s war, then raging in its utmost violence, and the principles of Oliver, which appear somewhat Quixotic.

His first business is to deliver Elizabeth to her father. Proceeding then with the Indian woman and child, they find a wounded Mohawk lying among a party of his dead countrymen. By a piece of savage policy, Philip had waylaid and murdered a party of these Indians, and left them unscalped, that it might be believed the English had killed them, and this being discovered by one who escaped with life, was the main cause of his own destruction. By this Mohawk Oliver remains till he no longer requires assistance. He then proceeds to the woman’s tribe, who are in alliance with Philip and his most powerful ally.

A renegade, who lives among the savages, accuses Oliver of being a spy, insults him, and strikes him, which he bears with Quaker patience; and here he hears of the apparition of his father at Halfield, whither he sets out. On the way he falls in with a party of the same tribe, who are examining some booty which they have taken: they open a chest and find in it a dead body, which Oliver recognises to be Whalley’s, by the mutilated hand.

Goffe, in his long captivity, has become a thorough fanatic, and is not very well pleased with the quiet principles of his son. Randolph, on the voyage, had suspected who this son might be by his Christian name, and, by watching him, had obtained a clue to Goife’s hiding-place. Stanley, the old cavalier, is sent to apprehend him, and he finds father and son. Stanley, however, offers to let them go, if Oliver will only declare that this person is not Goffe, which the Quaker will not do, and Randolph, soon afterwards arriving, identifies the regicide.

On their way to the English settlements, the Indians surprise them; Goffe and Stanley escape, Randolph and Oliver are taken. On being brought to the encampment, the latter is recognised and welcomed, and the former condemned to the stake. Oliver obtains his life: they are then set at liberty, and depart.

Goffe rallies some stragglers, makes head against the Indians, and takes some prisoners, whom they are about to dispose of in the usual summary way, when Oliver appears and obtains the disposal of them. He goes with them to the encampment, and Elizabeth is brought in by the renegade. Scenes ensue, in the course of which Oliver drops his nonresisting principles, and cuts down the renegade with a tomahawk, to the great delight of the Indians. The latter part of the story has not yet clearly developed itself. This tribe makes peace through Oliver’s influence: the Mohawk whom he saved comes, at the head of his countrymen, to join the English; Philip is killed; Randolph promises secresy respecting the father, and solicits a grant of land for the son, which Leverett gladly bestows for his services; Stanley gives him his daughter, and the story concludes with a wedding.

This is a rude outline. You will see, however, it admits of some striking situations, and a good deal of historical and descriptive ornament. I dare not write immediately after “Roderick” in blank verse, because I should be in danger of repeating the same modes of expression; I incline, therefore, to the measure of “Thalaba,” from which, in the more dramatic parts, I may pass into blank verse without any dissonance from the general character of the poem.

I know not whether or not to introduce your old countryman Roger Williams, mejudice, the best of the Welshmen, who is entitled to much of that praise which has been lavished upon William Penn.*

Have you seen Wordsworth’s poem? God bless you.

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