January 28 1815: Moral Defects of Lord Byron’s Poems


On January 28 1815, Robert Southey writes to Josiah Conder, who is the owner and editor of the Eclectic Review. Southey writes on a number of topics including the “moral defects of Lord Byron’s poems”. In October 1814, The Eclectic had review Byron’s Lara, A Tale. Let the feuding begin. 

My Dear Sir,  I have dealt very uncivilly by you, and am heartily ashamed of it. Let this suffice for apology – and forgive me.

I thought ere this to have offered you an article for your Review, taking for its text some pamphlets of Perring’s upon the state of our ships in the navy, and from thence examining, with all freedom and in the real spirit of reform, the state of the men as well as of the timber.  The delay has not been from idleness, but from over-occupation; and in some respects it has been fortunate, for I understand Perring’s plans have now been so far adopted as to satisfy him, and a most essential step has been taken towards improving the condition of the men, by setting them free after twenty-one years of service, with a fair pension for life: a measure which I earnestly called for some years ago. What I have to say therefore may be said now with more grace, as there will be much to commend.

The moral defects of Lord Byron’s poems are well pointed out in the Eclectic, and due justice is done to the vigour of his style. But there is a radical and characteristic fault in most of his tales, which has not been sufficiently exposed: the characters which he describes are impossible; no such ever have existed, or ever can exist. It is perfectly absurd to suppose that anything like the strong, abiding, soul-rooted feeling of love can be found in a buccaneer – setting all the other unaccountable parts of the story out of the question. His characters are made up of contradictions; and because the parts are all powerfully drawn, common readers never pause to ask themselves whether they could possibly cohere. Do not imagine that I blame him for portraying mixed characters – there is alloy enough in the best of us, God knows! – I condemn him for making an impossible mixture. The real cause of this monstrosity is sufficiently obvious. Like Montgomery, he has been painting from the looking-glass; but he had not so good an original, and, unlike Montgomery, his day-dreams have been of evil. His fancy has brooded upon his own heart, and, cameleon-like, taken its colour from thence: unhappily, the colour is a dark one. And being conscious that he is in many of his feelings, and most or all of his opinions (certainly in all that relates to the highest and holiest subjects), a sort of outlaw in the world, he makes his heroes bid defiance to all positive law, and transfers to them all his own unhappy principles. But men who act like his characters are men not of bad principles, but of no principles; not of diseased feelings, but of callous ones. Lord B. has just married a woman who is said to be one of the loveliest and most accomplished of her sex.  When he finds himself a happier man, he may perhaps become a better one. But the experiment on her part is a perilous one; and I should tremble if she were my daughter.

You have not, in my judgment, given Bloomfield more praise than he deserves. The sort of popularity, indeed, which he obtained at one time could not, from its nature, be lasting; but he will hold his place. A very interesting man, and a thoroughly estimable one, who never over-valued himself, but poured forth a sweet strain of his own.

Of the many self-taught men who have appeared in this country, Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, is one of the most remarkable. He spent a couple of days with me last summer, and left me as much pleased with the unaffected plainness and simplicity of his conversation, as I was with the vigour and life that appear in his writings. He is the rising star of Scotland. The Scotch, you know, have a public of their own. Edinburgh is a Scotchman’s London, and I might almost say his kingdom come – for most of them seem to think that nothing greater or better can be found anywhere else, here or hereafter.

I have heard of Jeffrey’s reviewal of the “Excursion,” not seen it.  But it is my full intention to take this occasion of exposing Jeffrey’s ignorance, malice, and self-contradictions. Most likely it will be through the medium of a newspaper, as giving it the widest circulation.  I shall enter fully into the subject, and treat him with all the severity that he so amply has deserved. There can be no difficulty in showing that a man who does not admire the “Excursion” cannot possibly understand what he may pretend to admire in Milton.

I do not like the political aspects. The good which might have been done at the overthrow of Buonaparte has been left undone; and even if exhaustion should produce a peace for some time to come, there are abundant seeds of war left to germinate. Italy ought to have been formed into one great state. I would rather have seen it a federal republic than a kingdom; for when we have to begin anew upon clear unencumbered ground, I cannot but believe a republic to be the best thing. But as kingdoms, naturally enough, are most in fashion, I would gladly have seen it a kingdom, and given to anybody – who had not actually deserved the gallows. Had Buonaparte been a wise man, he would, at the Peace of Amiens, have restored the Bourbons, and taken Italy for himself; but he had already given himself over to evil. I suppose you know that a Frenchman who, in 1802, published a “History of the Egyptian Expedition,” has now published a second edition, and inserted a full account of the massacre at Jaffa, to which he was himself eye-witness!

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