On May 6 1815, Charles Lamb writes to Robert Southey
DEAR Southey,—I have received from Longman a copy of “Roderick,” with the author’s compliments, for which I much thank you. I don’t know where I shall put all the noble presents I have lately received in that way; the “Excursion,” Wordsworth’s two last vols., and now “Roderick,” have come pouring in upon me like some irruption from Helicon. The story of the brave Maccabee was already, you may be sure, familiar to me in all its parts. I have, since the receipt of your present, read it quite through again, and with no diminished pleasure. I don’t know whether I ought to say that it has given me more pleasure than any of your long poems. “Kehama” is doubtless more powerful, but I don’t feel that firm footing in it that I do in “Roderick;” my imagination goes sinking and floundering in the vast spaces of unopened-before systems and faiths; I am put out of the pale of my old sympathies; my moral sense is almost outraged; I can’t believe, or with horror am made to believe, such desperate chances against omnipotences, such disturbances of faith to the centre. The more potent the more painful the spell. Jove and his brotherhood of gods, tottering with the giant assailings, I can bear, for the soul’s hopes are not struck at in such contests; but your Oriental almighties are too much types of the intangible prototype to be meddled with without shuddering. One never connects what are called the attributes with Jupiter. I mention only what diminishes my delight at the wonder-workings of “Kehama,” not what impeaches its power, which I confess with trembling.
But “Roderick” is a comfortable poem. It reminds me of the delight I took in the first reading of the “Joan of Arc.” It is maturer and better than that, though not better to me now than that was then. It suits me better than “Madoc.” I am at home in Spain and Christendom. I have a timid imagination, I am afraid. I do not willingly admit of strange beliefs or out-of-the-way creeds or places. I never read books of travel, at least not farther than Paris or Rome. I can just endure Moors, because of their connection as foes with Christians; but Abyssinians, Ethiops, Esquimaux, Dervises, and all that tribe, I hate. I believe I fear them in some manner. A Mahometan turban on the stage, though enveloping some well known face (Mr. Cook or Mr. Maddox, whom I see another day good Christian and English waiters, innkeepers, &c.), does not give me pleasure unalloyed. I am a Christian, Englishman, Londoner, Templar. God help me when I come to put off these snug relations, and to get abroad into the world to come! I shall be like the crow on the sand, as Wordsworth has it; but I won’t think on it—no need, I hope, yet.
The parts I have been most pleased with, both on 1st and 2nd readings, perhaps, are Florinda’s palliation of Roderick’s crime, confessed to him in his disguise—the retreat of Palayo’s family first discovered,—his being made king—“For acclamation one form must serve, more solemn for the breach of old observances.” Roderick’s vow is extremely fine, and his blessing on the vow of Alphonso:
“Towards the troop he spread his arms,
As if the expanded soul diffused itself,
And carried to all spirits with the act
Its affluent inspiration.”
It struck me forcibly that the feeling of these last lines might have been suggested to you by the Cartoon of Paul at Athens. Certain it is that a better motto or guide to that famous attitude can no where be found. I shall adopt it as explanatory of that violent, but dignified motion.
I must read again Landor’s “Julian.” I have not read it some time. I think he must have failed in Roderick, for I remember nothing of him, nor of any distinct character as a character—only fine-sounding passages. I remember thinking also he had chosen a point of time after the event, as it were, for Roderick survives to no use; but my memory is weak, and I will not wrong a fine Poem by trusting to it.
The notes to your poem I have not read again; but it will be a take-downable book on my shelf, and they will serve sometimes at breakfast, or times too light for the text to be duly appreciated. Though some of ’em, one of the serpent Penance, is serious enough, now I think on’t.
Of Coleridge I hear nothing, nor of the Morgans. I hope to have him like a re-appearing star, standing up before me some time when least expected in London, as has been the case whilere. .
i am doing nothing (as the phrase is) but reading presents, and walk away what of the day-hours I can get from hard occupation. Pray accept once more my hearty thanks, and expression of pleasure for your remembrance of me. My sister desires her kind respects to Mrs S. and to all at Keswick.
The next Present I look for is the “White Doe.” Have you seen Mat. Betham’s “Lay of Marie?” I think it very delicately pretty as to sentiment, &c.