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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Robert Southey, “Memoir: Poetical Efforts,” 29 June 1824

Vol. I Contents
Early Life: I
Early Life: II
Early Life: III
Early Life: IV
Early Life: V
Early Life: VI
Early Life: VII
Early Life: VIII
Early Life: IX
Early Life: X
Early Life: XI
Early Life: XII
Early Life: XIII
Early Life: XIV
Early Life: XV
Early Life: XVI
Early Life: XVII
Ch. I. 1791-93
Ch. II. 1794
Ch. III. 1794-95
Ch. IV. 1796
Ch. V. 1797
Vol. II Contents
Ch. VI. 1799-1800
Ch. VII. 1800-1801
Ch. VIII. 1801
Ch. IX. 1802-03
Ch. X. 1804
Ch. XI. 1804-1805
Vol. III Contents
Ch. XII. 1806
Ch. XIII. 1807
Ch. XIV. 1808
Ch. XV. 1809
Ch. XVI. 1810-1811
Ch. XVII. 1812
Vol. IV Contents
Ch. XVIII. 1813
Ch. XIX. 1814-1815
Ch. XX. 1815-1816
Ch. XXI. 1816
Ch. XXII. 1817
Ch. XXIII. 1818
Ch. XXIV. 1818-1819
Vol. IV Appendix
Vol. V Contents
Ch. XXV. 1820-1821
Ch. XXVI. 1821
Ch. XXVII. 1822-1823
Ch. XXVIII. 1824-1825
Ch. XXIX. 1825-1826
Ch. XXX. 1826-1827
Ch. XXXI. 1827-1828
Vol. V Appendix
Vol. VI Contents
Ch. XXXII. 1829
Ch. XXXIII. 1830
Ch. XXXIV. 1830-1831
Ch. XXXV. 1832-1834
Ch. XXXVI. 1834-1836
Ch. XXXVII. 1836-1837
Ch. XXXVIII. 1837-1843
Vol. VI Appendix
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Produced by CATH
June 29th, 1824.

In a former letter I have mentioned Mrs. S——, who had been Miss Tyler’s school-mistress. My aunt kept up an acquaintance with her as long as she lived, and after her death with her two daughters, who lived together in a house on Redclift Parade, the pleasantest situation in Bristol if there had been even a tolerable approach to it. One of these sisters was unmarried; the other a widow with one son, who was just of my age: Jem Thomas was his name. Mr. Lewis, the clergyman under whom I was placed
at the end of 1786 or the beginning of 1787, lodged and boarded with these sisters. He had been usher at the grammar school; and, having engaged to educate this boy, was willing to take a few more pupils, from the hours of ten till two. When I went to him, he had two others, C—— and R——, both my seniors by three or four years. The former I used to call Caliban: he might have played that character without a mask, that is, supposing he could have learnt the part; for the resemblance held good in mind as well as in appearance, his disposition being somewhat between pig and baboon. The latter was a favourite with Lewis; his father had formerly practised in Bristol as a surgeon, but had now succeeded to an estate of some value. He was little and mannish, somewhat vain of superficial talents, and with a spice of conceit both in his manners and in his dress; but there was no harm in him. He took an honorary Master’s degree at the
Duke of Portland’s installation in 1793, which was the only time I ever saw him after we ceased to be fellow-pupils. He married about that time, and died young.

Caliban had a sister whom I shall not libel when I call her Sycorax. A Bristol tradesman, a great friend of S. T. C.’s, married her for her money; and the only thing I ever heard of Caliban in after-life was a story which reached me of her everywhere proclaiming that her brother was a very superior man to Mr. Coleridge, and had confuted him one evening seven-and-twenty times in one argument. The word which Coleridge uses as a listener when he is expected to throw in something,
with or without meaning, to show that he is listening, is, or used to be, as I well remember—undoubtedly. The foolish woman had understood this expletive in its literal meaning, and kept account with her fingers that he pronounced it seven-and-twenty times, while enduring the utterance of an animal in comparison with whom a centaur would deserve to be called human, and a satyr rational.

Jem Thomas was a common-place lad, with a fine handsome person, but by no means a good physiognomy, and I cannot remember the time when I was not a physiognomist. He was educated for a surgeon, and ruined by having at his disposal, as soon as he came of age, something between two and three thousand pounds, which his grandmother unwisely left to him at once, instead of leaving it to his mother for her life. This he presently squandered; went out professionally to the East Indies, and died there. So much for my three companions, among whom it was not possible that I could find a friend. There came a fourth, a few weeks only before I withdrew; he was a well-minded boy, and has made a very respectable man. Harris was his name: he married Betsy Petrie, who was one of my fellow-travellers in Portugal.

I profited by this year’s tuition less than I should have done at a good school. It is not easy to remedy the ill effects of bad teaching; and the farther the pupil has advanced in it, the greater must be the difficulty of bringing him into a better way. Lewis, too, had been accustomed to the mechanical movements of a large school, and was at a loss how to
proceed with a boy who stood alone. I began Greek under him, made nonsense-verses, read the
Electa ex Ovidio et Tibullo and Horace’s Odes, advanced a little in writing Latin, and composed English themes.

C’est le premier pas qui coute. I was in as great tribulation when I had the first theme to write, as when Williams required me to produce a letter. The text of course had been given me; but how to begin, what to say, or how to say it, I knew not. No one who had witnessed my perplexity upon this occasion would have supposed how much was afterwards to be spun from these poor brains. My aunt, at last in compassion, wrote the theme for me. Lewis questioned me if it was my own, and I told him the truth. He then encouraged me sensibly enough; put me in the way of composing the common-places of which themes are manufactured (indeed he caused me to transcribe some rules for themes, making a regular receipt as for a pudding); and he had no reason afterwards to complain of any want of aptitude in his scholar, for when I had learnt that it was not more difficult to write in prose than in verse, the ink dribbled as daintily from my pen as ever it did from John Bunyan’s. One of these exercises I still remember sufficiently well to know that it was too much like poetry, and that the fault was of a hopeful kind, consisting less in inflated language than in poetical imagery and sentiment. But this was not pointed out as a fault, and luckily I was left to myself; otherwise, like a good horse, I might have been spoilt by being broken in too soon.


It was still more fortunate that there was none to direct me in my favourite pursuit, certain as it is that any instructor would have interfered with the natural and healthy growth of that poetical spirit which was taking its own course. That spirit was like a plant which required no forcing, nor artificial culture; only air and sunshine, and the rains and the dews of heaven. I do not remember in any part of my life to have been so conscious of intellectual improvement as I was during the year and half before I was placed at Westminster: an improvement derived, not from books or instruction, but from constantly exercising myself in English verse; and from the developement of mind which that exercise produced, I can distinctly trace my progress by help of a list, made thirty years ago, of all my compositions in verse, which were then in existence, or which I had at that time destroyed.

Early as my hopes had been directed toward the drama, they received a more decided and more fortunate direction from the frequent perusal of Tasso, Ariosto, and Spenser. I had read also Mickle’s Lusiad and Pope’s Homer. If you add to these an extensive acquaintance with the novels of the day, and with the Arabian and mock-Arabian tales, the whole works of Josephus (taken in by me with my pocket-money in three-score sixpenny numbers, which I now possess), such acquaintance with Greek and Roman history as a schoolboy picks up from his lessons and from Goldsmith’s abridged histories, and such acquaintance with their fables as may be learnt from Ovid, from the old Pantheon, and above all from
the end of
Littleton’s Dictionary, you will have a fair account of the stock upon which I began. But Shakespeare, and Beaumont and Fletcher, must not be forgotten; nor Sidney’s Arcadia; nor Rowley’s Poems, for Chatterton’s history was fresh in remembrance, and that story, which would have affected one of my disposition anywhere, acted upon me with all the force of local associations.

The first of my Epic Dreams was created by Ariosto. I meant to graft a story upon the Orlando Furioso, not knowing how often this had been done by Italian and Spanish imitators. Arcadia was to have been the title and the scene; thither I meant to carry the Moors under Marsillus after their overthrow in France, and there to have overthrown them again by a hero of my own, named Alphonso, who had caught the Hippogrlff. This must have been when I was between nine and ten, for some verses of it were written on the covers of my Phædrus. They were in the heroic couplet. Among my aunt’s books was the first volume of Bysshe’s Art of Poetry, which, worthless as it is, taught me at that age the principle upon which blank verse is constructed, and thereby did me good service at a good time. I soon learnt to prefer that metre, not because it was easier than rhyme (which was easy enough), but because I felt in it a greater freedom and range of language, because I was sensible that in rhyming I sometimes used expressions, for the sake of the rhyme, which were far-fetched, and certainly would not have occurred without that cause. My second subject was the Trojan Brutus: the defeat and death of King Richard and the Union
of the two Roses was my third. In neither of these did I make much progress; but with the story of Egbert I was more persevering, and partly transcribed several folio sheets. The sight of these was an encouragement to proceed, and I often looked at them with delight in the anticipation of future fame. This was a solitary feeling, for my ambition or vanity (whichever it may deserve to be called) was not greater than the shyness which accompanied it. My portfolio was of course held sacred. One day, however, it was profaned by an acquaintance of my aunt’s who called to pay a morning visit. She was shown into the parlour, and I, who was sent to say my aunt would presently wait upon her, found her with my precious Egbert in her hand. Her compliments had no effect in abating my deep resentment at this unpardonable curiosity; and, though she was a good-natured woman, I am afraid I never quite forgave her. Determining, however, never to incur the risk of a second exposure, I immediately composed a set of characters for my own use.

In my twelfth and thirteenth year, besides these loftier attempts, I wrote three heroic epistles in rhyme: the one was from Diomede to Egiale; the second from Octavia to Mark Anthony; the third from Alexander to his father Herod, a subject with which Josephus supplied me. I made also some translations from Ovid, Virgil, and Horace; and composed a satirical description of English manners, as delivered by Omai, the Taheitean, to his countrymen on his return. On the thirteenth anniversary of my birth, supposing (by an error which appeared to be common enough at the
end of the century) that I was then entering the first year of my teens instead of completing it, and looking upon that as an aweful sort of step in life, I wrote some verses in a strain of reflection upon mortality grave enough to provoke a smile when I recollect them. Among my attempts at this time were two descriptive pieces entitled Morning in the Country, and Morning in Town, in eight-syllable rhymes, and in imitation of
Cunningham. There was also a satirical peep into Pluto’s dominions, in rhyme. I remember the conclusion only, and that because it exhibits a singular indication how strongly and how early my heart was set upon that peculiar line of poetry which I have pursued with most ardour. It described the Elysium of the Poets, and that more sacred part of it in which Homer, Virgil, Tasso, Spenser, Camoens, and Milton were assembled. While I was regarding them, Fame came hurrying by with her arm full of laurels and asking in an indignant voice if there was no poet who would deserve them? Upon which I reached out my hand, snatched at them, and awoke.

One of these juvenile efforts was wholly original in its design. It was an attempt to exhibit the story of the Trojan War in a dramatic form, laying the scene in Elysium, where the events which had happened on earth were related by the souls of the respective heroes as they successively descended. The opening was a dialogue between Laodamia and Protesilaus, in couplets: the best rhymes which I had yet written. But I did not proceed far, probably because the design was too difficult, and this would
have been reason enough for abandoning it even if I had not entered with more than usual ardour upon a new heroic subject, of which Cassibelan was the hero. I finished three books of this poem, and had advanced far in the fourth before I went to Westminster. All this was written fairly out in my own private characters, and in my best writing, if one may talk of calligraphy in an unknown hand which looked something like Greek, but more like conjuration, from the number of trines and squares which it contained. These characters, however, proved fatal to the poem, for it was not possible for me to continue it at school, for want of privacy; disuse made the cypher so difficult that I could not read it without almost spelling as I went on; and at last, in very vexation, I burnt the manuscript.

I wonder whether Spurzheim could, at that time, have discovered an organ of constructiveness in my pericranium. The Elysian drama might seem to indicate that the faculty was there, but not a trace of it was to be found in any of the heroic poems which I attempted. They were all begun upon a mere general notion of the subject, without any prearrangement, and very little preconception of the incidents by which the catastrophe was to be brought about. When I sat down to write, I had to look as much for the incidents, as for the thoughts and words in which they were to be clothed. I expected them to occur just as readily; and so indeed, such as they were, they did. My reading in the old chivalrous romances has been sufficiently extensive to justify me in asserting that the greater number of
those romances were written just in the same way, without the slightest plan or forethought; and I am much mistaken if many of the Italian romantic poems were not composed in the same inartificial manner. This I am sure,—that it is more difficult to plan than to execute well; and that abundance of true poetical power has been squandered for want of a constructive talent in the poet. I have felt this want in some of the Spanish and Portuguese writers, even more than their want of taste. The progress of my own mind towards attaining it (so far as I may be thought to have attained it) I am able to trace distinctly; not merely by the works themselves, and by my own recollections of the views with which they were undertaken and composed, but by the various sketches and memoranda for four long narrative poems, made during their progress from the first conception of each till its completion. At present, the facility and pleasure with which I can plan an heroic poem, a drama, and a biographical or historical work, however comprehensive, is even a temptation to me. It seems as if I caught the bearings of a subject at first sight; just as
Telford sees from an eminence, with a glance, in what direction his road must be carried. But it was long before I acquired this power,—not fairly, indeed, till I was about five or six and thirty; and it was gained by practice, in the course of which I learnt to perceive wherein I was deficient.

There was one point in which these premature attempts afforded a hopeful omen, and that was in the diligence and industry with which I endeavoured to acquire all the historical information within my
reach, relating to the subject in hand. Forty years ago, I could have given a better account of the birth and parentage of Egbert, and the state of the Heptarchy during his youth, than I could do now without referring to books; and when Cassibelan was my hero, I was as well acquainted with the division of the island among the ancient tribes, as I am now with the relative situation of its counties. It was, perhaps, fortunate that these pursuits were unassisted and solitary. By thus working a way for myself, I acquired a habit and a love for investigation, and nothing appeared uninteresting which gave me any of the information I wanted. The pleasure which I took in such researches, and in composition, rendered me in a great degree independent of other amusements; and no systematic education, could have fitted me for my present course of life, so well as the circumstances which allowed me thus to feel and follow my own impulses.