Seward Letters, 1802

Letter IX.

Lady Eleanor Butler and Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 6, pp 49-52}

Lichfield, Oct. 4, 1802.

Ah! dearest ladies, it is under the pressure of a severe cold, fierce cough, and inflamed lungs, that I address you. A duty so delightful had, but for this incapacitating malady, been earlier paid.

I have to thank you dear Miss Ponsonby for a manuscript of many verses, which she had the [50] goodness to make for me in hours so engrossed, amid engagements so indispensable. I had the honour to receive it as I was stepping into the chaise which was to convey Mrs Smith and myself far form that Edenic region where we had recently passed so many happy hours; form those bowers in Langollen Vale, whence the purest pleasures have so often flowed to my heart and mind, as from a full and overflowing fountain.

We purposed, as you know, to have reached Lichfield that night; but the stretch was greatly too long, except we had set out with the first dawn of day. Mrs Smith could not ravel a stage without her breakfast. –Hence the purposed hours of seven became near nine. It was four when we reached Shrewsbury, where we dined. Night so fast approaching, I resigned all hope of proceeding farther than Watling-Street. The few beds of that small inn were all engaged, and we were obliged to go on to Ivesty; to travel the heavy, hilly stage between, in the dusk, thickening into darkness, amid the palpable smoke and lurid fires of the Kettley-engines, whose pointed flames, streaming through the opacity, served only to make its darkness visible. After travelling two miles through this commercial Pandemonium, the night became fresh and pleasant. The stars glimmered in the lake of Weston as we travelled by [51] its side, but their light did not enable me to distinguish the church, beneath the floor of whose porch rests the mouldered form of my heart — hear Honora; yet of our approach to that unrecording, but thrice-consecrated spot, my heart felt all the mournful consciousness.

We were obliged to sleep at Ivetsy, and slumber stole upon the sighs of inevitable contemplation. The next morning, uncongenially gay and golden, brought us to Lichfield. Two days after I had the temerity to put my design of going to the Birmingham music-meeting in execution, and am paying the price for it in my health, though I have escaped without farther injury in my limbs. A great mercy, the immense crowds considered.

I have lately read Mrs Barbauld’s essay on Akenside’s Pleasures of Imagination, prefixed to her edition of that poem in its first state, for she suppresses the poet’s last, and extremely altered copy. I wonder at that suppression, since it is curious and entertaining to compare the two. She appears to me much too hasty in her decision in favour of the first; since, if the bard has, with too severe a hand, lopt away many beautiful luxuriances of his youthful fancy, he has, in the last, rendered a number of passages perspicuous which were obscure in the first; and surely every poetic [52] picture which he retouches receives added beauty from his pencil.


Letter XI.

Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 6, pp 56-58}

Lichfield, Nov. 9, 1802.

No indeed, my dearest Madam, I could not suspect yourself, or Lady Eleanor, of forgotten promises. Were the Mysterious Mother and the Orestes never to arrive, I should feel assured that their non-appearance was owing to some difficulty in procuring them. I intreat such difficulty, if it exists, may not be combated, since my curiosity to re-peruse the former, after the lapse of so many years since it was lent me for a hasty reading in manuscript, has been so lately gratified by your lending it me. I can willingly repose upon that [57] gratification, as the occasional vigour of the composition does not recompense the odious horror, and I trust total improbability, of the story. Mr Sotheby is a pleasing poet, but not of the prime amongst his contemporaries; nor does his former tragedy awaken any restless desire to read the Orestes.

British genius, so rich in every other species of poetic excellience, has, within the last seventy years, given us very few good tragedies. Godwin, of whom I had the highest hopes, from the throbbing terrors of his prose works, has presented a tragic drama to the public which is almost below mediocrity; and Coleridge, who holds the lamp of genius so far higher than Sotheby, soars on waxen plumes in the Fall of Robespierre; since surely few will read that composition twice, though it is not without some emanations of the Aonian light from whence it sprung.

But in the midst of this, at least, partial dramatic impotence, where most we looked for strength, Lewis has given us what we failed to obtain from either of his superior rivals, a grand, interesting, and original tragedy, Alphonso of Castile.

The general style is not equal to that of Jephson’s truly noble dramas, nor yet, though considerably [58] poetic, is it so poetic as Miss Baillie’s, in her Count Basil and sublime De Montfort; but as to plot, it is superior to any of theirs; busy, animated, and involved, without perplexity. We listen with breathless interest to the progress of the scenes, and cannot pretend to guess at the denouement. Orsino is a grand tragic personage. The author does not aim to make any of the characters perfect; the best of them have their fault, and therefore are they so much the more natural. But if this play deals not in human angels, demoniac villany seems to its utmost bound existing, and is gradually developed in two of the dramatic persons. Like Lovelace, its hero is beautiful and brave, while revenge, ambition, treachery, and murder, busily whisper their fell instigations, as unseen they hover “and glide around Cesario’s laurell’d ear.”

But I am perhaps talking to you of that with which you are familiar. It so, while you have admired the excellencies of this work, you have perceived that the play, as well as its best characters, has its defects; that there is too much about Venus’s doves in it; and that similies, and a moral soliloquy are made in situations big with fate. The language of passion, in such moments, is boldly metaphoric, but cannot pause for comparison, or abstract reflection.

[59] Though I know her not, I am pleased that Mrs Spencer has had the good fortune to interest and delight you; for I am always desirous that men of genius should not do what they are so prone to day, marry every-day women.

Naughty brook, for having behaved outrageously again! That little stream of the mountain is a true spoiled child, whom we love the better for its faults, and for all the trouble and alarm they occasion. You see I presume to involve myself, as if, in some sort, the interesting little virago belonged to me. Certainly it is my peculiar pet amongst your scenic children, dear to my taste, as they are beautiful; to my hearts, as being yours.

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