Seward Letters, 1805

Letter XXXIX.

Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 6, pp 223-227}

Lichfield, June 13, 1805.

Witha trembling hand, my beloved Miss Ponsonby, do I take up the pen to thank you for a thrice kind letter. It had not remained several weeks unacknowledged, but for this terrible malady of the head, which has oppressed me with so much severity during the interim. I think it must soon lay me low. Not at my time of life does the constitution, pushed from its equipoise by long enduring disease, regain it amid the struggles.

Immediately on receiving your last, I sent for Madoc; by far the most captivating work of its genuinely inspired author. Unable to read myself, Miss Susan Seward gave its poetic wonders to my charmed ear, in her just and pleasing, though not very varied recitation. Soon after we had gone through it, she left me, and my friend, Miss Fern, became my guest. She reads verse with dramatic eloquence, and the most harmonious cadence. Insatiate with a single hearing, [224] though so recently gratified, I requested her to pour again upon my eager attention, its heart-felt interests and graces. Yet more than by the first impression was I delighted.

Madoc eminently possesses the vital and prime excellencies of poetry, the power of awakening solicitous and eager interest; of steeping the eyes in tears of transport, and of sympathy; of giving to imagery and landscape distinctness, appropriation, strength, and originality. For their dear sakes the feeling heart, and the exact taste, pardon, though they cannot overlook the systematic outrages of the style, occurring so frequently. I wish its author had spared the most interesting of his Azticans, that child of filial piety and mercy, his beautiful Coatel, to bless her Lyncoya, the improved Friday of the work.

Curious is the affinity between the miraculous conception of the Virgin Mary and that of the Indian God; which circumstance the notes affirm to be an historic assertion. Curious also, on the same alleged authority, the similarity of the Indian enterprize to the Land of Souls, and that the descent of Orpheus. Erillyat is one of the noblest heroines of history or fable. I admire and applaud the care the poet takes that his cantos should open and close with lines of the most striking effect or bewitching grace.

[225] Our young friend Cary has published his translation of Dante’s Inferno. It is thought the best which has appeared, and the sale goes on well. He presents a copy to yourself and lady Eleanor, and I trust you will receive it soon.

The Inferno is a great storehouse of poetic images, but almost all of them have come down to us in Spencer, Milton, and other poets, so that the chief amusement this volume gives me is from my tracing the plagiarisms which have been made from it by more interesting and pleasing bards than Dante; since there is little for the heart, or even for the curiosity as to story, in this poem. Then the plan is most clumsily arranged: Virgil, and three talking quadrupeds, the guides; — an odd association.

The poet, being his own hero, involves, by necessity, an unpleasing quantity of egotism, while the perpetual question and answer, so long continued, proves very wearying with its endless “said I,” and “said he.” Then such a succession of torments for poor frail mortals! such broiling, gashing, freezing, and whirling!! Terror, terror, nothing but terror, and to no possible use, since its description obtains no faith by which to repel temptation and purify morals. I trust Cary has done justice to his original, since in his numbers the poetry is often grand.

[226] What a triumph for the muses, and for the rising century, that one year has produced the best translation extant of a classic so renowned, and two such original epic poems, as the Lay of the Last Minstrel, and the Madoc! How do their unborrowed charms reproach the envious and narrow-minded asserters that the well-spring of genuine poetry is exhausted! Such detractors always did and always will exist. Owls love to make a noon-day darkness.

What strange times are these! The kind and family are expected very shortly in this town. It is possible they may chance to look at these episcopal apartments of mine, and its gardens. I cannot appear before them ill as I am, and unable to stand still even half a minute, though I can walk without much difficulty in the recesses of my disorder. This is the fourth king of England who visits our city. Its three preceding royal guests were not fortunate. Richard the Second slept in Lichfield on his road from Ireland, not long before his deposition; Charles the First in a late period of his unfortunate wars, when he was driven from Leicester; and James the Second, a short time ere he shot form his royal sphere. No one, however, will dare to whisper to our present monarch, that a Lichfield sojourn may be ominous.

[227] Present me devoutly to your beloved Lady Eleanor. Most interesting is your description of that visit, mutually paid to the desolate and silent Dinbren. How worthy of yourselves that hour of consecration, with all its tributary sighs! too happy were the days and weeks which I passed beneath its roof, and in its beautiful and sublime environs, to permit such revisitation from me.

It would break my heart amid its present consciousness, spread over with a dark and impervious pall, which can never never be drawn away.

Dear, and amiable Miss Ponsonby, farewell.


Letter XLI.

Miss Ponsonby.
{vol. 6, pp 230-236}

Lichfield, Oct. 31, 1805.

Nothing, my dear Madam, is so common as hypocrisy and treachery where property is concerned; but a greater excess of them never poured their dark currents from the vulgar heart, than in those circumstances which your last letter narrates.

Thus ever be extortionate villany baffled — and long unclouded be the peace which succeeds to that attempted injury! I cannot express how [231] much I am obliged that you took the kind trouble of retracing the road of peril, which had so nearly engulfed a scene, whose beauties rise perpetually in my sleeping and waking dreams.

How sorry am I to condole with you on the commenced accomplishment of my assured prophecy concerning the fate of this new coalition against France! I was deeply aware of the delusive nature of those hopes by which it was stimulated. I felt assured that the inferior Germanic powers would take the stronger side; that Buonaparte was too great a general to wait the junction of the Russian and Austrian armies, ere he began his attack upon the latter; but that insolence, by which the emperor of Germany forced Bavaria to unite with the French, exceeded even those fears for his common-sense, which his rash acceptance of English subsidies had excited. Surely he had received sufficient proofs of their importance to render him victorious! Equally outstripping my fears, proves the triumphant welcome which the son-in-law of our king gave to Napoleon, added to the 8000 soldiers by which he augments the overwhelming armies of that emperor. I was convinced that Prussia would not desert him because it is not her interest to do so. She looks to him for aggrandizement, springing [232] out of the defeat of her old and natural rival, the emperor of Germany.

A strange broken reed, on which public opinion at least with the ministerial people, has lately leaned, was, that France, disgusted with her illusory hopes of liberty and quality, would also lose her prompt obedience and daring exertions, now that the trumpet of war sounds beneath the imperial banner. Ah! why was it not more rationally felt, that the pride of extended empire would amply supply the place of republican ardour, as an incitement to follow and support their everywhere triumphant leader!

Peace will soon be restored to the Continent, by the utter defeat of the present coalition; but if no repeated experience can convince this country of the fatal mischiefs of her belligerent principles, they will soon bring on the loss of Ireland, and the rapidly succeeding downfal of British independence.

The stimulant idea, which ministers have excited amongst the people, that Buonaparte is bent upon the destruction of England, appears to me a dangerous illusion. Our rulers, probably, know it to be such; and if their dread is sincere, I am afraid it will prove another instance of the truth of the adage which says, “Fear is a bad counsellor.”

[233] I feel assured that the French emperor is only bent upon obtaining a shire in the commerce of the East and West Indies; and that we ought to fulfil the treaty of Amiens, by resigning our exclusive pretension to Malta. Concessions in those respects would, I am convinced, satisfy him; and better, surely, that we should share with France our colonial possessions, than that we become a vassal to that empire. I see no alternative, I can hear none suggested, even by the loudest clamourers for continued war. The day-spring of security will never break upon us through the sanguinary clouds raised by the breath of ministerial infatuation.

Oct. 31.

So far of my letter was written five days ago; my tyrannous disease has not, in the interim, allowed me to employ my pen, and it will, I fear, oblige me to lay it down, after a few minutes exercise, and more days may elapse ere I can finish this epistle.

And now our newspapers assert, that there has been great exaggeration in the French account of their victory over the Austrians. They speak also with absolute confidence concerning the long unlikely junction of Prussia with the enemies of France. If that confidence should not prove delusive [234], it will surprise me much. Even in that case, my wishes will greatly prevail over my hopes, for a different issue of this to that of the former coalition; and the drain upon our national wealth, now more lavish than ever, the misery which accumulated taxes must bring to all the merely competent part of this people, the flood-gates of death and anguish lifted up, without any prospect of being once more put down, —altogether produce a sum of evil, in this bottomless contest, far greater than was likely to have resulted from the treaty of Amiens.

I am now listening, for the first time, to Lord Orford’s brilliant and interesting letters. Till now they never fell in my way, and I was too indignant of his cruel neglect of Chatterton sedulously to seek them. With all their infinity of wit and spirit; with all their polished ease and gay fastidiousness, I perceive in the mind of their writer, a native want of attention to works of poetic fancy. This defect of temperament, co-operating with many testimonies of a warm and kind heart towards his friends, soften my censure of that unfeeling neglect which blasted, in its morning, a genius pre-eminent, so that I almost consider it as an involuntary fault. To be sure I have, form my youth up till now, thought it impossible that a man of Horace Walpole’s abilities could see without [235] perceiving the magnitude of that genius, which planned the deception respecting poetic antiquity. Alas! blind to the sublimity of the poems, he saw only the deception. His mind could but dart with the swallow over poetic regions, not soar with the eagle, or trace him in his sun-track.

This is right strange; so strange; one scarcely knows how to conceive a distinction thus total between the species of invention which belongs to first-rate wit, and that which constitutes imaginative genius. In Gray’s letters we see those different powers combined, but imagination is the master-tint in them. Its orient hues have no existence amid Horace Walpole’s sparkling coruscations. hence he sent little value, —he looked not at them in others. Yet, be it confessed, that I am judging of him, in this respect, by a sample; for I have proceeded scarcely a quarter through these epistolary disclosures of his inmost heart; its virtues, its frailties, its taste, and its apathies.

It is shocking to send you such an unsightly scroll; but if you were to see how strangely I am obliged to place my paper, suspended on the left elbow of an high arm-chair, in which I may lean back and have my head supported! If I stoop my head in the least degree forward, dreadful dizziness instantly ensues.

[236] Nov. 2

And now our newspapers cease to assert the Austrian defeat immomentous, or the co-operation of Prussia certain. O! the never-ending quicksands on which Mr Pitt places the confidence of the nation! Its unwearied credulity proves the possibility of a whole people becoming insane, as well as an individual. Once! and all Europe was as one madman, when it thought it a sacred duty to assist the Almighty in banishing the Turks form Palestine.

Adieu, dearest Madam! Your beloved Lady Eleanor will accept my affectionate devoirs!

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