So you and Mr. Foscolo [an Italian patriot and poet settled in London, contributor to the Quarterly], etc., want me to undertake what you call a `great work'? an Epic poem, I suppose, or some such pyramid. I'll try no such thing; I hate tasks. And then `seven or eight years'! God send us all well this day three months, let alone years. If one's years can't be better employed than in sweating poesy, a man had better be a ditcher. And works, too! — is Childe Harold nothing? You have so many divine' poems, is it nothing to have written a Human one? without any of your worn-out machinery.
Why, man, I could have spun the thoughts of the four cantos of that poem into twenty, had I wanted to book-make, and its passion into as many modern tragedies. Since you want length, you shall have enough of Juan, for I'll make 5o cantos.... I mean to write my best work in Italian, and it will take me nine years more thoroughly to master the language; and then if my fancy exist, and I exist too, I will try what I can do really.... Neither will I make `Ladies books' al dillettar le femine e la plebe. I have written from the fulness of my mind, from passion, from impulse, from many motives, but not for their `sweet voices.' I know the precise worth of popular applause, for few Scribblers have had more of it; and if I chose to swerve into their paths, I could retain it, or resume it, or increase it. But I neither love ye, nor fear ye; and though I buy with ye and sell with ye, and talk with ye, I will neither eat with ye, drink with ye, nor pray with ye.
You say that one half [of Don Juan] is very good: you are wrong; for, if it were, it would be the finest poem in existence. Where is the poetry of which one half is good? is it the Eneid? is it Milton's? is it Dryden's? is it any one's except Pope's and Goldsmith's, of which all is good? and yet these two last are the poets your pond poets would explode. But if one half of the two Cantos [i.e. 3rd and 4th] be good in your opinion, what the devil would you have more? No — no; no poetry is generally good — only by fits and starts — and you are lucky to get a sparkle here and there. You might as well want a Midnight all stars as rhyme all perfect.
To John Murray
With regard to what you say of retouching the Fuans and the Hints, it is all very well; but I can't furbish. I am like the tyger (in poesy), if I miss my first Spring, I go growling back to my Jungle. There is no second. I can't correct; I can't, and I won't. Nobody ever succeeds in it, great or small. Tasso remade the whole of his Jerusalem; but who ever reads that version? All the world goes to the first. Pope added to the Rape of the Lock, but did not reduce it. You must take my things as they happen to be: if they are not likely to suit, re-duce their estimate then accordingly. I would rather give them away than hack and hew them. I don't say that you are not right: I merely assert that I cannot bet-ter them. I must either `make a spoon, or spoil a horn.' And there's an end.
To Isaac Disraeli
I really cannot know whether I am or am not the Genius you are pleased to call me, but I am very willing to put up with the mistake, if it be one. It is a title dearly enough bought by most men, to render it endurable, even when not quite clearly made out, which it never can be till the Posterity, whose decisions are merely dreams to ourselves, has sanctioned or denied it, while it can touch us no further.... If there are any questions which you would like to ask me as connected with your Philosophy of the literary Mind (if mine be a literary mind), I will answer them fairly or give a reason for not — good, bad, or indifferent. At present I am paying the penalty of having helped to spoil the public taste, for, as long as I wrote in the false exaggerated style of youth and the times in which we live, they applauded me to the very echo; and within these few years, when I have endeavoured at better things and written what I suspect to have the principle of duration in it, the Church, the Chancellor, and all men — even to my grand patron, Francis Jeffrey, Esqre., of the E.R. — have risen up against me and my later publications. Such is Truth! Men dare not look her in the face, except by degrees : they mistake her for a Gorgon, instead of knowing her to be a Minerva.
To John Hamilton Reynolds
The first thing a young writer must expect, and yet can least of all suffer, is criticism. I did not bear it — a few years, and many changes have since passed over my head, and my reflections on that subject are attended with regret. I find, dispassionate comparison, my own revenge more than the provocation warranted. It is true, I was very young, — that might be an excuse to those I attacked — but to me it is none. The best reply to all objections is to write better, and if your enemies will not then do you justice, the world will. On the other hand, you should not be discouraged; to be opposed is not to be vanquished, though a timid mind is apt to mistake every scratch for a mortal wound. There is a saying of Dr. Johnson's, which it is as well to remember, that `no man was ever written down except by himself.' I hope you will meet with as few obstacles as yourself can desire; but if you should, you will find that they are to be stepped over; to kick them down is the first resolve of a young and fiery spirit, a pleasant thing enough at the time, but not so afterwards: on this point, I speak of a man's own reflections; what others think or say is a secondary consideration, at least, it has been so with me, but will not answer as a general maxim: he who would make his way in the world must let the world believe that it was made for him, and accommodate himself to the minutest observance of its regulations.
To Percy Bysshe Shelley
I am very sorry to hear what you say of Keats — is it actually true? I did not think criticism had been so killing. Though I differ from you essentially in your estimate of his performances, I so much abhor all unnecessary pain, that I would rather he had been seated on the highest peak of Parnassus than have perished in such a manner. Poor fellow! though with such inordinate self-love he would probably have not been very happy. I read the review of Endymion in the Quarterly. It was severe, — but surely not so severe as many reviews in that and other journals upon others. I recollect the effect on me of the Edinburgh on my first poem; it was rage, and resistance, and redress — but not despondency nor despair. I grant that those are not amiable feelings; but in this world of bustle and broil, and especially in the career of writing, a man should calculate on his powers of resistance before he goes into the arena.
Expect not life from pain nor danger free, Nor deem the doom of man reversed for thee.
... I have published a pamphlet on the Pope controversy, which you will not like. Had I known that Keats was dead — or that he was alive and so sensitive — I should have omitted some remarks upon his poetry, to which I was provoked by his attack upon Pope, and my disapprobation of his own style of writing.
To John Murray
Is it true, what Shelley writes me, that poor John Keats died at Rome of the Quarterly Review? I am very sorry for it.... I know, by experience, that a savage re-view is Hemlock to a sucking author; and the one on me (which produced the English Bards, etc.), knocked me down — but I got up again. Instead of bursting a blood-vessel, I drank three bottles of Claret, and began an answer, finding that there was nothing in the Article for which I could lawfully knock Jeffrey on the head, in an honourable way. However, I would not be the person who wrote the homicidal article, for all the honour and glory in the World, though I by no means approve of that School of Scribbling which it treats upon.
To Thomas Moore
The truth is, my dear Moore, you live near the stove of society, where you are unavoidably influenced by its heat and its vapours. I did so once — and too much — and enough to give a colour to my whole future existence. As my success in society was not inconsiderable, I am surely not a prejudiced judge upon the subject, unless in its favour; but I think it, as now constituted, fatal to all great original undertakings of every kind. I never courted it then, when I was young and high in blood, and one of its `courted darlings'; and do you think I would do so now, when I am living in a clearer atmosphere? One thing only might lead me back to it, and that is, to try once more if I could do any good in politics; but not in the petty politics I see now preying upon our miserable country.
Do not let me be misunderstood, however. If you speak your own opinions, they ever had, and will have, the greatest weight with me. But if you merely echo the monde (and it is difficult not to do so, being in its favour and its ferment), I can only regret that you should ever repeat any thing to which I cannot pay attention.
To Thomas Moore
You say the Doge will not be popular: did I ever write for popularity? I defy you to show a work of mine (except a tale or two) of a popular style or complexion. It appears to me that there is room for a different style of the drama; neither a servile following of the old drama, which is a grossly erroneous one, nor yet too French, like those who succeeded the older writers. It appears to me, that good English, and a severer approach to the rules, might combine something not dishonourable to our literature. I have also attempted to make a play without love; and there are neither rings, nor mistakes, nor starts, nor outrageous ranting villains, nor melodrama in it. All this will prevent its popularity, but does not persuade me that it is therefore faulty. Whatever faults it has will arise from deficiency in the conduct, rather than in the conception, which is simple and severe.
To Mr. Perry
Ravenna, January 22, 1821
Dear Sir, I have received a strange piece of news, which cannot be more disagreeable to your public than it is to me. Letters and the gazettes do me the honour to say that it is the intention of some of the London managers to bring forward on their stage the poem of marino Faliero, &c. which was never intended for such an exhibition, and I trust will never undergo it. It is certainly unfit for it. I have never written but for the solitary reader, and require no experiments for applause beyond his silent approbation. Since such an attempt to drag me forth as a gladiator in the theatrical arena is a violation of all the courtesies of literature, I trust that the impartial part of the press will step between me and this pollution. I say pollution, because every violation of a right is such, and I claim my right as an author to prevent what I have written from being turned into a stage-play. I have too much respect for the public to permit this of my own free will. Had I sought their favour, it would have been by a pantomime.
... In my mind, the highest of all poetry is ethical poetry, as the highest of all earthly objects must be moral truth. Religion does not make a part of my subject; it is something beyond human powers, and has failed in all human hands except Milton's and Dante's, and even Dante's powers are involved in his delineation of human passions, though in supernatural circumstances. What made Socrates the greatest of men? His moral truth — his ethics. What proved Jesus Christ the Son of God hardly less than his miracles? His moral precepts. And if ethics have made a philosopher the first of men, and have not been disdained as an adjunct to his Gospel by the Deity himself, are we to be told that ethical poetry, or didactic poetry, or by whatever name you term it, whose object is to make men better and wiser, is not the very first order of poetry; and are we to be told this too by one of the priesthood? It requires more mind, more wisdom, more power, than all the `forests' that ever were `walked' for their `description,' and all the epics that ever were founded upon fields of battle. The Georgics are indisputably, and, I believe, undisputedly even a finer poem than the AEneid. Virgil knew this; he did not order them to be burnt.
The proper study of mankind is man.
It is the fashion of the day to lay great stress upon what they call `imagination' and `invention,' the two commonest of qualities: an Irish peasant with a little whiskey in his head will imagine and invent more than would furnish forth a modern poem. If Lucretius had not been spoiled by the Epicurean system, we should have had a far superior poem to any now in existence. As mere poetry, it is the first of Latin poems. What then has ruined it? His ethics. Pope has not this defect; his moral is as pure as his poetry is glorious.