Letter 29


19th April, 1829

MY DEAR PROCTER,–Accept my thanks for the patience and attention with which you have read my M.S., and for the manner in which you have spoken of it. I fear that if you had expressed your disapprobation of some of it still more strongly, I should have been obliged to confess that you were right. If you, as I have cause to apprehend, are not too well engaged in other and more substantial pursuits, you would oblige me still more by specifying the scenes and larger passages which should be erased (that is to say, if I am to let any considerable part remain as it is, for perhaps it might take less time to enumerate such bits as might be retained?). For of the three classes of defects which you mention–obscurity, conceits, and mysticism,–I am afraid I am blind to the first and last, as I may be supposed to have associated a certain train of ideas to a certain mode of expressing them, and my four German years may have a little impaired my English style; and to the second I am, alas! a little partial, for Cowley was the first poetical writer whom I learned to understand. I will, then, do my best for the Play this summer; in the autumn I return to London, and then we will see what can be done. I confess to being idle and careless enough in these matters, for one reason, because I often very shrewdly suspect that I have no real poetical call.

I would write more songs if I could, but I can’t manage rhyme well or easily. I very seldom get a glimpse of the right sort of idea in the right light for a song; and eleven out of the dozen are always good for nothing. If I could rhyme well and order complicated verse harmoniously, I would try odes; but it’s too difficult.

Am I right in supposing that you would denounce and order to be rewritten all the prose scenes and passages?–almost all the first and second, great part of the third act. Much of the two principal scenes of the fourth and fifth to be strengthened, and its opportunities better worked on. But you see this is no trifle, though I believe it ought to be done.

Can you tell me whether Vondel’s “Lucifer” has been translated? It is a tragedy somewhat in the form of Seneca. J. von Vondel was born in Cologne, 1587 (according to Van Rampen), and “Lucifer” published in 1654. Milton, born in 1608, published “Paradise Lost” 1667.

It is to me very unlikely that Milton should have been acquainted with the Dutch language in Holland long after this period, and M– was Cromwell’s Latin secretary; therefore, if he had any business with the Dutch, he would not have transacted it unnecessarily in their language, and I do not recollect that he visited Holland in his travels; if he had, he would hardly have gone farther than learned Leyden. Both on this account and because I am rather partial to Holland and the Dutch (for their doings against Spain, their toleration, their (old) liberty of the press, and their literature wonderfully rich for so small a people), I was very much pleased and struck on finding two lines in Vondel’s “Lucifer,” which I translate literally:

And rather the first prince at an inferior court,
Than in the blessed light the second or still less.

                          “LUCIFER”  Act II

Does it not seem as if at certain periods of the world some secret influence in nature was acting universally on the spirit of mankind, and predisposing it to the culture of certain sciences or arts, and leading it to the discovery even of certain special ideas and facts in these? I do not know whether the authors of philosophies of history have as yet made this observation, but it is sufficiently obvious, and might be supported by numerous instances. So in our times Scheele and Priestly; the former in Sweden a few weeks later than P. discovered oxygen gas. A little time before we have half-a-dozen candidates for the title of appliers of the power of steam in mechanics, etc. Middleton’s “Witch” and “Macbeth” present in the lyrical parts so close a similarity, that one can hardly doubt of the existence here of imitation on one side. I cannot but think that M. was the plagiarist, and that some error must have occurred with regard to the dates of the two pieces.

The King of Bavaria has commenced poet, and a very sorry one he appears to be from the newspaper extracts. Kings as well as cobblers should keep to their craft–and Louis is a very reputable king; but still every inch a king, as you may see from his having made Thorwaldsen a Knight of the Bavarian Crown!

That you may see that I am not the only careless dramatist going, I quote you three lines from Oehlenschläger’s new play, the “Norseman in Constantinople.” “Ha!” his great, strapping tragic hero says in rage and despair:

Ha! knew the porkers what the old boar suffers,
They would raise up a dismal grunt and straight
Free him from torture.

This is as literally translated as possible; and do not disbelieve me if it should not happen to be in the German translation, which, of course, is more likely to be in London than the Danish original. I have it from the latter; probably it is not in the German, which I have not seen. Moreover, Oehlenschläger is one of the very first of continental dramatists, perhaps the first, far above Müller, Grillparzer, Raupach, Immermann, etc.

I will sacrifice my raven to you; but my crocky is really very dear to me; and so, I dare say, was Oehlenschläger’s pig-sty metaphor to him.

Yours ever


[Gosse, 1894]