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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2011. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 2 January 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick. Jany. 2. 1812.

My dear Montgomery

You talk of yourself & of me in terms of comparison upon which I must not comment, lest you should be as much pained by the comment as I was by the text. – Let that pass. If I had not admired your poetry, & felt it & loved it, & loved you for its sake, I should not so often have thought of you & spoken of you, & determined to see you, – nor have broken thro the belt of ice at last.

You wish me a sounder frame both of body & mind than your own. My body God be thanked is as convenient as a tenement as its occupier could desire. When you see me you will fancy me far advanced in consumption so little is there of it, – but there has never been more; – & tho it is by no means unlikely (from family pre-disposition) that this may be my appointed end, it is not at all the more likely for xx xxxxx {because of} my lean & hungry appearance. I am in far more danger of nervous diseases, from which nothing but perpetual self-management, & the fortunate circumstances of my life & disposition preserve me. Nature gave me an indefatigable activity of mind, & a buoyancy of spirit, which has ever enabled me to make light {think little} of difficulties, & to live in the light of hope; these gifts too were accompanied with an hilarity which has enabled me to retain a boys heart to the age of eight & thirty: but my senses are perilously acute, – impressions sink into me too deeply, & at one time ideas had all the vividness & apparent reality of actual impressions to such a degree, that I believe a speedy removal to a foreign country where bringing with it a total change of all external objects, saved me from imminent danger. The remedy, or at least the preventitive of this is variety of employment, & this it is which has made me the various writer that I am, even more than the necessity of pursuing the gainful paths of literature. If I fix my attention morning & evening upon one subject, & if my latest evening studies are of a kind to interest me deeply, my rest is disturbed & broken, & those bodily derangements ensue which indicate great nervous susceptibility. Experience having taught me this I fly from one thing to another, each new train of thoughts neutralizing as it were the last, & thus in general maintain the balance so steadily that I lie down at night with a mind as tranquil as an infants.

That I am a very happy man I owe to my early marriage. When little more than one & twenty I married under circumstances as singular as they well could be, & to all appearance as imprudent, – but from that hour to this I have had reason to bless the day. The main source of disquietude was thus at once cut off – I had done with hope & fear upon the most agitating & most important action of life, & my heart was at rest. Several years elapsed before I became a father, & then the keenest sorrow which I ever endured was for the loss of an only child at twelve-months old. Since that event I have had five {children} more, one of whom has been taken from me. Of all sorrows these are the most poignant. but I am the better for them, & never pour out my soul in prayer without acknowledging that these dispensations have drawn me nearer to my God.

But I will not pursue this strain f too far. The progress of my mind thro many maz changes & mazes of opinion you shall know hereafter, & the up-hill work which I have had in the world, up-hill indeed, but by a path of my own chusing, & always with this comfort that I felt myself gaining the ascent, as well as toiling for it. Something I must say, while there is yet room for it concerning the World before the Flood. You say that you are about to begin it again. [1]  – before you do this, re-consider during one half hour, what doubtless you have considered long ago, – whether it would not be better to make the Flood itself the termination of the poem, which would involve {render} no other alteration of the story (as far as I understand it than that of relating the assumption of Enoch [2]  in the person of a narrator instead of in your own. It seems to me that you would gain a grandeur & even a unity beyond what your present design affords. – My intention was to assume Burnetts Theory [3]  of (a book almost unequalled for its powers of imagination) & to have connected Whistons [4]  with it. I have conceived a youth, the bosom-friend of Japhet, [5]  perfectly convinced by Noah, but refusing to flee from the wrath of to come, because the maid whom he loved (tho herself convinced also) would not forsake her parents. Their death, followed by their immediate beatitude would have made an impressive scene. The outstanding picture figure of the Anti-Anakim [6]  or Jacobinical party (for I had the parallel strongly in my mind, was a man with the best feelings & the best intentions, – but erring in this, that he lived without God in the world, – that he trusted in his own strength, & provided he were likely to attain his end, was regardless of the means. [7]  He, after a St Bartholomews massacre [8]  of all his party was to have burnt alive in sacrifice to the God-Tyrant. The great temple-palace was to have been some Tower-of-Babel edifice, built in despite of prophecy, & a & as if defying the vengeance which was denounced. It would have resisted the weight of the waters of the flood & have overlived all things, till (xxx following Burnetts sublime vision) the xxx shell of the gl earth gave way. You have here all that is worth recollecting {remembering} of a plan which never went farther than this. If any part of it should could serve you as a hint, believe me Montgomery I should feel proud at having contributed one unhewn stone to your building. – God bless you.

yr affectionate friend

Robert Southey

I have a book of Pelayo [9]  transcribed for you which must take a long journey in quest of a frank.


Notes

* Address: To/ Mr James Montgomery/ Sheffield
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 21
Previously published: John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols (London, 1854–1856), II, pp. 319–322 [in part]. BACK

[1] In response to comments from friends who had seen an early version of the poem in MS, Montgomery had decided to recast his epic The World Before the Flood (1813). BACK

[2] Genesis 5: 22–29 describes Enoch as Noah’s great-grandfather, who did not die but was carried up into Heaven. BACK

[3] Thomas Burnet (c. 1635–1715; DNB). His Telluris Theoria Sacra (1681) was divided into four sections, describing paradise, the flood, the apocalypse, and the new heavens and earth created afterwards. Burnet claimed that Noah’s flood was caused by waters rising from within the earth. BACK

[4] William Whiston (1667–1752; DNB), natural philosopher and theologian. His A New Theory of the Earth (1696) applied Newtonian physics and new geological scholarship to demonstrate the rationality of biblical accounts of the flood, which it attributed to the effects of a comet. BACK

[5] In Genesis, Japheth is described as one of Noah’s three sons. In legend he was considered to be the ancestor of all Europeans. BACK

[6] i.e. the group opposed to the Anakim. In Numbers 13, the Anakim are described as the descendants of Anak, who inhabited the south of Canaan. The passage can be interpreted as suggesting they were giants. BACK

[7] For Southey’s plan for a hexameter poem on ‘Noah’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 2–3. BACK

[8] The massacre of Protestants in Paris, which began on 23 August (the eve of the feast of St Bartholomew) 1572. BACK

[9] The early name for Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

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August 2013