Printer-friendly versionSend by email
The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2066. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 26 March 1812 ⁠* 

My dear Montgomery

So we have lost Vanderkemp. [1]  I am far from sympathizing with the Directors of the Missionary Society in all their opinions & feelings, – but I feel the whole heroism of such a man as much as they can do, – & would to God that statesmen could see the importance of such men as clearly as I do. That souls which have never heard of redemption may nevertheless be saved I certainly believe, & God forbid that I should ever blaspheme him by thinking otherwise, but I am equally certain that savage & barbarous nations can be reclaimed by nothing but Christianity. In thinking of the merits of a missionary therefore I never consider his creed, – a martyr in Japan is to me not less an object of admiration than a martyr in Smithfield, [2]  tho I do not owe him the same gratitude; – I could kiss the ground upon which Xavier [3]  or Nobrega [4]  have trod as zealously as the most bigotted Jesuit; I hold Egede [5]  in as much veneration as if I were a Moravian, & could not take a deeper interest in the proceedings of the society at Serampore [6]  if I had been dipped in Andrew Fullers baptistery. [7]  This is not from indifferentism, – it is because one principle is common to all these men & that principle is the light & life of the world. God knows I am no indifferentiste. I am for tests & establishments, & would rather see our own Church revoke some of its {her} concessions than yield a foot more, either to Popery over which she has triumphed, or to Puritanism which by a coalition as monstrous as any of Mr Fox’s, [8]  is at this time leagued with Popery {Infidelity} & misbelief of every kind, in the hope of pulling her down.

Vanderkemp was in many respects the most interesting character among all the Missionaries. The state of his mind before his conversion shows a heart xx perpetually against struggling against the doubts which perplexed his faith, & the sophisms in which he had bewildered his understanding. His conversion manifestly took place in a moment of delirium, produced by the dreadful calamity which had befallen him, – but never was there a happier delusion. It led him to the only source of comfort, & the impression continued thro life. I am not surprized at finding him venture to use his interest with Heaven to procure rain for the Caffirs, – it rather surprizes {me} that under such an impression he did not attempt to work more miracles, & as the Catholic Missionaries in many instances undoubtedly have done, – actually work them.

This leads me to ask you if it be possible to purchase the two first old volumes of the Moravian Periodical Accounts [9]  in your part of the country, where they have their headquarters, – for I am very desirous of possessing them. Mr La Trobes [10]  copy was borrowed for me once, but it is a book which I want to have at hand. Whenever time will permit me I purpose giving a view of all the existing Missions in the Quarterly, showing the policy as well as duty of these efforts. [11] 

Thank you for your comments on Kehama. [12]  The best reply I can make to what you say of the line Never should she behold her father more, – is to say that it is altered upon your suggestion. You say Kailyal is a Xtian, – is it not because the poem, supposing the truth of the mythology on which it is built, requires from her faith & resignation? – I know not how it was that in my youth the mythologies & superstitions of various nations laid strong hold on my imagination & struck deep in it, so that before I was twenty one of my numerous plans was that of exhibiting the most striking features of each in a long poem. Thalaba [13]  & Kehama are the fruits of that early plan, – Madoc [14]  partakes of it, but only incidentally. If I had gained money as well as reputation by these poems, the whole series would ere this have been compleated. Do not misunderstand me, when I talk of gaining money, nothing more is meant than supporting myself by my labours, – & the literal truth {is} that for many years I did not write a line of poetry bef because I could not afford it. Kehama was written before breakfast in hours borrowed from sleep, & so is Pelayo [15]  as far as it has yet proceeded: The world is brightening upon me now. I get well paid for prose, & yet even the in this the capricious humour of the times is apparent. Some of the best years of my life have been devoted to the history of Portugal & its dependencies, in a series of works, of which only one volume is as yet before the public, [16]  but upon which as much laborious & scrupulous research has been bestowed as ever was, or will be, given to any historical compilation. These works will scarcely while I live, pay for their own materials, – whereas I might be employed if I chose from morning till night in reviewing the p productions of Messrs Tag, Rag & Bobtail, at ten guineas per sheet.

From the age of eight my heart was fixed {set} upon poetry, – a passion owing in the first instance to Shakespere, & which would have taken a dramatic turn, if it had not soon been diverted by our execrable modern versions of Tasso & Ariosto, [17]  & then fixt by Spenser, [18]  for whom I have as entire a love as you can have, – & if you had not loved him as I do, you would not have spoken of Una. No writer has ever given me such hours & days of intense delight as Spenser. Before I was fifteen I had resolved to finish the Faery Queen, – three cantos of the intended continuation was part of a huge pile which some years ago I committed to the flames. I rather regret that the memoranda for this notable undertaking were destroyed also, for young as I was, they were a good deal in the spirit of Spenser, & I had in the course of repeated perusals gathered together every hint which can be found throughout the whole six books, that affords the least intimation of what the author designed to do in the other half. Nothing which I have done ever gave me so much delight as the dream of what I intended to do. I lived in Faery Land with Timias, & Belphœbe, & Prince Arthur, & the Salvage Man, & young Tristram, & Sir Sophy, & Arthegal who won Achilles’ arms. Time has produced little change in my feelings of poetry, – but it has left me little feeling to spare for it. I have learnt to prefer that calmer pleasure which is to be found in historical pursuits, – which seldom excites any passion, but when it does excites it with all the impressiveness of truth. My expectations are as ardent respecting the History of Portugal as ever they were about Joan of Arc, [19]  & upon better grounds. Then the creatures of my own imagination delighted & deceived me; as an historian I may be deceived concerning my p own powers, but knowing what the duties of an historian are those duties I know that I have performed.

Dear Montgomery you say you write of nothing but yourself, – only look back upon the great xx I’s which I have sent you in return! – I have always said that we English are the honestest people in the world, because we are the only people who always write that important word always with a capital letter, xxxxxx as if to show every mans sense of its consequences. – I long to see your antediluvian world. [20]  Do not talk to me of Alfred, [21]  – for I am engaged three subjects deep after Pelayo, & heaven knows when that will be compleated. The next in order is Philips war in New England, with a primitive Quaker for the Hero. [22] 

farewell, yrs most truly

R Southey.

Keswick. March 26. 1812.

Josiah Conder gave me some verses of yours addressed to his friends the Minstrels [23]  – for the Edinburgh Annual Register, – to which you may perhaps know that I perform the office of Annalist. If you have any thing else which you could spare for such a purpose, I am sure the Editor would feel himself both flattered & obliged by such a communication. Ballantyne is the Editor, & if he had had not taste had taste to appreciate you as he ought himself, Walter Scott would have taught him to do so. – Have you seen Count Julian? [24]  It is by Landor the author of Gebir. [25] 


* 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. 332–335 [in part]. BACK

[1] The Dutch missionary Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp (1747–1811; DNB). In 1799 he had led the first mission of the London Missionary Society to South Africa, and worked extensively with indigenous populations, including the Khosa, who nicknamed him Jank’hanna (‘the bald man’). A controversial activist, he argued that native African converts (not their white peers) were the true Christians. He died in Cape Town of a fever on 18 December 1811. BACK

[2] Japan was the site of a widespread persecution of Catholics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; Smithfield market in London was the execution site of many Protestant martyrs under Mary I (1516–1558; Queen of England 1553–1558). BACK

[3] Francis Xavier (1506–1552), missionary and co-founder of the Society of Jesus. He was an important figure in the spread of Catholicism in India, Japan, Borneo and the Moluccas. BACK

[4] Manuel de Nóbrega (1517–1579), Portuguese missionary and first Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Brazil. He was a key figure in the history of early colonial Brazil. BACK

[5] Hans Egede (1686–1758), Danish-Norwegian missionary to the Inuit of Greenland. He was a Lutheran and the first Bishop of Greenland 1741–1758, but co-operated with Moravian missionaries who founded a settlement in Greenland in 1733. BACK

[6] The Baptist mission at Serampore, India. Co-founded by William Carey (1761–1834; DNB), Joshua Marshman (1768–1837) and William Ward (1769–1823). BACK

[7] The Baptist minister and theologian Andrew Fuller (1754–1815; DNB). In 1792 he became secretary to the newly-founded Baptist Missionary Society. His writings included Apology for the Late Christian Missions to India (1807). BACK

[8] The politician Charles James Fox (1749–1806; DNB) who was Foreign Secretary in the coalition governments of 1783 and 1806–1807. BACK

[9] The Periodical Accounts of Moravian missionary activity, published quarterly from 1790. BACK

[10] The Moravian minister and composer Christian Ignatius Latrobe (1758–1836; DNB). Born into the Moravian community at Fulneck, Yorkshire, he was educated in Germany and returned to England in 1784. From 1787–1834 he was secretary to the Moravian Brethren’s Society for the Furtherance of the Gospel to the Heathen. In 1790 he initiated the influential Periodical Accounts of Moravian missions and in 1795 became secretary of the international Moravian church in Britain. He moved in interdenominational evangelical circles and was much sought after by founders of new missionary societies. BACK

[11] This was not written. BACK

[12] The Hindu romance The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[13] The Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[14] Madoc (1805), which dealt with, amongst other things, Aztecan civilisation. BACK

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

[16] The first volume of the History of Brazil, published in 1810. Southey’s long-planned ‘History of Portugal’ was never completed. BACK

[17] John Hoole (1727–1803; DNB), Jerusalem Delivered (1763) and Orlando Furioso (1783); versions of Torquato Tasso (1544–1595), La Gerusalemme Liberata (1580) and Ludovico Ariosto (1474–1533), Orlando Furioso (1516). BACK

[18] Edmund Spenser (1552?-1599; DNB), whose Faerie Queene (1590–1596) was a particular influence on Southey. BACK

[19] Southey’s controversial epic Joan of Arc (1796). BACK

[20] Montgomery’s The World Before the Flood (1813). BACK

[21] A poem on the subject of Alfred the Great (848/9–899; DNB). BACK

[22] King Philip’s War, or Metacom’s Rebellion, 1675–1676. An armed conflict between English colonists and the native American inhabitants of New England. Southey’s poem was ‘Oliver Newman’, left incomplete at his death. BACK

[23] Montgomery’s ‘Verses, Written on a Blank Leaf in the “Hymns for Infant Minds”’, which praised (line 19) the ‘fair Minstrels’ Ann (1782–1829; DNB) and Jane Taylor (1783–1824; DNB); see Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1810, 3.2 (1812), pp. xcii–xciii. The Taylors were minstrel friends of Conder’s because they had contributed to his The Associate Minstrels (1810). BACK

[24] Count Julian: A Tragedy (1812), which covered similar territory to that in Southey’s Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[25] Josiah Conder … Gebir: Inserted at top of fol. 1 r. Landor’s Gebir had been published in 1798. BACK

About this Page

Published @ RC

August 2013