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

2192. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 24 December 1812 ⁠* 

Keswick. Dec. 24. 1812.

My dear Tom

I think R.B.s name was Robert Burton, – he is however a very well known personage among our Bibliographers, – a Grub Street compiler who about 1680 used to make little close printed volumes for country readers, at one shilling each, with vile wooden cuts, – some of which books are now just reprinted in guinea quartos with fac-similes of these disfigurements as they may xxx fitly be called. [1]  The book which I have quoted could not help having some curious things in it, from its subject, & is in fact often quoted without any farther suspicion of its fidelity than attaches to all works written in an age of physical credulity. [2]  He is I believe just as good authority for the price of a ram, as a magazine or newspaper would be, & the fact is certainly a curious one.

Thank Mr Taylor [3]  for his notes. – My Omniania are likely to be enriched in this way. I know the vulgar error of flesh-worms in the face, but never heard it of the hands, nor ever saw any thing in the hands which could be mistaken for them, & this was what puzzled me. [4]  Thank him also for the portrait. I believe Henry Mores Poems were never printed with his works. He was a most very-odd fellow. The rarest believer in all ghosts goblins & vampires! but I have not done full justice to him as a poet, strange & sometimes unreadably uncouth as he is, there are lines & passages of the highest feeling & most exquisite beauty in his. [5] 

All day I have {been} working to get into action at Copenhagen, [6]  & I would give one of my ears for your help. Brierleys Chart [7]  stands me in good stead; & I have ransacked all my books to get the scene well before my eyes. Do send me as soon as you possibly {can} a letter of recollections upon this subject, things worthy of note before the battle, in & after it &c – How came your guns in the Bellona to be in such a state? [8]  Did you not tell me that the spires at Copenhagen have a sort of spiral staircase outside? or something of the kind. – Tell me also the particulars about the man who shot Nelson [9]  & whom Collingwood [10]  & somebody else whose name I cannot remember shot at the same time. – Nelson’s are all good battles, for relation, which is not often the case with battles. For that of Copenhagen there is luckily a Dane’s account to help me, written in English; it supplies me with a few fine circumstances not to be found elsewhere. [11] 

I will write to “Sister Anne” [12]  as soon as I can satisfy myself what to say. Where I called in upon such a case to any person of sound reasoning faculties, accustomed to habits of investigation & willing to enter into a full discussion of the subject I should expect to be succesful. But with many persons, & especially with women, falling into a new religion is not unlike falling in love. Something strikes their fancy & it is in vain to think to reason them out of it: they see things in parts & cannot be made to comprehend the whole of a subject. Sis A must not look for any good from my interference. I could be of use to her in such a case, for the very reason which will prevent her from {ever} being under a like delusion. Her sister will show my letter to her Catholic friends, & the family Priest will then come with his sophisms, which to the regular moves by which these practioners at the game give scholars mate to the xxx unlearned & unwary. A conversion of this kind is certainly a great family evil; the convert xx being persuaded that she shall lose sight of all her relations in the next world, gets weaned from them in this, & they indeed on their part are bound in prudence to get as little as possible within in the way of an intellectual malady which is contagious. No child of mine should ever visit a Catholic family. You may go to Heaven that way certainly, – but there is no more reason for doing it, than there would be for going to London in a dung cart, when there are so many easier, cleanlier & surer conveyances.

There is in the Appendix to the first vol. of Clarkes Travels Suvarrof’s (Suwarrow) instructions to his soldiers, a most characteristic & extraordinary composition. [13]  Just now it is peculiarly interesting, for you may be sure it will long continue to be manual of the Russian army. – We may look for a good military history of this war from Sir R. Wilson, who I hope to Heaven will be in at the death. [14]  The destruction of Moscow [15]  with all its consequences is one of the grandest events that have ever taken place: great sacrifices have heretofore been made by communities as well as individuals, but never any with such great effects; the wisdom, – the xxx worldly wisdom – of this act, was equal to its heroism, & its effect is the certain deliverance of Russia, – the probable deliverance of Europe.

The march of Augereaus corps [16]  shows xx clearly that Buonaparte intends to quarter himself about Kalonga & Toola in the fertile provinces, & Kutousoff [17]  seems to have divined all his plans. This man has shown himself a great general, & as for Platoff, [18]  I hope to see his head as common upon sign-posts as ever Prince Eugene has been or the Marquis of Granbys. [19] 

Roderick [20]  is in a good way, & when {as} the mornings begin to lengthen I shall get rapidly on with the latter half.

God bless you



* Address: To/ Capt Southey. R. N./ St. Helens/ Auckland
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 311–314. BACK

[1] ‘Robert Burton’ and ‘R.B’ were pseudonyms used by the bookseller and writer Nathaniel Crouch (c. 1640–1725?; DNB). They were chosen in reference to Robert Burton (1577–1640; DNB), author of the Anatomy of Melancholy (1620), which incorporated hundreds of translations from Latin and Greek sources, thus making classical knowledge more widely available to the less privileged classes. Crouch was equally keen to democratise learning, producing simplified versions of more learned works and histories and publishing these cheaply, thus ensuring a wide circulation. BACK

[2] Southey had quoted an anecdote from ‘R.B.’s’ Admirable Curiosities (1718), in Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, 2 vols (London, 1812), I, pp. 193–194. This described how a ‘Upon Midsummer Even, 1626, a codfish was brought to the market in Cambridge’, when it was cut open it was found to contain several treatises by the evangelical theologian and martyr John Frith (1503–1533; DNB). BACK

[3] George Taylor (1772–1851), Durham gentleman-farmer and classicist. He was the father of Southey’s future friend Sir Henry Taylor. BACK

[4] Southey had included a substantial section on worms in Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, 2 vols (London, 1812), I, pp. 245–248. Taylor had presumably sent some information to supplement this. A second edition of Omniana was not published. BACK

[5] The philosopher, poet and theologian, Henry More (1614–1687; DNB). Southey possessed a copy of his Philosophicall Poems (1647), no. 1998 in the sale catalogue of his library. An account of More’s ‘Platonick Song of the Soul’ appeared in Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, 2 vols (London, 1812), II, pp. 155–177. Taylor had sent Southey a copy of a portrait of More. BACK

[6] i.e. to write the account of the battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801, for the Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813). For the build up to the battle, the engagement and its aftermath, see Ibid., II, pp. 95–153. BACK

[7] A chart made by Alexander Bryerly (dates unknown), Master of HMS Bellona at Copenhagen, see The Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, p. 117. BACK

[8] Tom had served in HMS Bellona at Copenhagen. Seventy-five of his fellow crew had been killed when their elderly cannon burst, see The Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, p. 126. BACK

[9] The Frenchman who shot Horatio Nelson, 1st Viscount Nelson (1758–1805; DNB) during the battle of Trafalgar. For Southey’s account of Nelson’s fatal wound see, The Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 257–258. BACK

[10] In Southey’s account the French sniper was in turn shot dead by two midshipmen in HMS Victory, Francis Edward Collingwood (1785–1836) and John Pollard (d. 1868). See The Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 264–265. BACK

[11] Andreas Andersen Feldborg (1782–1838), A Tour in Zealand, the Year 1802; with an Historical Sketch of the Battle of Copenhagen (1805). BACK

[12] ‘Sister Anne’ was presumably an acquaintance who had converted to Catholicism. She might have been one of Tom Southey’s sisters-in-law. BACK

[13] ‘Suvarof’s Catechism’, in Edward Daniel Clarke (1769–1822; DNB), Travels in Various Countries of Europe, Asia and Africa, 6 vols (London, 1810–1816), I, 701–710, no. 601 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Alexander Vasilyevich Suwarrow (1729–1800) was a Russian general, famed for his leadership and military skills. BACK

[14] The army officer Sir Robert Wilson (1777–1849; DNB). He had travelled to Russia earlier in 1812 and was a first-hand witness of the campaign against the French invaders. BACK

[15] Moscow was destroyed by fire 14–18 September 1812, just as French troops entered the city. BACK

[16] The troops protecting the French retreat, commanded by Marshal Charles Pierre Francois Augereau, 1st Duc de Castiglione (1757–1816). BACK

[17] Marshal Mikhail Kutusov (1745–1813), the commander of Russian forces fighting the French. BACK

[18] Matvei Ivanovitch Platov (1757–1818), Ataman (Commander) of the Don Cossacks. He became a Count of the Russian Empire as a reward for harrying the French forces on their retreat from Moscow in late 1812. BACK

[19] Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736), one of the allied generals in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1713) and John Manners, Marquis of Granby (1721–1770; DNB), British soldier in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763). Both were popular figures on British inn signs. In Granby’s case, this owed much to the assistance he gave disabled non-commissioned officers to establish themselves as innkeepers. BACK

[20] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

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August 2013