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

2334. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 18 November 1813 ⁠* 

Keswick Nov. 18. 1813

My dear friend

You will not wonder that amid the engagements & distractions of London, I could find no time to thank you for your letter & your Synonimes [1]  – or even to do more than look into the volume. I cast a wistful eye toward Norwich – you remember the Boys objection to beginning the alphabet, because if he said A he must say B & so on to C & D. So it was with me. I could not have taken that direction without making three or four visits on the way, – & so long an absence had made me weary of new faces, worn out with the continual stimulations of society & sick for home. As soon as my presentation was over I slipt off my masquerade suit & hurried to the Bull & Mouth to secure a place for the following evening, – & on Sunday last I had the happiness of finding all at Keswick as well as I had left them three months before.

The Laureateship without my knowledge was asked for me by Croker, & given by the Prince, because he said he had heard that Mr S. had written well in defence of the support of the Spaniards. The Marquis of Hertford & Lord Liverpool meantime had taken council together concerning the disposal of the vacant dignity upon the principle of detur digniori, [2]  & fixing upon W Scott they wrote & offered it to him. When the Prince was informed of this, he was displeased & said that his pleasure ought to have been consulted; – he had given it to me & I should have it. Upon this Croker of course interposed, observing that he was upon friendly terms with Scott, that Scott & I were friends & that for the sake of all three the business must be allowed to rest where it was. A letter soon came to me from Scott telling me he had refused it, as not thinking it becoming in him who held two lucrative offices professional situations, to accept of the only thing which seemd exclusively to belong to a man of letters: & he urged me to take the office, if as he had solicited, it should be proffered me. [3]  – It would raise Scott in your opinion if you saw the frank & handsome manner in which he represented the office, considering it, as a mark of honour, was more due to me than to himself. Upon this I wrote to Croker, expressing an unwillingness to write verses at stated times on stated subjects, – like a school boys exercise, but saying that if on great public occasions it were understood that I should be at liberty to write, or to be silent, as the spirit moved, – in that case the appointment would become a mark of honour, & as such I should gladly accept it. [4]  At the same time it was not for me to propose terms for to the Prince, but I left him to judge in what manner how far such a reformation was practicable, & in what manner it might be effected. He told me that at some fitting opportunity he would suggest to the Prince that it would be for his honour & for mine to drop the regular odes.

I am however less solicitous about this than I was at first, – & that for two reasons. First because the office is of greater value than I had at f immediately perceived. It was raised for Ben Jonson [5]  from 100 marks to 100 £, & a tierce of Spanish Canary Wine: a compensation of 26 £ has been established for the wine, & the various deductions reduce the whole net income to about 90 £. But coming as a God-send I disposed of it accordingly, & by adding to it 12 £ a year, have converted it into a life-policy of £3000. – It is paying a cheap price for this legacy to write one or two odes in the year. And secondly, I am not averse to the task, considering the state of foreign & domestic affairs, my own views & feelings, & the tone which I feel myself able to support. In me, of all men, it would have been cowardice to have refused the appointment, – & if I were not to write as Laureate, it might seemed as if I shrunk from censure, or were ashamed of writing. But I take the laurel as a honour which is my due, & as such & I will wear it. – You have here the whole history of a most unexpected occurrence in my life. – I am thinking of the new years ode, & think also of accompanying it with an Epistle to the Prince saying something of the office, of those who have held it heretofore, of myself, & of the manner in which it becomes me to address him & x in which it is most fitting for that he should be addrest. [6] 

Henry is going on well. It is many years since I have enjoyed so much of his company. Gooch also is making way as he ought to do. I saw much of him, – & there are few men of whom I think so highly. We should have greatly have rejoiced if you could have joined us in town.

Davy is gone to France, anticipating before he went the censure which he was conscious of deserving. – Mackintosh [7]  has brought back from India a diseased liver, & a reputation which I do not think he will be able to support either in Parliament, or in his xx intended historical labours. I met him at Holland House, & at Madam de Staels. [8]  The latter personage is the most remarkable, & the most interesting of all my new acquaintance.

I am returned to a world of occupations. My poem is going to press, [9]  – so also is the concluding volume of Brazil, [10]  – & the great work of the Spanish history [11]  is before me, – to say nothing of minor engagements. But I am God be thanked in health & spirits , – ready for all & equal to it.

– It is needless to say how heartily I should rejoice to see you here whenever circumstances may allow you to become my guest. – Times change, circumstances change & the opinions of men change with them, – but affection & esteem & gratitude where they are well founded are immutable. – Whenever you leave Norwich, give me one summer before you settle elsewhere.

yours most affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ Wm Taylor Junr Esqr/ Norwich
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: Ansd 13 March
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4870
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), II, pp. 415-419. BACK

[1] Taylor’s English Synonyms Discriminated (1813). BACK

[2] ‘Let it be given to the more worthy’. BACK

[3] Scott’s letter of 1 September [1813] informed Southey that he had declined the Poet Laureateship and instead recommended him to Croker. Scott also cautioned ‘I am uncertain if you will like it, for the laurel has certainly been tarnished by some of its wearers, and as at present managed, its duties are inconvenient and somewhat liable to ridicule’, H. C. Grierson (ed.), The Letters of Walter Scott, 1787–1832, 12, vols (London, 1932–1937), III, pp. 335–336. Scott held two legal offices: he was Sheriff-Depute of Selkirkshire (since 1799); and Principal Clerk of the Court of Session (since 1806). These posts gave him a combined salary of £1600 p.a. For Southey’s reply, see Southey to Walter Scott, 5 November 1813, Letter 2323. BACK

[4] Robert Southey to John Wilson Croker, [4 September 1813], Letter 2298. BACK

[5] One of Southey’s predecessors as Poet Laureate, Ben Jonson (1572–1637; DNB), Poet Laureate 1616–1637. BACK

[6] Southey’s first poem as Laureate was the New Year’s ode Carmen Triumphale, published, after much revision, in a quarto of 30 pages on 1 January 1814. It was not accompanied by an epistle to the Prince Regent. BACK

[7] On his return to Britain from India, where he had held a post in the Bombay judiciary, in 1811, the writer and politician Sir James Mackintosh (1765–1832; DNB) had been courted by Perceval and the Tories. He was elected to Parliament in 1813 as MP for Nairn and became a leading spokesman for the Whigs. He had long planned a History of England from the Earliest Times to the Final Establishment of the Reformation and this was published in 1830. BACK

[8] Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817), the writer and salonnière. She was much feted during her 1813 visit to England. BACK

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

[10] Two further volumes of the History of Brazil appeared, in 1817 and 1819, respectively. BACK

[11] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013