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

2499. Robert Southey to James White, 11 November 1814 ⁠* 

Keswick, Nov. 11. 1814.

My dear James,

I am grieved to learn from Neville that you are distressing yourself about what I could find in my heart to call these cursed examinations. There are few things of which I am more thoroughly convinced, than that the system of feeding-up young men like so many game cocks for a sort of intellectual long-main is every way pernicious. [1] 

University honours are like provincial tokens, not current beyond the narrow limits of the district in which they are coined; and even where they pass current they are not the only currency, nor the best. Doubtless there are many men at Cambridge in high repute, who have taken no honours and gained no prizes: and should you yourself stand for a fellowship or take pupils, you will find the opinion of what you might have done, will act as well in your favour as if your acquirements had received the seal and stamp of approbation in the Senate House. Content yourself with graduating among the many; and remember that the first duty which you have to perform is that of keeping yourself, as far as it can depend upon yourself, in sound health of body and mind, both for your own sake and for the sake of those who are most dear to you. If I were near you I would rid you of these blue devils. When I was about eighteen I made Epictetus [2]  literally my manual for some twelvemonths, and by that wholesome course of stoicism counteracted the mischief which I might else have incurred from a passionate admiration of Werter [3]  and Rousseau. [4]  His tonics agreed with me; and if the old Grecian could know how impassible I have ever since felt myself to the τὰ οὐχ έφ’ ἡμῖν, [5]  he would be well satisfied with the effect of his lessons. It is not your fault that these university distinctions have a local and temporary value, but it is your fault if you do not consider how local and how temporary that value is; and if you suffer yourself to be agitated by any losses and fears concerning what is worth so little. My dear James, in this matter, follow, in the strict interpretation of the words, the advice of Boethius, –

‘Pelle timorem,
Spemque fugato.’ [6] 

Remember that you only want your degree as a passport: content yourself with simply taking it; and if you are disposed to revenge yourself after wards by burning your mathematical books and instruments, bring them with you to Keswick when next you make us a visit, and I will assist at the auto-da-fè. We will dine by the side of the Lake, and light our fire with Euclid. [7] 

Neville was more fortunate than you in his excursion to this land of loveliness. He had delightful weather, and he made the most of it. Never had we a more indefatigable guest, nor one who enjoyed the country more heartily. Since his return, Neville-like, he has loaded us with presents; and no children were ever happier than these young ones were when the expected box made its appearance. I happened to be passing the evening at the Island with General Peachey when it arrived, and they one and all laid their injunctions upon their mother not to tell me what each had received, that they might surprise me with the sight in the morning. Accordingly, no sooner was my door opened in the morning than the whole swarm were in an uproar, buzzing about me. In an evil moment I had begun to shave myself; before the operation was half over, Edith with her work-box was on one side, Herbert with his books on the other, – Bertha was displaying one treasure, Kate another, and little Isabel, jigging for delight in the midst of them, was crying out minemineMitter White – and holding up a box of Tunbridge ware. [8]  My poor chin suffered for all this, and the scene would have made no bad subject for Wilkie or Bird. [9]  God bless you!

Your affectionate friend,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 85–87. BACK

[1] The comparison is between the educational system at Cambridge, where White was an undergraduate, and the Long Main. The latter was a famous week-long cock-fight that coincided with Newcastle races in the last week of April or first week of May. Southey witnessed it during a visit to Durham in 1810, with the intention of including it in his unexecuted continuation to Letters from England (1807). BACK

[2] The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus (c. AD 60–after 100), author of the Encheiridion. BACK

[3] Johann von Goethe (1749–1832), Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (1774). BACK

[4] Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), in particular his Julie, ou la nouvelle Heloise (1761). BACK

[5] ‘The things not in our power’; Epictetus distinguishes between ‘things in our power’ and ‘things not in our power’ and argues that we should concern ourselves only with the former. BACK

[6] ‘Rid yourself of fear, put hope to flight’; Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 475–525), De Consolatione Philosophiæ, Book 1, Poem 7, lines 26–27. BACK

[7] Euclid of Alexandria (date uncertain, between 325 BC and 250 BC), mathematician, whose writings were part of the university curriculum. BACK

[8] Decorative, inlaid woodwork. BACK

[9] The genre painters David Wilkie (1785–1841; DNB) and Edward Bird (1772–1819; DNB). BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013