2552. Robert Southey to John Murray, 11 February 1815

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

2552. Robert Southey to John Murray, 11 February 1815 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

I forgot when writing yesterday to thank you for the sheets of Park, & likewise to say something concerning them, which, if your life be not printed, it may perhaps be worth while to suggest to his biographer. [1] 

That Mungo Park is dead there can be very little doubt, but I entirely disbelieve the account which is given of his death.

I do not believe that such a river as the Niger flows thro a rock & is navigable thro it. Such a ‘wonder of the world’ would have been heard of at some time or other, Herodotus would have known it (who knew in what course the Niger flows) [2]  – & the Portugueze who were at Timbuctoo three hundred years ago would have known it. [3] 

But supposing this fact to be admitted (tho I upon it alone I should repeat the whole story) the other circumstances are grossly improbable. under {In} the circumstance {situation} which are {there} represented Park would have done of one of three things; – he would have turn’d back, – or he would have landed & xxx given up the property which tempted the Africans to this attack, – or lastly he would, having the current in his favour have fairly run the gauntlet, – it was hit, or miss, – if he once got under the rock he was safe. But he is represented as making his negroes kept {keep} the boat back against the stream, whilst he & his party fought. against – Indeed there is nothing in romance more incredible than all this. [4] 

Park’s plan was a very unwise one, & his conduct towards his people when they fell sick, inhuman to the last degree. Wherever a man sickened it was his duty to have left him at the first inhabited place, with assurances to the inhabitants of ample payment if they delivered him at the coast. But for a medical man to drag them along when they could not sit upon the saddle, – & leave them dying upon the road, – or to be eaten by beasts before they were dead – it is monstrous! monstrous! [5] 


I return the proof by this post: [6]  Should you cast your eye upon it you will see how important it is that I should correct these things myself: so many are the little errors which occasion great inaccuracies & gross blunders, & which none but the author could at a glance detect: To say nothing of those little alterations which improving either the perspicuity of a sentence, or its mere sound, make xx xx xx {are felt in} the general effect of the style.

And now let me solicit a favour of you. I never complain of alterations in my articles, or remonstrate against them, – tho it is not possible that any mans writings can suffer more from mutilation, because no man can takes more {such} pains to render them coherent, & make the transitions natural: the cutting out part of a paragraph destroys this, – & the parts which are then joined together look as a hand would do if it could be fixed to the elbow after the arm were taken away. I say this in confidence, – & what I have to ask xx is, that as the articles are always set up as they are printed, I should be greatly obliged to you if in future you would have a second set of proofs struck off which I might preserve for my own satisfaction & use: much being lost in this way, of which I might sometimes be glad to avail myself.

You see I have bestowed some rhymes upon Capt Lewis & Clarke. [7]  This is not usual in a review, but the occasion was tempting.

Believe me my dear Sir

yrs very truly

Robert Southey.

11 Feby. 1815


* Address: To/ John Murray Esqr/ Albemarle Street/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 13 FE 13/ 1815
Watermark: J DICKINSON & Co/ 1811
Endorsement: 1815 Feby 11/ Southey Robt Esq
MS: National Library of Scotland, MS 42551. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] The explorer Mungo Park (1771–1806; DNB). He died, probably from drowning, during an expedition to trace the route of the Niger. Southey seems to have been sent pre-publication sheets of Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805. Together with Other Documents, Official and Private, Relating to the Same Mission. To Which is Prefixed an Account of the Life of Mr. Park, which was published by John Murray in 1815 and reviewed by John Barrow (1764–1848; DNB) in Quarterly Review, 13 (April 1815), 120–151. BACK

[2] The historian Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC), Histories, Book 2, paragraph 32, relates the story of some travellers from Libya who explored the Sahara until they came to a great river flowing East. Modern scholars have been sceptical that this was the Niger. BACK

[3] John II (1455–1495; King of Portugal 1481–1495) sent embassies to all the great trading cities of West Africa, including Timbuktu. BACK

[4] This and the preceding two paragraphs critique the account of Mungo Park’s death from ‘Amadi Fatouma’s Journal’, published in Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805. Together with Other Documents, Official and Private, Relating to the Same Mission. To Which is Prefixed an Account of the Life of Mr. Park (London, 1815), p. 330. This described how Park and his party were attacked at a point on the Niger where: ‘There is … a rock across the whole breadth of the river … there is a large opening in that rock in the form of a door, which is the only passage for the army to pass through …. The people began to attack him … overpowered by numbers and fatigue, and unable to keep up the canoe against the current, and no probability of escaping, Mr. Park told hold of one of the white men, and jumped into the water … they were drowned in the stream in attempting to escape’. BACK

[5] Park’s expedition was plagued by illness, and he insisted on taking the sick along with him whenever possible, though many succumbed to the depredations of disease or wild animals. See, for example, the death of William Hall, a member of Park’s party, who was ‘killed by the wolves in the hut during the night’, Journal of a Mission to the Interior of Africa in the Year 1805. Together with Other Documents, Official and Private, Relating to the Same Mission. To Which is Prefixed an Account of the Life of Mr. Park (London, 1815), p. 289. BACK

[6] Possibly a proof of Southey’s review of Meriweather Lewis (1774–1809) and William Clark (1770–1838), Travels to the Source of the Missouri River, and Across the American Continent to the Pacific Ocean (1814), Quarterly Review, 12 (January 1815), 317–368. This issue of the Quarterly was published on 23 March 1815. Southey had promised to return a proof on 10 February, but it was perhaps not sent, and was dispatched on 11 February instead; see Southey to John Murray, 10 February 1815, Letter 2551. BACK

[7] The rhymes were: ‘Ye plains where sweet Big-muddy rolls along,/ And Tea-Pot, one day to be famed in song,/ Where swans on Biscuit and on Grindstone glide,/ And willows wave upon Good Woman’s side!/ How shall your happy streams in after time/ Tune the soft lay and fill the sonorous rhyme!/ Blest bards, who in your amorous verse will call/ On murmuring Pork and gentle Cannon-Ball;/ Split-Rock, and Stick-Lodge, and Two-Thousand Mile,/ White-lime, and Cupboard, and Bad-humour’d Isle!/ Flow, Little-Shallow, flow! and be thy stream/ Their great example, as it will their theme!/ Isis with Rum and Onion must not vie,/ Cam shall resign the palm to Blowing-Fly,/ And Thames and Tagus yield to great Big-Little-Dry’, Quarterly Review, 12 (January 1815), 335–336. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2013