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

2582. Robert Southey to Josiah Conder [fragment], 29 March 1815 ⁠* 

Keswick, March 29, 1815.

My Dear Sir,

I thank you for your Reviews, [1]  and thank you for your letter, and I thank you for remembering me in the distribution of your wedding-cake. [2]  I wish you all the happiness which your new state of life can bestow, and which can not be experienced in any other. It has its anxieties, its trials, and its sufferings also: may few of these be dispensed to your lot! Present my congratulations to Mrs. Conder. We have long known each other in print; and one of the pleasures which I look forward to in my next visit to London, is that of becoming personally acquainted with one whom I so sincerely respect.

Had I known you were about to visit Bristol, I would have directed you to some of my favourite haunts in former times, and would have introduced you to my old friend Joseph Cottle, who, though he has mistaken the bent of his powers most deplorably, is nevertheless a man of no common powers, and of most exemplary goodness in all relations of life that he has been called to fill. I put the review of the “Excursion” [3]  into Wordsworth’s hands; he was much pleased with it, and desired me to convey to the author his sense of the very handsome and very able manner in which his work was treated, and especially of the spirit in which the criticism is written. Your articles on the “Velvet Cushion” [4]  and on Allison [5]  are both exceedingly well written: in great part of both I agree with you, and where I do not, still I admire both the manner and spirit. My attachment to the Established Church, in preference to any other existing form of Christianity, is not founded in bigotry or in prejudice; for, though I conform to it, I do not subscribe to its articles, and am thereby precluded from being (what otherwise I should most ardently desire to be) one of its ministers. You are wrong in thinking that our cathedral service is inferior to that of the mass-book. The cathedral service you feel to be solemn; who indeed can fail to feel it so? But it would be impossible for you not to see that the mass is a mummery, and not to feel, if you reflected upon what was going on, that it is gross and monstrous idolatry. I have seen it performed before the Court of Portugal, and the only thing which I could have borrowed from it was its incense. P. 345: Sir Henry Vane [6]  is classed by Towgood, upon Clarendon’s authority, as a member of the Church of England. [7]  It is enough for me to remember Milton’s sonnet to Vane, [8]  and to know how he behaved upon his trial and at his death, to hold him in high veneration. But he was certainly a Puritan and a fanatic. I have one of his books, which contains abundant proof that fanaticism had deprived him of all judgment, and even of all genius, when treating upon religious subjects. [9]  The account which you have quoted of Mr. Sutcliffe’s death is very fine; [10]  and your concluding passage perfectly expresses my feeling upon these subjects. Mr. Gilbert [11]  made a very just remark to me, when, agreeing with me that men might go to heaven by different paths, he observed that the path which might lead me there might not lead him. I entirely assent to this. Every man must walk according to his light.

I thought you a little too severe to Child Alarique. [12]  And with regard to Scott, though it is impossible that I should not perceive the faults of the story, and the extreme inaccuracy of the style, yet my opinion is much more favourable than yours. [13]  There is frequently a fine conception of the old chivalrous character, and almost always a strength and vividness in the outline which he offers you. Lord Byron’s faults are to me far worse than Scott’s, and they are likely to produce a much worse effect upon the herd of imitative writers. It is a clumsy mode of narration to give you the characters of men by describing them, instead of letting the character describe itself in the course of the story; but strip one of Lord Byron’s poems of these descriptions, and what remains? The fable is a mere nothing; and the characters themselves are incongruous even to absurdity.

How dismally has the prospect changed! Buonaparte [14]  will have the Italians with him, and a powerful party in Switzerland, and the wishes of the Belgians. But I think the struggle will end in his destruction. I could almost persuade myself that he is the instrument of drawing upon France those evils which she has so long and so mercilessly inflicted upon other countries; that the generation which he has bred up in blood and blasphemy are to perish by the sword; and that Paris, which I verily believe to be a guiltier city than even Rome or Constantinople, will be made a signal example of the vengeance of God and man. I wish I could feel the same confidence respecting the state of things at home; but the more I reflect upon the changes that have taken place within my own remembrance, and upon the principles which are at work, the more reason there appears to me for apprehending a dreadful overthrow of all established institutions.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857)
Previously published: Eustace R. Conder, Josiah Conder: A Memoir (London, 1857), pp. 172–175 [in part]. BACK

[1] Copies of the Eclectic Review. BACK

[2] Conder had married Joan Elizabeth Thomas (1786–1877) on 8 February 1815. She published poetry as ‘Eliza Thomas’ and had both she and Conder had contributed to the The Associate Minstrels (1810). She also contributed ‘The Voice of the Oak’ to Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1810, 3.2 (1812), xcviii–ci. BACK

[3] Eclectic Review, 3 (January 1815), 13–39. The review was by James Montgomery. BACK

[4] Eclectic Review, 2 (October 1814), 335–363; a review of John William Cunningham (1780–1861; DNB), The Velvet Cushion (1814). Cunningham was Vicar of Harrow 1811–1861 and a well-known Anglican evangelical and promoter of missionary work. BACK

[5] Eclectic Review, 3 (January 1815), 55–65; a review of Archibald Alison (1757–1839; DNB), Sermons, chiefly on Particular Occasions (1814). Alison was an Episcopal clergyman in Edinburgh whose work on aesthetics, Essay on the Nature and Principles of Taste (1790), was much admired by Southey’s arch-enemy, Jeffrey. BACK

[6] Sir Henry Vane (1613–1662; DNB), Parliamentary politician and author. He was executed despite not being a regicide and assurances in 1660 that he would not face the death penalty. Throughout his trial and execution his courage was much commended. BACK

[7] Michaijah Towgood (1700–1792; DNB), An Essay towards Attaining a True Idea of the Character and Reign of King Charles the First and the Causes of the Civil War (London, 1748), p. 15, referring to Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon (1609–1674; DNB), History of the Rebellion and Civil Wars in England, 3 vols (London, 1702–1704), I, p. 233. BACK

[8] Milton’s ‘Sonnet 17’ (1652) to Sir Henry Vane, the younger (1613–1662; DNB), an advocate for church disestablishment and religious toleration. BACK

[9] Sir Henry Vane, The Retired Man’s Meditations (1655), no. 2882 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[10] Eclectic Review, 2 (October 1814), 361–362, quoting from the obituary in the Baptist Magazine (August 1814) of John Sutcliffe (1752–1814; DNB), Particular Baptist Minister at Olney 1775–1814. Sutcliffe had been a leading figure in the Baptist Missionary Society, which he helped found in 1792. BACK

[11] Possibly Joseph Gilbert (1779–1852; DNB), Congregational minister and husband of the poet, Ann Taylor (1782–1866; DNB). BACK

[12] Eclectic Review, 2 (December 1814), 617–624; a review of Robert Pearse Gillies (1789–1858; DNB) Childe Alarique, a Poet’s Reverie, with other Poems (1814). Gillies was a good friend of Scott and received some encouragement from Wordsworth. BACK

[13] Eclectic Review, 3 (May 1815) 469–480; a review of Scott’s The Lord of the Isles (1815). BACK

[14] Napoleon had left Elba on 26 February 1815 and returned to France. BACK

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August 2013