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

2619. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 18 June 1815 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

You have done many things which have given me great pleasure since your last letter. I never was more rejoiced than when Lord Grenville gave his full & manly support to a war which beyond all others in which we have been involved, is necessary & inevitable. [1]  – I am very glad also to see that you are doing something to promote vaccination. [2]  Much may be done both towards the cure & prevention of diseases by wise legislative interference; – & this is one of the points in which the state of society is susceptible of great amelioration. I thank you too for standing up against those vile Vice-Society people, [3]  who would keep the people {men} filthy rather than let them undress to wash themselves!

The question of incest was touched upon, & you very properly recommended that the case of Sir H Mildmay should rest upon the existing law rather than make it the subject of a specific (& superfluous) clause in the act of divorce. [4]  But has it never occurred to you, my dear Wynn that this law is an abominable relic of ecclesiastical tyranny? Of all second marriages I have no hesitation in saying, that these [5]  are the most natural, the most suitable, & likely to be the most frequent, if the Law did not sometimes prevent them. It is quite monstrous to hear Judges & Lawyers xx speaking as they have done of late upon this subject, & confounding natural incest with what was only deemed to be {incestuous} in order that the Church might profit by selling dispensations for its commission: – a species of marriage too which was not only permitted by the Levitical law, but even enjoined by it. [6]  I should be glad to know in what part of the Christian dispensation it is prohibited as a crime. The probable reason why this law was not swept away {in this country} at the Reformation was because it involved the legitim cause of xxx that event; but surely we owe no {such} respect to the memory of Henry 8th, [7]  that it should still continue to disgrace a reformed country.

Longman was to send you my poems. [8]  You will perceive how very few have been written since I was 25, – & that may account for their numberless & incorrigible faults, – & the good-for-nothingness of a great part of them, – which had they been my own property would have gone behind the fire.

They have made me Member of another Academy at Madrid – the R.A. of History, – a body which has rendered most efficient service to the literature of that country. [9]  This gives me some privileges which I should be very glad to profit by, if I could afford a journey to Spain, – for I should have better access to archives & manuscripts than any foreigner has ever enjoyed.

I am glad to see that Salt is made Consul General in Egypt: [10]  he will be able to keep up an intercourse with Abyssinia which may possibly be the means of benefitting that country. I have been reading the Portugueze books upon this subject, for the purpose of reviewing his travels; – & perhaps I shall give a compendious narrative of what the Jesuits did there. [11] 

You will see in the next Quarterly a picture which I found in M. Larreys book – - Buonaparte sleeping in the desert by a fire of human bodies & bones! – the remains of travellers who had perished there, & been dried xx by the sun & the sands! – It is one of the most extraordinary & appropriate situations that ever fancy conceived. [12] 

I should be truly glad to be of the party to Pennant Melangle [13]  – if it takes place. Madoc will be the better for the visit.

God bless you my dear Wynn

Yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey

Keswick 18 June. 1815.


Notes

* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M.P./ Whitehall/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: FREE/ 21 JU 21/ 1811
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 114–116 [in part]. BACK

[1] In a House of Lords debate on 23 May 1815, Lord Grenville had declared Napoleon to be ‘the common enemy of Europe’ and had fully supported the war against France. BACK

[2] Wynn had introduced a Bill into the House of Commons on 15 June 1815 ‘For procuring the benefit of Vaccination to such poor persons as are desirous of receiving it’, Hansard (15 June 1815), col. 845. The Bill was eventually rejected, Hansard (5 July 1815), col. 1121. It had proposed State funding for smallpox vaccinations. BACK

[3] The Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1802. In the House of Commons on 8 June 1815 Wynn had opposed the Thames Bathing Bill, which sought to impose penalties for ‘indecent exposure’ whilst bathing in the Thames. BACK

[4] On 14 June 1815 Wynn had spoken in the House of Commons during a debate on the Rosebery Divorce Bill. Archibald John Primrose, 4th Earl of Rosebery (1783–1868; DNB) was divorcing his wife Harriet (d. 1834) on the grounds of her adultery with Sir Henry St John Mildmay, 4th Baronet (1787–1848). The draft Bill included a clause forbidding the remarriage of Lady Rosebery to Mildmay. The issue of incest was raised on the grounds that Mildmay’s late wife, Charlotte (d. 1810), had been the sister of Lady Rosebery. Wynn’s intervention reminded his fellow MPs that ‘the insertion of the clause in the present instance did not bind the House to the adoption of a similar clause in other cases, because a divorce bill was at all times a special interference of the Legislature, which they might fashion according to their discretion’, Hansard (14 June 1815), col 793. Rosebery was granted his divorce, with the provision that Mildmay pay £15,000 in damages. Mildmay and Lady Rosebery were married shortly afterwards. BACK

[5] i.e. marriages between a surviving spouse and their deceased wife’s sister. Such marriages were banned as they violated Canon Law, as expressed in the Church of England’s ‘Table of Kindred and Affinity’ in the Book of Common Prayer (1662). BACK

[6] Such marriages were enjoined by Deuteronomy 25: 5, but banned by Leviticus 18: 18. BACK

[7] Henry VIII (1491–1547; King of England 1509–1547; DNB). He annulled his marriage to Katherine of Aragon (1485–1536; DNB) in 1533, on the grounds that she had previously been married to his brother, Prince Arthur (1486–1502; DNB). This event precipitated the Reformation. BACK

[8] Minor Poems (1815). BACK

[9] The Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid, established in 1738. BACK

[10] The traveller and collector of antiquities Sir Henry Salt (1780–1827; DNB) had been appointed consul-general in Egypt in June 1815. He left England in August of the same year and arrived in Alexandria in March 1816. BACK

[11] Salt’s A Voyage to Abyssinia (1814). Southey did not review it for the Quarterly. BACK

[12] Dominique Jean Larrey (1766–1842), Memoirs of Military Surgery, and Campaigns of the French Armies 2 vols (1814), I, pp. 154–155; cited by Southey in his review of Jacques François Miot (1779–1858), Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire des Expéditions en Egypte et en Syrie (1814), Quarterly Review, 13 (April 1815), 1–55 (23): ‘Larrey accompanied him [Bonaparte] across the desert … There was but one single tree to be seen along the whole journey; and to warm themselves at night (for the cold was so sever that sleep would otherwise have been dangerous) they gathered these dry bones and bodies of the dead; and it was by a fire composed of this fuel that Bonaparte lay down to sleep in the desert! The imagination of Dante could not have conceived a more emblematic situation for this incarnate Moloch.’ BACK

[13] The church and shrine of St Melangell at Pennant Melangell. Madoc visited this Church in Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 10, lines 158–189. It is relatively close to Wynn’s home at Llangedwin. BACK

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August 2013