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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

228. Robert Southey to John May, 26 June 1797 ⁠* 

Monday June 26. 1797. Burton.

If you will send Chapelain [1]  by the Poole Mail & direct it here, the Mail Cart will bring it from Ringwood. the Poole Mail sets out from the Bell & Crown, Holborn.

Neither the best friends or the bitterest enemies of Chapelain could have felt more curiosity than I do to see his poem. good it cannot be, for tho the habit of writing satire, as indeed the indulgence of any kind of wit, insensibly injures the moral character & disposes it to sacrifice any thing to a good point; yet Boileau [2]  must have had some reason for the extreme contempt in which he held this unfortunate production. I am inclined to think it better however than it has always been represented; Chapelain stood high in poetical reputation when he published this, the work on which he meant to build his fame; he is said to have written good odes, certainly then his epic labours cannot be wholly void of merit, & for its characteristic fault, extreme harshness, it is very probable that a man of genius writing in so unmanly a language should become harsh by attempting to be strong. the French never can have a good epic poem till they have republicanized their language; it appears to me a thing impossible in their metres; & for the prose of Fenelon Florian & Bitaubè [3]  — I find it peculiarly unpleasant. I have sometimes read the works of Florian aloud; his stories are very interesting & well conducted, but in reading them I have been felt obliged to simplify as I read & omit most of the similes & apostrophes. they disgusted me & I felt ashamed to pronounce them. Ossian [4]  is the only book bearable in this stile, there is a melancholy obscurity in the history of Ossian & of almost {all} his heroes that must please — ninety nine readers in an hundred cannot understand Ossian & therefore they like the book. I read it always with renewed pleasure.

Have you seen Madame Rolands Appel a l’impartiale Posteritè? [5]  it is one of those books that makes me love individuals & yet dread detest & despise mankind in a mass. there was a time when I believed in the persuadibility of man & had the mania of man-mending; experience has taught me better. after a certain age the organs of voice cannot accommodate themselves to the utterance of a foreign pronunciation; so is it with the mind, it grows stiff & unyielding like our sinews as we grow older. the ablest physician can do little in the great lazar-house of society. it is a pest-house that infects all within its atmosphere; he acts the wisest part who retires from the contagion; nor is that part either a selfish or a cowardly one; it is ascending the Ark like Noah to preserve a remnant which may become the whole.

As to what is the cause of the incalculable wretchedness of society & what is the panacea, I have long felt certified in my own mind. the rich are strangely ignorant of the miseries to which the lowest & largest part of mankind are abandoned — & even of those who see & pity & relieve their distresses, you will scarcely find one who has ever felt shocked at the reflection that God has given to the poor mental capabilities that might have infinitely benefited mankind — & given them in vain, — only to be stifled by society. there is not upon this earth one spot where man enjoys “the unfettered use of all the powers which God for use has given.” [6]  the savage & civilized states are alike unnatural, alike unworthy of the origin & end of man. hence the prevalence of scepticism & atheism, which from being the effect become the cause of vice; & the world civilized world sunk into a depravity dreadful as that which characterized the last ages of Rome seems again about to be renovated by a total renovation {revolution}. it is covered by pestilential fogs which nothing but tempests can scatter. & those tempests are begun.

I have lived much among the friends of Priestley [7]  & learnt from them many peculiar opinions of that man who speaks all he thinks. no man has studied Christianity more or believes it more sincerely — he thinks it not improbable that another revelation may be granted us, for the obstinacy & wickedness of mankind call for no less a remedy. the necessity of another revelation I do not see myself. what we have had with the right exertion of our own reasoning faculties appears to me sufficient. but in a Millenarian this opinion is not ridiculous, & the many yet unfulfilled prophecies give it an appearance of probability. opinions of this kind may amuse & comfort the solitary speculatist, but something more is required to act upon. were it possible I would immediately retire to try another system — as I cannot do that, all that is left is fully & fearlessly to speak what I believe truth, & point out that system which I am hold myself in readiness to embrace whenever it be possible. much in the mean time may be done. example will leaven all around us, & he who cries aloud & spares not, will at least reap the reward of feeling that he has done his duty.

The Slave Trade has much disheartened me. that this Traffic is supported by the consumption of sugar is demonstrable — I have demonstrated it to above fifty persons with temporary success — & not three of those persons have persevered in rejecting it. this is perfectly astonishing to me — & what can be expected from those who will {not} remedy so horrible an iniquity by so easy an exertion!

The future presents a dreary prospect — but all will end in good & I can contemplate it calmly without suffering it to cloud the present. I may not live to do good to mankind personally — but I will at least leave something behind me to strengthen those feelings & excite those reflections in others, from whence virtue must spring. in writing poetry with this end I hope I am not uselessly employing my leisure hours.

God bless you. we are well & happy.

affectionately yrs

Robert Southey.


Notes

* Address: For/ John May Esqr./ 4. Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: CHRIST/ CHURCH
Postmark: AJU/ 27/ 97
Watermark: Crown & anchor/ GR
Endorsement: 1797 No 2/ Robert Southey/ Burton 26 June/ recd: 27 do/ ansd: 3 July
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797—1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 25–27; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 315–318 [in part]. BACK

[1] Jean Chapelain (1595–1674), La Pucelle ou la France Délivrée (1656). Southey included a summary of it in the second edition of Joan of Arc, published in 1798. BACK

[2] Nicholas Despreaux Boileau (1636–1711), French poet and critic. BACK

[3] François de Salignac de la Mothe-Fénelon (1651–1715), theologian and educator; Paul Jérémie Bitaubé (1731–1808), poet and theologian; Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), poet. BACK

[4] The controversial series of poems purportedly written by the ancient bard Ossian (son of Fingal) published by James Macpherson (1736–96; DNB). BACK

[5] Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platiere (1754–1793), Appel a l’Impartiale Posteritè (1795). BACK

[6] Lines contributed by Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Joan of Arc, An Epic Poem (Bristol and London, 1796), pp. 39–40. BACK

[7] Joseph Priestley (1733–1804; DNB), Unitarian minister, scientist and radical. BACK

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March 2009