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

259. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 30 September 1797 ⁠* 

Bath. 30 Sept. 1797.

God speed you Grosvenor! send me the proces-verbal of your proceedings — & believe that these few words express a great deal. & now for egotism. a man may know himself — but it x may be doubted if he can know any one else.

———

My birth day was Friday 12 August. 1774. the time of my birth half past eight in the morning according to the family bible — according to my astrological friend Gilbert it was a few minutes before the half hour, in consquence of which I am to have a pain in my bowels when about thirty, & have a {Jupiter is my} deadly antagonist in Jupiter, but I may thank the stars for “a gloomy capability of walking thro desolation.”

I am no believer in the Helvetian system. [1]  developement is the term I apply to the progress of the human character, & it explains my opin opinions upon the subject. I think I can trace it in myself — I was stubborn — obstinate — by the blessing of God I have continued so.

now have I Grosvenor like a blockhead suffered a kitten to play with the pen I write with — & her paws have blurred the writing. you must thank Puss for the blots.

my feelings were very acute. they used to amuse themselves by making me cry at sad songs & dismal stories. I remember Death & the Lady [2]  — Billy Pringles Pig [3]  — Three children sliding on the ice all on a Summers day [4]  — & Witherington fighting on his stumpts at Chevy Chace. [5]  this was at two years old — where my recollection begins — prior identity I have none. they tell me I used to beg them not to proceed. I know not whether our feelings are blunted or renderd less acute by action. in either case these pranks are wrong with children. I cannot now hear a melancholy tale in silence, but I have learnt to whistle. [6] 

My Aunt was very fond of me. it was a mischievous fondness. she made me sleep with her. now my Aunts bed room was a sanctum sanctorum accessible to none. so when she went out to {an} evening visit, which was often or rather always — I was at 8 o clock put into the Maids, & then removed when she returned. a hideous transportation! there was I to be without moving head or foot till eleven the next morning. luckily fingers were at liberty — & I used to play with them from six o clock — for wise Nature woke me betimes. or else fancy pictures in the green squares of the check curtains.

I must tell you two quaint dreams of this period, because they have made a deeper impression upon my memory than any circumstances of infancy. I thought my head was cut off for cursing the King — & after it was done I laid my head down in my mothers lap — & every now & then lookd up & cursed {him} — xxx xxxxxxx xx xxxxx xxxx.

In the other I was in a room with only Miss Palmer. you know her by name, this is not the place for a character of that good Lady. I was sitting with her when the Devil came to pay her a morning visit. she put him a chair — “dear Mr Devil — pray sit down Mr Devil” & smirked & smiled all politeness while I sat & looked at his cloven foot, & perspired at every pore.

My time was mostly passed at Bath with my Aunt. I had no playmates there. if my Aunt was writing letters, I was to sit silent. there was a garden — but in playing there my cloaths might be soiled, & perhaps all this must necessarily have injured the young animal. my father once when he came to see me found me pale & thin. I had just recovered from a fever & have not yet forgotten the tea-cup in which the bark was given me, & a foul sweet medicine, I have the resurrection of its cursed maukishness now on my minds tongue. he returned home in a rage — swore my Aunt would kill “the boy” & in consequence I was transported to Bristol. this was great joy to me. I had a play-mate in poor Eliza — my sister a year younger than myself. I could dirt my cloaths — & might play in my grandmothers garden at Bedminster.

they sent me to school — to Ma’am Powell [7]  — an old woman who had no eye lashes. my nurse maid Pat took me there — I loved her dearly; she had neither temperance soberness or chastity — but she was fond of me, & stood behind the school door to watch my behaviour with a heart ready to break. I was in a passion — the old womans face did not please me — “wheres Pat — take me to Pat — I don’t like ye” — & this was accompanied by an angry jig or stamping which I inherited, & which my maternal relations call the Southey jig.

here I was at intervals till my sixth year, & formd a delectable plan with two school-mates for going to an island & living by ourselves. we were to have one mountain of gingerbread & another of xxx candy. at the age of 23 I think of Utopia.

I had a great desire to be a soldier. Colonel Johnes [8]  once gave[MS torn] me his sword — I took it to bed & went to sleep in a state of most compleat happiness. in the morning it was gone. once I sat upon the ground in what we call a brown study — at last out it came with the utmost earnestness to my Aunt Mary — “Auntee Polly — I sould like to have all the weapons of war — the gun & the sword & the halbert & the pistols & all the weapons of war.” once I got horsewhippd for taking a walk with a journeyman barber in the who lived opposite, & promised to give me a sword. th this took a strange turn when I was about nine years old. I had been reading the historical plays of Shakespere — concluded that there must be civil war in my own time & resolved to be a very great man, like the Earl of Warwick. [9]  now it would be prudent to begin to make partizans. so I told my companions at school that my mother was a very good woman & had taught me to interpret dreams; they used to come & repeat their dreams to me, & I was artful enough to refer them all to great civil wars & the appearance of one very great man who was to appear — meaning myself. I had resolved that Tom should be a great man too, & actually dreamt once of going into his tent to wake him the morning before a battle, so full was I of these ideas.

my Aunt took me often to the play. her acquaintance with Miss Palmer gave her theatrical connexions. Henderson [10]  visited her. I was very fond of the theatre & by the time I was seven years old thought that tho it was a great thing to be a warrior it was still greater to write a play. at six they put me to Mr Footes [11]  — a day scholar to learn Latin; tho I got I was one of the least boys in the school, used to fight a dozen battles a day & of course got a dozen threshings.

God bless you.

RS.

write.


Notes

* Address: To/ G C Bedford Esqr/ Brixton Causeway/ Stockwell/ near/ London./ Single./ ις θις διρεκτεδ ριτε; [A transliteration from English to Greek of ‘Is this directed right’.]
Stamped: BATH; 10oClock/ OC 3/ 97 F. Noon
Postmark: AOC/ 3/ 97
Endorsement: 30 Septr 1797
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 23
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 149–151. BACK

[1] Southey had criticised the belief that the mind at birth was a tabula rasa in a letter to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796) (Letter 172). BACK

[2] The popular ballad ‘Death and the Lady’. BACK

[3] The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Billy Pringle’s Pig. BACK

[4] The nursery rhyme ‘Three children sliding on the ice’. BACK

[5] An incident from Chevy Chace. BACK

[6] In Laurence Sterne (1713–1768; DNB), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767), the eponymous hero’s Uncle Toby avoided painful subjects by whistling tunes. BACK

[7] Mrs Powell (dates unknown) ran a Dame School in Bristol, which Southey attended between the ages of 3–6 years old. BACK

[8] Probably the translator, agriculturist and colonel of the Cardigan militia, Thomas Johnes (1748–1816; DNB). BACK

[9] Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (1428–1471; DNB), depicted in Henry VI, Parts I and II. BACK

[10] Probably the actor John Henderson (c. 1747–1785; DNB). BACK

[11] William Foot (d. 1781), Bristol Baptist minister, schoolmaster and author of A Plain Account of the Ordinance of Baptism (1756–1758). He ran a school at the top of St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009