60. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14 [–18] October 1793 

Printer-friendly versionSend by email
The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

60. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 14 [–18] October 1793 ⁠* 

Brixton Causeway. Oct. 14. Monday morning 1793. day before my departure

My dear Grosvenor.

as I do not know when I may again find so excellent an opportunity of beginning — I seize old Time by the forelock & there will I hold him till I want him. so no more at present from your sincere friend. where my letter is destined to be finished I know not but the continuation comes from Reading where I am writing in a small room with a good fire & two London Riders dissertating upon robberies & the most likely places for such adventures. as one of them is at the same table I cannot versify as I intended & had begun so plain prose must tell how I got this far. the Doctor left me at Brentford I proceeded on sad & solitary to Hounslow & there gave one shilling for Sir Launcelot Greaves [1]  to amuse me on the road. at Cranford Bridge — thirteen miles from Hyde Park corner I took a dinner. but I found the day growing late & myself unwilling to be fatigued against tomorrow so I first mounted the Maidenhead Stage & then the Reading. as evening approachd got in the last & here I am at a most execrable Inn in not the most agreable of humours.

I know nothing so unpleasant as leaving the friends we love & — yet such is the state of society that life is hardly any thing than continual parting. you are an exception — but observe the general tenour of life — school & college occupy what ought to be {the} happiest ages — then comes business & perhaps the opportunity of happiness when the relish is gone. Universities might certainly be made useful institutions but at present they are pernicious to individuals & to the nation at large. the morality of Oxford you know how to estimate but with respect to the polishing which I know I want but fear I shall never attain — is it to be found there? steel receives its last polish from a womans hand I believe — & my rugged ore requires the same management — this I shall never meet with. three years must be spent in studies which lead to nothing — & the remainder of my life in forming theories of happiness which I never can practises. Edmund Seward says very truly that {a} man who indulges himself in literature merely for self amusement deserves no more respect from the public than the glutton or the voluptuary. this is very true but selfishness is deeply implanted in the human heart so deeply that even the strong hand of Philosophy cannot root it up. you & I may indulge ourselves in theories of reforming the taste & morals of a corrupt age & perhaps our theories are not wholly visionary — but is our disinterestedness such as might prompt us to this against our inclination?

Removd my dear Grosvenor from each friend away
In mood most unpleasing I write
Reflection assumes her relentless stern sway
And my bosom is dark as the night.

When I see the dull shadows arising around
And the mists mantling over the plain
When I hear the keen night blasts so dismal resound
My breast seems to seek to complain.

As I traversd along busy Fancy’s keen eye
Cast to Brixton the glance of adieu
And I heavd as I wanderd the sorrowful sigh
And I wisht myself present with you.

As the clock pronounced four still at Brixton my eye
Saw you look at the unemployd chair
And I sighd as I fancied that you heavd the sigh
When you saw that RS was not there.

As the morning arose & the red orb of day
In full splendour illumind around
I felt my breast warmd by the all chearing ray
And my bosom with gratitude bound

More chearful & sprightly I travelld along
And inhald the fresh breeze with delight
And beguild the long way with that excellent song [2] 
Of Sir Solomon puffing the light.

So charming I sung & so clear the notes flow
That each envious bird fled away
I scared every magpye & frightned each crow
And the ravens fled out of my way

Then Death & the Lady [3]  a ditty so sad
I sung loud & charming & shrill
And then warbled wildly young Harrys the lad
And moreover the maid of the mill [4] 

But at last Orpheus [5]  like in poetical rage
I was forced to be silent for fear
For the horses enchanted that drew the Bath stage
Had overthrown it indeed very near
Then pitying the coachman no longer I sung
But trudgd merrily on & held still my sweet tongue. [6] 

I soon found the two Riders were Democrats when they began upon politics, so up went your letter & I joined in the discourse. eat a boild rabbit with the one who remaind & got to bed. next morning sketched the gate house of the abbey (which you shall have as soon as I reach Bristol) put a biscuit in my pocket & trudged on. after eighteen miles walking without rest or other food than my biscuit I reachd Dunnington Castle — more fatiguing pilgrimages have certainly been performd by greater fools but none with more devotion. I had the idea of Chaucer [7]  & you were in great danger of a rhapsody. had the merry old Bard resided there now I should certainly have claimed acquaintance & drank some of his old October — but the castle is desolate & I must proceed to Newbury to dinner. I just reachd it as the last coach past thro. mounted the box — made a good dinner & reachd Bath a little before ten last night, Wednesday.

on Saturday morning I purpose proceeding to Bristol. Oxford I do not visit. you will direct to me as usual & the sooner you write the better. I have some good odes in embryo to fill up this letter — in the interim you shall have the remarks that occurrd upon reading Sir Launcelot Greaves on the road. broad coarse humour seems to be the chief excellence of Smollet incidents almost too gross to please & too strange to be probable happen at every inn his heroes stop at & we are sure to find the sailors dialect & the clowns broad Scotch or broad Yorkshire in the place of humour. when he gets upon those subjects which perhaps none but Rousseau knew how to treat he rhapsodizes about charms angels & Hymens & thinks passion & nonsense mean the same. some strange discovery of birth comes in at the end & all the dramatis personæ are tacked together at the altar. yet with all these faults you are not soon tired of Smollets novels. they insensibly lead you on & if they do not come near the heart certainly play round the head. Humphrey Clinker [8]  strikes me as his best — the characters are less outrè & of course more natural. perhaps the epistolary form of it kept him in some bounds.

I copied these four lines from the hospital at Reading

{Aye whose hours exempt from sorrow flow
{Behold the seat of Pain of Want & Woe
{Think whilst your hands the intreated alms extend
{That what to us ye give to God ye lend.

To the ME at Brixton


O thou Myself who now
At Brixton rear’st aloft my pretty head
Perchance sad emblem what once may be
When I am dead
O thou the other Me
Thou with white face & Paris plaister brains
Attend to this ME’s salutary strains.

Whilome or else Tradition is a liar
That celebrated friar
So far renownd by name Friar Bacon [9] 
All heads to surpass
Of burnishd brass
With necromancing art resolvd to make one.

So wisely judging that a brazen face
Is of much use amongst this mortal race
And passes for good sense with many an ass
He actually made this head of brass
Which could hold conversation
And give information
Talk Latin & Hebrew & English & Greek
Solve a problem in Euclid [10] 
Better (Bedford) than ever you did
And teach dumb people to speak.

But oh thou bodiless ME I do not ask
The fates to undertake so hard a task
Thro the dark night
I would not have thee speak
To Horace in Persic or Grosvenor in Greek
For that would make them tremble with affright.
So much so that before they could recover
And answer as they ought, the sheets might suffer.

No gentle ME — I ask for no such thing
But if it please
The fates to hear such meek requests as these
(And my soft tongue
To please the sisters stern
Should many a ditty turn
More sweet than ever Orpheus sung)
I would desire that thou mightst learn to sing
As well as well can be
Just like this Me.

And head of Me
If it be agreable to thee
To move the soul to laughter —
I would have thee able
To sing little Label [11] 
And the farthing rushlight [12]  after

And if thy — (soul I was just going to say
Tho I don’t know where thy soul could stay)
And if thy brains would move
The softening soul to love
Then I would have thee sing like me that song
Whither my Love ah whither art thou gone. [13] 

And at the dismal hour of night
If thou wouldst then require
To wake the soul to wild affright —
Do just as I desire.
Sing how uncivil Death approachd the Lady [14] 
And how that Uncle good
Left the poor children in the wood
And Robin Redbreast buried each poor baby. [15] 

But Head of me — with all thy tricks
For thy own sake never talk politics
For in these times of war
(Thought horribell)
Who can tell
But you may be stuck upon Temple Bar? [16] 

There shalt thou melt whilst dogs each drop lick
For all the world like a bundle of rags upon a mop stick
And if the fates decree
This end for me
As I have now got time
My epitaph Ill pen
To serve me then —
And thus I build the lofty rhyme.

Here washd by rains
Are those strange brains
Which filld a stranger head —
In death now still
And damp & chill
Each limb unnervd lies dead

His legs so long
Shall stalk along
So many a mile no more
His tongue lie still
That went like a mill
And always ran Reason before.

Here must he stay
One lump of clay
The loathly flesh worms meal
And now at rest
His cold cold breast
Nor joy nor woe shall feel.  [17] 

Yes Bedford thus one day this body shall rot
Cold lifeless & putrid — forgetting — forgot.
Yet perhaps even then when I moulder away
Corruption poor fast to original clay
When each lifeless feature is crumbled to dust
Fame may see what I was from this odefied bust [18] 


Friday morning.

the transition from your letter to the card table was not the most agreable last night — particularly as I was in the writing mood — I met with a fellow of Corpus now doing penance in all the horrors of disease for his faults & follies — Goldesbrough [19]  he tells me has got the demiship at Maudlin. what a miserable state is that man in, who has only his fellowship to depend upon. if he marries he loses it & how he can be happy without marriage appears to me a paradox. this is a piece of the scarlet whores petticoat — a lump of the old leaven a remnant of idolatry. it might have been reasonably imagined that when the enormities of nunneries & monasteries (most monstrous institutions) were exposed — that our sage reformers would have provided against their renewal. they ought to have known that the same causes will produce the same effects & when they tolerated matrimony in the clergy they should not have insisted upon celibacy in the universities. In the history of these hot beds of vice I am not well read — but it is probable that when the work of reformation was performd by Rapine — some timeservers who secretly favoured the old Religion presided in the universities & retained thus much of the Babylonian patchwork. the consequences are visible. our fellows are either the most dissolute libertines or good well meaning scholars like Tom Howe sauntering about their respective quadrangles with long faces & keeping them free from the impurities of impudent dogs. Ginger forms a genus of his own & a queer genus it is — distinguishd by the generic marks of everlasting thirst & invincible stupidity to which accomplishment he specifically adds — two eyes like a boild rabbits & the harmonious nasal twang that instead of filling the heart with devotion plays upon the risible muscles of his auditors. for many years these unfortunate animals have been the butt of ridicule whilst the satirist forgets that instead of lashing the victims of the institution he ought to expose the institution itself. Vicesimus Knox [20]  has touchd pretty freely upon these subjects — but much remains to be done. there is an immense Augean stable that wants cleansing — & the filth that now breeds corruption if properly distributed could become excellent manure & fertlize the whole country. a consummation devoutly to be wishd for [21]  — more to be wishd than expected.

To me the radical defect of the universities appears this — the association of men with only men. the total absence of that sex from whom only we can receive the last polish. the intercourse in this country is much too distant & of course Man becomes more brutal when the tablecloth is removed the women retire with the dishes they have dressed & of Mr Wilkes [22]  two subjects of conversation the one (bad as it is) is above the drinking party. the women of the present day are not in general possessd of those qualifications which we might desire — but I am inclined to think with our correspondent Cassandra [23]  that most of these faults originate in our sex. when they see that unaffected simplicity has no charms in the eyes of fashionable folly they give into fashions which Reason would have condemned & Nature scornd. I might alledge the distance between the sexes as an argument against your assertion that man were {is} in a state of Nature were I so disposed — should we in that best state be pleasd with Hail Politeness Power divine — the curst little rushlight or the horid squalling of a thing imported from Italy? but I am running from my subject into a rage against opera singers — beings to be pitied most certainly — but 999 degrees below the Men Milliners & that is below nothing.

The human mind is formed as capable of excellence now, as it was in those days when Themistocles [24]  fought Aristides [25]  lived & Æschylus [26]  sung. nor are the faculties of Woman impaired or anyways alterd from what they were in Portia [27]  Arria [28]  & the mother of the Gracchi [29]  and yet we seldom see one of these glorious characters arise. there must be a defect somewhere & with respect to one cause — that of education we shall agree. I would not wish my Wife to excel in dancing finger the harpsichord & paint flowers incomparably whilst her knowledge of books was confined to novels & of cookery — to knowing where to place the dishes. she should not be a kitchen wench or a pedant — but I am convinced it would be equally agreable to both were she a companion in my studies & knew how to make a good pudding. as I would not wed a Sycorax [30]  so neither would I ask a Venus. [31]  good humour & good sense would always be handsome. surely my wishes are not unreasonable — but they will probably never be gratified. thanks to myself I possess the two best requisites for an old batchelor — I can smoke tobacco & play backgammon — in addition to this I will talk politics with the exciseman of my parish & like a true patriot always be shaved at the Barbers. an old Mrs Piozzi [32]  shall dress my turnips after I have raisd them — I will make my own cyder — & have a flitch of bacon on the rack with my walking sticks, & a good stock of toasting cheese. this is not a very enviable prospect but building Castles in the air for Reason to destroy is an employment I am sick of.

I have denominated my stick the Sans Culotte to which name it has the most undoubted title. in my next you will probably have an ode to it & another to the Me at Bristol — but I must have Snivel [33]  finishd & an ode to Tom Paine. [34] 

the Doctor & I made a fine contrast — the drest travelling democrat & the drest Man Millener! he will be very angry at this so tell him that in five minutes I shall {begin} him a very long epistle. I am in momentary expectation of my baggage & you need not be told a little impatient. make my respects to all your good family. Mr & Mrs Deacon — Mrs Colyns [35]  &c.

a la mode CC you see I have once remembered the rules of Politeness Power divine.

I have pleased myself during the filling of this sheet with the idea that you & Horace are busied in performing the same task. tomorrow I reach Bristol to dinner direct to me as usual.

yours most sincerely



* Address: To/ James Deacon Esqr/ Long Room/ Custom House/ London
Postmark: AOC/ 19/ 93
Watermarks: Portal & Co; crown with shield
Endorsements: Recd Oct. 22d. 1793; Ansd: Oct. 25th. & 27th
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Tobias Smollett (1721–1771; DNB), The Adventures of Sir Lancelot Greaves (1762). BACK

[2] The popular song ‘The Farthing Rush-Light’. BACK

[3] A popular ballad. BACK

[4] A paraphrase of the popular song ‘The Maid of the Mill’. BACK

[5] In Greek mythology, a hero particularly associated with poetry and music. BACK

[6] In mood ... tongue: Verse written at a right angle to the main part of the letter across the bottom part of fol. 1 r. BACK

[7] Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400; DNB), poet and administrator. Dunnington Castle, near Newbury, was reputed to have once belonged to the Chaucer family. BACK

[8] Tobias Smollett, The Expedition of Humphry Clinker (1771). BACK

[9] According to legend, the philosopher Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1292?; DNB) created a talking brazen head which could answer any question. Southey later incorporated this myth into Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 10, lines 281–284n. BACK

[10] Euclid of Alexandria (dates uncertain, between 325 and 250 BC), mathematician. BACK

[11] The song ‘A Duet’, from Prince Hoare (1755–1833; DNB), The Prize (1793). BACK

[12] The song ‘The Farthing Rush-Light’. BACK

[13] The song ‘Whither, My Love’. BACK

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

[15] The popular ballad ‘The Children in the Wood’, included in Thomas Percy (1729–1811; DNB), Reliques of Ancient English Poetry, 2nd edn, 3 vols (London, 1767), II, pp. 211–217. BACK

[16] A gateway into the City of London, on which the heads of traitors were mounted on pikes. BACK

[17] O thou ... feel: Verse written at a right angle to the main part of the letter in double columns across bottom part of fol. 1 v. BACK

[18] Yes Bedford … bust: Written up right hand side of fol. 1 v. BACK

[19] John Goldesbrough (d. 1846), a student at Balliol College, Oxford, and later a fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, BA 1797. BACK

[20] Vicesimus Knox (1752–1821; DNB), headmaster and writer. See Essays Moral and Literary, 11th edn, 2 vols (London, 1787), I, pp. 323–326. BACK

[21] Hamlet, Act III, scene 1, lines 64–65. BACK

[22] Probably the politician John Wilkes (1725–1797; DNB), whose profligacy and promiscuity were renowned. BACK

[23] A pseudonym used by an unidentified correspondent of Southey’s. BACK

[24] Themistocles (c. 528–462 BC), Athenian statesman and general. BACK

[25] Aristides (c. 530–468 BC), Athenian statesman, generally known as ‘the Just’. BACK

[26] Æschylus (525–456 BC), Greek tragic dramatist, reputedly killed when an eagle dropped a tortoise on his bald head, mistaking it for a stone. BACK

[27] Portia, the wife of Brutus (85–42 BC), was a Roman woman with a high tolerance for pain. She gave herself a severe wound in the thigh in order to display her bravery, thus proving herself worthy of being included in Brutus’s conspiracy against Julius Caesar. After Brutus’s death in 42 BC, she committed suicide by swallowing burning coals. BACK

[28] Arria was the wife of Paetus Caecina, one of the participants in a conspiracy against the Emperor Claudius (10 BC–AD 54; reigned 41–AD 54) in AD 42. On the way to her husband’s trial, Arria stabbed herself to show Paetus that it did not hurt; Paetus followed her example and killed himself before going to trial. BACK

[29] Cornelia Scipionis Africanis (190–100 BC), mother of the radical politicians Tiberius (163–132 BC) and Gaius (154–121 BC) Gracchus. She was considered the ideal of a Roman matron. BACK

[30] In The Tempest, a witch and the mother of Caliban. BACK

[31] The Roman goddess of beauty and love. BACK

[32] The writer Hester Thrale Piozzi (1741–1821; DNB). Southey is possibly alluding to her platonic relationship with Dr Johnson (1709–1784; DNB). BACK

[33] The Bedford family dog. For the poem to Snivel, see Southey’s letter to his brother Tom, [late October/early November–] 14 December [1793] (Letter 65). BACK

[34] If Southey wrote an ode to the radical Thomas Paine (1737–1809; DNB), it does not seem to have survived. BACK

[35] Unidentified; presumably a friend of the Bedfords. BACK

Published @ RC

March 2009

People mentioned

Places mentioned