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

68. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [12–15] November [1793] ⁠* 

Tuesday night. Nov. 11.  [1]  my cheese at the fire. you & I Bedford are not unlike two men in Bedlam quarrelling about their imaginary titles. my dear brother visionary, let us plan our respective schemes in peace — my commonwealth when establishd will be certainly as pacific as your Majestys kingdom & why we debate so vehemently before they are establishd I know not. I was glad your paper was out because you had worked up your feelings till you had lost the mastery of them — I was angry because I was vext. & I am now vext because I was angry. for the poor Queen [2]  I feel indignant & enraged — angry with you for falling foul upon me & still more angry with the Convention for continually furnishing arguments against a pure zealous philosophical republican. (I have just eat my cheese) I had rather bellow in the bull of Phalaris [3]  than be the present K of Prussia [4]  — in the former case conscious virtue, tho it could not cure the blisters would cure the soul with indignation not unlike pleasure — in the latter — conscience might rationally expect the guillotine in this world & the devil in the next — well coupled say you. the Convention & the Devil — I foresaw the remark & as you see forestall it. somebody says there is no spectacle more grateful to the Gods than a good man struggling with adversity. now this is quoting from a quotation in some title page & I forget the author — but if the Gods are pleased with the sight, it is more than the good man should be with the Gods. according to my idea of a superior being he must have been more pleased with the success of Epaminondas [5]  & William Tell [6]  than with the death of Socrates or Algernon Sidney [7]  (oddly coupled you say) the question is this — whether an all good creator delights more in seeing Virtue rewarded by happiness & admired by popularity or in seeing the many criminated by persecuting a virtuous individual — or in other words whether he prefers that the many should in some degree partake of the virtue of one by recompensing it or that one should be aggrandized by misfortune & the guilt of the many. it were only wasting words to show the unequal & unjust distribution of worldly goods — an innocent man can never feel the worm of remorse gnaw his heart but he may be tormented with regret whose sting is as sharp as a wasps & less easily cured. how it would be doing such a man a favour to make a calf of him — for ten to one if the roasting does not destroy the canker worm — & the agonies of one great blister render him forgetful of even mental pain — he would call up all the consolations of conscious Virtue & rejoice in death. now put a villain in this said bull & see how differently roasting will operate upon him. the mental torments he will feel will exceed his bodily sufferings — the bull will appear a specimen of the kitchen of Lucifer & his end will be damnable indeed. Honesty is indeed the best policy. the good man will be happier in prosperity & tho equally subject to adversity — adversity will lose half its powers.

now Selim [8]  would laugh at us for two visionary children — but Selim himself is the visionary & when he wakes in another world he will find it so. our philosophy will be practical there for heaven will be one great republic of philosophers — instead of psalm-singers — & if it is not why I know not what it will be. Mohammeds [9]  is too sensual — Odins [10]  too heroic & Orthodoxitys too humdrum. mine perhaps too philosophical — but my celestial wisemen are not your dry metaphysicians with long beards — in short they are what Men {ought to be & what they} might be — good & happy.

how the Bishop would stare to hear of an Epicurean Xtian — or a republican one. these good old orthodox wiggipotentates when they rail at speculation appear to me like so many owls looking at the sun & hooting with rage. Horseley [11]  is promoted you know. I am tempted to exclaim Ecce iterum Crispinus [12]  & so belabour belampoon & bepriestly him [13]  — but the Inquisition has no charms for me & our ecclesiastical Court bears too strong a resemblance to the sacred institution of St Dominic. [14] 

You see in what a increasing epistolary cue I am going on — hand & head equally willing but poor eyes unable — if I should get blind — Homer Ossian [15]  & Milton would give me little comfort — some kind friend must then buy me a halter & thirteen pence halfpenny will be saved to my executors — there, a pun spoilt in the execution — that last makes amend. I am going to bed well pleasd with myself — to dream of you & heaven & happiness unless the dæmon of dismal dreams pops under my pillow & harrows up my heart with some of his chimeras — oh if life were all one agreable dream — or rather if death were — would there be a crime in taking laudanum as an opiate? good night.

——————

Grosvenor I shall burst — such a catastrophe — such an enterprize — such a fall — Charles Collins — the sober prudent discreet Charles Collins! of all men in the world the one who could shrug up his shoulders at the Flagellant to think that he should expose himself & become the standing jest of Christ Church the genteel college. write to him pity him condole him laugh at him. I shall run mad with the idea.

Grosvenor would you believe it — Charles Collins was a member of a society entituled Societas scientium literariorum studiosorum Oxoniensium — instituted for the purposes of debating & (as Wynn says) forming a library to rival the Bodleian. this had been laudable in private. but they draw up a quarto volume of statutes & institutes & march up for the Vice Chancellors permission to obtain a room for public debating!!!!!! he replied (most memorable reply!)

The Vice Chancellor cannot prevent you from making yourselves fools in private but he will assuredly take care that you shall not disgrace the University by doing it in public!!!!!!!!!!

poor Collins one of the two C Church members is so ridiculed! Combe tells me — the Dean & Hall laugh at him & SAWKINS [16]  has ventured to cut a joke upon the occasion.

now is our pretty Plato to be pitied or laughd at? must he be elegized or odified? or be sung in villainous ballads to a scurvey tune? I would walk to Oxford & back for the sake of five minutes laugh. the FLAGELLANT — is revenged. the cubic sage is flagellated — is not this grand & sublime — oh that we could both meet for one hour to write a letter — SAWKINS laughing at CHARLES COLLINS.

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Friday night. My dear Bedford I am sick of this world & discontented with every one in it. the murder of Brissot [17]  has compleately harrowed up my faculties & I begin to believe that virtue can only aspire to content in obscurity — for happiness is out of the question. I look round the world & every where find the same mournful spectacle. the strong tyrannize over the weak — man & beast. the same depravity pervades the whole creation. oppression is triumphant every where & the only difference is that it acts in Turkey thro the organ of a grand Seignor in France of a Revolutionary Tribunal & in England of a prime minister, there is no place for virtue. Seneca [18]  was a visionary philosopher. even in the deserts of Arabia the strongest will be the happiest — & the same rule holds good in Europe or in Abyssinia. here are you & I theorizing upon principles we can never practise & wasting our time & youth — you in scribbling parchments & I in spoiling quires with poetry. I am ready to quarrel with my friends for not making me a carpenter — & with myself for devoting my time to pursuits certainly unimportant & of no real utility either to myself or to others. I have still three years to waste in the same shameful manner before there will be a possibility of my being of any service to mankind & even then Religion must change the human heart before it can mend it. in short I begin to think a halter a mighty pretty thing — & one day of these days you will certainly hear that I have swung myself into eternity if the public executioner does not save me the trouble — as for crime I cannot use the word. Charlotte Corde [19]  was meritorious let our friend say what he pleases. nor do I see in what manner we can quit Life more honourably than in ridding it at once of a monster & an useless incumbrance. Religion certainly consists in doing good to mankind. now who renders society the most service the person who feeds as a lapdog or the one who destroys the wolf & the lapdog? Religion — the word is so prostituted that I am sick of it. instead of a benefit as intended by an allgood & all wise creator it is degenerated into a curse. nay the very scriptures at the same time that they contain the most important truths, may be alledged in vindication of every vice. I could bring you passages equally positive in favor of passive obedience & of tyrannicide, equally positive & equally atrocious for whether the murderer of Sisera [20]  or Jael {Agag.} [21]  be most infamous I know not — would every one adopt our criterion of scriptural truth Religion would be certainly amended as it must be simplified.

poor Grosvenor! how lamentably will you be puzzled with this pretty cross window writing! did you never when you was a child delight in having cross windows cut upon your bread & butter? I remember the day when it was luxury to me, bread & butter with brown sugar & glass windows was an indulgence which delighted me in days when I {was} more ignorant & more happy. these kind of pleasures are neither sensual nor mental: appropriate to an age when we are happily ignorant of both. that age was the happiest I have yet enjoyed — & in all human probability the happiest I ever shall enjoy. my grandmother [22]  then living had a house two miles from Bristol with her I past the greater part of my infancy & never did there exist a woman more respectable in every station of life. her house was the residence of most of her children & the rendevous of all. I lost her when I was nine years old & since that period my life has been little more than one series of undeserved calamities. they have taught me philosophy — & heavy as is the price it is not too dear.

I have been reading Courtney Melmoths Liberal Opinions [23]  to-day. I know not if you have ever read the book — but it contains the history of Benignus — some parts of which pleasd me much. a young man sets out in life with this principle. To be good is to be happy. of course he becomes miserable by practising or rather by attempting to practise theoretical principles of universal benevolence. Men of feeling (I hate to use the word but no other expreses the meaning) men of feeling are exposed to a thousand pangs which the fool escapes because his faculties are too gross to comprehend them. Forester Brice & Selim [24]  will pass thro life with more wordly pleasure probably than we shall — but there is another world & there things will be topsy-turvy. [25] 

CCs club ha! ha! two letters in one week upon the subject! pretty Plato. [26] 


Notes

* Address: Grosvenor Charles Bedford Esqr/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: ONO/ 18/ 93
Watermarks: Figure of Britannia; G R in a circle
Seal: Red wax [design illegible]
Endorsement: Recd. Novr. 18. 1793
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 189–190 [in part; one paragraph]. BACK

[1] Southey has mistaken the date. Tuesday was 12 November in 1793. BACK

[2] Marie Antoinette (1755–1793), wife of Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–1792) and Queen of France, was executed on 16 October 1793. BACK

[3] A bronze bull commissioned by Phalaris, the Tyrant of Agrigentum in Sicily (570–554 BC). His victims were roasted alive in the bull, their shrieks said to imitate its bellowing. BACK

[4] Frederick William II (1744–1797; reigned 1786–1797). BACK

[5] Theban general (418–362 BC), famed for his defeat of the Spartans at the battle of Leuctra 371 BC. BACK

[6] Legendary national hero of Switzerland. BACK

[7] Algernon Sidney (1622–1683; DNB), politician and republican, executed for his alleged involvement in the Rye House plot against Charles II (1630–1685; reigned 1660–1685; DNB). BACK

[8] A nickname for an unidentified Westminster schoolfellow. BACK

[9] Mohammed (570–632), prophet and founder of Islam. BACK

[10] Odin was the chief god in Norse mythology. BACK

[11] The appointment of Samuel Horsley (1733–1806; DNB) as Dean of Westminster and Bishop of Rochester in November 1793. BACK

[12] Juvenal (fl. AD late C1 and early C2), Satire 4, line 1. The Latin can be translated as ‘Here’s Crispinus again’. BACK

[13] In 1783–1785, Samuel Horseley (1733–1806; DNB) had defended the Trinity in a series of exchanges with the radical Unitarian Joseph Priestley (1733–1804; DNB). BACK

[14] St Dominic (c. 1170–1221), founder of the order of Dominican friars, which later played a key role in the Inquisition. BACK

[15] The Celtic bard Ossian. BACK

[16] Possibly Charles Sawkins (d. 1818), educated at Christ Church, Oxford, BA 1778, and from 1797 Perpetual Curate of Binsey, Oxfordshire. BACK

[17] Jacques Pierre Brissot (1754–1793), a leading Girondist, was executed in October 1793. BACK

[18] Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BC– AD 65), Stoic philosopher and dramatist, who proclaimed the need to accept suffering. He committed suicide after being accused of involvement in the Pisonian conspiracy against Nero. BACK

[19] Charlotte Corday (1768–1793) who, on 13 July 1793, stabbed Jean Paul Marat (1743–1793) to death in his bath. She was guillotined four days later. BACK

[20] Sisera was the captain of Jabin, King of Canaan, and killed by Jael; see Judges 4: 21. BACK

[21] The King of the Amalekites was killed by the prophet Samuel; see 1 Samuel 15: 33. BACK

[22] Southey’s maternal grandmother Margaret, née Bradford. Her first husband was John Tyler, her second, Edward Hill. She lived at Bedminster, near Bristol. BACK

[23] Samuel Jackson Pratt (pseud. Courtney Melmoth) (1749–1814; DNB), Liberal Opinions, upon Animals, Man, and Providence (1775–1777). BACK

[24] Boys who had bullied Southey at Westminster School. William Forester (d. 1794), educated at Westminster School (adm. 1782), later entered the army and died of yellow fever during the St Domingo expedition of 1794; Robert Brice (d. 1812), became a lieutenant-colonel and died in India. Selim is a nickname for an unidentified contemporary at Westminster. BACK

[25] say what he ... topsy-turvy: Cross hatched. BACK

[26] — CC’s club ... pretty Plato: Written on address section of fol. 2v. BACK

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March 2009