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

72. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 12 [–15] December 1793 ⁠* 

Bath. Thursday. Decem. 12. 1793.

———

On yon wild waste of ruin thrond, what form
Beats her swoln breast & tears her unkempt hair?
Why seems the spectre thus to court the storm?
Why glare her full fixd eyes in stern despair?
The deep dull groan I hear
I see the eye refuse the too luxuriant tear.

Ah fly her dreadful reign
For Desolation rules oer all the lifeless plain
For deadliest nightshade forms her secret bower.
For oft the ill omend owl
Yells loud the dreadful howl
And the night spectres shriek amid the midnight {hour}

Pale spectre Grief thy dull abodes I know
I know the horrors of thy barren plain
I know the dreadful ecstasy of woe
I know the weight of thy soul binding chain
But I have fled thy drear domains
Have broke thy agonizing chains
Draind deep the poison of thy bowl
Yet washd in Science stream the venom from my {soul.}

Fair smiles the morn. along the azure sky
Calm & serene the Zephyrs whisper by.
And many a flower ygems the painted plain
As down the dale with perfumes sweet,
The pilgrim turns his joyful feet
His thirsty ear imbibes the throstles strain
And every bird that loves to sing
The choral song to coming spring
Tunes the wild lay symphonious thro the grove
Heaven Earth & Nature all persuade to Love.

Ah pilgrims stay thy heedless feet
Distrust each soul subduing sweet
Dash down alluring Pleasures lethal bowl
For thro thy frame the venomd juice will creep
Lull Reasons powers awhile to sleep
And stain with sable hue the spotless soul.

For soon the vallies charms decay
In haggard Griefs ill omend sway
And barren rocks shall hide the chearing light of day.
Then Reason strives in vain
Extinguishd Hopes enchanting beam for aye
And Virtue sinks beneath the galling chain
And Sorrow lifts on high her bitter bowl
And sullen fixd Despair benumbs the nerveless soul.

Yet on the summit of yon craggy steep
Hope stands surrounded with a blaze of light —
She bids the wretch no more despondent weep
Or linger in the loathly realms of night,
And Science comes celestial maid
As mild as good she comes to aid
To smooth the rugged steep with magic power
And fill with many a wile the longly-lingering hour.

Fair smiles the morn in all the hues of Day
Arrayd, the wide horizon streams with light
Anon the dull mists blot the living ray
And darksome clouds presage the stormy night
Yet may the sun anew extend his ray
Anew the heavens may shine in splendor bright
Anew the sunshine gild the lucid plain
And Natures frame reviv’d may thank the genial rain

And what (my friend) is life?
What but the many weatherd april day
Now darkly dimmd by all the clouds of strife
Now glowing in propitious fortunes ray.
Let the pale primrose bend its yielding form
For firm in rooted strength the oak defies the storm.

If thou hast plannd the morrows dawn to roam
Oer distant hill or plain —
Wilt thou despond in sadness at thy home
Whilst heaven drops down the rain?
Or will thy hope expect the following day
When bright the sun may shine with unremitted ray.

Wilt thou float careless down the stream of Time
In sadness borne to dull Oblivions shore?
Or shake off Grief & build the lofty rhyme?
And live till Time himself shall be no more?
If thy light bark should meet the storm
If threatening clouds the sky deform
Let honest Truth be vain. look back on me
Have I been “sailing on a summers sea”? [1] 
Have only zephyrs filld my swelling sails
As smooth the gentle vessel glides along?
Yet have I met unseard the wintry gales
And soothd the dangers with the song.
So shall the vessel sail sublime
To Fames eternal port adown the stream of Times

———————

there is a weight hanging upon this heart which must either bend or break it. my dear Horace the more I reflect the more am I confused & distressd. the prospect seems gathering round me. my Mother I fear is declining. eternal God what a world hast thou placed me in! when the best of thy creatures is thus doomd to meet with undeserved mistery & sink beneath it — sometimes I fancy I am mad — in fact reason is not desirable to me & then only can I meet any thing like happiness when reason is forgotten. often do I look wistfully at the bottle — but if madness ever gives the guilty draught one shall suffice. my situation Horace is every way worse than yours. I could bear single misery with more resignation — not only bear it but fly from it but two brothers [2]  almost infants chain me to England. I must & will protect them. otherwise the first vessel that sails for America should bear with it one more emigrant.

how very depraved is society. by making artificial distinctions it creates real misery — by aggrandizing the few oppresses the many — & “brings into the world a world of woe”. [3]  there is scarcely one crime in the old Bailey calendar which does not originate in the inventions of political society. would man thieve did not want tempt him? poverty is the nurse of vice where she is dogged by disgrace, I would recommend you to read Godwins enquiry concerning Political Justice [4]  — but the work is large & I might act culpably in wishing to influence your sentiments. observe my meaning. to consider you as HW Bedford with respect to your family I should act wrongly. as a man justice would dictate otherwise.

I would ask a man of feeling to survey the lobby at the theatres or look at the courtesans in the streets of London. then let him say what stronger proof can be required of the wretched debasement of society. we are born in sin & the children of wrath says the catechism. it is absolutely false. sin is artificial — it is the monstrous offspring of government & property. the origin of both was in injustice. I cannot seek to avoid my own distresses by looking on mankind in general, without feeling for general calamity. & yet Man is capable of happiness. if ever being was formd for it I was. I dare avow it at the moment when I am most unhappy. my wishes were humble. every days experience shews me how little Man wants & every hours reflection now tends to fix my wishes on the grave. whilst Reason keeps the balance I dare live.

you Horace have an object to live for. I have already seen every hope blasted. already been persecuted & belied. already feel the weight of children looking to {me} for support. three years must I elapse before I become capable of supporting myself by swearing myself a villain!

in this situation you will not wonder that reflection is dreadful & that I avoid it. day follows day & still am I either with my pen or my book. I love walking but I fear solitude & have no companion. it is fortunate that I can sometimes lose my own situation in that of Europe — but how much happier should I feel were I on the frontiers of France every hour exposd to death in a cause I must feel to be just.

— Sunday morning.

my spirits were much depressd yesterday as you may perceive — in fact they always must be so when I give way to reflection. reflection & misery are with me the same — but away with these glooms. they cannot benefit —

Lucan [5]  & Beccaria dei delitti & delle pene [6]  are my pocket companions. the republican Bard & the philosopher of humanity. Lucan pleases me more than any author in despite of his numerous faults. his ninth book is wonderful & when I say that he has not fallen short of Cato [7]  in his character of that illustrious stoic panegyric can go no farther. the character of Erictho [8]  is wonderfully imagined. how would Lucan have excelled himself in the death of Cato & of Caesar! [9]  I will venture to assert that had he finishd his Pharsalia — it would have been the noblest monument of human genius. Mays [10]  supplement disappointed me. I expected more from his abilities — forgetting that the sycophant of a Stuart was ill qualified to handle the pen of Lucan.

Beccaria pleases me much. I had long been self-convinced that the punishment of death was as improper as inhuman. Godwin carries this idea farther. so far I agree with him that society makes the crime & then punishes it.

thus Horace wears my life away between my book & my pen & my bed. & you must allow it is no small triumph of philosophy that makes life tolerable to me.

C Collins never indulges me with a line. taste — taste! what a taste will he soon have when every thing is neglected for its formation! “the Deans says {this} Mr Hall [11]  says that & Mr Sawkins [12]  tother thing” it must be so — you talk nonsense you must form a taste — then up go the shoulders above the ears. Pretty Pope sticks in his throat. however I shall see him soon — laugh at the Societas — shrug my shoulders at his neglect then shake hands & be serious.

it is high time you were settled in some pursuit — & day after day should not be wasted in idle wishes — talk seriously upon the subject. know your own mind & then every bodys. but never be unoccupied

Sunday night. 10 o clock . I have spent this evening with a young man who visits London in the course of the week. his conversation amuses & improves me. I have been free enough to give him your brothers letter which has been written some days. Grosvenor will be much pleased with him. in these times philosophy poetry twenty two & a wife are very rare & very estimable. Mr Lovel has the first & will soon have the last. my younger years were past with his intended bride nor could I entertain a sincerer affection for a sister. I have sought his acquaintance. Grosvenor knows how cooly I do these things. but he is a little romantic as well as RS & unless I am much deceived will excuse if not thank the freedom of your friend.

my stay at Bath is protracted by this new acquaintance. Manna was less agreable to the Jews than philosophy &c to a poor starvd rhapsodist. Wednesday I see Bristol. now for bed. [13] 


Notes

* Address: Horace Walpole Bedford Esqr./ New Palace Yard/ Westminster/ Single
Stamped: BATH
Postmark: ODE/ 17/ 93
Watermarks: Figure of Britannia; G R in a circle
Endorsement: Recd. Dec. 17th. 1793
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 39–43 [in part; verse not reproduced]. BACK

[1] A proverbial expression. BACK

[3] A paraphrase of John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Paradise Lost (1667), Book 9, line 11. BACK

[4] William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, (1793). Southey borrowed the first volume from the Bristol Library Society between 25–28 November 1793 and the second between 9–18 December 1793. BACK

[5] Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (AD 39–65). In the paragraph that follows, Southey refers to his unfinished epic, Pharsalia. BACK

[6] Cesare, Marquis of Beccaria-Bonesana (1738–1794) published his treatise, Dei Delitti e Delle Pene (On Crimes and Punishments) in 1764. BACK

[7] Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 BC), staunch defender of the Roman republic and Stoic philosopher. BACK

[8] A witch in Lucan’s Pharsalia. BACK

[9] Gaius Julius Caesar (100/102–44 BC). BACK

[10] The poet and historian Thomas May (b. in or after 1596, d. 1650; DNB), who in 1630 published a continuation to Lucan’s Pharsalia. BACK

[11] Charles Henry Hall (d. 1827), educated at Christ Church (BA 1783, MA 1786) and a fellow of the college at this time. BACK

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

[13] my stay at Bath ... bed: Postscript written in margin of space reserved for address. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009