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

80. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 24 January–18 February 1794 ⁠* 

Friday. Jany. 24. 1794.

Once more am I settled in Balliol — once more among my friends — alternately studying & philosophizing — railing at collegiate folly & enjoying rational society. my prospects in life totally altered — waiting eagerly to cut up human flesh & resolved to come out Æsculæpius [1]  secundus. so much for myself. for you I have more to say & perhaps more to apprehend. as usual your letter partly pleases & altogether distresses me. take care Horace — the crimes of St Preux were of a less dreadful nature than that of Werter. [2] 

I need not tell you with what pleasure my frequent perusals of Werter have been attended. for six months I was never without it in my pocket — the character is natural. at least it appeared so when tried by the touch-stone of my own heart. yet there are some minds upon which this would operate differently. to use a vulgar proverb “whats one mans meet is another mans poison. I consider suicide as a crime — as heinous as irrevocable. if you can suppose a man without connections friends or relations, still suicide would not be justifiable. while there is a possibility that life can be of service to society it is criminal to die.

the harpsichord at Maize Hill vibrated on your heart. I pitied & condemned you. excuse me if I expe suspected this from the first. your expressions were too warm for an acquaintance & too empassioned for a friend —

Tuesday. Feby. 18.

you see how long an interval has elapsed since I began your letter. the various occupations & amusements of a University must plead my excuse. & the decaying state of my eyes now so weak as totally to prevent reading or writing by candle-light must explain what hours I necessarily lose.

Continually am I asked at Christ Church, what does Horace Bedford mean to do with himself, & why is he wasting his time. to these questions I can give no answer — but it is time you should. it is necessary you should absolutely fix. if you chuse one of the three professions — come to Oxford if the Exchequer do not delay. I have often said this personally to you. you will excuse the repetition as you know the will with which it is made. the University is the place most proper for you, since you want society & know how to select it. do let me soon know what you mean to do. to continue vegetating thus is impossible.

& now to literary subjects. Glover has written the two Tragedies of Boadicea & Medea. [3]  in the first I see but one fault it is that the Romans are treated too respectfully — the remark has been made by abler critics & will be confirmd by every one who reads the drama. in Medea he has introduced blank lyric but confined them to Iambics & Trochaics. I speak from memory but think it is right. this is all that I have seen of Glovers. Lovell however tells me he has written a very beautiful ode upon Astronomy prefixd to Newtons works. [4]  this I wish much to see, as Lovells taste is good & Wynn confirms his judgment of the ode. the Leonidas [5]  is a very fine poem in my opinion. J. Warton says it is written with the simplicity of an antient; [6]  when Glover wrote that simplicity of diction was the fashion — a more vitiated taste prevails at present, since Johnson sonorized our prose & the imitators of Collins & Gray [7]  loaded our poetry with awkard imagery & cumbrous metaphor. into this meretricious stile I know myself frequently to have fallen & am pleased to see myself daily reclaiming. simplicity is all in all. you will read the epics of Glover with renewed pleasure upon every perusal.

of blank lyrics my predilection strengthens. Milton Collins Glover & Sayers [8]  are good names to establish a precedent. I am proud of inventing the new metre in the 1st of June & December. [9]  March approaches & another ode with it. if your brother has read Sayers, Della Crusca, [10]  & Beatties Minstrel [11]  I could wish him to send them here with my great coat & boots. tell him so, & let me have my long estranged & long lamented bear as soon as you conveniently can. now do not forget this when you have read the letter — I remember it feelingly every morning at chapel.

Charles Collins was with us here two hours last night over a bowl of buttered beer. in that way I often see him. to his parties I never am invited, & of course never intrude. we are not so intimate as we were — perhaps for the reason in Lucan [12]  — he can bear no equal — I dislike the appearance of assumed superiority — the presence of one who really is much superior, yet who behaves with modest affability & gives instruction when he seems to seeks it is to me the highest entertainment. for this reason I court Elmsleys company & such society as I meet with at Wynns, whom I see most days.

Our society at Balliol continues the same in number. the freshmen of the term are not estimable (as Duppa says) & we are enough, with the three Corpus men who generally join us. the fiddle with one string is gone, & its place supplied by a harpsichord in Burnetts room. Lightfoot still melodizes on the flute & if I had but a Jews Harp the concert would be complete.

You do not know with what pleasure I opened Mrs Deacons letter, or how its contents damped my spirits for the day. I had been remarkably fond of Kate, & expected to hear of her so differently that the news electrified me. do let me know how she is now. Grosvenor I think delayed Mrs Ds letters if I may judge by the date. you will ease me of much anxiety by writing.

I have abjured shooting entirely from the extreme barbarity of the amusement. it gives me pleasure to find my sentiments on the subject similar to your brother. Seward Lightfoot Burnett & Lovell all dislike it equally. you may perhaps receive my Adieu to field sports ere long — the subject itself is pleasing — how I may handle it time will best discover. for writing in verse I really have not time, two letters are begun so — when to be finished I know not. my Botany Bay Eclogues [13]  engross my attention at present. one is finished & the second begun. the plan of them you may guess as well as you can from the title till you see them complete. subjects I have plenty — time & eyesight I want.

On Friday next my anatomical studies begin. they must be pursued with attention. Apollo [14]  has hitherto only received my devotion as the Deity of Poets. I must now address him as a physician. I could alledge many reasons for my preference of physic. some disagreable circumstances must attend the study but these are more than counterbalanced by the expansion it gives the mind & the opportunities it affords of doing good — chemistry I must likewise attend. of this study I have always been very fond, & it is now necessary to pursue it with care.

Horse Campbell of course is delighted that I partake his favourite study. he tells he means to acquire a general “anatomy & divinity I know. this year I shall make myself master of chemistry & botany. study the law next year; & when I know the rudiments of every science after I have taken orders apply myself to excel in any one of them.!!!!!!!!!

The Dean has obliged Horse Campbell to part with his horse. he wasted two hours for me yesterday in relating the history of his horse & dog. “Dr Pegge gave him me kxx you know, but he prefers my horses company to mine, for they are very loving. the horse put his head & licks the dog all over with his tongue, & so they converse in this manner” — & in this manner he converses, whilst I moralize upon the necessity of patience, & say yes & no with all the forbearance of Epictetus. [15] 

Do not forget my great coat &c.

yrs sincerely

Robert Southey.


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand]: H W Bedford Esqr/ William Collins Esqr/ New Palace Yard/ Maize Hill/ Westminster/ Greenwich/ Single
Stamped: OXFORD
Postmark: [partial] CF/ 19/ 9
Watermarks: G R in a circle; figure of Britannia
Endorsement: Recd. Feb. 22d. 1794
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. 44–47; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 203–204 [in part; misdated 24 January 1794]. BACK

[1] A reference to Southey’s medical studies. Æsculæpius was the Greek god of medicine and healing. BACK

[2] Characters in Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Johann von Goethe (1749–1832), Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (1774). Saint-Preux was in love with a married woman; Werter committed suicide. BACK

[3] Richard Glover (1712–1785; DNB), Boadicia (1753) and Medea (1761). BACK

[4] Richard Glover’s ‘Poem on Sir Isaac Newton’, prefixed to Henry Pemberton’s (1694–1771; DNB) View of Sir Isaac Newton’s Philosophy (1728). BACK

[5] Richard Glover, Leonidas (1737). BACK

[6] Joseph Warton (c. 1722–1800; DNB), An Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope, 4th edn, 2 vols (London, 1782), II, p. 401n. BACK

[7] Samuel Johnson (1709–1784; DNB), William Collins (1721–1759; DNB) and Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB). BACK

[8] Frank Sayers (1763–1817; DNB), author of Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790), which was much admired by Southey. BACK

[9] See Southey’s poems in letters to Bedford of c. 3 June 1793 (Letter 50) and 22 November–2 December 1793 (Letter 70). Southey published a revised version of his ‘Ode written on the first of December 1793’ in Poems (1797). BACK

[10] Robert Merry (1755–1798; DNB), who adopted the pseudonym ‘Della Crusca’. BACK

[11] James Beattie (1735–1803; DNB), The Minstrel (1771–1774). BACK

[12] Marcus Annaeus Lucan (AD 39–65), Pharsalia, Book 1, lines 124–125. BACK

[13] Southey published four ‘Botany-Bay Eclogues’ in his Poems (1797). One, ‘Elinor’, had previously appeared anonymously in the Morning Chronicle (18 September 1794). A fifth, ‘Edward and Susan’, was published in the Monthly Magazine, 5 (January 1798). BACK

[14] The Greek god of poetry and medicine. BACK

[15] The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 60– after 100), author of the Encheiridion. BACK

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March 2009