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

92. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 6 June 1794 ⁠* 

Aristodemus [1] 

————

The Messenians during their struggle with Lacedæmon applied to the Delphian oracle. The Pythoness declared that a virgin of the blood of Apytus must be sacrificed to the infernal deities. lots were cast & the daughter of Lyciscus was the destind victim. Lyciscus however bribed a priest to declare the child suppositious & taking advantage of the confusion deserted with her to Sparta. upon this Aristodemus “a man in whom superstition or ambition or perhaps both together had stifled paternal tenderness, voluntarily offered his own daughter for the victim. the virgin was betrothed to a young Messenian of highest rank & estimation. he insisted that the daughter of Aristodemus now belonged to him, & when this plea was overuled, declared that she could no longer answer the demand of the oracle, for she was pregnant by him. Aristodemus was enraged to madness — to confute this falshood he immediately slew his daughter & caused the body to be dissected. his ambition was gratified by the crown. but after the interval of some years his despair & remorse made him kill himself upon his daughters tomb.

———

Scene a cypress grove. a sepulchre. Time — Night.

———

Yet once again — again at this dread hour,
When Nature slumbers in serene repose
And only murderers wake — I come to pause
Oer thy cold grave my child. again I come
Worn out with anguish & the keenest pangs
Heart-harrowing Conscience knows. ye dreadful shades
Ye sullen monumental groves of Death
To you I come — fled from the wearying pomp
Of purple empires splendid pageantry
Sunk to the Father comes the wretched King.

O thou cold clay — once moulded by the hand
Of lavish Nature to Perfections form.
Once animate with life & youth & love
Once my Earine — again I come
To pour my sorrows forth — & pausing oer
Thy marble monument recall to view
What this curst hand destroyed; when wild with rage
With savage Superstition & the lust
Of Empire — I destroyed the fairest work
Of bounteous Heaven. nipt all the opening buds
Of promise — cast away the ties of man
And murderd my dear child.
— oh she was dear —
I loved her — how I loved her witness Heaven!
Witness the hourly pangs that rack my soul,
Witness the days worn out in ceaseless care
The night in ceaseless sorrow! she was dear,
For she was all a Fathers heart could wish.
The hand of grace had formed her growing youth
Health blosomd in her cheek — & in her voice
The soul of music breathd. her sparkling eye
Spoke each emotion of her gentle soul
Most eloquent! Messenia never saw
A maid more lovely than Earine
A happier father than her barbarous sire.

And can I wonder that Androcles felt
Thy charms? or wonder he was loath to lose
The hopes I sanctiond? could I blame the youth
For love — when day by day he gazed thy form
Heard the soft music of thy balmy breath
Drank the delightful magic of thine eye
And baskd amid the sunshine of thy smile?
Oh can I blame him at that dreadful hour
When Superstition stifled Natures voice
Steald up my soul & bar’d the butcher knife —
Can I blame him for all the fond attempts
Of Reason & Humanity & Love!

Deep in her breast I plunged the butcher knife —
Gored her white bosom, tho her horrent eye
Lookd up to me for aid — tho her claspd hands
Clung round my knees for pity! I alone
In fury worse than savage saw her sink,
Saw Deaths convulsive horrors thrill her frame,
Distort her livid cheek & strain her eyes
In all the agonies of lingering life!
With rigid front alone I saw — when round
Astonishd thousands raisd the cry of horror,
When even the priest with terror screamd aloud
I — even I her father — saw & smild.

Earine — Androcles — on your shades
Aristodemus calls — behold your fate
How well avenged! behold this murderous wretch
This worse than parricide, for whose foul crime
Language has known no name! each lingering hour
Feel all the soul distracting pangs of guilt!
Behold me in the autumn of my days
When had I known to feel a fathers love
My daughters care had smoothd the path of age
My daughters offspring climbd their grandsires knee
Behold me withering like some blasted oak
Struck by the wrath of Heaven.
hark — thro the grove
How the night raven shrieks — he shrieks appalld.
Aristodemus guilt infects the grove
And calls the angry spirits of the dead
To work the wrath of Justice. — lightnings come
Rush round my head — annihilate my woes.
Thou ghastly spectre wherefore dost thou come?
Why dost thou beckon! spirit of my child
Why dost thou show thy snowey bosom gored
Gored — by thy fathers hand! Earine
Earine, spare spare my harrowd heart
Spare thy poor father — tho he spared not thee!
Oh do not frown — thou pointest to the sword
The sword that piercd thy bosom. I obey
The dreadful call. down down thou guilty wretch
Down to perdition.
stabs himself. [2] 

Balliol. Friday June 6. 1794. Wynn & I have talked over my plan of life & your letter. with regard to the unpleasant circumstances attending an official situation — they strike me as deriving much of their weight from operating on a mind finely attempered. who{e}ver despises you — certainly must deserve your contempt. from me even insult would receive no other return — as revenge & punishment militate against my establishd principles. waving this — Wynn will thro his mother apply to Ld G. [3]  there is a probability of success, & a situation of independance in which I may employ my own abilities & wait without impatience what must hereafter be mine, will be infinitely preferable to the state I now endure.

when shall I see you? the sooner you come the more agreable to me & possibly to yourself — for Lightfoot departs in a fortnight unless you arrive. your arrival will retard his departure. I shall write to Horace this day if possible & ask him to accompany you. do bring down my unhappy great coat & boots with you.

I envy you the company of Dr Sayers. [4]  a man to whom I am more obliged for enlarging my views in poetry than to any author ancient or modern. our [5]  preface pays him a handsome & well merited compliment. “the irregular blank verse lyrics have been introduced into our language by Dr Sayers. an author whose merit tho it precludes emulation may justify imitation”. [6]  the Monodrama I send you is one of my latest productions. Androcles killing himself upon the tomb of Earine will furnish a subject for another, [7]  in which the same images may be very happily varied. I would have sent you one of the prettiest pieces I have written, but to say the truth shrunk from inserting three hundred lines in a letter — tis intitled the Retrospect [8]  & you shall see it on your arrival. innumerable plans lie in my casette. of late I have been succesful in writing & encourage the favourable moment. — in this there is too much egotism. so to change the subject let me ask your opinion on the much controverted subjects of Free Will & Necessity. if I mistake {not} you will be as much surprized at the question as I was when first it met me. tis not a point of trivial importance — for it involves in its consequences the most important benefits to society. the case is this. does Man act from free will — or is he is uniformly necessitated to act as he really acts. after much consideration much prejudice & much argument I am convinced that he is uniformly necessitated to act; & that no man in any period of his life could act differently from what he did.

all actions must be voluntary or involuntary — & we know that there are both kinds. choice cannot be attributed to an involuntary action & the very idea of a voluntary action is that of an action which you perform because you have motives for doing it. you act in obedience to motive — you are necessitated so to do — & it little matters to say that you chuse the motive from Free Will — as there must have been motive for the choice & if you add link to link ad infinitum still you {must} make motive the beginning of the chain. — ponder this well. tis an abstruse subject. but of the utmost importance. upon this rests the propriety or impropriety of revenge & punishment. “the doctrine of Necessity once establishd destroys the existence of Virtue & Vice”. [9]  so say its antagonists. before I answer this tis necessary to observe that we must never judge principles from consequences. if principles be right they must be admitted be the consequences what they may. Fiat Justitia — ruat cælum. [10]  — the difference between virtue & vice will still exist — but the Necessarian will not look upon the instrument of a bad deed with anger or abhorrence. he will pity him. anger & revenge must cease. & punishment is only a legal modification of revenge. the difference between virtue & vice exists in the physical nature of things — & from that physical constitution — the one will always be an object of desire & the other of disgust. the more you consider this the stronger these arguments will appear.

tis needless to point out the difference between Necessity & Predestination. you own reflection will mark it.

how like you the abstruse field of metaphysics? I have been pretty deep in it of late. it requires abstraction & sometimes fatigues the mind. but mind like body is strengthened by habital exercise. —

I have been bathing since I laid down the pen. the clear waters of Isis may tempt you to visit Oxford shortly. tis needless to say how glad I shall be to receive you. you will find me the same as usual. perhaps taller & perhaps a little thinner. let me hear from you soon, & in your next fix the time of coming. tis probable that when I next see London it will be to fix my residence there in some capacity or other. in spite of my dislike to the place tis expedient to be there — & after all there is nothing in place. Pone me nigris ubi nulla &c [11] 

the time will hardly permit of my writing to Horace by this post. I shall however attempt it. CC is well & in many points improved. Wynn is under purgation. for me I have no ailments. one day passes like another without even the variety of a dose of physic.

by the by I have not got the verses you gave me on my last birthday. & Horace has got our imperfect commentary on the Nasty Cook. both of these if you will bring with you I shall be glad to transcribe. Farewell. my respectful remembrances to Mrs D. I am obliged by her letter. your father & mother are well I hope. remember me to Harry.

yrs in sincerity

R.S.


Notes

* Address: Grosvenor Charles Bedford Esqr/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster./ Single
Stamped: OXFORD
Postmark: AJU/ 7/ 94
Watermarks: G R in a circle; figure of Britannia
Endorsement: Recd. June 7th. 1794 Ansd June 11th 1794/ & sent. 12th
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Published anonymously in the Monthly Magazine, 3 (April 1797), 270–272. Aristodemus was a mythical king of Messenia. See Pausanius (AD C2), Descriptions of Greece, 4. 9.1–10 and 4. 13.4. Southey has expanded on his source, providing names for Aristodemus’s daughter and her lover. BACK

[2] Yet once ... stabs himself: Verse in double columns. BACK

[3] Charlotte Wynn (1754–1832) was the sister of the Foreign Secretary, William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville (1759–1834; DNB). BACK

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

[5] Southey and Robert Lovell. BACK

[6] The quotation is probably from a preface intended for the collection Robert Lovell and Southey were planning to publish under the pseudonyms ‘Valentine’ and ‘Orson’. The volume did not appear. BACK

[7] If Southey wrote this second monodrama, it has not survived. BACK

[8] A revised version of ‘The Retrospect’ appeared in Southey and Lovell’s Poems (1795). BACK

[9] A paraphrase of William Godwin, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice, 2 vols (London, 1793), I, p. 291. BACK

[10] A commonly used legal phrase. The Latin translates as ‘let justice be done, though the heavens fall’. BACK

[11] An adaptation of Horace (65–8 BC), Odes, Book 1, no. 22, line 17. The Latin translates as ‘put me in a black [land] where no [tree is refreshed by summer breezes]’. BACK

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March 2009