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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1049. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 22 March 1805 ⁠* 

I never learnt the Memoria Technica [1]  – but if I should ever have a son he shall. – When is the earliest mention of the Mariners Compass? [2]  – I have no better reference than a chronological table at the end of a womans dictionary – which says invented or improved by Gioia of Naples AD. 1302. [3]  Now have I just found it mentioned in the Laws of Alonso the Wise, which laws were begun AD 1251 & finished in seven years, [4]  – & it is not mentioned as any thing new, but made use of as an illustration – you can understand the Spanish.

– assi como los marineros se guiar en la noche escura por el aguja, que los es medianera entre la piedra e las estrella, e les muestra por do vayan. [5] 

I suspect that this implies a belief in some specific virtue in the North star as if the magnetic influence flowed from it. – this however is matter for more enquiry, & I will one day look into it in Raymund Lully & Albertus Magnus, [6]  – likely authors. – The passage certainly xxx carries the use of the needle half a century farther back than this poor chronology – but whether I have made what antiquarians call a discovery – is more than I can tell. Robertson ought to have found it – for to write his introduction to Charles 5th – without reading these Laws, is one of the thousand & one omissions for which he ought to be called rogue to the as long as his volumes last. [7] 

These Partidas as they are called are often very amusing. [8]  I am about a quarter thro them – some way as they fill three folios by help of a xxxxxxx commentary. They are divided into 7 parts for about 7 times 7 such reasons as would have delighted Dr Slop, [9]  & K Alfonso has ingeniously settled the orthography of his name by beginning each of the seven parts with one of the seven letters which compose it, in succession. – his Majesty gives direction that no young prince should dip their fingers into the dish in an unmannerly way – so as to grease themselves – & expatiates on the advantage which they may derive from reading & writing – if they are able to learn those arts. He was himself an extraordinary man. Too fond of study to be a good king in a barbarous age. – but therefore not only a more interesting character to posterity, but a more useful one in the long run.

You will see in the Madociana a story how Alexander went down in a diving bell to see what was going on among the fishes, – remarkable because it is found in Spanish, German & Welsh romance of the middle ages. [10]  I have since found a similar story of somebody else among the Malays – who certainly did not get it from Europe – or Alexander (Iscander) [11]  would have been their hero also. The number of good stories of all kinds which are common to the Orientals & Europeans, are more likely to have been brought home by peaceable travellers than by the Crusaders. I suspect the Jew-pedlars were the great literary go-betweens. They always went every where. – all the world over you found Jew merchants & Jew physicians. Wherever there is any thing to be got no danger deters a Jew from venturing. I myself saw two fellows at Evora [12]  – under the very nose of the Inquisition – who if they had any noses could not have been mistaken their game – I knew the cut of their jibs at once – & upon enquiring what they had for sale was told – green spectacles. A history of the Jews since their dispersion in the shape of a chronological Bibliotheca would be a very valuable work – I want an Academy established to bespeak such works, & reward them well according to the diligence wherewith they shall be executed.

The abuses – or main abuses of Printing spring from one evil. it almost immediately made authorship a trade. – x xxxxxx per sheeting was in use as early as Martin Luthers [13]  time, who mentions the price, – a curious fact. The Reformation xxx did one great mischief, – in destroying the Monastic Orders it deprived us of the only bodies of men xxxxxx who could not possibly be injured by this change which literature had undergone. They could have no peculium, [14]  – they laboured hard for amusement, – the society had funds to spare for printing, & felt a pride in this disposing of them to the reputation of their order – We laugh at the ignorance of these orders, but [MS obscured] the most worthless & most ignorant of them xxxxxx produced more works of xxxx erudition than all the English & all the Scotch Universities since the Reformation, – & it is my firm belief that a man of learning may at this day find better society in a Benedictine monastery than he could at Cambridge – certainly better than he could at Oxford. You know I am no friend to Popery or to Monachism. but if the Irish Catholics are to be emancipated, I would let them found Convents – only restricting them from taking the vows till after a certain age, as Catharine did in Russia. [15]  tho perhaps it may be as well to encourage any thing which would diminish the xxxxx Patrician [16]  breed. The good would be that they would get the country cultivated, & serve as good inns, & gradually civilise it. As the island unluckily is theirs & there is no getting the Devil to remove it any where else – we had better employ the Pope to set it to rights.

I want to see petitions from the poor people of England against the salt tax. & am sure good use might be made of it to render that wretch unpopular. [17] 

Wm Taylor has forsaken the Critical – because it has fallen into the hands of one Hunt, an orthodox, conceited, preferment-hunting, Cambridge fellow. [18]  such is the character he gives of him. My book will suffer by the change. [19]  The Annual [20]  is probably delayed by this insurrection among the printers. authors are the only journeymen who cannot continue, – too poor to hold out, & too useless to be bought in. [21] 

Can you get the remainder of my books &c from Biddlecombe? – They are in some danger where they are of being lost or injured. – And can you send me one or two of the choicer Election reports, – Aylesbury – Ivelchester – & Nottingham. – for I am at intervals getting together as ways & means extraordinary for the year, all xxxx I know & much of what I speculate about this country of ours, in the form of Travels by Don Manuel Alvares Espriella [22]  – translated. This is a secret to every body in London except to you & Duppa, – he is to furnish certain letters, [23]  – & you shall see the whole & mend & make at your pleasure. It is likely to be a good book, & not a bad adventure. These said reports will furnish good matter for the chapter upon Elections, – I am sadly in want of topographical history, – & when I come to London with my work taylor like, shall probably find those Beauties of England useful; [24]  in such parts of the manu-matter-of-factory, which must have place for verisimilitude-sake, but which must be as brief as may be for every reason.

Heaven knows what is become of Madoc! the press is a long while parturient with so mighty a birth. – I reckon upon our expulsion from Lisbon as certain, if Gibralter be besieged. [25]  It is worth while to take Minorca for the war, – & I should think Ceuta for ever. [26]  Those Gun boats almost drive our sailors mad – so mischievous in attack – so insignificant when attacked – a gnat with a mortal sting.



March 22. 1805


* Address: John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS./ Mar./ 22./ 1805
MS: Huntington Library, RS 71
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 317–321 [in part]. BACK

[1] A system for assisting the memory pioneered by Richard Grey (1694–1771) in Memoria Technica, or a New Method of Artificial Memory, Applied to and Exemplified in Chronology, History, Geography, Astronomy, Also Jewish, Grecian and Roman Coins, Weights, etc. (1730). BACK

[2] The earliest references date from the second half of the twelfth century in China and Europe. BACK

[3] Flavio Gioja or Gioia (c. 1300) was credited with inventing the mariner’s compass by suspending the needle over a design on which the cardinal points were indicated. Modern scholarship doubts Flavio’s existence. BACK

[4] Alfonso X (1221–1284), known as ‘El Sabio’ or ‘the Wise’, was king of Castile, León and Galicia from 1252 until his death. The Siete Partidas (Seven-Part Code) or Libro de las Leyes, a comprehensive legal code, was compiled during his reign. No. 3610 of the sale catalogue of Southey’s library was Las Siete Partidas del Sabio Rey Don Alonso el Nono (1789). BACK

[5] The Spanish translates as: ‘as mariners find their way in the dark night with the needle, which stands between the stone and the stars, and shows them where they are going’. BACK

[6] Ramon Llull (anglicised as Raymond Lully; 1232–1315), a Majorcan philosopher, and author of Arte de Navegar (1295) which described the use of compasses in navigation. St Albertus Magnus (1193/1206–1280), a German Aristotelian philosopher. His Opera Omnia (1651) included works of geography and astronomy. BACK

[7] William Robertson (1721–1793; DNB), historian, about whose writings Southey was habitually dismissive. Here he refers to Robertson’s History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles the Fifth (1769). BACK

[8] See note 4. BACK

[9] A character in Laurence Sterne (1713–1768; DNB), The Life & Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767) whose arrival at Shandy Hall at the start of the second volume of the novel leads to speculation on the minute divisions of time. BACK

[10] For Southey’s discussion of the sources of the story of the diving bell; see Southey to John Rickman, 29 April 1804, Letter 929. The story appears in the notes to Madoc, Part 1, Book 11, 106 where Merlin is credited with having a ‘crystal Ark’. See Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004), II, pp. 78, 303–306, 581. BACK

[11] Alexander the Great (356–323 BC) was reputed to have used a diving bell. In Madoc Southey cites the thirteenth-century author Joan Lorenzo Segura de Astorga (dates unknown), Libro de Alexandre as a source of the story. BACK

[12] Southey passed through Evora, Portual, on donkey-back in April 1801. See letter 577 of this edition. BACK

[13] Martin Luther (1483–1546), Protestant reformer and prolific author, whose works were widely distributed by the then new medium of print. BACK

[14] Property that, under Roman law, a master allowed his slave, or a father his child, to hold as his own. BACK

[15] Catherine II, ‘the Great’ (1729–1796, Empress of Russia 1762–1796), in a bid to diminish the influence of the church, secularised the property of the Orthodox church in 1764 and placed limitations on Catholics in 1769. BACK

[16] A pun on the common Irish Catholic Christian name of Patrick. BACK

[17] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806, and Chancellor of the Exchequer, in which capacity he moved for a bill to raise the duty on salt, on 19 February 1805. BACK

[18] John Higgs Hunt (1780–1859; DNB) gained, while an undergraduate at Cambridge, the University’s Browne medal for a Latin ode. He graduated M.A. in 1804, and was elected a fellow of Trinity College. He was joint-editor of the Critical Review from 1805–1807, with Joseph Mawman (1763–1827). Southey had been called ‘an egregious poetical coxcomb’ in a review of his Metrical Tales (1805) in the Critical Review, 3rd series, 4 (February 1805), 118–121 (118). BACK

[19] Meaning Madoc (1805) would be badly reviewed there. Indeed Madoc was negatively reviewed by Charles Valentine Le Grice (1773–1858) in the Critical Review, new series, 7 (1806), 72–83. BACK

[20] The Annual Review, for which Southey worked as a reviewer from 1802–1808. BACK

[21] In 1805 journeymen printers were paid by master printers per job, rather than by the day or week, according to a complicated scale of prices. Disputes about the scale were settled when a joint committee was set up with equal representation of masters and journeymen. BACK

[22] Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). Letter 48 discusses elections in England. BACK

[23] Duppa wrote several passages of Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). The description of the monuments in Westminster Abbey, in Letter 23, is an example of his contribution. BACK

[24] The Beauties of England and Wales (1801–1818) was a series of lavishly-illustrated accounts of the historical features of Britain, produced by John Britton (1771–1857; DNB), an antiquary, with his friend Edward Wedlake Brayley (1773–1854; DNB). BACK

[25] In the event the British garrison and fleet preserved Gibraltar from attack from the French and Spanish fleets. Britain and Portugal remained allied, and it was not until 1807 that French armies invaded Portugal from Spain. BACK

[26] Britain had invaded and taken Minorca in 1798, handing it back to Spain at the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. It did not take Minorca again, instead using Malta as its Mediterranean base. Britain did not take Ceuta, a Spanish town on the African side of the Straits of Gibraltar. BACK

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August 2013