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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1388. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 3 December 1807 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

My Uncle arrived in the convoy, – & this is all I know about him, for by a mistake sufficiently provoking he directed to me a letter of business which was written to some person at Falmouth. It is by no means unlikely that I may shortly set out to meet him in London, this of course depends upon his movements.

I am a little surprized at the charge of irreverence. Few men have more of what Hartley [1]  calls theopathy in their nature than I have: few men have a firmer faith in the truths of Christianity. There is nothing more in quoting scripture in such a case as that of Ossian than there is in quoting any other book. [2]  – As for the Rabbinical story I found it in a Catholick writer (Feyjos [3] ) – & to a Catholick I gave it: & surely Espriella is in no danger of the Inquisition for repeating what had been told by the General of the Benedictines. – The book sells. 700 are gone & the Longmen think it probable that it must be reprinted in a few weeks.

On the duty of spreading Christianity you know my opinions – which perfectly coincide with your own. My religious views of religion approach very nearly to Quakerism, as the Annual Review may perhaps have led you to suspect. The Quakers err in prohibiting things which it is sufficient to despise; – they err in their principle of preaching; – & their conduct about tythes is foolish & troublesome. – Their opinions concerning war go against the instinct of self defence; – just now that sort of religion which the Maccabees held upon this subject is more called for; [4]  – there can however be no question but that the Quaker system were it general would produce the greatest possible good; it never can spread so rapidly as to lay any part of the world at the feet of a conqueror, – & if it were not for Bonaparte I should have with little hesitation in declaring my conviction that it is the true system of the gospel. – that is my reason is convinced, but I want to have the invasion over before I allow it to be so. Their morality is perfect. I should not have agreed with George Fox [5]  if he had made his creed, – but I entirely agree with him in reverentially abstaining from attempting to define what has been left indefinite, & in rejecting all those disputed terms which are not to be found in the scriptures, – not as false, but as not being there & as unnecessary provocations to disputes & doubts. Were there a meeting in Keswick I should silently take a seat in it, but I should not alter my language nor my dress, – should pay my Easter dues, – & stand in no fear of a pack of cards. Did you ever read Sir Th. Brownes Religio Medici? [6]  – if ever I can afford to write what I should not think it prudent x to publish, it will be the Religio Poetae.

Overtures have been made me to write in the Edinburgh Review. They came thro W Scott, who takes some pains to satisfy me of Jeffrays ‘high consideration’ & tells me I may {add} one or even two hundred a year to my income, chusing my own books & expressing my own opinions. [7]  It so happens that I have no opinions in common with that Review – I am greatly in hopes that it may not be necessary for me to review at all after this year. – It is work which I abominate.

I think Heber had no copy of M. Arthur [8]  when I talked to him once about it, & foolishly enough never thought how likely it is that he should have got one since. – I have not asked the question.

Here is a nursery story for Mrs Wynn. A little boy asked his nurse at dinner for some potatoes. ‘Ask for them properly Master Wilson & you shall have them. – Some potatoes if you please Nurse. – Ask for them properly Sir, – Why I do ask for them properly, – some potatoes if you please. – It’s not potatoes Sir. – why yes Nurse it is potatoes – No Sir – its peetatoes. – Why I am sure Nurse it is potatoes. – my mother has been teaching me this very morning & spell the word – p-o-po-t-a-ta-t-o-e-s-toes-pōtatoes. Poo! Sir – its not pōtatoes I tell you – theres nothing pō but pōrkay – Literally true.

The minutiae in Esprella are impertinent to English readers at this time. If the book gets abroad they are not so now, – & if it be read at home half a century hence they will have ceased to be so. We forget how these things are continually changing. – All this too is information in America. – I shall bring him to England again, & endeavour to leave a compleat picture of the present state of society here

I am applied to to bear a part in the British Biography [9]  – if I do anything it will not be till late in the work. – George Fox – Wm Penn [10]  – Wesley [11]  & Whitefield [12]  are all that I feel solicitous to biographize. The two former lives would include a history of Quakerism, the two latter that of Methodism Wesley is destined to hold as distinguished a place in history as Loyola. [13] 

God bless you




* Address: To/ C W WilliamsWynn Esqr/ M. P./ Wynnstay/ Wrexham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 30–33. BACK

[1] David Hartley (1705–1757; DNB) employs the concept of theopathy in Observations on Man, his Frame, his Duty, and his Expectations (1749). BACK

[2] In Letter 19 of Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807) Southey has his narrator regret that popular preachers indulge in trite moralising rounded off with a quotation from scripture or from Ossian. BACK

[3] The sale catalogue of Southey’s library lists Benito Jerónimo Feyjóo y Montenegro (1676–1764), Obras (1769). Letter 63 of Epriella discusses the Jews in England and their beliefs. BACK

[4] In the Bible the Books of Maccabees set out a series of moral limitations upon the conduct of war: these include making war only in self-defence and by legitimate authority, sparing women and the survivors of sieges. BACK

[5] (1624–1691; DNB), founder of the Society of Friends. BACK

[6] Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682; DNB), Religio Medici (1643), a rambling discussion of Browne’s faith which contained so many unorthodox views that it was placed on the Papal Index of proscribed books. BACK

[7] For Southey’s letter to Scott regarding this offer, see Southey to Walter Scott, 8 December 1807, Letter 1392. BACK

[8] Sir Thomas Malory (1415/18–1471; DNB), Morte d’Arthur. Southey was planning an edition, about which he had written to Heber; see Southey to Richard Heber, 16 November 1807, Letter 1379. BACK

[9] A second edition of the Biographia Britannica was published from 1778–1793 but was left incomplete on the death of its compiler Andrew Kippis (1725–1795; DNB). On 8 February 1808 a fire in a printer’s office destroyed the continuation to which Southey had been asked to contribute. BACK

[10] (1644–1718; DNB), Quaker leader and founder of Pennsylvania. BACK

[11] John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB): Southey would publish a biography of him in 1820. BACK

[12] George Whitefield (1714–1770; DNB), Calvinistic Methodist leader. BACK

[13] Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556), founder of the Jesuits. BACK

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August 2013