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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1465. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 11 June 1808 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

I have something to thank you for, – but it is not for a letter, – if you neglect your gospel duties as much as you do your epistle ones – heaven help you! – I have to thank you for your amendment to Ld Castlereaghs bill, [1]  – whereby you have exempted me from the Local Militia. There is one good consequence resulting from your speaking in the house & taking an active part there, of which you are not aware at the time; – it lets your friends in the country know you are alive, when they might otherwise be ignorant of it.

Poor Conway Shipley! [2]  Sir R Barlow [3]  used to say his was the finest set of midshipmen in the fleet, – there were seven of them. Shipley, Betterworth, [4]  Hanfield, [5]  – a son of Sir Roger Curtis, [6]  a son of Sir J B. Warren, [7]  Prowitt [8]  & my brother Tom. Curtis, a lad of genius, died of consumption. [9]  Warren was taken out of the navy to please his mother & transferred into the army, – he fell in Egypt. Hanfield, Betterworth & Shipley all rose to the same rank, were all among the most promising men in the British navy, & have all fallen within a few weeks of each other, – & what is vexatious all fallen unprofitably. Prowitt & Tom both old lieutenants have often half envied the better fortunes of their old messmates, & now they are the only survivors.

My little boy has been very ill, & x I had many days anxiety about him. Thank God he is now recovering & able again to walk. I have xxxx {such a} rooted & habitual sense of the precariousness of life, xxx that what is to be done with him hereafter, scarcely ever passes across my mind, & never so as to excite a moment of care. I only resolve that if possible he shall be neither soldier nor sailor, – & wish I could breed him a Quaker, –

How much of Kehama [10]  did I send you? – I am borrowing hours from sleep to go on with it, & {have} made some progress. If five hundred subscribers could be found for every such poem xxx {which} I should produce, I should wish for no better fortune. – because there would be no occasion to allow the booksellers the Lions share. However by thus creating the time so employed, whatever it may produce will be gain – tho but another five & twenty pounds; – & I am rigorously resolved to allow it no other time than {but} what is thus fairly won. If you can tell me the last line of what you already have, I will send you the rest as it pro[MS obscured] It is more than probable that I should never have written verse again had it not been for an accidental meeting with Landor, the author of Gebir. [11]  I had told him of the whole series which I have planned, – & that they were stopt because Thalaba & Madoc [12]  lay upon in the publishers cellars – & he said to me write them – as many as you will, & I will pay for the printing. This stung me. … & I believe a strong desire to show him that if the time could anyway be afforded I cared nothing for present popularity or present emolument, but would willingly cast my bread upon the waters, – has been the main, almost the only motive, for my resuming an amusement which I had totally disused for the last three years. Perhaps I may do more than I have yet done. – as soon as I have determined between the subject of Pelayo [13]  & the first deliverance of Portugal from Castile, [14]  I shall probably begin another blank verse poem in the morning hours; – because it will save time to carry on two poems at once, – when the thread of ready thought is run out in one – I may then turn to the other, – & reap the ben harvest of one field while the other is lying fallow.

God bless you.


Keswick June 11. 1808.


* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M P./ Wynnstay/ Wrexham
Postmark: FREE/ 14 JUL 14/ 1808
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. 67–69. BACK

[1] Robert Stewart, 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769–1822; DNB) became Secretary of State for War and the Colonies in 1807. In 1808 Castlereagh introduced a Local Militia Bill designed to improve the nation’s defences by requiring men to join local militias for up to 28 days per year. The amendments proposed by Wynn in the Commons debate of 30 May concerned exemptions from service and the administering of an oath – a procedure with which Southey, as an objector to the 39 articles of the established church, would, in common with many radicals and dissenters, have been reluctant to comply. Thus Hansard: ‘Mr. C. Wynne observed that in this case a strong temptation to perjury existed, and there was every opportunity for evasion; he therefore objected to the oath. He contended that the frequency with which oaths were administered had much diminished their influence on the public mind, especially when they were administered in cases where there was every temptation to perjury. – Mr. Windham, Mr. W. Smith, Mr. Wilberforce, sir S. Romilly, sir T. Turton, and Mr. Stephens, joined with Mr. Wynne, in his representation of the mischievous effects that resulted to the community from the frequency of appointing oaths to be taken in improper cases, and declared their conviction of the soundness of the common law principle, which prohibits oaths being taken by persons strongly interested in the cause. – Lord Castlereagh agreed that the oath should be left out, and that the clause should remain with the provision that a declaration to the same purport should be signed by the volunteer, with a penalty of 20l. if false. In the twenty second clause, exempting persons who shall have served four years in the local militia from being liable to serve therein again for four years after, two amendments were proposed. One was, that instead of the term of the exemption for four years, the exemption should be till the turn came by rotation. The other, proposed by Lord Milton, was, that one who served four years in the local militia should be for two years, subsequent to the close of that period, exempt from the regular militia ballot. Both were agreed to’. BACK

[2] Conway Shipley (1782–1808; DNB), a member of a North Wales clerical and landowning family in Wynn’s circle, was killed on 23 April while on a mission to ‘cut out’ an enemy ship from its moorings on the river Tagus. BACK

[3] Robert Barlow (1757–1843; DNB), a naval officer famed for having, as captain of a frigate in the 1790s, captured French frigates after close range actions. BACK

[4] Untraced. BACK

[5] Probably Jon Hanfield (dates unknown) who Southey refers to in a letter to Thomas Southey, 27 September 1808, Letter 1512. BACK

[6] 1st Baronet (1746–1816; DNB), naval officer. Curtis’s son, also named Roger (?-1802) was a post captain by 1802. BACK

[7] Sir John Borlase Warren, Baronet (1753–1822; DNB), naval officer. The son joined the Coldstream Guards and was killed at Abu Qir in 1801. BACK

[8] Untraced. BACK

[9] On 12 July 1802. BACK

[10] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[11] Landor’s oriental poem of 1798. BACK

[12] Southey’s earlier mythological poems Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and Madoc (1805). BACK

[13] This project would eventually become Southey’s 1814 epic, Roderick Last of the Goths. BACK

[14] The battle of Aljubarotta of 1385, repelled, and largely annihilated, Castilian invading forces, to establish John of Avis (1358–1433) firmly on the Portuguese throne. He ruled as John I, 10th king of Portugal and the Algarve from 1385–1433. This plan was not adopted. BACK

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August 2013