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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

958. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 1 July 1804 ⁠* 

It is time to tell you how after having talkd & walkd & travelled away the little flesh which can be spared from my bones, quiet & plenty of sleep have restored it. how my little Edith is a large & thriving child of two months old – & how happily I have relapsed into all those habits & occupations which were so completely dislocated by a journey to London. – At Newington I met Dr Smith [1]  & was pleased to find that his sister remembered me as well as I remembered her. I had also the good fortune to meet Mr Henley [2]  – & as of course I mentioned your name to him, & he spoke of you in which {a way} which it did me good to hear, this puts me upon making my defence about Godwin. I do’nt call him a dim eyed son of blasphemy as Coleridge did in his days of intolerant unitarianism; – he may blaspheme & wear spectacles in peace for me. But when such a man says ‘take my word for it there’s nothing at all in W.T.’ I certainly do take his word for it that he believed what he said – & xxx was a blockhead for his pains. & the private anger that this such a circumstance excited, added to that which {produced by} his weathercock instability of opinion, & the odium which it brought upon the best principles & the best cause, & the want of all feeling in stripping his dead wife naked as he did, [3]  & such a wife – & taking such another home [4]  when the picture of xxxx xxxxxxxxxx {that first} hung up over his fire place, – indeed indeed my flesh is not made of such Quaker fibre, nor my blood of such toad temperature as not to be irritated by these recollections. You know how much I hope for the human race – but you do not know how deeply that hope is rooted, & how it leavens all my feelings & opinions. To see these two such men as Godwin & Malthus come to such an issue upon such a question – did make me feel bitter anger & bitter contempt; & notwithstanding even your dissatisfaction I cannot wish one syllable that expresses or enhances such sentiments were cancelled. [5]  The reviewal is imperfect – very imperfect. such things never lie by me for correction, & I have here x no one to help me by immediate criticism. It might have shown that his detail is full of blunders – & that his ultimate plan would inevitably provoke, & ought to provoke, rebellion & revolution.

It was a sore disappointment that you did not come to London. We should have had some pleasant hours at Rickmans, who would every hour have continued to rise in your estimation, & he would have brought together a few men whom you would have liked to know. – You are doing good in the Annual Review – that is certain. [6]  one article supports another, & your opinions come together as much in a body as is possible in such a shape. – Henley said you were the best statistic in Europe, not even excepting some German whose name I could not shape to my eye when I knew it, & it has escaped my auricular memory. I can only say that you have taught me so thoroughly the extent of my own ignorance that I shall not venture to praise. – In the poetical {department} & belles letters (Oh give me English for that phrase!) departme it is to be wishd that you were my coadjutor, instead of Mrs B. & those other xxxx curmudgeons (according to Dr Ashs inter excellent interpretation of the word, {in his dictionary}, which see, if you do not know the jest already. [7]  one reviewal directly contradicts the radical system of the other. it is pull-Devil, pull-Baker all thro. [8] 

Harry has not yet made his appearance. his walk must have extended farther than I thought his finances could have carried him. I am labouring to set my Uncles affairs in order, & if that were once done there would be certain & sufficient allowance for him. I wish he were come. the expectation forces upon me a remembrance how many years have passed since we lived under the same roof, & with that thought comes a long train of melancholy associations. God send me independent leisure enough to leave behind me my domestic history! It would be a picture of society in a new light wherein it had never before been painted. – Harry will have a pleasant summer here – & a profitable one. A few friends will drop in in the course of the season to whom I wish him introduced, – & my overflowing of Portugueze information will supply him with a stock of new knowledge for Edinburgh.

I am passionately & exclusively engaged in history [9]  – nor shall I be able to extricate myself till the sight of the first proof from Ballantyne reminds me that I have half Madoc to rewrite. [10]  Do not accuse me of presumption in again running races. this is all mature for parturition, & without imposing upon myself such a necessity I should still have lingered in Portugal & Portugueze Asia – perhaps till I had past the age of writing poetry. I have written more than the amount of three honest quartos, & there are yet years of labour before me. You ask who will read? I have two grounds of hope. that the books will be read for the amusement they contain – & that I shall by other means have made such a reputation that it shall one day be thought a thing of course to have read them. The objection of bulk will be obviated by dividing it into many separate works; a division made necessary by the divi[MS torn] subjects, & exampled by the Portugueze themselves.

Davy will soon be here on his way towards Scotland. he is I hope recovering from the baneful effects of fashionable company, & of fame too early acquired. there is a notion of getting Coleridge to deliver Lectures on Poetry at the Royal Institution next year – & Davy has askd me if I would do it, as he will not be returned from Malta. I have no inclination for the task, & am glad that the exceeding inconvenience of the journey is sufficient to outweigh the only motive that could induce me to think such a thing possible – the wish of preoccupying a situation in which the old mumpsimus [11]  faith will else be delivered ex cathedra? [12]  My labouring days are over. And to preach in a London Lecture Room upon poetry! to talk of all that is connected with the highest part of our nature to Ladies & Gentlemen – would be a profanation like making the Eleusinian mysteries [13]  into a puppet show at Athens.

Owen is translating the Mabinogion. [14]  I have seen three tales. they are even more curious than I expected. as barbarous as possible, & what is most extraordinary, strikingly like the Arabian Nights in their character of fiction. princes subsisting by making shoes & saddles better than any one else could do, – a mouse who is the Magicians wife &c &c. [15]  the translation is to the very letter – just as it should be, Welsh idiom & Welsh syntax nothing so curious has yet appeared. how old the composition is I cannot tell – but the traditions themselves seem to me certainly older than the Conversion of Britain [16]  – & I am no credulous believer in antiquity.

What proofs have you that Blue Beard [17]  is Henry 8th? I ask anxiously because it is so apparently true, & I am collecting what relates to the conduct of the Catholicks at that period, which will make a very curious chapter in my history. [18] 

I shall soon send you more rhymes for the Iris – & a monodrama which has to my feeling something good in it. [19]  if you think them worth criticising tell me how to mend them.

God bless you

Keswick July 1. 1804.


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr./ Surry Street/ Norwich/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Endorsement: Ansd 6 July
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4847
Previously published: John Warden Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 506–512. BACK

[1] Sir James Edward Smith (1759–1828; DNB): botanist, botanical author, founder of the Linnean Society, a man of Norwich, like Taylor. BACK

[2] Probably Samuel Henley D.D. (1740–1815; DNB): clergyman, antiquarian, man of letters and regular contributor to the Monthly Magazine. BACK

[3] Godwin’s publication of Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1798, revealing Wollstonecraft’s unorthodox lifestyle, had inadvertently destroyed her reputation. BACK

[4] Godwin married his second wife, Mary Jane Clairmont (1766–1841; DNB), in December 1801. BACK

[5] Godwin’s argument, in An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793), that human society might advance towards perfectibility was opposed by Thomas Malthus (1766–1834; DNB), in An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it affects the future improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of W. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1803). Southey’s review of Malthus appeared in The Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 292–301. BACK

[6] Taylor was a regular reviewer for this periodical. BACK

[7] John Ash (1724–1779), a Baptist minister who included many provincial words in his New and Complete Dictionary (1775). Ash’s ridiculous derivation of ‘curmudgeon’ from the French for ‘unknown correspondent’ stemmed from a naive reliance on Samuel Johnson’s (1709–1784; DNB), A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) in which ‘curmudgeon’ is derived from ‘cœur méchant’– a derivation that Johnson credits to an ‘unknown correspondent’. BACK

[8] An old English proverb meaning they are both as bad as each other. BACK

[9] Southey’s projected, but never finished, ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[10] Madoc was published in 1805. BACK

[11] A traditional notion that is obstinately held although it is unreasonable. BACK

[12] Meaning with the authority derived from one’s office or position. BACK

[13] Initiation ceremonies into the cult of the goddesses Demeter and Persephone, the rituals of which were kept secret, held every year for two thousand years from c. 1600 BC, at Eleusis in Greece. BACK

[14] Southey was reading a manuscript translation by William Owen Pughe of the Welsh romances dating from the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, collected in fourteenth-century Welsh manuscripts and known as the Mabinogi; see Southey to John Rickman, 6 June 1804, Letter 948, Southey to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 11 June 1804, Letter 951, and Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 16 June 1804, Letter 955. Some of these were published in the journal edited by Pughe, The Cambrian Register (1796, 1799), where they are entitled The Mabinogion, or Juvenile Amusements, being Ancient Welsh Romances. BACK

[15] The mouse appears in the story entitled ‘Manawyddan Son of Llyr’. BACK

[16] The arrival of Christianity in Britain, c. AD 597. BACK

[17] Taylor had printed his poem on Bluebeard (‘Barbablao’) in the newspaper he edited, The Iris; or, Norwich and Norfolk Weekly Advertiser, on 17 March 1804. A revised edition appeared three weeks later. It was later published in the Monthly Magazine, 38 (1814), 437–440. BACK

[18] See note 9. BACK

[19] Six poems by Southey have been identified in The Iris, although he may also have been the author of several anonymous epigrams published there in 1803–1804. The poems are: ‘A Lamentation’, published on 12 November 1803; ‘Doris can find no taste in tea’, 19 March 1803; ‘To a Lock of Delia’s Hair’, 23 April 1803; ‘Cool Reflections during a Midsummer Walk’, 13 August 1803; ‘Queen Urraca’, 3 November 1804: the ‘Monodrama. Florinda’, 21 July 1804. BACK

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August 2013