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387. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 12 March 1799 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Burnett has mistaken my complaint, & you have mistaken my disposition. at one time I was apprehensive of some local complaint of the heart, but there is no danger of its growing too hard, & the affection is merely nervous. the only consequence which there is any reason to dread, is that it may totally unfit me for the confinement of London & a Lawyer’s office. I shall make the attempt, somewhat heartlessly, & discouraged by the prognostics of my medical adviser. [1]  if my health suffers I will abandon it at once – at the age of 25 there is little leisure for waiting – the world will be again before me – or if xx following xxxx xxxxxxxx legs xxxxxx xxx xxxxxxxx xxxx xxxxxxxxx Burnett – & the prospect sufficiently comfortable. I have no wants & few wishes. literary exertion is almost as necessary to me now as meat & drink, & with an undivided attention I could do much. – Once indeed I had a mimosa-sensibility, but it has long been rooted out. five years ago I counteracted Rousseau by dieting upon Godwin & Epictetus. [2]  they did me some good, but Time has done more. I have a dislike to all strong emotion & avoid whatever would excite it. a book like Werter [3]  gives me now unmingled pain. in my own writings you may observe that I rather dwell upon what affects than what agitates.

You will by this I suppose have received my volume. [4]  when another edition of the first is printed you shall have an answerable copy.

I should much like more reliques of Rowley [5]  – were it not that the language would preclude them, like the other reliques, from ever becoming popular. a ballad or two – some fragments of a Romance – & more books of the English Metamorphoses [6]  might make an amusing volume. these are tempting subjects. eight years ago I thought of continuing the Metamorphoses – & soon after actually planned six books to compleat the Faery Queen, & wrote three Cantos. [7]  the Cantos I burnt – but the plans I believe still exist. I should like to see your play. [8]  somebody should do for the Hindoo Gods what Dr Sayers, has done for Odin. [9]  we know enough of them now for a poetical system.

A man of Lynn, [10]  who once wrote to ask me when I should publish Madoc, has published a volume of verses himself lately – George Goodwin is his name. [11]  in reviewing his book I was amused at cautioning him against imitating a living writer. [12]  I will copy below a burlesque imitation, surely allowable, as being of myself. the Anti-Jacobines [13]  seem to be ashamed of their own verses of late. they must have known as little of Coleridge & me when they talkd of our “splay-foot madrigals of love” [14]  as they did of the “Taylors the brothers of Norwich” – correspondents to the Monthly Magazine. [15]  even party spirit will not support that precious review here. there was one man violent enough to take it ln in instead of the Monthly Review – but even her could not endure its stupid malignity & returned to his old one, in spite of the principles.

You have heard of the Metallic Tractors. [16]  a surgeon here has practised at the Infirmary with two pieces of wood coloured like them, & actually in several instances cured paralysed limbs! [17]  one of the patients declared he felt more pain from them than when five pieces of bone were extracted from his leg. the patients are astonished at the effect of the Tractors & the Surgeons at the effect of faith. I grow daily more sceptical & shall soon disbelieve nothing. this fact authenticates to me many of the Saint & relic miracles. my inclination credits the existence of apparitions – & for the reality of witchcraft I have in spite of system, certain doughty arguments, not easily confuted.

If Burnett had time to spare & were advanced enough in medical knowledge here would be a fine opportunity for him. the Pneumatic Institution [18]  opens tomorrow, & it will be part of their plan to receive students in medicine, without a premium. the mischief is that studies here, which would probably be of more importance than all the University lectures in Europe, could not assist him in graduating. I hope much from pneumatic medicine, but if the first trials should prove unsuccesful I will xxxxxxxxx xxx an outcry will be raisd against it. they will also find a difficulty in getting patients. even in hopeless disorders people are not fond of having experiments tried upon them. Davy, the young man who has the management of the institution, possesses most extraordinary talents. Beddoes speaks of him with unbounded praise, & he appears to deserve it.

I thank you for your poetry. What is the Burnie-Bee? [19]  is it not {the Humble Bee, or} what we call the Dumbledõre, a word whose descriptive droning deserves a place in song? the Lines of the 16th century I suppose you altered from Beaumont & Fletcher for the sake of the parody [20]  – the Almanach goes to the Press next week. [21]  I expect no communications out of the circle of my own acquaintance for the first volume – but I hope the first volume will be popular enough to bring in cart-loads for the second. I have begun an Eclogue between The Devil & St Anthony, [22]  for which my Saint book [23]  furnished me with the hint. there are mines of poetry in the Popish Legends. my Kalendar [24]  will be rich in them.

Inscription – under an Oak [25] 


Here Traveller pause awhile: this ancient oak
Will parasol thee if the Sun ride high,
Or should the sudden shower be falling fast
Here mayest thou rest umbrellaed. all around
Is good & lovely. hard by yonder wall
The kennel stands; the horse flesh hanging near
Perchance with scent unsavoury may offend
Thy delicate nostrils, but remember thou,
How sweet a perfume to the hound it yields,
And sure its useful odours will regale
More gratefully thy philosophic nose,
Than what the unprofitable violet
Wastes on the wandering wind. nor wilt thou want
Such music as benevolence will love,
For from these fruitful boughs the acorns fall
Abundant, & the swine that grub around,
Shaking with restless pleasure their brief tails
That like the tendrils of the vine curl up,
Will grunt their greedy joy. dost thou not love
The sounds that speak enjoyment? oh if not –
If thou wouldst rather with inhuman ear
Hark to the warblings of some wretched bird
Bereft of freedom, sure thine heart is dead
To each good feeling, & thy spirit void
Of all that softens or ennobles man.


We are growling at the Income Bill [26]  here, & wondering what will be the next measure. perhaps a tenth of capital. the people are ready willing to submit to anything. Edward the Confessor returned a tax to the people because he saw the Devil dancing upon the money raised by it. [27]  I wish he would make his appearance in the Treasury now!

God bless you –

yrs truly

R Southey.

Tuesday. March 12. 99.


* Address: To/ Mr Wm Taylor Junr/ Surry Street/ Norwich/ Single
Postmarks: BRISTOL/ MAR 12 99; B/ MR/ 13/ 99
Endorsement: Ansd 25
MS: Huntington Library, HM 4820
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 261–264 [in part]. BACK

[1] Possibly Thomas Beddoes, whom Southey did consult in 1799. BACK

[2] The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 60–after100), whom Southey had read to counteract the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778). BACK

[3] Johann von Goethe (1749–1832), Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (1774). BACK

[4] The second volume of Poems (1799). The first volume was a third edition of the collection first printed in 1797. BACK

[5] Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770: DNB) ascribed his medieval-style poems to Thomas Rowley, a fictional fifteenth-century monk. BACK

[6] Thomas Chatterton’s incomplete ‘Englysh Metamorphosis: Bie T. Rowleie’ (1769). BACK

[7] Edmund Spenser’s (1552–1599; DNB)’ unfinished The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). BACK

[8] William Taylor’s play, Wortigerne (1801), in the style of Thomas Chatterton’s Rowley forgeries. BACK

[9] Frank Sayers (1763–1817; DNB), whose Dramatic Sketches of the Ancient Northern Mythology (1790) included poems about Odin, chief of the Norse gods. Sayers was a close friend of Taylor’s and a significant early influence on Southey. BACK

[10] The port of Kings Lynn, Norfolk. BACK

[11] George Goodwin (dates unknown), Rising Castle, With Other Poems (1798). This appears to have been Goodwin’s only book, although he contributed two new poems, ‘Omar at the Tomb of Azza’ and ‘Fragments’, to Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 219–222, 281–283. BACK

[12] Critical Review, 25 (March 1799), 314–318. BACK

[13] The editors of and contributors to the Anti-Jacobin Review, who had lampooned Southey, Coleridge and other members of their circle. BACK

[14] An attack on Southey, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd, in ‘The Anarchists. – An Ode’, in Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 1 (September 1798), 366. BACK

[15] Anti-Jacobin Review and Magazine, 1 (August 1798), 201. BACK

[16] The quack remedy Perkins Patent Tractors, created by Elisha Perkins (1741–1799). Drawing on experiments conducted by Luigi Galvani (1737–1798), Perkins theorized that redirecting the body’s natural electricity could draw out pain and disease. He developed brass and iron rods of about 4 inches in length, with one flat side and one round side with one blunt end and one pointed end. The practitioner held the rods in his hand and rested the point of the rods on the skin. Then he stroked or drew the tractors over the unhealthy area of the body to attract and draw out affliction; see Benjamin Douglas Perkins (1774–1810), The Influence of Metallic Tractors on the Human Body (1798). The subject of much controversy, Perkinism was attacked by James Gillray (1757–1815; DNB) in his satirical print ‘Metallic Tractors’ (1801). BACK

[17] The experiments carried out at the Bristol Infirmary (probably by a Mr Smith and his colleagues) and various Bristolian medical establishments to expose the quack medicine behind Perkinism are described in John Haygarth (1740–1827; DNB), Imagination, As a Cause and as a Cure of Disorders of the Body; Exemplified by Fictitious Tractors, and Epidemical Convulsions (Bath, 1800), pp. 6–14. BACK

[18] The Pneumatic Institute, Dowry Square, Bristol, was devoted to using gases to treat illness. Its early findings were publicised in Thomas Beddoes, Notice of Some Observations Made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution (1799). BACK

[19] Taylor’s ‘To the Burnie Bee’ in the Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), p. 64 was given the note ‘A provincial name of the beetle coccinella, or lady-bird.’ This information was conveyed in a letter from Taylor to Southey, 25 March 1799 (J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, p. 268). BACK

[20] Taylor’s ‘Lines Written in the 16th Century’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 205–206, were an adaptation of John Fletcher’s (1579–1625; DNB) ‘Hence, all you vain delights’ from The Nice Valour (1647). Southey had wrongly assumed that Fletcher’s collaborator, Francis Beaumont (1584–1616; DNB), was a co-author. Taylor, who had seen the song transcribed on the blank leaf of an old astrological almanac, had himself incorrectly assumed it was by Philip Massinger (1583–1640; DNB); see Taylor to Southey, 25 March 1799, J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, p. 268. Taylor followed his adaptation with a parody of the song’s sentiments, ‘Parodied in the 18th Century’, Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 206–207. BACK

[21] Annual Anthology (1799). BACK

[22] St Anthony of Egypt (252–356), whose legend included his temptation by the devil. The Eclogue was sent to Taylor on 18 March 1799 (Letter 391). BACK

[23] Possibly Southey’s copy of the Acta Sanctorum. BACK

[24] Southey’s unrealised plan for a sequence based on the calendar. BACK

[25] Published anonymously in the Morning Post, 27 February 1799. BACK

[26] Income tax was introduced for the first time in December 1798 at a rate of 10% on incomes over £200 pa. BACK

[27] The actions of Edward the Confessor (1003/5–1066; reigned 1043–1066; DNB) are recounted in Southey’s ‘The Tax Repealed; Or, An Historical Ballad of King Edward the Confessor’, published anonymously in the Morning Post, 10 April 1799. BACK

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August 2011