438. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 24 September 1799

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438. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 24 September 1799 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

Since last I wrote I have seen something of South Devon. a country which has been so over-praised as compleatly to disappoint me. some particular spots were striking, but the character of the whole is bald – high hills, with hedges & no trees, & broad views that contained no object on which the eye could fix. I remember with most pleasure a little vale amid high hills of which one was well wooded, many streams intersected it, & all over the green vale were fine old ash trees, as if a grove had been rooted up & these left standing. the ash is our most beautiful tree, not our finest, but in a quiet secluded scene our most appropriate – the leaves are so transparently green, & hang with so feathery a lightness, & the bark is more strongly coloured than that of any other tree. there was a mill in this vale, quite a comfortable dwelling, a saw-pit by – just enough of man to enliven the scene – not to spoil it. it pleased me mightily.

Near Totness I fell in with a country man who talked of the Duke of Somerset, [1]  (he has a seat near & had just been at it.) he was a strange foolish sort of young man, he said, who loved to walk about by him self. Dartmouth is finely situated – but on the whole Devonshire fell very flat upon the eye after the North of Somersetshire which is truly a magnificent country.

I have been much indisposed, unless I take so much exercise as almost to preclude doing anything else, my pulse intermits & I have the old symptoms. you are mistaken in supposing I play pranks with myself. the gazeous oxyd [2]  had been repeatedly tried before I took it, & I took it from curiosity first, afterwards as a luxury, not medicinally. the fox glove you may be assured is a powerful & valuable medicine. [3] 

You astonish me about the Tractors. did I tell you that trials had been made at Bristol with pieces of wood which had actually cured paralytic cases? [4]  the inference is that faith works the cure. there is always a difficulty in distinguishing between the effect of a medicine & of credulity. Davy put a thermometer into the mouth of a patient to ascertain his animal heat. a few days afterwards the man came to him Do – ‘ye Sir – please to put that thing in my mouth again! nothing ever did me so much good. I felt myself better directly.”

Bedfords Witches [5]  was omitted in deference to what I should call morbid delicacy. it is an excellent ballad. About the make weights you should remember that what displeases one person is the very green fat of the volume to another – some things there are dull enough God knows – but the Author likes them wonderously & his relations & friends wonder at them – & so they buy the book & so the book sells. like a fishermans net the book has its leaden tags – but then there is cork enough to float it.

I expect to reach Hampshire in about ten days & take possession of my Mothers cottage. excuse the damned city-countrification of that word but in truth I want an unpolluted word to express the same thing – for you know little-house is not exactly the same thing. We shall winter there – & I mean to use my legs six hours out of the 24 if possible to get the machine in due order. I dread London & its confines for myself & for Edith. she has recovered, & now again is growing indisposed.

I want sadly to see your country – & if it were a thing study promised any success, to understand your language that I might get at the hidden treasures. your Welchmen do so little for us. is not there nationality enough among you to give us poor Englishmen Taliessin [6]  & the long list to his followers down to Owen Glendowers [7]  time? or are they are left untranslated, lest by stripping them of their Welsh dress – you should expose their nakedness?

God bless you

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

I will write as soon as we reach Burton.

Exeter. Sept. 24. 99.


* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr/ Wynnstay/Wrexham/ Denbighshire
Stamped: EXETER
Endorsement: Sept. 24 99
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 84–86 [in part]. BACK

[1] Edward Adolphus Seymour, 11th Duke of Somerset (1775–1855; DNB), antiquarian and mathematician. His seat near the Devonshire town of Totnes was Berry Pomeroy Castle. BACK

[2] Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. Its effects on Southey were described in Thomas Beddoes, Notice of Some Observations Made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution (Bristol, 1799), p. 11; and Humphry Davy, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration (London, 1800), pp. 507–509. BACK

[3] For Thomas Beddoes’s advocacy of the use of fox-glove see his Essay on the Causes, Early Signs, and Prevention of Pulmonary Consumption for the Use of Parents and Preceptors (Bristol, 1799), pp. 265–271. BACK

[4] 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). 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

[5] Grosvenor Bedford’s ‘Hag’s Disaster’; see Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 14 October [1799], Letter 446. BACK

[6] Sixth-century Welsh bard whose work is only known from the medieval Book of Taliesin. BACK

[7] Owen Glendower (1350s–c. 1416; DNB), the last independent Welsh ruler. BACK

Published @ RC

August 2011

People mentioned

Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Davy, Humphry (1778–1829) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)