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655. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [started before and continued on] 6 February [1802] ⁠* 

I copy for you the most authentic account of the xxxx Στηλαι [1]  – as part of your office is to settle the disputes about the Round Towers. [2]  Raderus is the authority quoted in the Acta Sanctorum . T. 1. p. 262. [3] 

Columnarum (quas ego omnibus Aegypti prodigiosis pyramidibus elaboratis, & pictis obeliscis, colossis, columnisq Trajani, propter ipsa quae supra illas fulgebant sidera, antepono) formae fere fuit, ut arbitror, rotunda, altitudo varia – Auctor enim Stylitarum Simeon primum columellam ascendit non nisi senûm cubitorum (sive novempedum) mox duodenûm, postea vicenûm duûm, postremo tricenûm senûm, sive ut Nicephorus & alii tradunt, quadregenûm. Modius, seu cella, sive domicilium columnis impositum, in quo consistebant, in omnem partem binos cubitos seu tres pedes patebat, tecto nullo, ut libere caelum omne contemplarentur, & omnibus injuriis caeli expositi majorem haberent tolerantiae segetem & messem. Januas habebant nonnulli, nullas alii, quod tempestatis violentia parietis partem disjecisset Scalae admovebantur, cum vel alii ad illos enitebantur, vel illi, ad alios se demitterent, quod quidem vel nunquam, vel ad summa Reipublicae pericula devocati factitabant. Statione porro aeternâ se cruciabant; nec enim jacendi vel decumbendi spatium erat: poterant tamen sedere; sedisse verà nusquam lego, numquam puto. Nam primis quidraginta diebus Simeon ad trabem se alligari [4]  curavit, alterisq quadraginta mox liber absque adminiculo consistebat, medio corpore superne velut Ecclesiastes in ambone extabat. [5] 

Feby. 6. 35. Strand.

The otherside extract hath been written many days. meantime the removal of Mr Abbot [6]  to England left me ignorant of your due direction. & I am now half suspicious that Mary Lamb has given me one which wants some of its formalities. The Letter you sent viâ Caroli Agni – after crossing the Channel & travelling from Holyhead to London, has lost its way between Westminster Bridge & the Strand. matter for some vexation – & a legitimate cause for breaking the third commandment. [7]  Yesterday yours to Lamb was brought me with the commission for an Epitaph. [8]  I will write one if I can. but what medicine will move a costive brain? you did not know that in my judgement it is more difficult to write an Epitaph than an Epic Poem or a voluminous History. with the full feeling & consciousness of incapacity nothing can be done well. I cannot – I never could succeed in these short compositions. carving beef never teaches a man to dissect butterflies. Oaks will grow on my ground – but I cannot raise cucumbers there.

Corry & I have not seen the light of each others countenance for this last fortnight. tho (except one day when prevented by serious illness) I have daily & generally twice a day, done the duty of my Secretaryship by knocking at his door. he is now unwell, but mending. I also have been & am in that sort of health that makes me think with regret of Lisbon. As soon as the form of announcing my wishes to the Chancellor is past, I purpose migrating for a week or ten days to Norwich. change will benefit me. I shall be glad to see my brother – & William Taylor. this London poisons my body – & God knows is not the most favourable atmosphere for my brain.

Burnetts pupils have eloped. [9]  Lord Stanhope seems attached to him & will be his friend. That right republican Lord [10]  is an excellent man & of less eccentric habits than there was reason to suspect. – Davy of course is well & successfully employed. a new discovery of his will enrich somebody – that the Terra Japanica is pure tannine. [11]  I wish it would lower the price of shoe-leather. Carriages driven by Steam are the most important novelties. Two Cornish men are in London for the patent. [12]  they succeed on the hills of Cornwall, & the next army that shall cross the Alps will be saved some fatigue.

I have unpleasant tidings from Tom. he is sent to the West Indies after Ganteaume! [13]  Edith is very unwell – & I fear will not be better while she remains in town. You will be glad to hear that my History is progressive. [14]  the head progress outruns the hand. I confess a silk-worm propensity to feeding rather than spinning. howbeit there is a visible progress, & the Moths do not digest so many folios as I do. Meantime I am increasing my knowledge of the Living Remarkables, & added to my list – Charlotte Smith [15]  – a woman of genius, good sense, & pleasant manners – Mrs Inchbald [16]  – very odd – very clever – very beautiful. D’Israeli [17]  – he looks {like} a Portugueze who being apprehended for an assassin is convicted of being circumcised. I don’t like him. – Turner, the Historian of the Anglo Saxons. [18]  read his book, it is the very worst in style that ever can be written – but in research & novelty of information the best historical work, beyond comparison that I have ever seen. I like the man & only wish there was one spark of genius in that dark warehouse of his. the Misses Berrys [19]  – to whom Ld Orford left so much. [20]  very delightful women. Mrs Damer [21]  – Lawrence the painter. [22]  somewhat oily of tongue. to day I am to meet Hopner. [23]  I am about to call on Sotheby. [24]  this by the blessing of God being my last long spell in London, tis well to make the most of it. Farewell.

yrs truly

Robert Southey.

Should you ascertain that these Round Towers were the Fool pillars that you suspect, it will rather favour the claims of the Patricians [25]  to earlier civilization than Giraldus & the English allow them. [26] 


* Address: John Rickman Esqr
Endorsements: R.S./ Feb 6th/ 1802; R.S.
MS: Huntington Library, RS 20
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 268-270 [in part]. BACK

[1] The Greek translates as ‘pillars’. BACK

[2] Ireland has about 120 stone towers. Their age and origin has been much debated and Rickman seems to have been collecting evidence that they were built for early Christian ascetics. BACK

[3] Acta Sanctorum (1643-1940) is a 68-volume critical hagiography of Catholic saints, organised by calendar date of the saints’ feast-days. Southey had borrowed the first three volumes from Dr Williams’s Library; see Southey to John Rickman, [c. 17 January 1802], Letter 651. Matthaus Rader (1561-1634) was a German Jesuit and hagiographer. BACK

[4] Southey inserts a footnote: ‘N.B. This settles the question whether the Crocodiles of the old & new world are of the same species. for it plainly implies the existence of an Alligator in Egypt.’ This is a rather painful pun on the Latin word ‘alligari’. BACK

[5] The Latin translates as: ‘I count the Pillars before all Egypt’s prodigious, elaborate pyramids and its painted obelisks, colossi and Trajan’s columns, because of the stars which shone over them: their cross-section was pretty well round, I think, and their heights various. The founder of the Stylite sect Simeon first ascended a little pillar of six cubits at the least (or nine feet); then twelve, then twenty-two and finally thirty-six, or, as Nicephorus and others say, forty cubits’ height. The barrel or cell or room perched on the pillars in which they used to live extended two cubits (or three feet) in all directions and was roofless, so that they could gaze at the whole of heaven in freedom and by exposure to all the perils of the sky have a greater crop and harvest of endurance. Some had doors, some not, because the violence of a storm had dislodged part of a wall. Ladders were put in place when either people tried to reach them or they went to see others, something they used to do either not at all or when invoked at times of great political anxiety. They tortured themselves by staying perpetually on their feet, since there was no space to lie or stretch out; that they sat I read nowhere, and I think they never did. For his first forty days Simeon took care to be tied to a plank; for the next forty he kept position on his own without aid, visible from the waist up like a preacher in a pulpit.’ The source is Acta Sanctorum, (1643), I, p. 262. BACK

[6] Rickman’s employer, the politician Charles Abbot (1757–1829; DNB). Abbot was in London and was soon to leave his post as chief secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. On 10 February 1802 he began a new role as The Speaker, 1802-1817. BACK

[7] Exodus 20: 7, ‘You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your god’. BACK

[8] Rickman had asked both Lamb and Southey to write an epitaph for Mary Druitt (c. 1782-1801), who is buried at Wimborne, Dorset. It does not appear that Southey undertook the task. BACK

[9] Burnett had been employed as tutor to Charles Stanhope (1785-1809) and James Stanhope (1788-1825), the younger sons of the controversial politician and inventor Charles (‘Citizen’) Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753-1816; DNB). The boys’ flight from their father’s house was described in a letter from Charles Lamb to John Rickman, [?1 February 1802], E.W. Marrs Jr (ed.), The Letters of Charles and Mary Anne Lamb, 1796-1817, 3 vols (Ithaca, NY and London, 1975-1978), II, pp. 49-50. BACK

[10] Earl Stanhope was notoriously democratic and pro-French in his political opinions. BACK

[11] Davy had conducted experiments to confirm the view of Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820; DNB) that Terra Japonica, or Catechu, an extract obtained from mimosa wood, was rich in tannin and could therefore be used in the process of tanning leather. As Terra Japonica was cheaper than oak bark, the substance usually employed, its widespread use might reduce the price of leather goods. Davy publicised his discovery in ‘An Account of some Experiments and Observations on the Constituent Parts of Certain Astringent Vegetables; and On Their Operation in Tanning’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, 93 (1803), 233-273. BACK

[12] Richard Trevithick (1771-1833; DNB) and Andrew Vivian (1759-1842) secured a patent for their steam locomotive on 24 March 1802. The locomotive had been trialled in Camborne, Cornwall, in December 1801. Their initiative was backed by two fellow Cornishmen, Davies Giddy (1767-1739; DNB) and Humphry Davy. BACK

[13] Honoré Joseph Antoine Ganteaume (1755-1818), commander of the French fleet which left Toulon on 14 February 1802 to support the French re-conquest of Haiti. BACK

[14] Southey’s projected ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[15] The poet and novelist Charlotte Smith (1749-1806; DNB). BACK

[16] The writer and actress Elizabeth Inchbald (1753–1821; DNB). BACK

[17] The writer Isaac D’Israeli (1766–1848; DNB). He was of Italian-Jewish descent. BACK

[18] Sharon Turner’s four-volume History of the Anglo-Saxons was published between 1799 and 1805. BACK

[19] Mary (1763–1852; DNB) and Agnes (1764–1852; DNB) Berry, cousins of Southey’s friend Barbara Seton. BACK

[20] Horace Walpole, 4th Earl of Orford (1717–1797; DNB). On his death, Walpole left the Berry sisters £4000 each, the house Little Strawberry Hill and his literary manuscripts. BACK

[21] The sculptor and writer Anne Seymour Damer (1749–1828; DNB). As executor and residuary legatee of Walpole’s estate, she inherited his property at Strawberry Hill, Twickenham. BACK

[22] Thomas Lawrence (1769–1830; DNB). BACK

[23] The painter John Hoppner (1758–1810; DNB). BACK

[24] The poet and translator William Sotheby (1757–1833; DNB). BACK

[25] The Irish, as followers of their 5th-century patron saint St Patrick; but also a play on the Roman word for aristocrats. BACK

[26] Giraldus Cambrensis (c. 1146- c. 1223; DNB) had given a very unsympathetic portrait of Irish civilization in his Topographia Hibernica (1188). BACK

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August 2011