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760. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 14 February 1803 ⁠* 

My dear friend

I was thinking over the Iris & whether or no I was not bound in conscience to the effort of a letter upon the subject when yours arrived & turned the scale. [1]  the matter so pleased me – & the manner so offended me – for then the murder is out, & now I will say what for a long while I have thought, that you have ruined your style by germanisms, latinisms & Greekisms: that you are sick of a surfeit of knowledge – that your learning breaks out like scabs & blotches upon a beautiful face. I am led by indolence & by good nature always rather to feel dislike than to express it. & if another finds the same fault that has displeased me in your writings, have always defended them more zealously than if they had been my own. but faults they are, faults anywhere, & tenfold aggravated in a newspaper. how are plain Norfolk farmers – & such will read the Iris to understand words which they have never heard before & which are so foreign as not to be even in Johnsons [2]  farrago of a dictionary? I have read Cowpers Odyssey, [3]  & Trissino [4]  to cure my poetry of its wheyishness. let me prescribe the Vulgar Errors of Sir T. Browne [5]  to you for a like remedy. You taught me to write English by what you said of Bürgers [6]  language & by what I felt from your translations, one of the eras in my intellectual history. Would that I could now in my turn impress you with the same conviction. Crowd your ideas as you will – your images never can be too many – give them the stamp & autograph of William Taylor, but let us have them in English, plain perspicuous English, such as mere English readers can understand. Ours is a noble language – a beautiful language. I can tolerate a germanism, for family sake, but he who uses a Latin or a French phrase where a pure old English word does as well, by God he ought to be hung drawn & quartered for high treason against the English language his mother tongue.

Had I been at Norwich I would have besought you not to undertake an office so inadequate & so unsuited to your powers. you are incurring all the disadvantages of that public authorship which till now you had wisely avoided. Every body knows that William Taylor edites the Iris. Even here I have heard it. but is William Taylor to learn that detraction is the resource & the consolation of inferiority – that every one of his acquaintance who feel themselves inferior will gladly flatter themselves by dwelling upon & magnifying every error or resemblance of an error that he may commit? the world always expect more than they can find, & to this evil you are peculiarly subject because you have hitherto kept yourself back. I doubt whether precipitancy be so dangerous as such witholding. What ought not to be expected from him who kept the Lenora [7]  so many years unpublished.

But you are in so far – that good luck be with ye! is the best thing I can now say.

The metaphysical work [8]  talked of as the Orion-progeny [9]  of Wedgewood Macintosh & Coleridge was only talked of, nor was Coleridge to have done any thing more than preface the book with a sketch of the history of metaphysics. he does project a work upon that subject, of which the first part – if he ever have health & stability enough to produce anything - will be the death blow of Hobbes, Locke & Hume, [10]  for the two latter of whom in particular he feels the most righteous contempt. I am grieved that you never met Coleridge, all other men whom I have ever known are mere children to him, & yet all is palsied by a total want of moral strength. he will leave nothing behind him to justify the opinion of his friends to the world – yet many of his scattered poems are such that a man of feeling will see the author was capable of executing the greatest works.

The Sonnets you speak of [11]  are not mine. nothing of mine has yet appeared in the Post except the ballad of Bishop Athendius. [12]  you will always distinguish me them by the subject, & by the omission of common faults, instead of {rather than} the appearance of peculiar merit. In April I have some prospect of visiting London for the purpose of getting at certain books in the Museum. [13]  if I get so far on the way my conscience & inclination will lead me on to pass a week with you at Norwich. We are still houseless. indeed it is not an easy thing to find a house in the country, without land, & near enough a town to be within convenient reach of its market. We will yet go to Keswick if it be possible. I begin to hunger & thirst after Borrodale & Derwentwater: you undervalue Lakes & Mountains, they make me happier & wiser & better, & enable me to think & feel with a quicker & healthier intellect. Cities are as fat poisonous to genius & virtue in their best sense, as to the flower of the valley, or the oak of the forest. men of talent may & will be gregarious. men of genius will not. handicraft-men work together, but discoveries must be the work of individuals. neither are men to be studied in cities – except indeed, as students walk the hospitals you go to see all the modifications of disease.

Rickman is not gone to Paris, nor going. he will be my host in London. – your paper upon Berkeley [14]  I shall look for. Burnett is still dreaming of what he will do – how he will show himself & out-do all the authors of the day – which he says is no difficult matter. Lord Stanhope [15]  he says will take care of him. I wish it may be so.

God bless you –

Yrs affectionately

R Southey.

Feby 14. 1803.

Our love to Harry.


* Address: To Mr Wm. Taylor Junr./ Surry Street/ Norwich
Postmarks: BRISTOL/ FEB 14 1803; B/ FEB 15/ 1803
Endorsement: Ansd. June 21
MS: Houghton Library, MS Hyde 76 1.185.7
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. 452-456. BACK

[1] William Taylor to Southey, 6 February 1803, J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 447-452. Taylor had also sent Southey the first two issues of The Iris, the new newspaper he launched in Norwich on 5 February 1803. BACK

[2] Samuel Johnson (1709-1784; DNB), A Dictionary of the English Language (1755). BACK

[3] William Cowper (1731-1800; DNB), The Iliad and Odyssey of Homer, translated into English Blank Verse (1791). BACK

[4] Gian Giorgio Trissino (1478-1550), Italia Liberata dai Goti (1547-1548). BACK

[5] Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682; DNB), Pseudodoxia Epidemica, or Enquiries into Common and Vulgar Errors (1646). BACK

[6] Gottfried August Burger (1747-1794), German poet. BACK

[7] William Taylor’s translation of Burger’s ‘Lenore’, Monthly Magazine, 1 (March 1796), 135-137. Taylor’s translation possibly dates from as early as 1790. BACK

[8] Since late 1800, Coleridge, Wedgwood and James Mackintosh (1765-1832; DNB), Scottish jurist, politician and historian, had been discussing a joint work on the metaphysics of space and time. It did not progress beyond some notes and letters. BACK

[9] An obscure reference. In Greek legend, Orion was a great hunter who was turned into a constellation. One of the legends of his birth suggests a number of the gods urinated on an ox hide, which was then buried and ten months later dug up to reveal the infant Orion. If Southey was referring to this story, he could be making a joke about the joint fatherhood of the work of philosophy and its long gestation period. BACK

[10] Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679; DNB), John Locke (1632-1704; DNB) and David Hume (1711-1776; DNB) were all famous British philosophers. BACK

[11] A series of sonnets on political subjects, signed ‘W. L. D.’, in the Morning Post. BACK

[12] ‘A True Ballad Of A Pope’, Morning Post, 4 February 1803. BACK

[13] The British Museum, London, opened in 1759. BACK

[14] George Berkeley (1685-1753; DNB), British philosopher. Taylor’s article was ‘Is Berkeley’s Defence of Idealism Satisfactory?’, Monthly Magazine 14 (January 1803), 486-492. BACK

[15] Charles Stanhope, 3rd Earl Stanhope (1753-1816; DNB), radical politician and inventor. Burnett had briefly been tutor to his two younger sons in 1802. BACK

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August 2011