The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

160. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 12 June 1796 ⁠* 

Experience is {said to be} the Mother of Wisdom — I have been married to Experience nearly two years, & if little Wisdom be not come yet the connection will be a barren one. of every event that has occurred to me I think I can behold the optimism, nothing less than the disappointment of my most ardent wishes, & the villainy of the man I most trusted could have mellowed down that enthusiasm of disposition almost tottering on frenzy. nor should I have known what my own mind is capable of, if all its energies had not been put in requisition by the omnipotence of Necessity. when I left you in London my hopes were centred in the wilds of America. I had devoted myself to the establishment of a system which I still believe to be the panacea of all human calamities, & {in the future completion of which} I expect a promised millennium, but in the ardent perception of the end — I glanced rapidly over the means.

Regardless of the rocks & floods
And desart wastes that intermediate lie
And barriers stern & strong — impassable! [1] 

for the founders of such a system, fortune ability {energy} & virtue were indispensable. the first we were all deficient in — of the second there was a quantum sufficit — energy was confined to me alone & virtue to me & George Burnett. enough of all this — tis a long story & fitter for a fire side than a sheet of paper. of one part of my history even Grosvenor & Wynn are (for me) ignorant: not that I wanted confidence — but their feelings & principles would have been hurt. I supported myself some months by giving public lectures. under the name of historical indeed — but to all intents political. think Horace of the sudden change! I who had lived twenty years in seclusion — treading in the steps of Thelwall [2]  with more boldness & more ability! — I gladly resigned the office for one more congenial to my own nature, & finishd my Joan of Arc while I supported myself on what it produced. how my leisure hours were employed you can easily imagine during this busy period. by one party my acquaintance was courted — to have altogether shunnd them policy forbade — & with respect to several — inclination. one person had a stronger claim on them — & my happiest moments were devoted to Edith. — Horace I have said all this not to apologize for what appeard neglect — but to account for it. for the future let us write often — if one of my letters remain unanswered — why I will send another to look for it — do you the same — & our correspondence will not flag.

At present I correspond [3]  with the world — I condescending to inform them concerning Spain & Portugal cum multis aliis [4]  — & they condescending to give seven shillings a volume for my letters.

Concerning Joan of Arc send me much criticism — Cottle is now interleaving one [5]  for my correction — & of course the more faults are found now, the fewer will there be in another edition. these are my purposed alterations. to introduce the historical fact which I discovered too late, that the English ordered the man who bore her message to their camp, to be burnt. in the last book to make the court arrive before the battle of Patay. Talbot by a desperate effort to pierce to the royal tent — & there to be slain by Conrade who shall thus die in the presence of Agnes. perhaps too the detaching Burgundy from the English interest by means of the Maid might make a good book & be so interwoven as to appear essential to the main action. the whole part written by Coleridge I shall expunge. of what is to be substituted I have as yet no clear idea. give me your free opinion on these intended alterations, & find as many faults as you can. would it be well to enlarge the poem to twelve books? perhaps not — as the time necessary for that will be better employed on Madoc.

Warburton [6]  has said that the Epic is arrived at perfection & consequently incapable of improvement — for Homer is possessed of the province of Morality Virgil of politics & Milton of Religion. all this I deny. the morality of Homers heroes is as savage as the age they lived in — as for politics they are yet in their infancy — & the tale of Paradise Lost is the fatal source of all the corruptions of Xtianity. it is my intention on the basis of the isocratic system to erect my Madoc — when Peru was discovered by Pizarro [7]  the whole country was divided into three parts. the King & the Priests had one each, the remaining part was the x property of the nation — they cultivated it by their common toil — the produce was laid up in common storehouses — & enjoyed by all according to their respective wants. individual property thus annihilated — all motives for vice necessarily ceased. this sytem was established by Mango Capac. [8]  suppose the King & the Priests two wens of the state that sprung forth in after ages — make Mango Capac — Madoc & you see the main design of the poem.

of the features of the piece you will form a better judgment as they shall gradually be formed, than I give can give you of what is yet in embryo. I have not written a line of the poem since I saw you in London, & only one book & a half are written — I would fain finish that poem before I die & then I shall have done enough

Lewis’s Monk [9]  I have not seen — New xxxxxxx publications may perhaps xxxxxxxx xxxxxx such publications may be made the vehicles of much truth & utility — yet have I hitherto seen very few that really are so. in his Anna St Ives Holcroft has succeeded — but his Hugh Trevor is outrageously caricatured.  [10]  Things as they are [11]  — is likewise a very faulty novel, & one which shews William Godwin to be little acquainted with human characters. I have planned a work to delineate existing systems & their consequent vices & misery, & hope to do some good by it if I have ever leisure to fill up the outlines. [12]  but to accomplish all my literary plans even the age of Methuselah [13]  would be short. if your future plans allow you more leisure than mine will, be you my Elisha. [14] 

How is it Horace that you have been {had} like me to combat the feelings of misanthropy? yet if you are more to yourself, a different conviction from that of self-unimportance ought to have resulted.

Know thine own worth! & reverence the lyre! [15] 

I too am as an atom in existence — but may it not be that very atom destined to leaven the whole? how does “the shortness of its existence forbid the enlargement of its bulk?” [16]  Man is eternally progressive — perhaps even to the government of systems & the creation of worlds! learn to feel that you are a young God & reverence yourself. We have all of us prejudices to struggle with — but the most fatal prejudice is almost universal — that of believing those who differ from us to be weak in understanding & depraved in disposition. very few of us are there, who have leapt this barrier that insulates us from philanthropy & virtue. — & still fewer who have penetration enough to discover & candour enough to own — that our opinions seldom regulate our conduct. half the democrats I know would be despots if they could — I know an Atheist & a Deist who have abandoned every prospect in life rather than profess with their lips what they disbelieved — of Christians every one must see how many are so in name — aye even to the persecution of heresy & infidelity; who are in practice vicious men. your brother Grosvenor is a lip-aristocratic whose whole heart is compleatly republicanized. these observations & the reflections they induce do not tend to prove opinions of no importance, but they should teach us that their importance is only secondary, & that the affections of the heart, form the man. hence the fatal consequences of existing systems. at school we learn servility when we are young & tyranny & vice as we advance. after that period he who is the most adulatory is the candidate most likely to succeed. vast rewards are attached to the belief of particular tenets — & when Want points out one path & Conscience another — it becomes a question for the casuists which we ought to follow.

for me — I will not suffer the calm of domestic life to be ruffled. — & hereafter — if I cannot be a great lawyer or a great poet — I will at least be a very honest one, & speak with sincerity in law prose & in blank verse — determined if I can do no good — at least to do no evil. the latter part of your letter makes me suspect that you think worse of women than of men — from my observations on human character I have drawn a directly opposite conclusion. I find purer & more affection & more constancy — take this last word not in its general confined sense — but in a more extensive signification. were I a heathen I would build a temple & worship the Maid of Orleans [17]  — Charlotte Corde [18]  — & the wife of Roland. [19]  by the by it were better to distinguish him as the husband of such a woman, than her as the wife only of even so excellent a man. she was indeed a wonderful woman. I repent me of saying so little of her in Joan of Arc — & I repent me more of omitting to speak of Charlotte Corde. these women ought to be mentioned in another edition & the edition to be dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. [20]  of this last woman you may perhaps not know the miserable situation. she married Imlay [21]  — who used her wickedly & left her. she struggled with calamity awhile — but it is not many weeks since she attempted to drown herself! — she is an excellent woman — of mild — feminine & unassuming manners. & xx whose character calumny cannot blacken.

farewell. I hope I am in time for the post. write soon & longly.

yrs sincerely

Robert Southey.

Sunday June 12th. 1796.



* Address: For/ Horace Walpole Bedford Esqr./ New Palace Yard/ Westminster
Stamped: BRISTOL
Watermarks: Figure of Britannia; W SHARPE
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22
Previously published: Lynda Pratt, ‘The Pantisocratic Origins of Robert Southey’s Madoc: an unpublished letter’, Notes and Queries, 244 (1999), 34–39. BACK

[1] A quotation from Southey’s ‘Farewell to Fear. Thy Chilling Sway’, sent to Horace Walpole Bedford on 3 November 1793 (Letter 66). BACK

[2] The radical political lecturer John Thelwall (1764–1834; DNB). BACK

[3] Southey’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797). BACK

[4] The Latin translates as ‘with many others’. BACK

[5] Southey was revising Joan of Arc for a second edition. The interleaved, and corrected, copy of Joan of Arc, An Epic Poem (1796) mentioned here is now in the Berg Collection, New York Public Library. BACK

[6] A paraphrase of William Warburton (1698–1779; DNB), ‘A Dissertation on the Sixth Book of Virgil’s Aeneis’, originally included in his Divine Legation of Moses (1738–1741), and reprinted in Christopher Pitt (1699–1748; DNB) and Joseph Warton (1722–1800; DNB) (transl.), The works of Virgil in Latin and English, 4 vols (London, 1753), III, p. 9. BACK

[7] The conqueror of the Incas, Francisco Pizarro (c. 1470–1541). BACK

[8] The legendary founder of Incan Peru. BACK

[9] Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB), The Monk (1796). BACK

[10] Thomas Holcroft (1745–1809; DNB), Anna St Ives (1792) and The Adventures of Hugh Trevor (1794). BACK

[11] William Godwin, Things as They Are: or, The Adventures of Caleb Williams (1794). BACK

[12] Southey is referring to his projected novel, ‘Edmund Oliver’. A plan of this is in an unpublished notebook (which Southey began to use in c. 1795–1796 during his first trip to the Iberian peninsula), in the library of the Hispanic Society of America, New York. Southey did not achieve his aim, but seems to have passed the title of his novel, and possibly some of its subject-matter, on to Charles Lloyd, whose Edmund Oliver appeared in 1798. BACK

[13] Methuselah lived to be 969 (Genesis 5: 27). BACK

[14] The prophet Elisha, the disciple and successor of Elijah; see 1 Kings 19: 16–19. BACK

[15] James Beattie (1735–1803; DNB), The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius. A Poem. Book the First (1771), Book 1, stanza 9, line 5. BACK

[16] Probably a quotation from Horace Walpole Bedford’s own letter (which has not survived). BACK

[17] Joan of Arc (c. 1412–1431), the subject of Southey’s first published epic. BACK

[18] Charlotte Corday (1768–1793) who, on 13 July 1793, stabbed Jean Paul Marat (1743–1793) to death in his bath. She was guillotined four days later. Southey’s ‘July Thirteenth. Charlotte Corde Executed for Putting Marat to Death’ was published anonymously in the Morning Post, 13 July 1798. BACK

[19] Marie-Jeanne Roland de la Platiere (1754–1793), who was executed in November 1793. Southey had included ‘the blameless wife of Roland’ in his pantheon of ‘Martyr’d patriots’, Joan of Arc, An Epic Poem (Bristol and London, 1796), p. 94. BACK

[20] The second edition of Joan of Arc (1798) was not dedicated to Mary Wollstonecraft. BACK

[21] Gilbert Imlay (1754–1828; DNB). BACK

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March 2009