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

177. Robert Southey to the Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 12 September 1796 ⁠* 


“TRAIN up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.” [1]  A sentiment of more importance or of more truth never fell from the pen of Solomon; but Solomon, who here so excellently advises, knew not himself how to profit by the admonition. “Who spares the rod,” said the king, “spoils the child;” [2]  it is reasonable to imagine, that the wisdom of Solomon practised what he preached: we can only judge of the tree by its fruits; and the son of Solomon, thus educated and thus corrected, was that Rehoboam, [3]  from whose tyranny sprang the memorable outcry, “To your tents, O Israel!” [4] 

An ancient Greek author, whose name has perished, after expatiating on the advantages of knowledge, concludes with a sentiment not unlike that of the royal wise one. “Learning,” says he, “is a possession of which no force can bereave us. It renders us placid; it is the staff of life.” He enumerates more of its advantages, but he adds, “he who has not been flogged is not learned.” [5] 

Our seminaries for the promulgation of sound and orthodox learning, as they open to us the stores of ancient literature, seem to have adopted the prejudices of ancient scholasticity.

At a time when the young mind becomes capable of receiving what form the mould of instruction shall apply, it is deemed improper to suffer it to remain in ignorance, or gather ideas which might possibly differ from the maxims of polished society. A well judged precaution; for ill will he be fitted to “make his way in the world,” who is permitted to imbibe those principles of benevolence, humanity, and independence, inseparable from goodness of disposition and quickness of perception. Usually therefore, at this age, and on this account, the child is taken from his parents.

I will not inspect the various seminaries and academies, whose sign-posts stare us in the face on every road from London, and whose bills of fare adorn the chimney-pieces of every inn in the country: I shall examine the education of a public school. Let it be remembered that, in using this word, I do not include such as combine the evils of both, without possessing the advantages of either.

The child, at eight, ten, or twelve years of age, if his education till that period has been any-wise tolerable, may be imagined at least free from vice; but if he has been fostered in his mother’s bosom, and accustomed to receive the lessons of paternal affection, it is reasonable to suppose, that the only ideas yet impressed upon his mind are those of piety, duty, and love. He has been taught to blush at falsehood, to feel for the worm he may unwittingly have trodden on; and is perhaps unwilling to lie down at night without thanking that power who has protected him through the day.

With a mind thus trained, behold him placed at a public school. Scarcely has he taken possession of his new habitation, than the summons of some despot of sixteen calls him from his rational and innocent employments, to make a fire or clean shoes; an aukward discharge of offices to which he is so totally unaccustomed, is recompensed by blows and curses. A lye may perhaps save him from this; and thus the child has to encounter the strongest possible temptation to falsehood. Accustomed to the purity of domestic life, his ear is assailed by gross and horrible ribaldry. If he can blush, the conversation is renewed with added obscenity; if he cannot, he has already profited by public education.

The persecution of decency is followed by that of humanity. The impaled cock-chafer, and the mangled cat, are daily presented to his eyes; and these barbarities, which at first agonize the human heart, lose that effect by frequent repetition.

Learning is made altogether a task to him. Steep as is the path of science, ought the difficulties of the ascent to be increased? ought the path to be perplexed by needless intricacies? if, however, he is diligent, he is assailed by ridicule. They who are destitute of emulation, the most paltry of virtues, are yet possessed of envy, its closely-connected vice. Youth must naturally be averse to harsh and unpleasant duties. To counteract his own playful propensities, and his comrades’ malicious railleries, what inducements are held out by the fatherly attention of the preceptor? Is the cup sugared? one argument is used, be he idle, be he stupid; proceed the fault from disgust, negligence, or inability, the rod is the panacea.

Suppose we him, however, possessed of industry and genius; his genius is fettered in dactyls and spondees, and his eloquence exercised in languages which none but the learned can understand, and which, when produced by a modern, the learned themselves care not to examine. Shall I lead on the pupil through many a scene of riot and brutality? Shall I paint the leisure hours of a boarding-school, where every one is taught to become the tyrant, by being treated as the slave? our time will be better employed in enquiring how far such an education is consonant with the prudence supposed to recommend it.

The child, as soon as he can use his limbs, pants for exercise: it is the instinct that seeks future welfare in present gratification; he flies with eagerness from the nursery to the garden; so Nature wisely stimulates to firm the limbs, and brace the whole system of the future man. But Man, forsooth, knows better! he can improve upon Nature, or, rather, Nature is out of fashion! The poor victim of custom is dragged to school; his temper probably to be soured; his health probably to be injured; his morals inevitably to be sullied. He, indeed, will be reading the Metamorphoses of Ovid, or the Eclogues of Virgil, [6]  whilst the pupil of Nature would be roaming the field, or climbing the precipice; he, indeed, will feel himself perfectly at ease among strangers, when the pupil of Nature shall be embarrassed and aukward; he, indeed, can converse upon fashionable topics, upon the theatres, the opera dancers, horse-racing, and the other rational amusements of the age, when the pupil of Nature would be silent. But look again; survey the nerveless limb, the emaciated frame, the lewd lack-lustre eye, the debilitated physiognomy of voluptuousness; compare these with the sinewy arm; and the clear cheek that modesty has crimsoned; and see if even Ovid can exhibit a more detestable metamorphosis.

But, at a public school, he will form connections that will be of service to him in life. As if he may not likewise form connections that will be ruinous! as if, amid such a crowd, friendships improperly formed are not more rationally to be dreaded, than those upon the ground of mutual goodness are to be hoped. May not the indolent meet with his fellow-loiterer? may not the intemperate join the drunken party? may not the libertine find associates in vice? Nay, more than this; the votary of voluptuousness glories to initiate the inexperienced.

Thus it is, that the majority of our senators, our peers, and our priests, are educated. Hence it is, that we recruit our army with officers, who escape from the rod of their schoolmaster, to tyrannize over their soldiers; who show their loyalty, by calling for “God save the King,” at the theatres; and their courage, by drawing their swords upon those who will not “bow the knee to Baal.” [7] 

As for private academies and seminaries, for “Pleasant Halls, Health Houses, and Paradise Lodges,” they differ only, in these respects, from the royal foundations of immorality, because the herd is smaller, the quantum of evil and of good must be less; and because the power of the master is greater, he is likely to make a worse use of it.

That female education is better than the methods I have been exposing, I may wish, but I do not believe. Woman, however, has not yet thrown off the restraints of decency; and much as our sex labour to verify the illiberal sarcasm of Pope, at present it is only disgraceful to its author. [8]  If, however, they be equally ill instructed at school, they are fortunate enough to escape an English University.

On this subject, Mr. Editor, I will transmit you my strictures for your next Number. [9] 


Sept. 12, 1796


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (December 1796), 854–855 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘DIOGENES’. New attribution to Southey; in a letter to John May, 12 January 1798, Southey referred to ‘some reflections upon public schools’ which he had composed shortly after leaving Westminster School in 1792 and had ‘printed since in the Monthly Magazine’. BACK

[1] Proverbs 22: 6. BACK

[2] A popular paraphrase of Proverbs 13: 24. BACK

[3] Rehoboam, the deeply unpopular King of Judah (922–915 BC), was the son of Solomon (c. 1000–922 BC). His reign was marked by wars and rebellions. BACK

[4] 1 Kings 12: 6. BACK

[5] Sentiments attributed to Menander of Athens (c. 342–291 BC). BACK

[6] Ovid (43 BC–AD 17), Metamorphoses; Virgil (70–19 BC), Eclogues. BACK

[7] 1 Kings 19: 18. BACK

[8] A reference to sentiments expressed in Alexander Pope (1688–1744; DNB), ‘Epistles to Several Persons: Epistle II: To a Lady on the Characters of Women’ (1735). BACK

[9] No further letters from ‘DIOGENES’ appeared in the Monthly Magazine. BACK

[10] Greek philosopher, Diogenes (c. 400–325 BC), the founder of Cynicism. BACK

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March 2009