3402. Robert Southey to [John Wilson Croker], 15 December 1819

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Part Six

3402. Robert Southey to [John Wilson Croker], 15 December 1819⁠* 

Keswick. 15 Dec. 1819

My dear Sir

Thank you for both your letters, & for the Guardian, which I will send wherever there seems a chance of finding subscribers. [1]  I am too far from London to be of any use to such a journal, even were I at leisure so to amuse myself. Indeed I have not infrequently been prevented from sending a few lines to the Courier, by considering that before my remarks could arrive in town, the subject which gave occasion to them would have lost its freshness, & be grown out of date. You set off with some good squibs. [2]  Martins Motto might have been added – Tam Mercurio quam Marte, [3]  as suited to the xxxx new quarterings <or honorary augmentation> which he has introduced into the Stapleton arms. [4]  This strange fellow endeavoured to establish himself in this neighbourhood some years ago, & after making himself sufficiently ridiculous, left it because no person would notice him. He sunk some money here in mining, & acted like one who was half-fool, half madman. I am sorry Greenough should have exposed himself, & somewhat surprized at it, having always heard of him as a man entitled to more than common respect for his habits & attainments. [5] 

It is an ill symptom to see how the importance of the Reporters is acknowledged in Parliament. Of the two tyrannies that of the pen appears to me more hateful than that of the sword, as a plague of wild beasts is less dreadful than a plague of insects & reptiles, & one would rather fall under a lions paw than be ea devoured alive by vermin. We were approaching rapidly to that state, & it remains to be seen whether the present measures, which are very good as far as they go, will save us from it. They will, if the press be vigilantly watched. Just now it seems likely that juries would act as they ought to do, – for juries upon political questions must always be expected to act according to the prevailing feeling in their rank of life; & at this time a favourable change appears to have taken place. But whatever the popular temper may be, the Law Officers ought never to relax in their duty. Another such acquittal as that of Xxxxx Hone, [6]  would have justified them in proposing the repeal of Mr Fox’s law of libel, – which I consider as one of the most mischievous that ever was enacted. [7] 

Such a Committee as Bennet [8]  proposed would have done more mischief than any other imaginable measure, for it would have been the means of making Parliament itself circulate every kind of inflammatory opinion, & all the ex-parte evidence in favour of the Radicals that could have been raked together. But I should have been glad to see such evidence concerning the causes of the existing commercial embarrasments as might be obtained by a Committee under proper guidance. I believe it would be found that our machinery has tempted the manufacturers to overstock all their markets, & I fear also that that system of knavery which prevails in every branch of trade wherever it can be exercised, has led them to export such flimsy goods, that other countries are superseding us with their honester wares. If this latter opinion were verified, it is possible that some means of remedy might be applied. Another cause undoubtedly is that commercial embarrasments spread from one country to another, & the distress which is felt in America acts upon England. [9]  Where this is to end Heaven knows. I am of a hopeful temper, & believe that most evils may be overcome by if they are met manfully – but I confess that when I consider the infinite complexity of our political system, wheel within wheel, I cannot but fear that is too complicated to go on. And I cannot conceal from myself that there is a general tendency toward some great change, which however it may end, must be dreadful in the process. However nil desperandum [10]  should always be an Englishman’s motto, & as the vulgar proverb says, God’s above the Devil, – a coarse expression mode of expressing a thought which brings with it more hope than I can find in any other consideration.

Farewell my dear Sir. I shall hope to see you early in the spring. Meantime I am very busy both in prose & rhyme.

Believe me

Yrs faithfully

Robert Southey.


Notes

* Endorsement: Ansd
MS: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, pp. 208–209. BACK

[1] The Guardian (1819–1824) was advertised as ‘a New Weekly Paper, conducted on Principles of Attachment to our present Establishment in Church and State. Published every Saturday Evening’. It was an attempt, masterminded by Croker, to break the radical hold on the Sunday newspaper market. Southey and William Calvert clubbed together to subscribe to it; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 22 December 1819, Letter 3407. BACK

[2] The first issue of the Guardian, 12 December 1819, contained some short satires on public figures. BACK

[3] ‘made for wisdom as much as war’; an inversion of the motto of the poet George Gascoigne (c. 1535–1577; DNB). BACK

[4] Martin Bree (1771–1842), formerly of Braithwaite Lodge near Keswick, changed his name to Stapylton in 1817 to inherit the estates of his uncle, Sir Martin Stapylton (1751–1817), 8th Baronet, of Myton. He had previously been known as a quack doctor, especially in the treatment of venereal disease, and had engaged in some unsuccessful mining ventures in the Keswick area. He was lampooned in the first issue of the Guardian, 12 December 1819. Southey here jokes that Bree has added ‘wisdom’ to the existing Stapylton reputation for valour, exhibited previously in the Crusades and the Hundred Years War. BACK

[5] George Bellas Greenough had resigned his commission in the Light Horse Volunteers of London and Westminster in protest at the ‘Peterloo’ Massacre of 16 August 1819. The two letters he sent to his commanding officer were published in both the Morning Chronicle, 5 November 1819, and the Times, 6 November 1819. The first (dated 18 October 1819) described the Massacre as ‘an unexampled abuse of magisterial authority’ and set out the reasons for his resignation: ‘I cannot consent to serve any longer in a corps, in which the only security I have for not being engaged in civil warfare, is the discretion of the Ministers … and the magistrates who framed such a declaration’. The second letter (dated 2 November 1819) gave the reason for deciding to publicise his resignation: ‘The dismissal of Lord Fitzwilliam from the Lord Lieutenancy of the West Riding of Yorkshire, for having promoted an inquiry into the unconstitutional proceedings at Manchester, and an addition of 10,000 men to the regular army, for the purpose of intimidating the people, are circumstances which require that the motives of my resignation should be distinctly avowed. The day is come, when the friends of a free Government must speak out, unless they mean to be silenced for ever.’ BACK

[6] William Hone had been acquitted at three successive trials 18–20 December 1817 of blasphemous and seditious libel. BACK

[7] The Libel Act (1792), promoted by Charles James Fox, gave the main responsibility for deciding whether a publication was libellous to the jury in a trial, rather than the judge. BACK

[8] Henry Grey Bennet (1777–1836), Whig MP for Shrewsbury 1806–1807, 1811–1826 and prominent critic of the government. On 9 December 1819 he proposed a select committee to investigate the ‘state of the manufacturing districts’, but was opposed by the government and his motion was lost. Here Southey sets out some of the arguments against such a committee that John Rickman had elaborated in his letter to Southey of 11 December 1819. BACK

[9] The ‘Panic of 1819’ in the United States was a major financial crisis that had plunged the American economy into depression. BACK

[10] ‘No need to despair’. BACK

People mentioned

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)