3432. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 6 February 1820

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey, Part Six

3432. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 6 February 1820⁠* 

Keswick. 6 Feby. 1820

My dear Wynn

As I have not the least wish to wait again upon the leisure of a Gentleman Usher, I will hope that my office may come under the benefit of Mr Ponsonbys bill. [1]  – The Mill, as you suppose, is at work; – the event did not take me altogether unprepared; – I had thought of it with reference to my task, & was ready with as much of a plan as usually serves me for beginning with. [2]  A beginning I have now made; – the matter will bear more resemblance to Dante’s cast of imagination than to <that of> any other writer. [3]  But for the mould in which it is cast, I am half afraid to tell you that I am writing in hexameters, – because you will lift up both hands against such an experiment. But you will instantly perceive that it is the form & length & proportion of the metre, which must be taken from the ancients, & not the laws of it. More than twenty years ago I tried it, & produced about a hundred lines; [4]  as soon as my ear became accustomed to it I found it not more difficult to compose than blank verse. Without doing any xxxx violence to the language by inversions, or requiring from the reader any knowledge of what an hexameter is, to enable him to give it its proper accentuation; but leaving that to follow (as in any other kind of verse) from the natural & proper pronunciation of the words. I find it a full & sonorous measure, capable of great strength, great sweetness & great variety of movement. This you may rely upon, that if the thoughts will support the measure, – the measure will support the thoughts. – I hope it will not much exceed three hundred lines. – But even this will delay my movements two or three weeks longer than I had intended.

My anticipations are of the same complection as yours, – & yet I shall be one of the last to despair. The tendency of the age is plainly towards revolution, – & that not in government alone, – but in religion & in the institutions of property. There are many preservative principles at work, & if the press were curbed, I believe that we should weather the storm. We are so duped by words & phrases in this country, that no statesman ventures to speak out upon the evils of the press, whatever he may think of them. Nothing however can be more certain than that the Press will subvert every thing, if more efficacious measures than the late Bills [5]  are not taken for restraining it. You see Hone is at this time enriching himself by such things as the House that Jack built. [6]  That publication ought to have been prosecuted immediately on its appearance, – & if the existing laws were found incapable of reaching a publication so thoroughly mischievous as that, they would have been brought to the reductio ad absurdum, & the necessity for a new one would have been demonstrated. – I have begun a series of dialogues upon the prospects of society, – in which my aim is to collect as much light as I can from the past. [7]  This age – like that of the Reformation, seems to be one of the great climactericks of the world. I make the comparison between them, & draw from it what inferences appear x legitimate.

I have no recollection of the letter which you speak of. [8]  But I remember writing a paper upon the same subject which was designed for the Flagellant, [9]  & can call to mind part of it that was singularly ignorant, & xxxxxxxxx xxxxxxment, & part which had a condensed & pithy manner, that carried with it as much promise as any of those verses which I used to send you by the foolscap–sheet–full to Elton, [10]  about the same time. – I entirely agree with you that details of suicide & murder tend to excite imitation. I have said something to this effect in the Q. R. [11]  & was well pleased to hear that opinion confirmed while the paper was in the press <printers hands>, by poor Dauncey. [12]  – whose judgement on such a subject was of great value. This too is one evil of our press. – But in the case of Elton Hamonds papers, he was so decidedly insane, & his whole unhappiness so clearly the consequence of his opinions, that I am much inclined to think the exposure may have a good effect. If upon examining the papers, the xxxx I should come to an opposite conclusion, you may be well assured that no considerations should induce me to be the instrumental in the xxx publishing them.

If the time served, I should like to come upon your election, & see you chaired. [13]  – What a worthless book has this Oliver Cromwell made, [14]  – without one paper – or one anecdote of xxx any importance that was not known before. I am much disappointed, having sent for it for the pleasing of writing a life of Old Nol. [15] 

God bless you

RS.

Your godson has made us very anxious today, but has received more benefit than I ever saw effected by a single dose of medicine before. – It is not possible for any infant at his age to show a sweeter disposition, or a quicker intellect.


Notes

* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqre M.P./ Acton/ near/ Wrexham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4813D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 175–178. BACK

[1] The Renewal of Offices on the Demise of the Crown Bill (1817) had aimed to end the practice whereby all office-holders had to be re-appointed to their posts on the death of the monarch. This often involved considerable expense and inconvenience. The legislation had been introduced by George Ponsonby (1755–1817; DNB), an Irish Whig MP and Leader of the Opposition 1808–1817. George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB) had died on 29 January 1820, thus making the issue urgent for office-holders like Southey. BACK

[2] Southey’s A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[3] Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Divine Comedy (1308–1321). BACK

[4] Coleridge and Southey’s jointly written poem in hexameters on Muhammad (570–632), the Prophet of Islam, planned in 1799, see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 18–20. A fragment by Southey was published posthumously in Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished): With Other Poetical Remains (London, 1845), pp. 113–116. BACK

[5] The ‘Six Acts’ introduced by the Cabinet in 1819 to curb radical agitation. They included a new Criminal Libel Act. BACK

[6] William Hone’s The Political House that Jack Built (1819), a best-selling radical satire, combining verse and cartoons. BACK

[7] This plan became Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829). BACK

[8] A letter that Southey had written to Wynn, probably in 1792, on the legality of suicide. It has not survived. BACK

[9] The Flagellant (1 March–26 April 1792) was the schoolboy magazine that Southey had co-edited at Westminster School. BACK

[10] Elton Hall in Cambridgeshire, the seat of Wynn’s relation, Lord Carysfoot. BACK

[11] ‘On the Means of Improving the People’, Quarterly Review, 19 (April 1818), 79–118 (113). BACK

[12] Philip Dauncey (1759–1819), barrister, mainly practising in the Court of Exchequer. He had been married to Marie Dolignon (1769–1805), the daughter of Elizabeth Dolignon, who was effectively Southey’s guardian when he was at Westminster School. He visited Southey in October 1818. BACK

[13] Wynn was (as usual) returned unopposed for Montgomeryshire on 17 March 1820 in the general election triggered by the King’s death; successful candidates were traditionally paraded in a chair carried by their supporters at the conclusion of the poll. BACK

[14] Oliver Cromwell (c. 1742–1821; DNB), Memoirs of the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and of His Sons, Richard and Henry. Illustrated by Original Letters, and Other Family Papers (1820). This book provided one of the occasions for Southey’s ‘Life of Cromwell’, Quarterly Review, 25 (July 1821), 279–347. BACK

[15] Southey did not write a biography of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; Lord Protector 1653–1658; DNB). BACK

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