1858. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 25 January 1811

1858. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 25 January 1811 ⁠* 

Jany. 25. 1811.

My dear Rickman

I trouble you with a large packet by this post, the property of my good Spanish Secr. who leaves London the 29th or 30th on his way to Cadiz, there to hold an office correspondent to our Under Secr. of State for the foreign department. He promises me his correspondence, & a regular supply of documents, & he leaves me as an earnest of this a collection of gazettes & other papers for the whole of the year just expired. I regret much that I have not seen him. He has been of most essential service to me – I have made him all the return in my power by adding the best of my operas to his luggage.

Thank you for the E. India Report, [1]  & for the Burdett papers. [2]  Your notes upon Parl. Reform are now lying on my desk, to be introduced immediately after the foolish plan which he proposed in 1809, – a plan which could do not no possible good. [3]  It is downright absurdity to suppose that the H. of C. can be a pure representative body while there is always a regular party organized against the Government of the country, & I xx consequently semi in semi-alliance with the enemy. Such a state of things (which never existed any where else, & as you will say could not exist here by but by favour of old Neptune) [4]  was xxxx unknown to our old laws of Parliament, – it is therefore a manifest fallacy to argue from those laws against practises which are rendered necessary by the existing system, & without which there could be no Government. The evil which I wish to see remedied is the aggregation of landed property which gives to such a man as our Lord Leviathan [5]  here the command of whole counties, & enable such men as the D. of Northumberland [6]  to sing “We are seven” like Wordsworths little girl, [7]  into the ears of a minister, & demand for himself situations which he is unfit for. – Something like our mortmain xxxxxxxx This is a worse evil than that which our mortmain statutes [8]  were enacted to remedy, for it is gradually rooting out the yeomanry of the country, & dwindling the gentry into compleat political insignificance. It is not parliamentary Reform which can touch this evil, – some farther limitation of entails, or a proper scale of income taxation might. Concerning Parl. Reform indeed my views are much changed, – & Sir F Burdetts scheme has not a little contributed to the alteration, elucidated as it is by all his subsequent conduct. The phrase itself like Cath. Emancip. Is vox et præterea nihil. [9] 

Curwens Bill [10]  is a droll history. I compare his relationship to the Bill to that between Hyreus & Orion, – he furnished the skin & the superior powers the contents. [11] 

Remember me to Mrs R

God bless you



* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS/ 25 Janry 1811
MS: Huntington Library, RS 162. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 295–297 [in part]. BACK

[1] In 1809 a Select Committee of the House of Commons had enquired into how the East India Company appointed its officers. BACK

[2] Documents relating to the politician Sir Francis Burdett, who had been imprisoned by the House of Commons in April–June 1810 for breach of privilege. BACK

[3] For Southey’s account of and opposition to Burdett’s plan, Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 282–294. Burdett had proposed a ratepayer franchise, equal electoral districts, shorter parliaments and general elections held on one day in all seats. BACK

[4] Neptune was the Roman god of the sea. Southey’s point is that only because Britain is protected from invasion by the sea and the Navy can opposition politicians criticise the war with France so freely. BACK

[5] Possibly a reference to William Lowther. His income from his estates in Cumberland and Westmoreland was estimated by contemporaries at nearly £100000 p.a., He controlled eight parliamentary seats, was the patron of thirty-two parishes and was Lord Lieutenant of the two counties. BACK

[6] Hugh Percy, 2nd Duke of Northumberland (1742–1817; DNB). He was a general and colonel of the Royal Horse Guards despite his mediocre military abilities. In a vote on the regency on 1 January 1811 four MPs connected to the Duke had voted against the government, hoping for favour from the Prince of Wales (George IV (1762–1830; Prince Regent 1811–1820; King of the United Kingdom 1820–1830; DNB)). BACK

[7] Lyrical Ballads (London, 1798), pp. 110–114. BACK

[8] Mortmain (‘dead hand’) statutes, e.g. those of 1279 and 1290, were designed to limit the transfer of land to the Church, which could hold estates in perpetuity and thus build up huge landholdings. BACK

[9] ‘A voice and nothing more’; i.e. fine words without any weight or meaning. BACK

[10] The Bill introduced in 1809 by the MP for Carlisle, John Christian Curwen (1756–1828; DNB), for ‘“better securing the independence and purity of Parliament, by preventing the procuring or obtaining seats by corrupt practices, and likewise more effectually to prevent bribery”’; see Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 249–281. Curwen’s Bill did become law in the same year, but was less successful than his contemporaries hoped or feared. BACK

[11] In legend, the widower Hyreus asked the gods for a son. They obliged and gave him a bull’s hide full of water, which he buried in the earth for nine months. When the hide was dug up and opened, the infant Orion emerged. Southey drew on the same comparison in his assessment of Curwen and his Bill in Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 281. BACK