2006. Robert Southey to Neville White, 27 December 1811

2006. Robert Southey to Neville White, 27 December 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick, Dec. 27. 1811.

My Dear Neville,

It is needless to say that I will, with great pleasure, peruse the tales [1]  you mention, and give you my real opinion as to their fitness for the press. That they would obtain an immediate sale is certain; everything beyond this must depend upon their merit; and I confess I am a little apprehensive upon this score, merely because of Henry’s youth. It is one thing to write poems, and another to write a tale. The former requires feeling, fancy, imagination – things to be found within – and a command of language which memory is very soon able to supply; the latter a knowledge of human character and of the human mind, for which experience is necessary. Of course, this fear of mine only applies to Henry to him only on account of his age at which he wrote it.

We in the country here are thinking and talking of nothing but these dreadful murders, which seem to bring a stigma, not merely on the police, but on the land we live in, and even our human nature. [2]  No circumstances which did not concern myself ever disturbed me so much. I have been more affected, more agitated, but never had so mingled a feeling of horror, and indignation, and astonishment, with a sense of insecurity too, which no man in this state of society ever felt before, and a feeling that the national character is disgraced. I have very long felt the necessity of an improved police, and these dreadful events, I hope and trust will lead to the establishment of one as vigilant as that of Paris used to be. The police laws cannot be too rigorous; and the usual objection that a rigorous police is inconsistent with English liberty might easily be shown to be absurd.

I am at present reprinting, in a separate and enlarged form, the essay upon the “New System of Education,” which appeared in the last “Quarterly.” [3]  The subject, as connected with the well-being of society, is a very important one, and the dispute in both parts, personal and political, must, I think, be decided by it, in every fair and well-judging mind. A few days ago I received a curious proof of the effect which is produced by writing in the “Quarterly.” A circular letter was sent me from Bristol, containing the resolutions of the Bristol Church of England Tract Society, newly established, as it evidently appears, in consequence of the suggestions with which my essay upon the “Evangelical Poets” concluded, and the letter itself consisting in great part of my own words. [4] 

A merry Christmas to you, and a happy new year, and as many happy returns as you deserve, which are as many as you can desire. I am very busy, and very well; and having no drawback of disquietude, this is being very happy. God bless you.

Yours affectionately,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 247–249. BACK

[1] Prose tales written by a youthful Henry Kirke White and not included in Southey’s Remains (1807). Some of Kirke White’s prose was later printed as The Prose Remains of Henry Kirke White (1824). BACK

[2] The Ratcliffe Highway murders. Two attacks, on 7 and 19 December 1811, in London, which led to the death of seven people. The brutality of the crimes led to public outrage and panic, stoked by sensationalist newspaper reporting. The prime suspect, John Williams (1783/4–1811; DNB), was arrested on 24 December, but hanged himself in prison on 27 December before a trial could take place. His corpse was dragged through the streets and (according to custom) buried at a crossroads with a stake through the heart. The panic caused by the crimes led to an investigation into the London night watch in 1812. BACK

[3] Southey’s defence of Andrew Bell’s system over Joseph Lancaster’s had appeared in the Quarterly Review, 6 (August 1811), 264–304. This formed the basis of his The Origin, Nature, and Object, of the New System of Education (1812). BACK

[4] The object of the Bristol Church of England Tract Society, founded in 1811, was ‘to circulate in a cheap form, among the poor members of the Church of England, her Homilies, the Lives of their Reformers and Martyrs, Extracts from her Writings, and from the Publications of her Bishops; with such short Pieces illustrative of the primitive History, Constitution and Discipline of the Church, as the Committee may approve’; see The Christian Guardian (and Church of England Magazine) 4 (July 1812), 252. It thus followed ideas set out in Southey’s review of Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching. By a Barrister (1809), Quarterly Review, 4 (November 1810), 480–514. BACK

People mentioned

White, Henry Kirke (1785–1806) (mentioned 3 times)
Bell, Andrew (1753–1832) (mentioned 1 time)
Lancaster, Joseph (1778–1838) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)