2090. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 6–10 May [1812]

2090. Robert Southey to James Montgomery, 6–10 May [1812] ⁠* 

Keswick. May 6. 1811.  [1] 

My dear Montgomery

Your death of Adam is what it should be, & the apparition at the close brings with it all the comfort & light & glory that is wanted. Eves departure is admirably conceived, – I did not expect it, – because I was chained too much as I went on to expect any thing, – but the event follows so naturally that it produces an affect like historical truth. [2]  – I should never have objected to the couplet if it had often been written as you write it, with that full & yet unwearying harmony, – well varied but never interrupted. – There are but two expressions which struck me as blemishes, – concerning the one you will agree with me, about the other perhaps you will not. – the first is the epithet “unreturning’ in the last line of the first paragraph. The other is this congenial side. the direct reference to the rib is perfectly proper, & yet I wish the word breast could have been used instead of side.

No man who looks into his own heart when he is capable of understanding it can doubt that there is a disease in human nature, for which the grace of God is the only remedy. With this belief, – or rather with this sense & this conviction, there can be no presumption in saying that I regard the first chapter of Genesis not as an historical narrative but as an allegorical tale invented for this mystery, – a mystery which has been universally acknowledged among mankind, because it has been universally felt. If I understood the litera story literally, then I should read this line in the feeling with which you have written it: – but that the <formation of Eve> is the only part of this very beautiful narration which has not the solemnity of the rest is apparent from the numberless light allusions to which it has given rise, from men who had no irreverent thought or intention.

I have passed thro many changes of belief as is likely to be the case with every man of ardent mind who is not early gifted with humility. Gibbon [3]  shook my belief in Xtianity when I was a school boy of 17. When I went to College, it was in the height of the French Revolution, & I drank deeply of that cup. I had a friend there whose name you have seen in my poems – Edmund Seward, an admirable man in all things, whose only fault was that he was too humble, for humble even to a fault he was. In his company my religious instincts were strengthened. – but to those who have any religious feelings you need not be told how chilling & withering the lip-service of an University must be. Sick of the college chapel & of the church, we tried the meeting house. – & there we were disgusted too. Seward left College, meaning to take orders; – I who had the same destination, became a Deist after he left me, & turned my thoughts to the profession of physic. Godwins book [4]  fell into my hands; many of his doctrines appeared as monstrous to me then as they do now, but I became enamoured of a philosophical millennium; Coleridge came from Cambridge to visit a friend at Oxford on his way to a journey in Wales. That friend was my bosom-companion, – C. was brought to my rooms, & that meeting fixed the future fortunes of us both.

Coleridge had at that time thought little of politics, in morals he was as loose at as men at a university usually are, but he was a Unitarian. My morals were of the sternest stoicism, – xx that same feeling which made me a poet kept me pure, before I laid aside Werter & Rousseau for Epictetus. [5]  Our meeting was mutually serviceable, – I reformed his life, & he disposed me toward Xtianity by showing that none of the arguments which had led me to renounce <it> was applicable against the Socinian scheme. He remained three or four weeks at Oxford, & we planned a Utopia of our own, to be founded in the wilds of America upon the basis of common property, – each labouring for all, – a Pantisocracy, – a republic of reason & virtue.

For this dream I gave up every other prospect. How painfully & slowly I was awakened from it, this is not the time to say, for my purpose is but to show you where I have been upon my Pilgrims Progress, & how far I have advanced upon the way. I became a Socinian from the reasonableness of the scheme, & still more so because I was shocked by the consequences of irreligion, such as they were seen in my daily intercourse with sceptics, unbelievers & atheists. I remained in it till I learnt & felt that how vain it is to build up a religion wholly upon historical proofs, – I learnt that religion could never be a living & quickening principle, if it was <we only assented to it as> a mere act of the understanding. Something more was necessary, – an operation of Grace – a manifestation of the Spirit – an inward revelation, – a recognition of revealed truth. This drew me towards Quakerism, – yet with too clear a perception of the errors & follies of the Quakers to be wholly in union with them. – In what has it <all this> ended xx you will ask? – that I am still what in old times was called a Seeker, – a sheep without a fold, but not without a Shepherd; – clinging to all that Christ has clearly taught, – but shrinking from all attempts at defining by articles of faith those points which the Gospels have left indefinite. I am of no visible Church, – but assuredly I feel myself in the communion of Saints.

Hence perhaps it is that wherever I find love & faith & devotement whether it be in there I am, so far, in communion; I look to those points which we hold in common, & the overlook the accidents which accompany them in the individual. Not that I am indifferent to the differences of belief, – on the contrary no man has a stronger conviction of the fatal consequences which result from the corruptions of Christianity. You have seen what I have said of the Inquisition; [6]  – you may find more of my feelings upon this subject in the 8th Number of the Quarterly, upon the Evangelical Sects, [7]  & in the first, upon the Baptist Mission in India. [8] 

Vanderkemps history is the first volume of the Transactions of the Missionary Society. [9]  – I have both the works of Crantz which you offer me, [10]  & also Loskiel. [11]  The two first vols of the Moravian Accounts [12]  I thought you might possibly have been able to procure for me, as the neighbourhood of Fulneck seemed to imply a Moravian population in that part of the country. The other volumes I possess. The two first were borrowed for me for the from Mr La Trobe, & I have extractd from them the most material parts, especially those relating to Bavians Kloof. The ruins of Schmidts house, & the remains of his mission in old Helena & her bible are worthy subjects even for your pen. [13]  – I do not wonder that you feel so strongly upon these subjects; – I have often said that of all things in the world nothing would give me xx <so> higher feeli <a> gratification than <as> to find one of my own ancestors in among Fox’s martyrs; [14]  – nay if I were to find one among the Popish martyrs of Elizabeth or James, [15]  the feeling would be little abated. That beast Henry 8 [16]  – hauled papists & protestants to Smithfield [17]  upon the same hurdle, – each thought the other worthy of death xxxx, & in the sure road to perdition, – but I verily believe that both parties met that day in Paradise. – Dear Montgomery, tho you may think me a heretic, you will not rank this among my heresies. – I would fain say something upon what I look upon as yours, implied in one mournful sentence, – but when you speak of experience to your ‘eternal & irreparable cost’ – I hope & am assured that upon this point also, there can be no radical difference between you & me, & that in a happier state of bodily health you would not, & could not have written these words. I long to see you, & to talk with you of this world & the next. When will you come to me? From Leeds there is a coach to Kendal, & from Kendal there is one here. By this letter you have more knowledge of my inner man, than many half the world would obtain in half their whole lives: for I am one who shrink in like a snail where I find no sympathy, – but where I do – open myself like a flower to the morning sun. – God bless you

yr affectionate friend

Robert Southey.

May 10th 1811.


* MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 21. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols (London, 1854–1856), II, pp. 295–299.
Dating note: The letter is misdated ‘1811’ by Southey. However, the content indicates it belongs to 1812. BACK

[1] Misdated by Southey, the letter is from 1812. BACK

[2] Southey’s comments relate to ‘a portion of the manuscript’ of Montgomery’s epic The World Before the Flood (1813); see John Holland and James Everett, Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery, 7 vols (London, 1854–1856), II, p. 295. Montgomery deleted ‘unreturning’, but retained ‘congenial side’ in Canto IV. BACK

[3] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB), in particular his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). BACK

[4] Godwin’s An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). BACK

[5] i.e. Under Seward’s influence, Southey had abandoned what he now felt to be the emotional excesses of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Johann von Goethe (1749–1832), Die Leiden des Jungen Werther (1774) for the teachings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 60–after 100), author of the Encheiridion. BACK

[6] Southey had consistently condemned the Inquisition; see, for example, Letters from England, 2nd edn, 3 vols (London, 1808), I, p. 111 n.; The Chronicle of the Cid (London, 1808), p. 382. BACK

[7] Southey’s review of Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching. By a Barrister (1809), in Quarterly Review, 4 (November 1810), 480–514. BACK

[8] Southey’s review of Periodical Accounts of the Baptist Missionary Society, Quarterly Review, 1 (February 1809), 193–226. BACK

[9] The Dutch missionary Johannes Theodorus van der Kemp (1747–1811; DNB). In 1799 he had led the first mission of the London Missionary Society to South Africa, and worked extensively with indigenous populations, including the Khosa, who nicknamed him Jank’hanna (‘the bald man’). A controversial activist, he argued that native African converts (not their white peers) were the true Christians. He died in Cape Town of a fever on 18 December 1811. Extracts from his South African journals and letters appeared in the Transactions of the Missionary Society, 1.2 (1804), 82–95, 149–152. BACK

[10] The missionary accounts in David Crantz (1723–1777), History of Greenland (1767) and Ancient and Modern History of the Brethren (1780); nos 762 and 763 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[11] George Henry Loskiel (1740–1814), History of the Mission of the United Brethren Among the Indians in North America (1794); no. 1755 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[12] i.e. The Periodical Accounts of Moravian missionary activity, published quarterly from 1790. BACK

[13] The Moravian mission established at Bavianskloof, South Africa, in 1737 by George Schmidt (1709–1785). Although he baptised local Hottentots, Schmidt was not an ordained minister and in 1744 was ordered by the Cape Dutch Reformed church to leave the settlement. In 1786 a group of Moravian missionaries met an old woman ‘baptised by Brother Schmidt, who expressed a desire for the renewal of the Mission. She had a Dutch Bible given to her by Brother Schmidt, which she valued above all things’, Periodical Accounts Relating to the Missions of the Church of the United Brethren, Established Among the Heathen, 1 (1790), 124. The Bavianskloof mission was resumed in 1792. BACK

[14] The Protestant heroes of John Foxe’s (1516/17–1587; DNB) Acts and Monuments (1563); widely known as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs. BACK

[15] i.e. Catholics executed by the regimes of Elizabeth I (1533–1603; Queen of England 1558–1603; DNB) and James I (1566–1625; King of Great Britain 1603–1625; DNB). BACK

[16] Henry VIII (1491–1547; King of England 1509–1547; DNB). BACK

[17] Along with Tyburn, a site for public executions in London. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)