85. Robert Southey to Robert Lovell, 5-6 April 1794

85. Robert Southey to Robert Lovell, 5–6 April 1794 ⁠* 


As slowly Valentine [1]  yon dismal knell
Tolls thro the sullen evening’s shadowy gloom,
Alone I love within my silent room
On man & on mortality to dwell.
And as the harbinger of death I hear
Frequent & full—much do I love to muse
On Lifes bewilderd scenes of Hope & Fear
And Passion varying her carnelion hues.
For the sound speaks energic to the soul
And shames the dull declaimers studied breath.
I seem to hear in every hollow toll
‘Soon shall thy cares for ever cease in Death!
Oh! May they soon in Deaths co[MS torn] empire cease

Sonnet [2] 

Ye sable tenants of the elmey grove
As round the task of instinct ye pursue,
And with light wing along the ether rove
In various business occupied—I view
Your state with envy. you have never known
The ills of mortal life — to you is given
The range of ample earth & boundless heaven
And all that simple Nature asks your own.
Whilst I, condemnd in Life’s tumultuous maze
To mix amid the giddy thoughtless throng.
And swept by Fortune’s wayward winds along,
Tho distant far I see the lucid rays
Gild with each loveliest [MS torn] the distant plain
I only see the joys I am not doomd to attain. [3] 

Saturday evening. April 5th 1794.

Such are the melancholy effusions of a pensive evening hour. I had spent the afternoon with a much esteemd friend — & our future stations in life became the topic of discourse—they drew on the remembrance of present calamity, the miseries of dependance, the bad state of society, & the futility of Rectitude to insure happiness. You will not wonder if all this calld up an unpleasant train of ideas to my mind. I see that the nice susceptibility of Rectitude & firm perseverance of Integrity, rather prevent enjoyment, than procure it. & I feel that Vice & Folly will carry a man thro this world more agreably, whilst the one arms his head & the other his heart against those arrows that rankle most keenly in the sensible breast. surely the love of life must be very strong or the dread of Death very tremendous—for if there be not another world what wretch would remain in this? & if there be who but would venture for a happier life in it? tis growing late & the less is said on this subject the better. good night.

Of late I have been much in the rhyming mood, & you will have a delectable dose of democracy on the other side. poor Gerald [4]  cannot possibly survive his trial <voyage>. Muir’s [5]  mother is actually dying of a broken heart. have you seen the very beautiful address from the Sheffield society to these virtuous exiles? [6]  Wyndham [7]  wished the same laws were established in England. when William Penn [8]  was tried for speaking seditious words in Gracechurch Street the Recorder declared that it would never be well for England till the Inquisition was introduced. you know the memorable verdict of the jury, & you know the future fate of the founder of Pensylvania. who knows but Muir may prophecy when he says “my imagination sometimes whispers to me, that I shall not be a spectator of inanimate Nature merely, but that I may contemplate an infant empire, a new Europe in embryo.” [9] 

To the Exiled Patriots [10] 


Martyrs of Freedom—ye who firmly good
Stept forth the champions in her glorious cause
Ye who against Corruption nobly stood
For Justice Liberty & equal laws—

Ye who have urged the cause of man so well
Firm when Corruptions torrent swept along—
Ye who so firmly stood … so nobly fell
Accept one honest Britons grateful song.

Take from one honest heart the meed of praise
Let Justice strike her high-tond harp for you—
Take from [MS torn] minstrels hand the garland bays
Who feels your energy & sorrows too.

But be it yours to triumph in disgrace
Above the storms of Fate be yours to tower.
Unchanged is Virtue or by time or place
Unscard is Justice by the throne of power.

No. by the tyrants heart let fear be known
Let the Judge tremble who perverts his trust
Let proud Oppression totter on his throne—
Fear is a stranger to the good & just.

And is there ought amid the tyrants state
Or ought in mighty Natures ample reign
So excellently good—so grandly great
As Freedom struggling with Oppressions chain?

Swells not the soul with ardor at the view?
Bounds not the breast at Freedoms sacred call?
Ye noble Martyrs! When she feels for you—
Glows in your cause & crimsons at your fall.

And shall Oppression vainly think by Fear
To quench the fearless energy of mind?
And glorying in your fall exult it here
As tho no freebom soul were left behind?

Thinks the proud tyrant by the pliant law
The hireling jury, & the judge unjust,
To strike the soul of Liberty with awe
And scare the friends of Freedom from their trust

As easy might the Despots empty pride
The onward course of rushing ocean stay—
As easy might his jealous caution hide
From mortal eyes the orb of general day.

For like that general orbs eternal flame
Glows the mild force of Virtues constant light
Tho c[MS torn]uded by Misfortune still the same
For ever constant & for ever bright.

Not till eternal Chaos, shall that light
Before Oppressions fury fade away—
Not till the sun himself be quenchd in night—
Not till the frame of Nature shall decay.

Go then—secure in steady Virtue go—
Nor heed the peril of the stormy seas—
Nor heed the felons name—the felons woe
Contempt & Pain & Sorrow & Disease:

Tho cankering Cares corrode the sinking frame
Tho sickness rankle in the callous breast—
Tho Death himself should quench the vital flame
Think but for what ye suffer — & be blest.

So shall your great examples fire each soul
So in each freeborn breast for ever dwell.
Till man shall rise above the unjust controul
Stand where ye stood — & triumph where ye fell.

Ages unborn shall glory in your shame
And curse the ignoble spirit of the time—
And teach their lisping infants to exclaim
“He who allows Oppression, shares the crime.” [11] 

Caius Gracchus  [12] 

this high seasond ingredient goes to the Salmagundi for swine. [13]  Tiberius Gracchus [14]  my brother in democracy writes good verses & if you add your assistance sometimes, we may raise the reputation of the HogWash. How go on the subscriptions in Bristol for the militia? & that for a nobler purpose? The ministerial one was carried here, yesterday nem. con. [15]  & I in the hall!

I have not yet seen Priestleys reasons for quitting this country. from the review I collect that he compares the present state of Europe with ancient prophecies & foretells the most dismal scenes of devastation.  [16]  “Oh I could prophesy” [17]  says Hotspur & so say I but to prophecy no good evil is melancholy — & good impossible, when indeed after evil. Belsham [18]  is elected Pastor in his place & by the little I know of this man he is more qualified to succeed, Joseph Priestley than the generality of dissenting preachers. he is the author of one or two very good works —thoughts on parliamentary reform & Memoirs of the house of Brunswick—Lunenburg. [19]  my knowledge of this is from the reviews.

Have you ever seen Bowles’s [20]  poems & more particularly his sonnets? tho he be an Oxford man,[MS torn] name is little known here; & tho [MS torn] first poet the University can now boast. Allen has lent a [MS torn] copy of his sonnets, for he printed but few copies & they are a[MS torn] to be obtained. they pleasd me so much that I shall trans[|MS torn] your opinion. —With respect to Madoc the evidence is [MS torn] of respectability agree in affirming that they have conversed with [MS torn] speak the Welsh language as their mother tongue, & who preserve [MS torn] origin. this account was corroborated by the testimony of Bowles [MS torn] Cherokee Chief. [21]  however this matters not for a romance. Bare tra[MS torn] is sufficient grounds for a poet. both Mexico & Peru appear to [MS torn] have been in some degree civilized by this adventurous Old Cambr[MS torn] surely the subject is incomparably good. depicture the brothers of [MS torn] each other for the possessing of the Kingdom. Wales deluged with civil [MS torn] state of Europe during the reign of our Henry 2nd [22]  — [MS torn] manners of Peru — the savage superstition of Mexico & the appearance of Nature in a savage country. [23]  on this topic we will have some conversation. tis probable I shall be in Bristol before ‹by next› Sunday but I cannot pronounce with certainty

My silence on natural history & natural philosophy, arose from ignorance. they are subjects upon which till lately I knew nothing, & now but little. it is not however my nature to sit down contented with ignorance. The study claims my attention; anatomy chymistry & botany will be my chief studies. how much truth is there in the old adage Life is short—Science is long! I experience the truth every day. one book leads on another one study demonstrates the necessity of another, & so we proceed from year to year till Death—compresses all our acquisition into a clod of the valley!

The Rooks [24] 


Ye sable tenants of the towering tree,
(That lifts on high its aged top sublime
Untorn by tempests—undecayed by Time;)
Why from my secret window do I see.
Oer your aerial haunts the battles strife?
Why thus, with fond & fruitless rage possest
Tear ye in mutual war each others nest?
Yet is it not the same in mortal life?
See we not still the same sad scenes renewd
Of Rapines rage, & Envys secret wiles;
And there where Nature bountifully smiles,
See we not heaps of slain, & streams of blood?
Ye Rooks, if ye engage for this slight cause,
War not the Masters of Mankind for straws!

The Knell


The parting knell was instituted in the darker ages of superstition, from the idea that the sound terrified the Devil from his prey.


In days of yore, when Superstitions sway
Bound blinded Europe in her sacred spell.
The wizard priest enjoind the parting knell
To fright the hovering devil from his prey.
If some poor rustic died who could not pay,
Still slept the priest & silent hung the bell.
And if a yeoman died, his children paid
One bell, to save his parting soul from hell.
And if a Bishop Deaths dread call obeyed,
Thro all the diocese was heard the toll,
For much the pious brethren were afraid
Lest Satan should receive the good mans soul.
But when Deaths levelling hand lays low the King
(Since Kings in both worlds very well are known)
Thro all his kingdoms every bell must ring
For Satan comes with legions for his own. [25] 


You see I am commenced Sonnetteer. The Knell extends sixteen lines in fact the subject is not that of a sonnet. but as I look on this species of poetry as much resembling the Greek Epigrams which are of indefinite length. I see no impropriety either in compressing an idea in less than fourteen lines for simplicity or in lengthening it for perspicuity. Your Warton I much like. tis a good subject well handled. [26] 

my remembrances to Mrs L. &c. if you write immediately I shall receive your letter. This I rather hope than expect.

Caius Gracchus.

Sunday April 6. 1794.


* Address: Mr Robert Lovell/ No 25 College Street/ Bristol/ Single Sheet
Stamped: OXFORD
Endorsement: R Southey to R Lovell
MS: Special Collections, Tulane University Libraries, Manuscripts Collection M 1105. ALS; 4p. (c).
Unpublished. BACK

[1] A pseudonym used by Robert Lovell. BACK

[2] An early version of ‘Sonnet. Written in a Rookery’, Morning Post, 17 February 1798. BACK

[3] As slowly ... attain: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[4] Joseph Gerrald (1763–1796; DNB), political reformer, found guilty of sedition in March 1794 and transported to Australia in May 1795. BACK

[5] Thomas Muir (1765–1799; DNB), political reformer who was found guilty of sedition in August 1793 and transported to Australia in May 1794. BACK

[6] A Serious Lecture Delivered at Sheffield February 28 1794 ... to Which are Added a Hymn and Resolutions (1794). BACK

[7] William Wyndham Grenville, 1st Lord Grenville (1759–1834; DNB), politician, Foreign Secretary 1791–1801, Prime Minister 1806–1807. Gerrald and Muir had been convicted under Scottish law, and Wyndham desired that the same law applied in England. BACK

[8] In 1670, the Quaker leader William Penn (1644–1718; DNB) was tried for addressing a tumultuous assembly at Gracechurch Street. The judge refused to accept the jury’s ‘not guilty’ verdict and Penn was imprisoned. BACK

[9] Quotation unidentified. BACK

[10] Published in part in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s A Moral and Political Lecture (1795) and Conciones ad Populum (1795). Southey never issued the poem under his own signature, though a variant version appeared in the Galignani brothers’ unauthorised edition of his Poetical Works, published in Paris in 1829. The version published in 1829 was possibly supplied by Southey’s erstwhile friend, John Horseman. BACK

[11] Martyrs ... crime: Verse written in double columns. The last line quotes Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802; DNB), The Botanic Garden, 2 vols (Lichfield, 1789–1791), II, p. 117. BACK

[12] Gaius Gracchus (154–121 BC), Roman politician who proposed radical agrarian reforms. BACK

[13] Daniel Isaac Eaton, (c. 1753–1814; DNB) Pig’s Meat; or, Lessons for the Swinish Multitude (1794–1795). If Southey sent his poem to Eaton, the latter did not publish it. BACK

[14] Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus (163–132 BC), elder brother of Gaius Gracchus and also a proponent of reform. This is possibly a pseudonym for Southey’s friend and fellow radical Robert Allen. BACK

[15] Nemine contradicente; i.e. without objection. BACK

[16] Joseph Priestley (1733–1804; DNB), had emigrated to America in April 1794. The reference is to his The Present State of Europe Compared with Antient Prophecies; A Sermon, Preached at the Gravel Pit Meeting in Hackney, February 28, 1794 (1794). BACK

[17] Henry IV, Part One, Act 5, scene 4, line 83. BACK

[18] William Belsham (1752–1827; DNB). BACK

[19] William Belsham, Remarks on the Nature and Necessity of a Parliamentary Reform (1793) and Memoirs of the Kings of Great Britain of the House of Brunswic-Lunenberg (1793). BACK

[20] William Lisle Bowles, Fourteen Sonnets, Elegiac and Descriptive. Written During a Tour (1789). BACK

[21] ‘General’ William Augustus Bowles (1763–1805), American loyalist and prominent figure among the Creek Indians, who led an Indian delegation to George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820; DNB) in 1790–1791. See John Williams (1727–1798), Further Observations on the Discovery of America, by Prince Madog ab Owen Gwynedd, About the Year 1170 (London, 1792), p. 2. BACK

[22] Henry II (1133–1189; reigned 1154–1189; DNB). BACK

[23] The first detailed plan of Southey’s Madoc, eventually published in 1805. BACK

[24] An early version of ‘Sonnet. Written near a Rookery’, Morning Post, 30 January 1798. BACK

[25] Ye sable ... his own: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[26] Possibly a reference to a poem by Robert Lovell that has not survived. BACK

People mentioned

Allen, Robert (1772–1805) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Mary (1771–1862) (mentioned 1 time)