99. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 22 August-3 September 1794

99. Robert Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 22 August–3 September 1794 ⁠* 

Friday. August. 22. 1794.

Calmly & firmly — after long deliberation — I pronounce — I am going to America. it is my duty to depart. at present every thing smiles upon the undertaking. should the resolution of others fail, Coleridge & I will go together, & either find repose in an Indian wig-wam — or from an Indian tomahawk. but this is the last resource of disappointment & despair. if earthly virtue & fortitude can be relied on, I shall be happy.

Horace what is the origin of moral evil? whence arise the various vices & misfortunes that disfigure human nature & destroy human happiness? from individual property. start not at the answer. consider well. happiness is best defined to be the full enjoyment of mental & corporeal powers <faculties> when that enjoyment interferes not with the well being of another. tell me Horace has the labourer who works hard for ten hours in the day the full enjoyment of his mental faculties? an aristocrat will answer “he does not feel the loss.” shame on that society where Man is <so> degraded that he feels not the degradation of his intellect! according to the computation of Adam Smith [1]  one man in twenty is employed in providing the necessaries & comforts of life. he works ten hours a day & in consequence cannot enjoy his mental faculties — but divide this labour among the whole twenty, & the sum of work is half an hour to each individual. All mighty God! the comforts of life may be procured by the daily toil of half an hour! & this cursed state of society degrades thy creatures to brutes by obliging them to hard labour for ten hours so to acquire a poor pitiful livelihood — while kings nobles & priests fatten on their toil — & cry out “All is well!

Horace would that state of society be happy where every man laboured two hours a day at some useful employment. where all were equally educated — where the common ground was cultivated by common toil, & its produce laid in common granaries. where none were rich because none should be poor. where every motive for vice should be annihilated & every motive for virtue strengthened? such a system we go to establish in America. we go at least twelve men with women & children. my Mother accompanies me, who will then not be the only Mrs Southey. the woman whom I love has consented to go with her sisters. xxxxxx Burnett Allen Coleridge Lovell &c. I may say without vanity we leave not our superiors behind. we purchase a thousand acres hire labourers to assist us in clearing it & building houses. by this day twelve months the Pantisocratic society of Aspheterists will be settled on the banks of the Susquehannah.

Sept. 3.

Coleridge left me yesterday. it was like the losing a limb to part with him. from him you will learn our whole plan — he will accurately explain it & convince you how just & how practicable it is. I regret Horace that I cannot urge you to accompany me — yet perhaps you may follow me. at least remember that if you marry soon, there are a number of men of science genius & virtue who will gladly receive you in Pensylvania. to a community where the only care will be that of making each other happy. would to God you could marry early in the spring & accompany us. would to God you could share in the toil & in the glory of regenerating mankind. think well my dear friend. of the propriety of emigrating I can convince you. of the practicability of your marriage you must judge. I never enquired deeply into the subject for fear of giving unnecessary pain. excuse my mentioning it now — or rather impute to the warmth of a friend, unwilling to lose you for ever & wishing you to partake the same tranquillity which he promises himself.

I have much to endure ere I depart. all the prejudices of the human heart are in arms against me, & whilst Coleridge is absent it devolves upon me to keep all our party in spirits. the woman I love almost unmans me by looking with such exquisite affection & saying — “I cannot leave my Mother without being unhappy — yet I will go with you — staying or going I must be miserable.” did I not know her strength of mind & how ardently I shall endeavour to make her happy, this would drive me beyond the bounds of reason. but we must be most happy there. would you could come with us — do Horace consider well — what prospects have you in England? were it not better to marry now than linger out years in solitary wretchedness. pardon me I may say too much on a subject of which I know so little.

I shall send you a volume of Poems [2]  in about a month. what subscriptions you can get me for Joan I shall feel much obliged for. money I must raise by these means, but I fear my brain will produce little when converted into sterling coin. lead may perhaps make gold — my brain is composd of very different materials. I hope to get a good subscription by Joan. 80 pages of the other volume are printed & 40 more will compleat it. it contains many pieces which you have never seen, one of them the Retrospect, is certainly the best piece I have ever written. you shall have it when printed; my name will be prefixed & if you can promote the sale you will serve me. Piers Plowman [3]  I will keep in remembrance of you. send it me to Bath & do urge Grosvenor to send Sayers & the Minstrel [4]  as I want them very particularly.

Your last verses I like much. particularly the two last stanzas but one. buy Bowles poems, [5]  & study them well. they will teach you to write better, & give you infinite pleasure. they may be had at Dillys [6]  in the Poultry.

My mind is never at rest not even for a moment. one grand object has fully possessd my soul, to that tend the employments of the day & the visions of the night. I look forward with impatience to the moment when I shall ascend the bark & gaze on the lessening shore till it be for ever lost in distance. like Adam I may “drop some natural tears — but dry them soon.” [7] the sorrows past sorrows will be obliterated in anticipating future pleasure. when Coleridge & I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics, criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, & write sonnets whilst following the plough. our society will be of the most polishd order; you will not accuse me of vanity when I rank myself with Coleridge & Allen, & say we shall not leave our superiors behind. our females are beautiful amiable & accomplishd — & I shall then call Coleridge my brother in the real sense of the word. — this prospect is only clouded by some slight shadows — my Aunt knows nothing of it — & we have money to raise. of the last there is no doubt. tis however unfortunate that I am not of age & therefore unable to sell any reversion.

pray let me have the Minstrel immediately. write to me in the parcel. — poor Robespierre! [8]  Coleridge & I wrote a tragedy [9]  upon his death in the space of two days! so good that he has it now in town to get printed — if you ask me my opinion of this great man I will tell you — I believe him to have been sacrificed to the despair of fools & cowa[MS torn] eridge says “he was a man whose great bad actions cast a disa[MS torn] lustre over his name”. he is now inclined to think with me that the [MS torn] of a man so situated must not be judged by common laws — that Robespierre was the benefactor of mankind — & that we should lament his death as the greatest misfortune Europe could have sustaind. — the situation of Europe is surely most melancholy — it presents to the eye of humanity a prospect of carnage from which it shrinks with horror. the coalesced tyrants are obstinate in pursuing the war — the French tho actuated at home by mean & selfish motives, act abroad with a steadiness & energy which at once delight & astonish me. Flanders must be rank with human blood. surely Horace the eternal arbiter of all things can have no common end in view when he permits actions whose atrocity terrifies & whose magnitude astonishes the human mind.

I do believe he guides the storm, I trust that all will conduce to human happiness. meantime far removed from treachery corruption & slaughter — I go with my brethren & friends to establish that system which can alone prevent such convulsions in future.

If you should have seen Coleridge before you receive this, you will not look upon our plan as visionary & impracticable. you will then be convinced that it is the effect of much deliberation & deep enquiry.

when you will see me in London I know not. hardly before Xmas — & then but passing thro to Cambridge. in the interim write to me often. say nothing of my future views to C Collins. he is cold hearted & like the Pharisee thanks God he is not “even as this Republican”! [10]  so let him — I envy him neither his the frigidity of his feelings, nor the self command which makes him the same to every body. my part thro life has been decisive it is now almost accomplishd — I am about to quit a theatre where none succeed so well as those who forget their actual characters to ape the part allotted. from the noblest & purest motives I am about to abandon all hopes of preferment, & to incur with pleasure the frowns & the contempt of this society — I am about to exchange the insipidity of literary dissipation, for the varied day of toil science & relaxation — & the irksome vacancy of crowds for domestic happiness. the prospect of daring to do my duty ennobles me — I feel elevated above what I ever yet have been — Futurity opens a smiling prospect upon my view & I doubt not of enjoying the purest happiness Man can ever experience.


Robert Southey.

pray send the Minstrel.


* Address: Horace Walpole Bedford Esqr/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: [obscured by repair to MS]
Watermarks: G R in a circle; figure of Britannia
Endorsement: Recd. Sept 6th. 1794
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 70–74. BACK

[1] Adam Smith (c. 1723–1790), An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). BACK

[2] Poems (1795), published under the pseudonyms ‘Bion’ (Southey) and ‘Moschus’ (Robert Lovell). BACK

[3] Poem by William Langland (c. 1325–c. 1390; DNB). BACK

[4] Frank Sayers (1763–1817; DNB), Poems (1792) and James Beattie (1735–1803; DNB), The Minstrel (1771–1774). BACK

[5] William Lisle Bowles. Samuel Taylor Coleridge had ordered a copy of Bowles’s Sonnets, (Third Edition), with Other Poems (1794) whilst in Oxford in summer 1794, and he and Southey had discussed Bowles’s poetry. BACK

[6] Charles Dilly (1739–1807; DNB), a London bookseller. BACK

[7] Southey is paraphrasing John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Paradise Lost (1667–1668), Book 12, line 645. BACK

[8] The Jacobin leader Maximilien François Marie Odenthalius Isidore de Robespierre (1758–1794) had been executed on 28 July. BACK

[9] The Fall of Robespierre was published under Coleridge’s name later in 1794. The play had originated as a joint composition — with Coleridge, Southey and Robert Lovell writing one act each. Lovell’s act was quickly dropped and Southey wrote a substitute. BACK

[10] An adaptation of Luke 18: 11. BACK

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