3740. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 20 October 1821

3740. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 20 October 1821⁠* 

Keswick, Oct. 20. 1821.

My dear Neville,

… … You form a just opinion of the character and tendency of William Taylor’s conversation. A most unfortunate perversion of mind has made him always desirous of supporting strange and paradoxical opinions by ingenious arguments, and showing what may be said on the wrong side of a question. He likes to be in a state of doubt upon all subjects where doubt is possible, and has often said, ‘I begin to be too sure of that, and must see what reasons I can find against it.’ But when this is applied to great and momentous truths, the consequences are of the most fatal kind. I believe no man ever carried Pyrrhonism [1]  farther. But it has never led him into immoralities of any kind, nor prevented him from discharging the duties of private life in the most exemplary manner. There never lived a more dutiful son. I have seen his blind mother [2]  weep when she spoke of his goodness; and his kindness and generosity have only been limited by his means.

What is more remarkable is, that this habitual and excessive scepticism has weakened none of the sectarian prejudices in which he was bought up. He sympathises as cordially with the Unitarians in their animosity to the Church and State, as if he agreed with them in belief, and finds as strong a bond of union in party-spirit as he could do in principle.

With regard to his talents, they are very great. No man can exceed him in ingenuity, nor in the readiness with which he adorns a subject by apt and lively illustrations. His knowledge is extensive, but not deep. When first I saw him, three-and-twenty years ago, I thought him the best informed man with whom I had ever conversed. [3]  When I visited him last, after a lapse of eight years, I discovered the limits of his information, and that upon all subjects it was very incomplete.

Of his heart and disposition I cannot speak more highly than I think. It is my belief that no man every brought a kindlier nature into this world. His great talents have been sadly wasted; and, what is worse, they have sometimes been sadly misemployed. He has unsettled the faith of many, and he has prepared for his own old age a pillow of thorns. To all reasoning, the pride of reason has made him inaccessible; and when I think of him, as I often do, with affection and sorrowful foreboding, the only foundation of hope is, that God is merciful, beyond our expectations, as well as beyond our deserts.

Thank you for the copy of Cromwell’s Letters. The transcriber has tasked his own eyes, and mine also, by copying them in the very form of the writing. [4]  I cannot attempt to read them by candle-light. You will by this time have seen my sketch of Cromwell’s Life. It is the only article of mine which was ever printed in the Quarterly Review without mutilation. Gifford has made only one alteration; that, however, is a very improper one. I had said that Hampden might have left behind him a name scarcely inferior to Washington’s; and he has chosen to alter this to a memorable name, not calling to mind that his name is memorable. [5]  The sentence is thus made nonsensical. Pray restore the proper reading in your copy of the Review. Murray wishes me to fill up the sketch for separate publication. I am fond of biography, and shall probably one day publish a series of English lives. [6]  I spent a week lately at Lowther Castle, and employed all my mornings in reading and extracting from a most extensive collection of pamphlets of Cromwell’s age.

God bless you, my dear friend!

Yours very affectionately,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), V, pp. 95–97 [in part]. BACK

[1] A branch of scepticism, promulgated by Aenesidemus (fl. 1st century BC), which cast doubt on our ability to gain knowledge of the world and thus encouraged a spirit of continuous enquiry and the suspension of judgement. BACK

[2] Sarah Taylor, née Wright (d. 1811). BACK

[3] Southey and Taylor had met in May–June 1798, while the former had been on a visit to Norfolk. BACK

[4] White had sent a copy of Oliver Cromwell (c. 1742–1821; DNB), Memoirs of the Protector, Oliver Cromwell, and of His Sons, Richard and Henry. Illustrated by Original Letters, and Other Family Papers (London, 1820). This book had provided one of the occasions for Southey’s ‘Life of Cromwell’, Quarterly Review, 25 (July 1821), 279–347. It reproduced the, to Southey’s eyes, archaic spelling and scribal conventions, including abbreviations and superscripts, of letters by Cromwell and his associates. For example, ‘Assuredly hee that will have & holde a right tranquilitie, must found it in a sweete fruition of God, wch whosoever wants may be secure, but cannot be quiet’ (p. 540). BACK

[5] Quarterly Review, 25 (July 1821), 293. Southey’s comparison was between George Washington (1732–1799; President of the United States 1789–1797) and John Hampden (1594–1643; DNB), Parliamentarian and opponent of Charles I (1600–1649; King of Great Britain 1625–1649; DNB). BACK

[6] Murray was hoping to cash in on the success of Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813), an expansion of material originally in the Quarterly Review. Southey did not produce a separate biography of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; Lord Protector 1653–1658; DNB), nor did he produce his planned series of ‘English lives’. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Lowther estate (mentioned 1 time)