1168. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 19 March [1806]

1168. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 19 March [1806] ⁠* 

My dear Rickman

I should have been able to have told you when my operations would commence, had it not been for an ugly call to go into Herefordshire & look into some affairs of my Uncle which must lead to a lawsuit between him & his parish. [1]  I have only proposed that this should be on my return home, instead of on the way to town, for this reason that in London I can talk the matter over with some persons who will instruct me in what manner to proceed. Be this as it may, I shall leave this place on Sunday 30th. & be about ten days before you see me, either in Herefordshire on this business – or at Norwich with Wm Taylor, a visit which was intended to be paid on my return.

My last week has been somewhat desultorily employed in going thro Beausobres Hist. of Manicheism, [2]  – & in sketching the life of D. Luisa de Carvajal, an extraordinary woman of high rank who came over to London in James the firsts time to make proselytes to the Catholick religion, under the protection of the Spanish Embassador. [3]  It is a very curious story, & ought to be related in the history of that wretched King who beheaded Ralegh [4]  to please the Spaniards.

Beausobres book is one of the most valuable that I have ever seen. It is a compleat Thesaurus of early opinions philosophical & theological. It is not the least curious circumstance in the Catholick religion that it has silently imbibed xxx the xxxxxx which the most absurd parts of most of the heresies which it opposed & persecuted. I do not conceive Manes to have been a fanatic, there is too much philosophy in the whole of his system, even in the mythology, for that. [5]  the object seems to have been to unite the superstitions of the East & of the West, – unluckily both Priests & Magi united against this grand scheme, – The Persians flayed him alive, & the Catholicks roasted his disciples wherever they could catch them. – Beausobre as I expected has perceived the similarity between Buddas & the Indian impostor but he supposes the lie came from the East. I am inclined to think otherwise because the story of an immaculate conception had succeeded so well here that one going to set up a religion of his own would be likely to borrow it, – & because I have found elsewhere that the Adam whose footstep is shown in Ceylon [6]  was a Manichaean travelling disciple, – tho both Moors & Portugueze very naturally attributed the story to their own acquaintance. A proof this that the immediate disciples of Manes <were> successful. in the East. Besides the Asiatic fables are full of resemblances to Xtianity, which have been advanced by Dupuis & Volney on the one hand to prove that the whole is astronomical allegory, [7]  – & by Maurice & Halhed on the other to show that the mysteries of Religion were revealed to the Patriarchs.  [8]  These gentlemen should first have enquired to all of these xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxx the xxxxx <xxxx> <when> this trade in xxxxxxxxx mythology was carried on.

If there be any one thing in which the world has decidedly regenerated it is in the breed of Heresiarchs. [9]  They were really great men in former times, devoting great knowledge & powerful talents to great purposes. In our days they are either arrant mad men, or half rogues who pick out the worst parts of the established creed. I am about to be the St Epiphanius [10]  of Richard Brothers [11]  & Joanna Southcote – what say you to paying these worthies a visit some morning? the former is sure to be at home. Haslam [12]  would introduce us, & we might get xxx <Gods Nephew [13]  to give us his> opinion of Joanna. I know some of his witnesses & could enter into the depths of his system with him. D. Manuel ought to see Bedlam. [14]  As for Joanna, though tolerably versed in the history of human credulity, I have never seen any thing so disgraceful to common sense as her previous publications; – but I am afraid that in all these cases it may be laid down as a general rule that the more nonsense the better. Whenever a point of doctrine has been discussed the most absurd has carried the day.

Metaphysicians have become less mischievous but a good deal more troublesome. There was some excuse for them when they believed their opinions were necessary to salvation – & it was certainly better for plain people like you & I that they should write by the folio, than talk by the hour. What a happy thing would it have been for Stoddart [15]  had he been born in those ages when transubstantiation was xxx philosophically explained, & the divine & human natures subjected to synthesis & analysis in the crucible of a metaphysicians skill.

The reign of fabulous Xtianity must be drawing to its end. In France it is over, unless Bonaparte should take it in his head to endow the church better,– for which I do not think he wants inclination so much as money. In Germany the thing is done. the clergy are philosophizing Xtians, or Xtianizing philosophers. In my countries Spain & Portugal the old house stands, but there is the dry rot in its timbers, the foundations are undermined, & the next earthquake will bring it down. Here I do not like the prospects, – sooner or later a hungry government will snap at the tithes; – the clergy will then become state pensioners, or parish pensioners, x in the latter case more odious to the farmers than they are now, in the former the first pensioners to be ame[MS torn] of their stipends. Meantime the damned system of Calvinism spreads like a pestilence among the lower classes. I have not the slightest doubt that the Calvinists will be the majority in less than half a century; – we see how catching the distemper is & do not see any means of stopping it. There is a good opening for a new religion, but the founder must start up in some of the darker parts of the world – it is Americas turn to send out apostles. A new one there must be when the old one is worn out – I am a believer in the truth of Christianity, but truth will never do for the multitude; there is an appetite for faith in us, which if it be not duly indulged turns to green sickness & xxxx feeds upon chalk & cinders. The truth is man is not made for this world alone, & speculations concerning the next will be found at last the most interesting to all of us –

I hope my little girl has past the most dangerous age – but she is more premature in intellect than any child I ever saw –

God bless you


Wednesday 19 March.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: R Southey/ 19 March 1806
MS: Huntington Library, RS 86. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 36–38 [in part].
Dating note: dating from JR’s endorsement BACK

[1] Herbert Hill had the a living of a parish at Staunton-Upon-Wye, Herefordshire, which, while he was in Lisbon, he had left in the care of Dr Thomas, father of his business agent William Bowyer Thomas, who had died in 1802. Southey believed that Hill’s estate was being mismanaged while he was abroad and intended to investigate the payment of tithes for him. See Southey to Charles Danvers, 17 March 1806, Letter 1166. BACK

[2] Isaac de Beausobre (1659–1738), Histoire Critique de Manichée et du Manichéisme (1734–1739). BACK

[3] Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza (1568–1614), was a Spanish missionary who devoted herself to the cause of the Catholic faith in England during the reign of James VI and I (1566–1625, King of Scotland, England, and Ireland 1603–1625; DNB). An account of her life was written by Luis Muñoz (d.1646) as La Vida Y Virtues de la Venerable Virgin Dona Luisa de Carvajal y Mendoza in 1632, and was summarised by Southey in the third edition of his Letters from Spain and Portugal (1808). BACK

[4] Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618; DNB) was executed on James I’s orders after a failed final voyage to the Orinoco in South America to find El Dorado. BACK

[5] Manichaeism is a dualist religious philosophy, in which good (God) and evil (Satan) are perceived to be in conflict, which originated in Persia (Iran) in the 3rd century. Its founding prophet was Mani (or Manes in Latin). BACK

[6] In central Sri Lanka (formerly known as Ceylon) there is a mountain known as Adam’s Peak which has a rock formation near its summit, which in Muslim tradition is believed to be the ‘sacred footprint’ of Adam. BACK

[7] Charles François Dupuis (1742–1809), French scientist and politician, who published his extensive, twelve volume, Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle in 1795, positing the common origin of all astronomical and religious mythologies. He continued this argument in his Mémoire Explicatif du Zodiaque, Chronologique et Mythologique (1806); Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney (1757–1820), French philosopher, historian and orientalist, who predicted the union of the world’s religions in recognition of their shared common truths in Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires (1791). BACK

[8] Thomas Maurice (1754–1824; DNB), oriental scholar and historian, who published Indian Antiquities (1792–1796) with the polemical intent of defending the historicity of the Bible against the French scholars, Dupuis and Volney, who argued that all the world’s religious myths were allegorical; Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1751–1830; DNB), orientalist and philologist, who compared the Trimourtee of the Hindus with the Christian Trinity. BACK

[9] The chief proponents or leaders of heretical movements. BACK

[10] Saint Epiphanius of Salamis was a 4th century bishop of Cyprus with a reputation for defending orthodoxy and persecuting non-Christians; he compiled a huge compendium of heresies. BACK

[11] Richard Brothers (1757–1824; DNB), a self-proclaimed prophet of millennial destruction, who attracted a large following in 1795 before being confined to an asylum by government order. BACK

[12] John Haslam (bap. 1764–1844; DNB), physician and specialist in insanity who had superintended Brothers in his confinement. BACK

[13] One of the titles Brothers appropriated for himself was ‘Nephew of the Almighty’, claiming descent through the brother of Jesus Christ. BACK

[14] Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). Southey’s pseudonymous traveller does not visit Bedlam (Bethlem) Hospital in London, but Richard Brothers is discussed in Letter 69 and Joanna Southcott in Letter 70. BACK

[15] Sir John Stoddart (1773–1856; DNB), writer and lawyer, who in the 1790s was an associate of Wordsworth as a fellow enthusiast of the philosophy of Godwin. Stoddart visited Coleridge and Wordsworth in the Lakes in 1800; from 1803 to 1807 was an advocate for the crown and the admiralty at Malta, in which capacity he renewed his acquaintance with Coleridge. BACK

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