1689. Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 2 October 1809

1689. Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 2 October 1809 ⁠* 

My dear Scott

Before I had leisure to thank you for your own letter & for Ellis’s – & for all that there is therein, a new game of Puss-catch-corner [1]  has been commenced at Westminster, & Canning has done the most foolish thing he ever did in his life. He should have remembered that Ld Castlereagh was an Irishman, & that as the Union abolished the Irish Parliament, so ought the ill customs of that Parliament, duelling being one, to have been abolished with it; that holding his rank & station in the country it was as much a breach of decency in him to accept a challenge as it would have been in an Archbishop, & that he might have done more by his example towards checking a mischievous pr & absurd practise than has ever been done yet. [2]  He got much credit by replying to the Russian Manifesto, [3]  & he would have got more by a proper reply to Castlereagh. – A single combat had some sense in it, – there you relied upon your own heart & hand, there was some pleasure in hewing & thrusting, & the bravest came off best, – but as for our duels – all that has been said against villainous gunpowder holds true against them.

I wish to see Marquis Wellesley in power because we want an enterprizing minister, – one who would make the enemy feel the mighty power of Great Britain & not waste our force so pityfully as it has always hitherto been wasted. I wish to see him in power, because he has not <been> tried, & all the other performers upon the Westminster stage have. But I confess there is but little hope in my wishes. It appears to me that the very constitution of our Cabinet necessarily produces indecision, half-measures & imbecillity. it seems to me that a Government so constituted is just like an army all whose operations are guided by a Council of War instead of a General. I am for ministerial Dictatorships.

Ballantyne has my first Chapter by this time. [4]  He will think me a political Ishmaelite [5]  & no respector of persons. It would have been better had I had plenty of time for forethought, – & for arranging & rearranging my the parts. Such as it is however it is not likely to be thought dull, & tho it will offend all parties in turn – yet I think its downright sincerity, manifest impartiality, & right English feeling will bear it thro, & answer his purpose, better than any thing more cautious & common-place. It must be remembered that the various parties are spoken of according as they deserved at the beginning of that year, – in its progress the ministry deserve better language & all branches of the opposition worse, especially Sir Francis Burdett, whose utter want of sympathy to with the Spaniards has done him more injury in my estimation than any part of his former conduct. Oh that we could but weed out the cursed spirit of party from this country, & make our politicians ashamed of any other denomination that that of Britons!

What you say about Bruce weighs so much with me that I wish I had heard it sooner. [6]  – Your views about the Morte Arthur are wiser ones than mine, & I do most formally & willingly resign it into your hands. [7]  – My intent was that the book should be read, but people are not disposed to read such things generally, or the Cid [8]  would not hang upon hand. Now a very limited edition is sure to find purchasers, & nothing need be sacrificed to ensure its success. I was not by the by aware that the book had been reformed by the Godly Critics whose worthy descendants have lately set forth a Family Shakespere, [9]  & will it is to be hoped in due time present us with an Edition Expurgata of the Bible, upon the plan proposed by Matthew Lewis. [10]  Oh I have a bill of indictment against those Eclectics & Vice-Society-men, [11]  whenever Murray will send me the needful documents, – for be it known to you – that in one of the Eclectic Reviews there is a grand passage describing the soul of Shakespeare in Hell. [12]  If I do not put some of these curst Pharisees [13]  into Purgatory for this, for the edification of our Quarterly readers – then may my right hand forget its cunning. –  [14] 

I have not seen the last Review, which makes me suppose that Murray is still on his journey. Your Register will monopolize me for the next three months, [15]  – unless I can steal time, by way of refreshing myself, for some light article. These Quarterly Reviews lose much by giving up all those minor publications which served to play shuttlecock with, & were put to death with a pun, or served up in the sauce of their own humorous absurdity. Hence too they are less valuable as materials for the history of literature. The old Annuals was the best plan, if it had not been starved by scanty pay, & moreover choaked with divinity. [16] 

My next Missionary article, when I have time to write it, will be singularly curious – it will relate to South Africa, [17]  – & I shall obtain from my uncle a manuscript of D’Anvilles concerning the Portugueze possessions there & his plan for establishing a communication by land between them [18] 

I want to hear that you have conceived of another poem & are parturient. For myself I shall begin with Pelayo the Spaniard, [19]  as soon as I can make up my mind in what metre to write it. That of Kehama, tho in rhyme, is almost as much my own as Thalaba, & will I dare say excite as much censure

yrs very truly

R Southey

October 2. 1809. Keswick.


* Address: To/ Walter Scott Esqr/ Ashistiel/ Selkirk
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Watermark: shield/ 1808/ T BOTFIELD
Endorsement: Southey/ 2 October 1809
MS: National Library of Scotland, MS 3878. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 253–256 [in part]. Wilfred Partington, The Private Letter-Books of Sir Walter Scott. Selections from the Abbotsford manuscripts ... Edited by Wilfred Partington (London, 1930), 75–77. BACK

[1] A child’s game in which a room, or other square area with four corners, is inhabited by a player in each corner. A player in the centre is nominated ‘Puss’ and while the corner players attempt to change places with each other in any direction, ‘Puss’ tries to gain a corner during the exchange. If the central player succeeds in gaining a corner, the player without a corner becomes ‘Puss’ so that the game can begin again. BACK

[2] George Canning had held the office of Foreign Secretary in the government since 1807, but he threatened to resign several times in 1809 over the progress of the war with France. His disputes with Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh and 2nd Marquess of Londonderry (1769–1822; DNB) led to a plan to expel Castlereagh from the War Office, but when Castlereagh discovered the plan he challenged Canning to a duel. This took place on 21 September 1809, and though both men survived, but there was much public outrage over their behaviour. BACK

[3] After his annihilation of the Prussians at Jena in October 1806, and the destruction of the Russian army at Friedland in June 1807, Napoleon put pressure on both countries to discontinue trade with Britain, in line with his plan to exclude British ships and commerce from continental Europe. This pressure led to public manifestos by both countries in support of Napoleon’s policy. Canning, in his capacity as Foreign Secretary, replied to the Russian manifesto in a state paper. BACK

[4] From 1810 to 1812 Southey contributed to the ‘History of Europe’ for 1808–1810 in James Ballantyne’s Edinburgh Annual Register. BACK

[5] Meaning an outcast, because in the Bible Ishmael was cast out by his father, Abraham. See Genesis 21:14. BACK

[6] For Southey’s renewed suspicions of the veracity of the African traveller James Bruce (1730–1794; DNB), see Southey to Herbert Hill, 27 June 1809, Letter 1646. Southey reviewed the second edition of Bruce’s Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768–73 (1804–1805), in the Annual Review for 1805, 4 (1806), 2–16. BACK

[7] Despite his statement here, in 1817 Southey published an edition of Thomas Malory’s (c. 1415–1471; DNB), The Birth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur: Of his Noble Knyghtes of the Rounde Table, they’r Merveyllous Enquestes and Aduentures ... : and in the end, Le Morte D’Arthur, with the Dolourous Deth and Departyng out of thys Worlde of them Al. BACK

[8] Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[9] The Family Shakespeare was first published in 1807 by Henrietta Maria [Harriet] Bowdler (1750–1830; DNB), writer and literary editor. It contained expurgated versions of twenty of Shakespeare’s plays, primarily excising any material of a sexual or blasphemous nature. It was published anonymously, but her brother Thomas Bowdler (1754–1825) was soon credited as its author and the two went on to produce more editions of the works together. BACK

[10] A reference to Matthew Lewis’s (1775–1818; DNB) novel The Monk, first published in 1796, in which the heroine, Antonia, is given an edited version of the Bible to protect her innocence. Lewis’s implication that the Bible might be inappropriate for a young female reader was considered blasphemous. BACK

[11] The evangelical supporters of moral reform who ran the Eclectic Review (founded in 1805 by dissenting Protestants) and the Society for the Suppression of Vice. Southey’s reviews of Part the First of An Address to the Public from the Society for the Suppression of Vice, Instituted, in London, 1802, Setting Forth, with a List of the Members, the Utility and Necessity of such an Institution, and its Claim to Public Support (1803) appeared in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 187, and the Annual Review for 1804, 3 (1805), 225–231. BACK

[12] The attack occurs in the review of ‘A Complete verbal Index to the Plays of Shakespeare, adapted to all the Editions, comprehending every Substantive, Adjective, Verb, Participle, and Adverb used by Shakspeare, with a distinct Reference to every individual Passage in which each Word occurs. By Francis Twiss, Esq.’, The Eclectic Review, 3.1 (1807), 75–78 (77) Southey mentions it disparagingly in his review of [James Sedgwick (1775–1851; DNB)], Hints to the Public and the Legislature, on the Nature and Effect of Evangelical Preaching. By a Barrister (1809), 480–514 (507). BACK

[13] Members of an ancient Jewish sect who were strict observers of tradition and law, the term ‘pharisee’ is often applied more generally to mean a self-righteous person. BACK

[14] A paraphrase of a passage from Psalm 137:5 ‘If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its cunning’. BACK

[15] See note 3. BACK

[16] The Annual Review had closed earlier in the year, brought down, in Southey’s opinion, by the tedious worthiness of the reviews of religious books commissioned by its editor Arthur Aikin, a dissenting Protestant. BACK

[17] The Quarterly did not publish a review by Southey of the Moravians’ and London Missionary Society’s work in the Cape of Good Hope. BACK

[18] Jean Baptiste Bourguignon d’Anville (1697–1782), geographer and cartographer, who was appointed ‘géographe du roi’ to King Louis XV (1710–1774). His manuscripts, which are housed at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, are largely unstudied. BACK

[19] An early name for Southey’s poem Roderick, the Last of the Goths, published in 1814. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)