1704. Robert Southey to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, [28 October 1809]

1704. Robert Southey to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, [28 October 1809]⁠* 

To the Friend. [1] 


I know not whether your subscribers have expected too much from you, but it appears to me that you expect too much from your Subscribers, & that however accurately you may understand the diseases of the Age, you have certainly mistaken its temper. In the first place Sir your Essays are too long. ‘Brevity, says a contemporary journalist, is the humour of the times; a tragedy must not exceed fifteen hundred lines; a fashionable preacher must not trespass above fifteen minutes upon xxxxxx xxx his congregation. We have short waistcoats & short campaigns; every thing must be short, – except law suits, speeches in Parliament & Tax Tables.’ [2]  It was <is> expressly stated in the prospectus of a collection of Extracts called the Beauties of Sentiment, that the Extracts would <shall> always be complete sense, & not very long. [3]  Secondly, Sir, though your Essays appear in so tempting a shape to a Lounger, – the very Fiends themselves were not more deceived by the Lignum Vitæ  [4]  apples when

They fondly thinking to allay
Their appetite with gust, instead of fruit
Chewd bitter ashes. [5] 

than the fashionable reader is who takes up one of your Papers from the <breakfast table, parlour window, Sofa, Ottoman or Chaise-longue, thinking to amuse himself with a few minutes light-reading. We are informed upon the authority of no less a man than Sir Richard Phillips, how ‘it has long been a subject of just complaint among the lovers of English Literature that our Language has been deficient in Lounging or Parlour-window books’  [6]  & to remove this opprobrium from the Language Sir Richard advertises a list mostly ending in ana; under the general title of ‘Lounging Books, or Light Reading. [7]  – I am afraid Mr Friend that your predecessors would never <would never have> obtained their popularity because they unless their essays had been of this description, ‘Ομοιον ομοιψ φιλον; [8]  & this is a light age.

You have yourself observed that few converts were made by Burke, [9]  but the cause which you have assigned does not sufficiently explain why a man of such powerful talents & so authoritative a reputation should have produced so little an effect upon the minds of the people. Was it not because he neither was, nor could be generally understood? Because instead of endeavouring to make difficult things appear easy of comprehension, he made things which were easy in themselves difficult <to be comprehended> by the manner in which he presented them, evolving their causes & involving their consequences, till the reader whose mind was not habituated to logical reasoning & metaphysical discussions, neither knew in what his arguments began nor in what they ended. You have told me that the straightest line must be the shortest, – but do not you yourself sometimes nose out your nose out your way hound-like in pursuit of truth, turning & winding & doubling & running roundabout, when the same object might be reachd in a tenth part of the time by darting straight forward, like a greyhound, to the mark? – Burke failed of effect upon the people for this reason; – there was the difficulty of mathematics without the precision in his writings; – you looked thro the process without arriving at the proof. It was the fashion to read him, because of his rank as a political partizan; otherwise he would not have been read. Even in the House of Commons he was admired more than he was listened to, – not a sentence came from him which was not pregnant with seeds of thought, if it had fallen upon good ground; – yet his speeches convinced nobody, while the mellifluous orations of Mr Pitt [10]  persuaded his majorities of whatever he wished to persuade them, the orations <because they> were easily understood & as easily forgotten what mattered it to him that they were as easily forgotten? –

The Reader Sir must think before you he can understand you; – is it not a little unreasonable to require from him an effort which you have yourself described as so very painful a one? & is not this effort not merely difficult <but> in many cases impossible? All brains Sir were not made for thinking; – modern philosophy has thought taught us that they are galvanic machines, & thinking is only an accident belonging to them. Intellect is in our day not essential to the functions of life, – in the ordinary purposes <course> of life <society> it is very commonly dispensed with; & we have lived Mr Friend, to witness experiments for carrying on Government without it. This is surely a proof that it is a rare commodity, – & yet you are xxxxxxxxxx enough to expect that <it> in all your subscribers? –

Give us your moral medicine in a more ‘elegant preparation’. [11]  The Reverend J Gentle administers his physic in the form of tea, [12]  Dr Solomon prefers the medium of a cordial, [13]  – Mr Ching exhibits his in Gingerbread nuts, [14]  Dr Barton in wine. [15]  But you Mr Friend come with a tonic bolus, [16]  bitter in the mouth, <difficult to swallow,> & hard of digestion.


My dear Coleridge

All this were it not for the Sir & the Mr Friend – is like a real letter from me to you, – I fell into the strain without intending it, – & would not send it were it not to show you that I have attempted to do something. xxxx From jest I got into earnest, & trying to pass from earnest to jest, very nearly became seditious. It was against the grain & would not do. I had reread the ten eight last numbers, & the truth is they left me no heart for jesting or for irony. – In time they will do their work, – it is the form of publication only that is unlucky, & that cannot now be remedied. But this evil is merely temporary, – Give two or three amusing numbers & you will hear of admiration from every side – Insert a few more poems, – any that you have except Christabel, [17]  which <for that> is of too much value, – There is scarcely any thing you could do which would excite so much notice as if you were now to write the character of Buonaparte, announced in former times for ‘tomorrow’ & tomorrow & tomorrow; [18]  & I think it would do good by counteracting that base spirit of condescension towards him, which I am afraid is gaining ground; & by showing the people on what grounds they have for hope.

I send you a letter of Stuarts – written in reply to an application which I made to him for the foreign papers. [19]  – What is become of Capt Pasley? [20]  I look with fear & trembling for his name in the Newspapers.

God bless you


Saturday morning


* Address: To/ S. T. Coleridge Esqr.
Endorsements: [mathematical calculations on address sheet]
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 7. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 261–265.
Dating note: the letter can be dated 28 October 1809 from internal evidence. Southey is writing in reply to a letter from Coleridge dated 20 October 1809, in which he requested him to ‘look over the eight numbers’ of The Friend and to write a letter ‘in a lively style’ on the obscurity of the material within them. See Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 259–260 [in part]. The first letter Southey wrote in answer to this request is Letter 1702 (dated Thursday 26 [October 1809]) in which he says he will write on ‘Saturday’, the day Southey gives at the bottom of this letter. BACK

[1] Coleridge’s periodical, The Friend, was published in 26 numbers from 1 June 1809 to 15 March 1810. This letter of Southey’s was solicited by Coleridge for publication but not published, Coleridge himself writing and publishing, in the eleventh number, 26 October 1809, an answer to a critical letter from an imaginary friend. The text is given in S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), II, pp. 149–153. BACK

[2] Southey is quoting himself in his review of William Roscoe, The Life of Pope Leo X, Son of Lorenzo de Medici (1805) in the Annual Review for 1805, 4 (1806), 449–467 (467). BACK

[3] Instructive Selections: Or, The Beauties of Sentiment being Striking Extracts from the Best Authors, Ancient and Modern, in Prose and Verse, on a Great Variety of Subjects, Divine, Moral, Literary, and Entertaining, on a New Methodical Plan. Also, a List of the Best Books on the Principal Subjects, and the Names of the Authors Annexed to these Extracts by the Rev. G. G. Scraggs [dates unknown] in Two Volumes (1st edn, 1801; 2nd edn, 1802). A contemporary advertisement of ‘New Books Printed for Sherwood, Neely and Jones’, contained in the back pages of many books stated that ‘the extracts are always complete sense, not very long, and yet not too short’. BACK

[4] Meaning ‘wood of life’, a tropical American tree with blue or purple flowers. BACK

[5] Paradise Lost, Book 10, lines 564–566. BACK

[6] In the London Chronicle, 106 (7 September 1809), 237. BACK

[7] Also in the London Chronicle, 106 (7 September 1809), 238. BACK

[8] From a longer Greek saying: ‘όμοιος ομοίω αεί πελάζει’, meaning ‘like is pleasing to like’. BACK

[9] The politician and author, Edmund Burke (1729/30–1797; DNB). BACK

[10] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806. BACK

[11] An oft-used advertising slogan for patent medicines. BACK

[12] The Reverend J. Gentle’s cordial tea was a patent medicine advertised in newspapers. BACK

[13] Samuel Solomon (1745–1819), who devised patent medicines such as his ‘Cordial Balm of Gilead’ with great commercial success. BACK

[14] J. Ching’s (d. 1800) worm lozenges and Waite’s (first name and dates unknown) gingerbread nuts were patent medicines used for the removal of worms. BACK

[15] Dr Barton’s Vital Wine was another commonly advertised quack medicine. BACK

[16] A large pill. BACK

[17] Coleridge’s poem ‘Christabel’ was composed in 1797–1800 but not published until 1816. BACK

[18] In The Friend of 11 January 1810, Coleridge promised an analysis of the character of Napoleon in a future number. See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), II, p. 283. It did not appear. ‘Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow’, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5, line 19. BACK

[19] See Southey to Daniel Stuart, 22 October 1800, Letter 1699. BACK

[20] Sir Charles William Pasley (1780–1861; DNB), an acquaintance of Coleridge’s in Malta and author of Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire (1810), which was much admired by Southey and reviewed by him in the Quarterly Review, 5 (May 1811), 403–457. BACK

People mentioned