2875. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [started before and continued on] 8 December [1816]

2875. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [started before and continued on] 8 December [1816]⁠* 

My dear Wynn

Wilson [1]  is a man of such sensitive feelings that he suffers no poultry to be kept about his house, because he could not bear to eat creatures which should have fed in his sight, – & he is – the greatest cockfighter in the country. He is a man of great genius who delights in blackguard company, & has more than once in his fits of drunken insanity very nearly come to an untimely end. Withall he has some good qualities of which I believe generosity is the best. I disapprove his mode of life so much that I have shunned his society. And partly for this reason, partly because I did not chuse to review his Isle of Palms in compliance with a request which, very improperly, was made to me, with his knowledge he I believe bears me a respectful sort of dislike.

With a great deal of genius his former volume is one continued string of plagiarisms of the worst kind, – chiefly from Wordsworth, whom he is constantly caricaturing by the most injudicious imitation. The great fault of Wordsworth is regarding all things too much in one strain of mind, & regarding the great & the little with equal force of passion, & equal effort of thought. And this fault is carried to a tenfold degree by Wilson in that volume which alone I have seen; – with little or no strength of thought to support him. His friend De Quincey tells me the plagiarism is quite as great in this. But my dear Wynn is there not something monstrous in taking such a subject as the Plague in a great city – Surely it is out-Germanizing the Germans. It is xx bringing racks wheels & red hot pincers upon the stage to excite pathos. No doubt but a very pathetic tragedy might be written upon “the Chamber of the Amputation” – xx xx cutting for the stone, or the Caesarean operation. There is something but these actual & tangible horrors do not belong to poetry – We do not xxx exhibit G Barnwell upon the ladder <xxx>, to affect the gallery <now> as was originally done, [2]  – & the best picture of Apollo fleaing Marsyas, [3]  or of the martyrdom of St Bartholemew [4]  would be regarded as xxx more disgusting than one of a slaughter house, or of a dissecting room.

What news tomorrow may bring of Mondays riots [5]  God knows – the loss of some lives I xxx expect, & this I am sure of that if Government refrain much longer from exerting those means which are intrusted it to it for the preservation of public security, the alternative will be ere long between revolution & a military system.


8 Dec.

I am more sorry than surprized to see so many sailors in the mob. It has always been the custom to disband as many men as possible at the conclusion of a war, – but there has been often a great cruelty in this, & in the present instance a great & glaring impolicy. The immediate cause of that distress which was felt in the beginning of the year was an enormous diminution of national expenditure – the War, a customer of 50 millions, being taken out of the market; & consequently a great number of hands put out of employ. Now surely xx xxxx Irish way to remedy the to spend less, & to turn off more hands, – is but an Irish way of remedying this.

You who know how much my thoughts have been led toward the subject will not be surprized to hear that I am writing Observations upon the Moral & Political state of England. [6]  What I have at different times written in the Quarterly has sometimes been mutilated, & always written under a certain degree of restraint to prevent mutilation. But I have heard of these things from many quarters, & seen that when the author was not suspected, they have produced an impression. And I am disposed to think that it not unlikely that I may do some present good, & almost certain that if this hope be disappointed for the present it must sooner or later take effect. There is plenty of zeal in the country, & abundance of good intentions, which if they were well directed might be of infinite service: there are great & sore evils which may certainly be alleviated if not removed, – & there are dangers which we ought to look fairly in the face. – I have nothing to hope or fear for myself, & the sole personal consideration that can influence me is the desire of acquitting myself at least of the sin of omission. Better that the candle should be blown out, than that it should be a bushel. [7]  – Whether I am ripe in judgement must be for others to determine: this I know that I am grown old at heart, I bore up under the freshness of my loss [8]  with surprising strength, & still carry a serene front; – but it has changed me more than years or bodily disease could ever have done, – & time enough has now elapsed to show how very little time can <it will ever> effect in xxx restoring my former nature. It is a relief & a comfort to employ myself usefully, or at least xxx in endeavouring to be useful

God bless you my dear Wynn

yrs most affectionately



* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqre M.P./ Xxxxxxx/ Wrexham/ <Llangedwyn/ Oswestry>
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 227–229 [in part; dated 7–8 December 1816] BACK

[1] John Wilson lived at Elleray, on Lake Windermere. He published the Isle of Palms, and Other Poems (1812), followed by The City of the Plague (1816), set during the Great Plague of London in 1665. BACK

[2] George Lillo (1691–1739; DNB), The London Merchant (1731), was an enormously popular play that told the story of George Barnwell, executed for murdering his uncle. It was based on a seventeenth century ballad about a murder in Shropshire. BACK

[3] In Greek legend, the satyr Marsyas was flayed alive by Apollo after challenging the god to a music contest and losing. There are a number of famous paintings of the incident, including Titian (c. 1488–1576), ‘The Flaying of Marsyas’ (c. 1570–1576). BACK

[4] Saint Bartholomew (1st century AD), one of the Apostles, was, in later tradition, executed by being flayed alive. He was often depicted in art holding his flayed skin as in Michelangelo (1475–1564) ‘The Last Judgement’ (1536–1541). BACK

[5] The Spa Fields Riots of 2 December 1816. Most of a crowd of about 20,000 had assembled at Spa Fields, Islington to hear the radical speaker Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773–1835; DNB). But a small group of revolutionaries broke away from the crowd and attempted to storm the Tower of London, looting a gun shop on the way. They were dispersed by troops at the Royal Exchange. The government responded with a new Treason Act and a new Seditious Meetings Act in 1817. BACK

[6] Southey had been asked to edit a pro-government journal, but declined. Instead he proposed to write a pamphlet, or book, with this title. This project was not realised and instead Southey wrote on ‘Parliamentary Reform’ in Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 225–278, and the ‘Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection’ in Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 511–552. BACK

[7] ‘Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick’, Matthew 5: 15. BACK

[8] The death of Southey’s son Herbert on 17 April 1816. BACK

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