2921. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend, 16 February 1817

2921. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend, 16 February 1817⁠* 

Keswick, Feb. 16. 1817.

My dear Chauncey,

If there be any evil connected with poetry, it is that it tends to make us too little masters of ourselves, and counteracts that stoicism, or necessary habit of self-control, of which all of us must sometimes stand in need. I do not mean as to our actions, for there is no danger that a man of good principles should ever feel his inclination and his duty altogether at variance. But as to our feelings. You talk of mourning the loss of your trees, and not enduring to walk where you were wont to see them. I can understand this, and I remember when I was little more than your age saying that

‘He who does not sometimes wake
And weep at midnight, is an instrument
Of Nature’s common work;’ [1] 

but the less of this the better. We stand in need of all that fortitude can do for us in this changeful world; and the tears are running down my cheeks when I tell you so.

Thomas Clarkson I know well: his book upon Quakerism keeps out of sight all the darker parts of the picture; their littleness of mind, their incorrigible bigotry, and their more than popish interference with the freedom of private actions. [2]  Have you read his history of the Abolition of the Slave Trade? [3]  I have heard it from his own lips, and never was a more interesting story than that of his personal feelings and exertions. I have happened in the course of my life to know three men, each wholly possessed with a single object of paramount importance, – Clarkson, Dr. Bell, and Owen of Lanark, [4]  whom I have only lately known. Such men are not only eminently useful, but eminently happy also; they live in an atmosphere of their own, which must be more like that of the third heaven than of this every-day earth upon which we toil and moil.

I am very ill-pleased with public proceedings. The present Ministry are deficient in every thing except good intentions; and their opponents are deficient in that also. These resignations ought to have been made during the pressure of war, uncalled for, when they would have purchased popularity. [5]  They come now like miserable concessions forced from cowardice, and reap nothing but contempt and insult for their reward. Nor ought they at any time to have resigned part of their official appointments, because the appointments of office are in every instance inadequate to its expenses, in the higher departments of state. They should take money from the sinking fund, and employ it upon public works, or lend it for private ones, stimulating individual industry by assisting it with capital, and thus finding work for idle hands, and food for necessitous families. From the same funds they should purchase waste lands, and enable speculators and industrious poor to colonise them; the property of the lands remaining in the nation, as a source of certain revenue, improving in proportion to the prosperity of the country.

God bless you!

Your affectionate friend.



* 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), IV, pp. 242–244. BACK

[1] Southey, ‘Lines Upon Christmas Day’ (1795), lines 33–35; first published in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (London, 1797), p. 77. BACK

[2] Clarkson’s A Portraiture of Quakerism, as taken from a View of the Moral Education, Discipline, Peculiar Customs, Religious Principles, Political and Civil Economy, and Character, of the Society of Friends (1806). Although he was sympathetic to their beliefs, Clarkson never joined the Society of Friends. BACK

[3] Clarkson’s History of the Rise, Progress, and Accomplishment of the Abolition of the African Slave–Trade by the British Parliament (1808); Southey had reviewed it in the Annual Review for 1808, 7 (1809), 127–148. BACK

[4] Robert Owen (1771–1858; DNB), manager and owner of the mills and model community at New Lanark in Scotland 1799–1825. BACK

[5] Robert Stewart, Viscount Castlereagh (1769–1822; DNB), Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons 1812–1822 had announced a series of reductions in public expenditure, especially in the army and navy, on 7 February 1817. As part of this programme, public servants were urged to give up the rise in their salaries caused by the abolition of income tax in 1816; and the Prince Regent agreed to return some of his income from the Civil List, the Duchy of Lancaster and the Duchy of Cornwall. Castlereagh also announced a select committee would be appointed to examine public expenditure. BACK

People mentioned

Clarkson, Thomas (1760–1846) (mentioned 2 times)
Bell, Andrew (1753–1832) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)