2938. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 12 March 1817

2938. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 12 March 1817⁠* 

Keswick, March 12, 1817.

My dear Friend,

I hope you are mistaken in your apprehensions. [1]  In physics as in metaphysics, a little knowledge is a great evil to the possessor. Many are the mortal diseases of which I have observed symptoms in myself and in those with whom I am most nearly connected; for, in cases of this kind, the worst possibility is that upon which we are usually disposed to fix. Thus I hope it is with you, and that I may meet you in town relieved of your tumour, or satisfied that it is, like a crop of excrescences upon my scalp, not hurtful, though neither ornamental nor useful.

I have wanted spirits to write to you, for those redundant ones which I enjoyed during so many years, have taken their flight for ever; and what I can now muster are not more than are equal to the demand upon them. In this respect, Herbert’s death has produced a greater change in me than the course of time perhaps could ever have effected. [2]  This would not surprize you, if you had seen my manner of life with him. But no more of this.

I am going to the Continent in May, purposing to be seven or eight weeks absent from England. My companions, unless I should be disappointed in either of them, are a Cumberland friend (Humphrey Senhouse, of Netherhall) and Nash, an artist, who was with me at Waterloo and made the drawings there. [3]  Switzerland and the Rhine are our objects; and our present plan is to reach Turin and Milan, and turn back to Geneva, for the purpose of seeing as much of the Alps as we can. I shall be in London the last week in April, and return to it the first in July. [4] 

You will see that I have noticed the impudent plagiarism of M. Alphonse de Beauchamp, whose book I purchased at Brussels, where it put my friend Koster, who happened to be thoroughly well acquainted with the original, in a fever of indignation. [5]  This man is a notorious thief. M. De Puisaye accuses him of having stolen about one hundred pages from him in his ‘History of La Vendee.’ General Turreau has plucked a few more feathers out of his tail; and in the same book I tracked him in like manner to other authors. [6]  My third volume is gone to the press: far the greater part will be from unprinted documents. [7] 

As soon as I return home in the summer, my ‘History of the Peninsular War’ will go to the printer. [8]  For this I have ample materials and the best sources of information. When you read it, I do not despair of convincing you that philosophy and freedom have suffered much more from their inconsistent friends than from their bigotted enemies. In spite of both, I hope they will prosper. But we shall not agree so well in our definition of philosophy as we shall of freedom. In my judgment, any philosophy that weakens our belief of immortality is a curse to mankind. Of this I am assured, that, were it not for that belief, the burthen of life would be heavier than I could bear, although no man has more reason to be thankful for his lot.

In poetry I have done little of late; yet in the course of the year I expect to bring forth a ‘Tale of Paraguay,’ about some 1500 lines in length, and in Spencer’s stanza. [9]  I have begun a desultory poem in blank verse, pitched in a higher key than Cowper’s, and in a wiser strain of philosophy than Young’s; [10]  but as yet I have not recovered heart enough to proceed with it; nor is it likely that it will be published during my life. [11]  Too much of my time is occupied in reviewing. Of this I must not complain, because thence it is that I draw by far the larger part of my ways and means; this kind of literary labour being, in my case, as largely overpaid as every other has been inadequately remunerated. You probably will know my hand in the Quarterly; yet it is often ridiculously mistaken there. They give me credit at Cambridge for writing upon Baptismal Regeneration – a subject upon which I should think it no credit to bestow even a thought; [12]  and Hunt, of the Examiner, supposes that I reviewed his ‘Rimini,’ whereas I wrote an indignant letter to Murray to express my utter disapprobation of the reviewal. [13] 

France, if she should escape any further commotions, is in danger of relapsing into her old despotism, not from any desire on the part of the king to re-establish it, but from the utter unfitness of the people for a representative government. In the present state of the most civilized nations, it seems clear, that there can be no other good form of government; and yet how to fit a people for this, who have been entirely unaccustomed to it, or to anything approaching, is a problem which has not yet been solved. France might have taught me this truth; but I did not learn it till my hopes from the Cortes were disappointed. [14] 

God bless you! To say how I should rejoice to see you here, I hope, is needless; but I beseech you, whenever you have no tie to prevent you from so long a journey, remember that for fourteen years I have earnestly desired it. [15] 

Yours affectionately,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843)
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), II, pp. 471–475. BACK

[1] Taylor’s letter appears not to have survived, but it clearly contained concerns about his health. BACK

[2] Herbert Southey had died on 17 April 1816. BACK

[3] Nash had produced seven of the eight drawings for The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). BACK

[4] Southey’s tour turned out to be longer than this estimate, lasting from May–August 1817. BACK

[5] Alphonse de Beauchamp’s (1767–1832) Histoire du Brésil (1815) had criticised the first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810), whilst simultaneously borrowing heavily (and with no acknowledgement) from it; see Southey to John May, 6 October 1815, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2660. Southey later publicised the plagiarism in his History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), II, p. viii. Beauchamp had also borrowed from the writings of others in his Histoire de la Guerre de la Vendée et des Chouans, depuis son Origine jusqu’à la Pacification de 1800, first published in 1806, with corrected second and third editions following in 1807 and 1809. Southey had pointed this out in an article in the Quarterly Review, 15 (April 1816), 1–69, describing Beauchamp as one who ‘when plagiarism fails him, makes as little scruple of supplying the want of knowledge by invention as he does of appropriating to himself the labours of others’ (13). BACK

[6] Mémoires du Comte Josephe de Puisaye, Lieutenant-Général, &c. &c. qui pourront servir à l’Histoire du Parti Royaliste Français, durant la derniére Révolution, 6 vols (London, 1803–1808), VI, pp. 95, 113, 567; and Louis-Marie Turreau, Baron de Garambouville (1756–1816), Mémoires pour servir à l’Histoire de la Guerre de la Vendée, 2nd edn (Paris, 1815), pp. 188–191. Southey pointed out Beauchamp’s indebtedness throughout his review article on accounts of La Vendée, Quarterly Review, 15 (April 1816), 1–69 (e.g. 9, 13). BACK

[7] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[8] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[9] A Tale of Paraguay was not published until 1825. The main body of the poem ran to 224 Spenserian stanzas, the verse form used in Edmund Spenser’s (1552?–1599; DNB) The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). BACK

[10] William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB), The Task (1785), and Edward Young (c. 1683–1765; DNB), The Complaint, or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, and Immortality (1742–1746). BACK

[11] The new poem was ‘Consolation’. Although it was never completed, work towards it can be seen in the two posthumously-published pieces: ‘Fragmentary Thoughts Occasioned by His Son’s Death’, Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished): With Other Poetical Remains (London, 1845), pp. 93–95, and ‘Additional Fragment, Occasioned by the Death of His Son’, Poetical Works of Robert Southey. Complete in One Volume (London, 1850), p. 815. BACK

[12] The article Southey had not written was in Quarterly Review, 15 (July 1816), 475–511; it was authored by John Davison (1777–1834; DNB), with input from John Keble (1792–1866; DNB); at this time both were connected to the Anglican theological hot-house of Oriel College, Oxford. BACK

[13] Leigh Hunt, The Story of Rimini, a Poem (1816), the subject of a disparaging notice in the Quarterly Review, 14 (January 1816), 473–481. The article’s author was John Wilson Croker. Southey had objected to it in a letter to Murray, 24 August 1816, Letter 2831. BACK

[14] When the Bourbon regime was restored in France under Louis XVIII (1755–1824; King of France 1814–1824), the monarchy had been obliged to concede the Charter of 1814, which instituted a bicameral Parliament. This had not prevented a ‘White Terror’ in 1815–1816 in which the administration was purged of officials loyal to the Revolution. About 6,000 people were tried for various political offences and there were 300 mob lynchings in the South of France. The Cortes had ruled those parts of Spain not occupied by France in 1810–1813 and created the liberal Constitution of 1812. Southey felt its doctrinaire hostility to the Church, nobility and monarchy had made it difficult to create a stable Spanish political system. BACK

[15] Southey had lived in Keswick since 1803. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Netherhall (mentioned 1 time)


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