2966. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 5 April 1817

2966. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 5 April 1817⁠* 

My dear G.

Here is the finale. [1]  As a whole the composition would be better if 2 1/2 of these pages were omitted – & the paragraph ‘Such Mr W. S.’ were made to follow it immediately the slander stroke, & to begin thus. Had you Sir perused the writings of the man whom you have traduced you could not have mistaken his views &c. <But> There is a fitness in stating some thing of my opinions – tho it weakens the force of the Tender Epistle. You will give me your opinion, the Docstors & Turners, all which I shall duly ponder when the proof arrives – for the proof must be sent me. You will like the conclusion. Think of my forbearance in not adding this about the Bull “What have you to do with my horns Mr Wm S.? I have too much regard for the domestic tranquillity of you & your family to offer any insinuation respecting yours.” [2] 

All that is needful is to take care of prosecution [3]  & of this I think there can be no danger, the provocation having been so notorious & so great. [4] 

As for a challenge I have taken care to state my principles concerning duelling, & if the man be fool enough after this to challenge I shall turn him over to the Magistrates. [5] 

The title must be simply A Letter to Wm S. Esqr. Member for Norwich by RS. Murray will determine how many to print – I should think 500 quite enough, – profit is out of the question & I want no loss.

I had written something more about the state of things but it was leading me too far, & making Wm S. the post upon whom I hang my opinions, instead of the man who was tied to the post for whipping. So this matter is transferred to the QR. [6]  –It has delayed my journey till the 22d. on the 24 I hope to breakfast with the Docstor.

I shall look impatiently for the proofs – about two sheets in all. The shorter for such things the better.


Saturday 5 April 1817

If any thing is omitted in this Tender Epistle it is of little consequence. If I should be compelled to write a second, it will be to show that the Slandersmith & his party are the men who have changed their principles, – a strong ground, upon <from> which I should be able to batter them with tremendous effects.

To William Smith Esqre M.P. [7] 



You are represented in the newspapers as having entered during an important discussion in Parliament into a comparison between certain passages in the Quarterly Review, & the opinions which were held by the author of Wat Tyler three & twenty years ago. [8]  It appears farther, according to the same authority, that the introduction of so strange a criticism in so unfit a place, did not arise from the debate, but was a premeditated thing; that you had prepared yourself for it by stowing the Quarterly Review in one pocket, & Wat Tyler in the other; & that you deliberately stood up for the purpose of applying xxxxx of the House & xxxxxxxxxx <reviling> an individual who was not present to vindicate himself, & in a place which afforded you protection. [9] 

My name indeed was not mentioned, but that I was the person whom you intended was notorious to all who heard you. For the impropriety of introducing such topics in such an assembly, it is farther stated, that you received a well-merited rebuke from Mr Wynn, who spoke on that occasion as much from his feelings towards one with whom he had lived in uninterrupted friendship for nearly thirty years, as from a sense of the respect which is due to Parliament. [10]  It is however proper that I should speak explicitly for myself. This was not necessary in regard to Mr Brougham, – he only carried the quarrels as well as the practices of the Edinburgh Review into the House of Commons, & talked defamation instead of writing it. [11]  But as calumny Sir has not been your vocation it may be useful, even to yourself, if I comment upon your first attempt.

First, as to the Quarterly Review. You can have no other authority for ascribing any particular paper in that journal to one person or to another than common report; in following which you may happen to be as much mistaken as I was when upon the same grounds I supposed Mr Wm Smith to be a man of candour, incapable of grossly & wantonly insulting an individual.

The Quarterly Review stands upon its own merits. It is not answerable for any thing more than it contains. What I may have said, or thought in any part of my life no more concerns that journal than it does Mr Wm Smith or the House of Commons, & I am as little answerable for the Journal, as the Journal for me. What I may have written in it is a question which you, Sir, have no right to ask, & which certainly I will not answer. As little right have you to take that for granted which you cannot possibly know. The xxxxxx question as respects the Quarterly Review is not who wrote the paper which happens to have excited Mr Wm Smiths displeasure, but whether the facts which are there stated are true, the quotations accurate, & the inferences just. The Reviewer, whoever he may be, may defy you to disprove them.

Secondly as to Wat Tyler. Now Sir thought you are not acquainted with the full history of this notable production, yet you could not have been ignorant that the person whom you attacked at such unfair advantage was more sinned against than sinning. You knew that this poem had been written very many years ago in his early youth. You knew that a copy of it had been surreptitiously obtained, & made public by some skulking scoundrel, who had found booksellers not more honourable than himself to undertake the publication. [12]  You knew that it was published without the writers knowledge, for the avowed purpose of insulting him, & with the hope of injuring him if possible. You knew that the transaction bore upon its face every character of baseness & malignity. You knew that it must have been effected either by robbery or by breach of trust. These things Mr Wm Smith you knew! If I am rightly assured indeed, when Mr Wynn reminded you of them, your countenance & gestures indicated that you were uneasy upon your seat. And well, Sir, you might be so! I verily believe that if it were possible to revoke what is irrevocable, you would at this moment be far more desirous of blotting from remembrance the unfortunate speech which stands upon record in your name, than I should be of cancelling the boyish xx composition which gave occasion to it. Wat Tyler is full of errors, but they are the errors of youth & ignorance; they bear no indication of an ungenerous spirit, or of a malevolent heart.

For the book itself, I deny that it is a seditious performance, for it places in the mouths of the personages who are introduced, nothing more that a correct statement of their real principles. That it is a mischievous publication, I know; the errors which it contains being especially dangerous at this time. Therefore I came forward without hesitation to avow it, to claim it as my own property which had never been alienated, & to suppress it. And I am desirous that my motives in thus acting should not be misunderstood. The piece was written under the influence of opinions which I have long since outgrown, & repeatedly disclaimed, but for which I have never affected to feel either shame, or contrition; they were taken up conscientiously in early youth, they were acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations & they were left behind in the same straight-forward course as I advanced in years. It was written when republicanism was confined to a very small number of the educated classes, when those who were known to entertain such opinions were exposed to personal danger from the populace, & when a spirit of Anti-Jacobinism was predominant, which I cannot characterize more fully than by saying that it was as unjust & as intolerant, tho not quite as ferocious as the Jacobinism of the present day. Had the poem been thus published during any quiet state of the public mind, the act of dishonesty in the publisher would have been the same, but I should have left it unnoticed, in full confidence that it would have been forgotten as speedily as it deserved. But in these times when it may be doubted whether the publication has not proceeded xx as much from mischief as from malignity, it was incumbent upon me to come forward as I have done <& as I would have done> even if I could have foreseen the xx audacious defence which was to be made, & the false & injurious counter claim <pretension> which was to be cast into the scale against my solemn oath. It xxxxx became me to disclaim whatever had been erroneous & intemperate in my former opinions as frankly & as fearlessly as I once maintained them. And this I did not xx as one who felt himself in any degree disgraced by the exposure of the crude & misdirected feelings of his youth (feelings right in themselves, wrong only in their direction) but as one whose life may set malice at defiance, whose name is honourably distinguished abroad as well as at home, & who is unremittingly endeavouring to deserve well of his country & of mankind.

When therefore Mr Smith informed the House of Commons that the author of Wat Tyler thinks no longer upon certain points as he did in his youth, he informed that legislative assembly of nothing more than what the author has shown during very many years in the course of his writings, – that while events have been moving on upon the great theatre of human affairs, his intellect has not been stationary. But when the Member for Norwich asserts (as he is said to have asserted) that I impute evil motives to men merely for holding now the same doctrines which I myself formerly possessed, & when he charges me (as he is said to have charged me) with the malignity xxx <&> baseness of a renegade, the assertion & the charges are as false, as the language in which they are conveyed is coarse & insulting.

Upon this subject I must be heard farther.

The Edinburgh Review has spoken somewhere of those vindictive & jealous writings in which Mr Southey has brought forward his claims to the approbation of the public. [13]  This is one of those passages for which the Editor of that Review has merited an abatement in heraldry, – no such writings ever have been written, & indeed by other like assertions of equal veracity the Gentleman has richly entitled himself to bear a gore sinister tenné in his escutcheon. [14]  Few authors have obtruded themselves upon the public in their individual character less than I have done. My books have been sent into the world with no other introduction than an explanatory preface as brief as possible, arrogating nothing, vindicating nothing: & then they have been left to their fate. None of the innumerable attacks which have been made upon them has ever called forth on my part a single word of reply, triumphantly as I might have exposed my assailants not only for their ignorance & inconsistency, but frequently for that moral turpitude which is implied by willful & deliberate mis-statement. The unprovoked insults that have been leveled at me both in prose & rhyme never induced me to retaliate, tho it will not be supposed that the ability for satire was wanting, but happily I had long since subdued the disposition. I knew that men might be appreciated from the character of their enemies as well as of their friends, & I accepted the hatred of sciolists, coxcombs & profligates, as one sure proof that I was deserving well of the wise & of the good.

It will not therefore be imputed to any habit of egotism, or any vain desire of interesting the public in my individual concerns, if I now come forward from that privacy in which both from judgement & disposition it would have been my choice to have remained. While among the mountains of Cumberland I have been employed upon the mines of Brazil, [15]  the War in the peninsula, [16]  & such other varieties of pursuit as serve to keep the intellect in health by alternately exercising & refreshing it; my name has served in London for the very shuttle-cock of discussion. My celebrity has for a time eclipsed that of Mr Hunt the Orator [17]  & may perhaps have impeded the rising reputation of Toby the Sapient Pig. [18]  I have reigned in the newspapers as paramount as Joanna Southcott during the last month of her tympany. Nay columns have been devoted to Mr Southey & Wat Tyler which would otherwise have been employed in bewailing the forlorn condition of the Emperor Napoleon, & reprobating the inhumanity of the British Cabinet for having designedly exposed him like Bishop Hatto to be devoured by the rats. [19] 

That I should ever be honoured by such a Delicate Investigation [20]  of my political opinions was what I never could have anticipated even in the wildest dreams of unfledged vanity. Honour however has been thrust upon me as upon Malvolio. [21]  The verses of a boy, of which he thought no more than of his school-exercises, & which had they been published when they were written would have past without notice to the family xx vault, have not only been perused by the Lord Chancellor in his judicial office, but have been twice produced in Parliament for the edification of the Legislature. [22]  The appetite for slander must be sharp set, when it can prey upon such small gear! As however the opinions of Mr Southey have not been thought unworthy to occupy so considerable a share of attention, he need not apprehend the censure of the judicious if he takes part in the discussion himself so far as briefly to inform the world what they really have been, & what they are.

In my youth when my stock of knowledge consisted of such an acquaintance with Greek & Roman history as is acquired in the course of a regular scholastic education, when my heart was full of poetry & romance, & Lucan [23]  & Akenside [24]  were at my tongues end, I fell into the political opinions which the French Revolution was then scattering throughout Europe, & following those opinions with ardour wherever they led I soon perceived that inequalities of rank were a light evil compared to the inequalities of property & those more fearful distinctions which the want of moral & intellectual culture occasions between man & man. At that time & with those opinions, or rather feelings (for their root was in the heart – not in the understanding) I wrote Wat Tyler, as one who was impatient of ‘all the oppressions that are done under the sun.’ [25]  The subject was injudiciously chosen, & it was treated as might be expected by a youth of twenty in such times <who regarded> only one side of the question. xxx contemplated. There is no other misrepresentation. The sentiments of the historical characters are correctly stated. Were I now to dramatize the same story there would be much to add, but little to alter. I should not express those sentiments less strongly but I should oppose to them more enlarged views of the nature of man & the progress of society. I should set forth with equal force the oppressions of the feudal system, the excesses of the insurgents, & the treachery of the Government, & hold up the errors & crimes xxx which were then committed as a warning for this & for future ages. I should write as a man, not as a stripling, with the same heart, & the same desires but with a ripened understanding & competent stores of knowledge.

It is a fair & legitimate inference that no person would have selected this subject & treated it in such a manner at such a time unless he had in a certain degree partaken the opinions <sentiments> which are expressed in it: in what degree he partook them is a question which it requires more temper as well as more discretion to xxxxxxx <resolve>, than you Sir have given any proof of possessing. This can only be ascertained by comparing the piece with other works of the same author, written about the same time, or shortly afterward & under the influence of the same political opinions: by such a comparison it might be discovered what arose from his own feelings & what from the nature of dramatic composition. But to select passages from a dramatic poem, & ascribe the whole force of the sentiments to the writer as if he himself held them without the slightest qualification is a mode of criticism manifestly absurd & unjust. Whether it proceeded in this instance from excess of malice, or deficiency of sense, is a point which they who are best acquainted with Mr Wm Smith may be able to determine.

It so happens that sufficient specimens of Mr Southeys way of thinking in his youth are before the world, without breaking open escritoires, or stealing any more of his unpublished <juvenile> papers which he may have neglected to burn. The poem to which with all its faults, he is indebted for his first favourable notice from the public, may possibly have been honoured with a place in Mr Wm Smiths library, as it received the approbation of all the dissenting journals of the day. [26]  It is possible that their recommendation may have induced him to favour Joan of Arc with a perusal, & not improbably in a mood which would indulge its manifold demerits in style & structure for the sake of its liberal opinions. Perhaps too he may have condescended to notice the Minor Poems [27]  of the same author, sanctioned as some of these also were at their first appearance by the same critical authorities. In these productions he may have seen expressed an enthusiastic love of liberty, a detestation of tyranny wherever it exists & in whatever form, an ardent abhorrence of all wicked ambition, & a sympathy not less ardent with those who were engaged in war for the defence of their country, & in a righteous cause, – feelings just as well as generous in themselves, tho sometimes misdirected. He might have seen also frequent indications that in the opinion of the youthful writer a far happier system of society was possible than any under which mankind are at present existing, or have ever existed since the patriarchal ages, – & no equivocal aspirations after such a state. In all this he might have seen something that was erroneous & more that was visionary, but nothing that savoured of intemperance or violence. I insist therefore that inasmuch as Wat Tyler may differ in character from these works, the difference arises necessarily from the nature of dramatic composition. I maintain that this is the inference which must be drawn by every honest & judicious mind, & I affirm that such an inference would be strictly conformable to the fact.

Do not however Sir suppose that I should seek to shrink from a full avowal of what my opinions have been: neither before God or man am I ashamed of them. I have as little cause for humiliation in recalling them as Gibbon had when he related how he had knelt at the feet of a Confessor. [28]  For while I imbibed the republican opinions of the day, I escaped the atheism & the leprous immorality which generally accompanied them. I cannot therefore join with Beattie in blessing

– the hour when I escaped the wrangling crew
From Pyrrhos maze & Epicurus sty [29] 

for I was never lost in the one, nor defiled in the other. My progress was of a different kind. From building Castles in the air to framing Commonwealths was an easy transition; the next step was to realize the vision, & in the hope of accomplishing this I forsook the course of life for which I had been designed, [30]  & the prospects of advancement, which I may say without presumption were within my reach. My purpose was to retire with a few friends into the wilds of America & there lay the foundations of a community upon what we believed to be the political system of Christianity. [31]  It matters not in what manner the vision was dissolved. I am not writing my own memoirs, & it is sufficient simply to state the fact. We were connected with no clubs, no societies, no party. The course which we would have pursued might have proved destructive to ourselves, but as it related to all other persons, never did the aberrations of youth take a more innocent direction.

Mr Wm Smith, I know that you were not ignorant of this circumstance. The project while it was in view was much talked of among that sect of Christians to which you belong, & some of your friends are well acquainted with the events of my life. [32]  What then I may ask did you learn concerning me from this late surreptitious publication? Nay, Sir, the personal knowledge which you possessed was not needful for a full understanding of the political opinions which I entertained in xxxxxx part of youth. They are expressed in poems which have been frequently reprinted & are continually on sale: no alterations have ever been made for the purpose of withdrawing, concealing, or extenuating them. I have merely affixed to every piece the date of the year in which it was written, – & the progress of years is sufficient to explain the change. [33] 

You Mr Wm Smith, may possibly be acquainted with other persons who were republicans in the first years of the French Revolution & who have long since ceased to be so, with as little impeachment of their integrity as of their judgement. Yet you bring it as a heinous charge against me, that having entertained enthusiastic notions in my youth, three & twenty years should have produced a change in the opinions of one whose life has been devoted to unremitting study & who in those branches of study upon which political science is founded may say in the words of Bentley to you, & to such as you, that he has forgotten more than ever you learnt. [34]  You are pleased in your candour to admit that I might have been sincere when I was erroneous, & you, who are a professor of modern liberality, are not pleased to admit that the course of time & of events may have corrected me in what was wrong, & confirmed me in what was right. On the contrary, if the uncontroverted reports of your speech may be credited, you dared affirm that any alteration must be imputed to base & corrupt motives. True it is that the events of the last four & twenty years have been lost upon you: xperhaps you judge me by yourself, & you may think this a fair criterion, – but I must protest against being measured by any such standard. Between you & me Sir there can be no sympathy, even tho we should sometimes happen to think alike. We are as unlike in all things as men of the same time, country & rank in society can be imagined to be: & the difference is in our mind & mould as we came from the Potters hand.

And what Sir is the change in the opinions of Mr Southey which has drawn upon him the ponderous displeasure of Mr Wm Smith? This was a point upon which it behooved you to be especially well informed before you applied to him the false & insolent appellation which you are said to have used, & which I am authorized in believing that you have used. He has ceased to believe that old monarchical countries are capable of republican forms of government. He has ceased to think that he understood the principles of government, & the nature of men & society before he was one & twenty years of age. He has ceased to suppose that men who neither cultivate their intellectual or their moral faculties can understand them at any age. He has ceased to wish for revolutions even in countries where great alteration is to be desired, because he has seen that the end of anarchy is military despotism. But he has not ceased to love liberty with all his heart & with all his soul & with all his strength: he has not ceased to detest tyranny wherever it exists & in whatever form. He has not ceased to abhor the wickedness of ambition, & to sympathize with those who were engaged in the defence of their country & in a righteous cause; – if indeed he had, he might have been sure of the approbation of Mr Wm Smith & the sober opponents of their country’s cause, but of the whole crew of Ultra Whigs & Anarchists, from Messrs Brougham & Clodius, [35]  down to Cobbett, Cethegus [36]  & Co.

The one object to which I have ever been desirous of contributing according to my power, is the removal of those obstacles by which the xxxxxxx <improvement> of mankind, is impeded, & to this the whole tenor of my writings whether in prose or verse bears witness. This has been the pole star of my course, the needle has shifted according to the movements of the state vessel wherein I am embarked but the direction to which it points has always been the same. I did not fall into the error of those who having been the friends of France when they imagined that the cause of liberty was implicated in her success, transferred their attachment from the Republic to the military Tyranny in which it ended, & regarded with complacency the progress of oppression because France was the oppressor. ‘They had turned their faces toward the East in the morning to worship the rising sun, & in the evening they were looking eastward still, obstinately affirming that still the sun was there.’ [37]  I on the contrary altered my position as the world went round. For so doing Mr Wm Smith is said to have insulted me with the appellation of Renegade, & if it be indeed true that the foul aspersion past his lips, I brand him on the fore head with the name of Slanderer. Salve the mark as you will Sir, it is ineffaceable! You must bear it with you to your Grave, & the remembrance will outlast your Epitaph.

And now Sir learn what are the opinions of the man to whom you have offered this public & notorious wrong, – opinions not derived from any contagion of the times, nor entertained with the unreflecting eagerness of youth, nor adopted in connection with any party in the state, but during many years of leisure & retirement, gathered patiently, from books, observation, meditation & intercourse with living minds who will be the light of other ages.

Greater changes in the condition of this country have been wrought during the last half century than an equal course of years had ever before produced. Without entering into the proofs of this proposition, suffice it to indicate, as among the most efficient causes, the steam & the spinning engines, the mail coach, & the free publication of the debates in Parliament: hence <follow>, in natural & necessary consequence, increased activity, enterprize, wealth, & power; but, on the other hand greediness of gain, looseness of principle, half knowledge (more perilous than ignorance) vice, poverty, wretchedness, disaffection, & political insecurity. The changes which have taken place render other changes inevitable; forward we must go for xxxx <it> is not possible to retrace our steps; the hand of the political horologe cannot go back like the shadow upon Hezekiahs dial; [38]  – when the hour comes it must strike. Slavery has long ceased to be tolerable in Europe: the remains of feudal oppression are disappearing even in those countries which have improved the least: nor can it be much longer endured that the extremes of ignorance, wretchedness & brutality should exist in the very centre of civilized society. There can be no safety with a populace half Luddite, half Lazzaroni. [39]  Let us not deceive ourselves. We are far from that state in which any thing resembling equality would be possible, but we are arrived at that state in which the extremes of inequality are become intolerable. They are too dangerous as well as too monstrous to be borne much longer. Plans which would have led to the utmost horrors of insurrection have been prevented by the government and by the enactment of strong, but necessary laws. Let it not however be supposed that the disease is healed because the ulcer may skin over. The remedies by which the body politic can be restored to health must be slow in their operation. The condition of the populace, physical moral & intellectual, must be bettered <improved> or a Jacquerie, a Bellum Servile, [40]  sooner or later will be the result. It is the people at this time who stand in need of reformation, not the Government.

The Government must better the condition of the populace; & the first thing necessary is to prevent it from being worsened. Xxxxx xxx xx It must no longer suffer itself to be menaced, its chief magistrate insulted, & its most sacred institutions [41]  vilified with impunity. It must curb the seditious press, & keep it curbed. For this purpose, if the laws are not at present effectual, they should be made so; nor will they then avail unless they are vigilantly executed. If the press be not curbed xx xxxxx its abuse will most assuredly one day occasion the loss of its freedom.

This is the first & most indispensable measure; for without this all others will be fruitless. Next in urgency is the immediate relief of the poor. I differ, toto coelo, [42]  from Mr Owen of Lanark in one main point. [43]  To build upon any other foundation than religion is building upon sand. But I admire his practical benevolence, – I love his enthusiasm, – & I go far with him in his earthly views. What he has actually done entitles him to the greatest attention & respect. I sincerely wish that his plan for the extirpation of pauperism should be fairly tried. To employ the poor in manufactures is only shifting the evil, & throwing others out of employ by bringing more xxxxx <labour, & more produce of labour>, into a market which is already overstocked.

A duty scarcely less urgent than that of diminishing the burthen of the poor rates is that of providing for the education of the lower classes. Government must no longer, in neglect of its first & paramount duty allow them to grow up in worse than heathen ignorance. They must be trained up in the way they should go: they must be taught to “fear God & keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.” [44] 

Mere reading & writing will not do this: they must be instructed according to the institutions of their country <established religion>; they must be fed with the milk of sound doctrine, & not dry xxxx nursed in dissent: for states are secure in proportion as the great body of the people are attached to the institutions of their country. A moral & religious education will induce habits of industry; the people will know their duty & find their interest & their happiness in following it. Xxxx xxx xxxxx Give us the great boon of parochial education, so connected with the Church as to form part of the Establishment, & we shall find it a bulwark to the State as well as to the Church. Let this be done, let xxxx xxxxx saving Banks be generally introduced, [45]  let new channels for industry be opened (as soon as the necessities of the State will permit) by a liberal expenditure in public works, by colonizing our waste lands at home & regularly sending off our swarms abroad, & the strength wealth & security of the nation will be in proportion to its numbers.

It is likewise incumbent upon government to take heed lest, in <its> solicitude for raising the necessary revenue, there should be too little regard for the means by which it is raised. It should beware of imposing such duties as create a strong temptation for <xx to> evading<e> them. It should be careful that all its measures tend as much as possible to the improvement of the people, & especially careful that nothing be done which can tend in any way to corrupt them It should reform its prisons; & apply some remedy to the worst grievance which exists, – the enormous expenses, the chicanery, & the ruinous delays of the law.

Machiavelli says that legislators should <ought to> suppose all men to be naturally bad. [46]  I differ upon this point from that most sagacious statesman. Xx xxxxx xxxxx xxxx <Fitter it is that> Governments should think well of mankind; for the better they think of them, the better they will find them, & the better they will make them. Government must reform the populace, the people must reform themselves. This is the true reform, <& compared to this all else is flocci, nauci, nihili, pili.> [47] 

Such Mr Wm Smith are <in part> the opinions <views> of the man whom you have traduced. Had you perused his writings, you could not have mistaken them; & I am willing to believe that if you had done this, & formed an opinion for yourself, instead of retailing that of wretches who are libellous by trade & live by sedition & slander, you would neither have been so far forgetful of your parliamentary character, or of the xxxx <decencies> between man & man, as so wantonly, so unjustly, & in such a place, to have attacked one who had given you no provocation. And how Sir did you expect that the affair would end? Did you take this step in full knowledge that the man whom you were injuring knew his duties towards God & man too well to violate upon any provocation the laws of both, or did you suppose that I should demand what the world is pleased to call satisfaction? Perhaps Sir you would have waived your privilege, & aimed at the life of him whose reputation you had attempted to stain, & exposed your own in a quarrel wherein you know yourself to be the aggressor. I shall not put you to the trial. Your estates & your distillery [48]  would remain for your family, & the bells of Norwich would ring as merrily at your successors election as they had done at yours. My place in the world could not be so easily supplied, were I actuated by no higher considerations.

Or did you imagine that I should sit down quietly under the wrong, & treat your attack with the same silent contempt as I have done all the abuse & slander <calumny> with which, from one party or the other, Anti Jacobins or Jacobins, I have been assailed in daily, weekly, monthly & quarterly publications since the year 1796 when I first became known to the public. [49]  The place where you made the attack, & the manner of the attack, prevent this. You wished to take the Bull by the horns, & you have had your wish. Such a feat may be very well for a Spanish picador or an English piccassin when the Bull is to be butchered or baited for the amusement of a herd of bipeds – but for a plain Country gentleman to provoke an animal who is unoffendingly feeding in his own pasture, is neither a very wise nor a very safe bravado. It would be prudent first to enquire whether his horns were lopt.

One thing Sir you have effected. You have secured for yourself a lasting remembrance. The Records of Parliament are not the only books in which your name will be found hereafter. How far the writings of Mr Southey may be found to deserve a favourable acceptance from after ages, time will decide; but a name, which whether worthily or not, has been conspicuous in the literary history of its age, will not certainly not perish. Some account of his life will always be prefixed to his works & transferred to literary histories, & to the biographical dictionaries, xx xxx not only of this, but of other countries. There it will be related, that he lived in the “bosom of his family”, in absolute retirement; that in all his writings there breathed the same abhorrence of oppression & immorality, the same spirit of devotion, & the same ardent wishes for the amelioration of mankind; & that the only charge which malice could bring against him was that as he grew older his opinions altered concerning the means by which that amelioration was to be effected; & that as he learnt to understand the institutions <of his country,> he learnt to appreciate them rightly, to love, & to revere & to defend them. It will be said of him that in an age of personality, he abstained from satire; & that during the long course of his literary life, often as he was assailed, the only occasion on which he ever condescended to reply was when a certain Mr William Smith insulted him in Parliament with the appellation of renegade. On that occasion he came forward, vindicated himself & treating his unprovoked assailant <calumniator> with just & memorable severity. Whether it shall be added that Mr Wm Smith redeemed his own character, by coming forward with manly courage & acknowledging that he had spoken rashly & unjustly, xxxxxx xx xx xxxx <concerns himself, but is not of the slightest importance to me.> x xxxx xxxxxxxx x myself <& may take my satisfaction> & leave the matter safely to posterity.

Robert Southey


* Address: To/ G. C. Bedford Esqre
Endorsements: 5 April 1817; 5 April 1817. with conclusion of Ltr to W Smith M.P.
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. d. 47. ALS; 4p.
Note on MS: the letter contains an enclosure, a draft of part of Southey’s A Letter to William Smith (1817). BACK

[1] The final part of Southey’s pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq. M.P. from Robert Southey Esq., published by Murray at the end of April 1817. BACK

[2] Possibly a suggestion that Smith was a cuckold. He was married to Frances Coape (1758–1840) and the couple had ten children. For the allusion to a bull that Southey did include in his draft, see below: ‘You wished to take the Bull by the horns, & you have had your wish. Such a feat may be very well for a Spanish picador or an English piccassin when the Bull is to be butchered or baited for the amusement of a herd of bipeds – but for a plain Country gentleman to provoke an animal who is unoffendingly feeding in his own pasture, is neither a very wise nor a very safe bravado. It would be prudent first to enquire whether his horns were lopt.’ The passage did not appear in the printed version. BACK

[3] That is, to avoid publishing anything that would expose Southey to prosecution for libel. BACK

[4] Smith had denounced Southey in the House of Commons on 14 March 1817 in the debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill, condemning ‘the settled, determined malignity of a renegado’ and comparing Southey’s arguments against radical views in the Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 227, with those expressed in Wat Tyler (1817), Act 2, lines 103–112. BACK

[5] Southey was worried that Smith would challenge him to a duel, a practice that was illegal, though over a thousand duels were fought in the United Kingdom between 1785 and 1845. BACK

[6] Southey’s article ‘Rise and Progress of Popular Disaffection’, Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 511–552 (published 20 May 1817). BACK

[7] The text that follows is a draft of Southey’s pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P., published by Murray at the end of April 1817. BACK

[8] Smith had denounced Southey in the House of Commons on 14 March 1817 in the debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill, condemning ‘the settled, determined malignity of a renegado’ and comparing Southey’s arguments against radical views in the Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 227, with those expressed in Wat Tyler (1817), Act 2, lines 103–112. BACK

[9] As Smith made his statements in the House of Commons, he could not be prosecuted for slander. BACK

[10] Wynn had spoken immediately after Smith on 14 March 1817 to defend Southey. BACK

[11] Southey may be referring to Brougham’s speech in the House of Commons on 24 February 1817, when he contrasted the unwillingness of the government to prosecute Southey’s early radical play, Wat Tyler, for sedition, with its eagerness to pursue radical publications. BACK

[12] In 1795 Southey visited James Ridgway (1755–1838) and Henry Symonds (1741–1816), radical booksellers, in Newgate prison, to discuss the publication of his Jacobin drama Wat Tyler; see Robert Southey to Edith Fricker, [c. 12 January 1795], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 123. Ridgway and Symonds did not publish it and it remained in manuscript until a pirated publication, designed to embarrass the now anti-Jacobin Southey, appeared in 1817. Having taken advice from Rickman, Wynn and Turner, Southey launched a suit in Chancery in order to gain an injunction suppressing the publication. His case was not heard until 18–19 March 1817, and Southey lost. The ‘pirate’ publishers were William Sherwood (1776–1837), Samuel Dunbar Neely (dates unknown) and Robert Jones (dates unknown) and the ‘skulking scoundrel’ is probably a reference to William Winterbotham, who shared a room in Newgate with Ridgway and Symonds and swore an affidavit that Southey had given Wat Tyler to him and the radical publisher, Daniel Isaac Eaton (1753–1814; DNB), to do with as they would. BACK

[13] Probably a reference to Edinburgh Review, 18 (August 1811), 283, which expressed disgust with Southey, Wordsworth, Coleridge and Joanna Baillie for the ‘keen and vindictive jealousy, with which they have put in their claim for public admiration’. BACK

[14] In heraldry a gore is a charge formed by an inwardly curved line. A gore sinister tenné was an abatement of arms that was believed (without foundation) to have been imposed in medieval times upon the bearer for cowardice in the face of the enemy. BACK

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

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

[17] Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt (1773–1835; DNB), radical politician. BACK

[18] The ‘learned pig’ was a well-known fairground show; see Southey’s Letters From England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, 3 vols (London, 1807), III, pp. 48–49. BACK

[19] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815) was exiled to St Helena in 1815. Southey narrated the cautionary tale of Hatto I (c. 850–913; Archbishop of Mainz, 891–913) in ‘God’s Judgement On A Bishop’, Morning Post, 27 November 1799. BACK

[20] The Delicate Investigation of 1806 was set up by the government to investigate claims that Princess Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821; DNB), estranged wife of the Prince of Wales, had given birth to an illegitimate child in 1802. The Princess was exonerated. BACK

[21] ’Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them’, Malvolio in Twelfth Night, Act 2, scene 5, lines 145–146. BACK

[22] John Scott, 1st Earl of Eldon (1751–1838; DNB), Lord Chancellor 1801–1806, 1807–1827, had given the judgement in Southey’s suit for an injunction to prevent the publication of Wat Tyler, on 18–19 March 1817. BACK

[23] Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39–65 AD), Roman poet and republican. BACK

[24] Mark Akenside (1721–1770; DNB), poet and physician, who had a reputation for youthful republicanism. BACK

[25] Ecclesiastes 4: 1. BACK

[26] Joan of Arc (1796) was reviewed favourably in the Analytical Review, 23 (February 1796), 170–177, the Critical Review, 17 (February 1796), 191–195 and the Monthly Review, 19 (April 1796), 361–368. All of these journals were supported by radicals and Nonconformists, like William Smith. The latter possessed a fine library at his country seat at Parndon House, Essex. BACK

[27] Southey’s Minor Poems (1815), a selection of his shorter pieces. BACK

[28] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB) recalled how he sat at the feet of a Roman Catholic priest in 1753, and converted to Catholicism. Gibbon explained that ‘Youth is sincere and impetuous; and a momentary glow of enthusiasm had raised me above all temporal considerations’; see The Miscellaneous Works of Edward Gibbon, 7 vols (Basle, 1796–1797), I, p. 58. BACK

[29] James Beattie (1735–1803; DNB), The Minstrel; or, the Progress of Genius. A Poem (London 1771–1774), Book 1, stanza 42, lines 6–7. Pyrrho (c. 360– c. 270 BC) was the founder of Scepticism and Epicurus (341–270 BC) of Epicureanism – in Beattie’s poem they represent religious doubt and indulgence in sensuality. This was a favourite quotation of Southey’s; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [started before and continued on] 12 June 1796, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 159. BACK

[30] Southey’s uncle, Herbert Hill, had financed Southey’s time at Balliol College, Oxford in 1792–1794 in the expectation that Southey would become a clergyman in the Church of England. BACK

[31] The Pantisocratic scheme propounded by Southey and Coleridge in 1794–1795. BACK

[32] At the time when Southey and Coleridge were promoting Pantisocracy both held Unitarian opinions. Smith was also a Unitarian. BACK

[33] Southey had first added dates to editions of his shorter poems in Poems (1799), when he was still a radical. The dates indicated his poetic, rather than his political or religious, development. BACK

[34] Richard Bentley (1662–1742; DNB), classical scholar and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Richard Cumberland (1732–1811; DNB) had reported that when a schoolmaster had promised to make Cumberland as learned as his grandfather, Richard Bentley, the latter had exclaimed to the schoolmaster: ‘Pshaw, Arthur, how can that be, when I have forgot more than thou ever knew’st?’, Memoirs of Richard Cumberland. Written by Himself, 2 vols (London, 1807), II, p. 33. BACK

[35] Publius Clodius Pulcher (93–52 BC), Roman politician notorious for unscrupulous populism, conspiracy and sexual immorality. BACK

[36] Gaius Cornelius Cethegus (d. 63 BC), executed for his part in the Catiline conspiracy against the Roman Republic in 63 BC. BACK

[37] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1808, 1.1 (1810), 23. BACK

[38] 2 Kings 20: 8–11, in which God moved the shadow on the sundial of Hezekiah (c. 739–c. 687 BC; King of Israel 729–687 BC) backwards as a sign to him. BACK

[39] The Luddites protested against the introduction of new machinery in the East Midlands hosiery trade 1811–1817; the Lazzaroni were the poorest urban class in Naples, often typified as beggars, who were generally seen as reactionary in their politics. BACK

[40] A popular revolt; or a civil war of the poor against the rich. BACK

[41] The Church of England. BACK

[42] ‘To the whole extent of the heavens: diametrically’. BACK

[43] Robert Owen (1771–1858; DNB), manager and owner of the mills and model community at New Lanark in Scotland 1799–1825 had developed an extensive plan for relieving distress, embodied in his Report to the Committee of the Association for the Relief of the Manufacturing and Labouring Poor (1817). Owen had visited Southey in Keswick in 1816 and 1817. BACK

[44] Ecclesiastes 12: 13. BACK

[45] The first savings bank for the poor, which paid interest on small deposits, was opened by Henry Duncan (1774–1846; DNB), at Ruthwell, Dumfriesshire in 1810. BACK

[46] Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), Discourses on the First Decade of Titus Livius (1531), Book 1, chapter 3, ‘it is necessary to whoever arranges to found a Republic and establish laws in it, to presuppose that all men are bad and that they will use their malignity of mind every time they have an opportunity’. BACK

[47] ‘Worthless things’: from a list of noun declensions in Latin grammars. BACK

[48] Smith and his family had been involved in various distilleries in London since 1804. BACK

[49] i.e. with the publication of the first edition of the radical epic Joan of Arc. BACK


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