3003. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 30 June 1817

3003. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 30 June 1817⁠* 

30 June. 1817. Chateau d’Echichens.

My dear R.

I write from the Pays de Vaud, – where Mrs Hills sister [1]  is residing, about eight miles from Lausanne, & two from the borders of the Lake of Geneva. We are resting here on our way back from Milan. Thursday we begin our course again, & after a weeks deviation into the very heart of Switzerland by the Lakes of Thuin & Lucerne, we hasten homeward by Strasbourg Manheim, Frankfurt & the Rhine. Four weeks from this time will I trust bring me to London, – this is going three beyond my furlough, tho we have lost no time & spared no exertion. A week must be set down to the unusual lateness of the season. When we arrived in Switzerland, parts of the country which we should have taken on the way to Italy were not practicable because of the snow; – it was necessary therefore to leave them till our return, & this sent us round by Mount Cenis, [2]  whereby at the expence of a week or ten days circuit we have seen the Chartreuse, [3]  Savoy & Piedmont. Now then for a hasty sketch of our route.

From Calais by Amiens & Chantilly to Paris – Picardy is interesting historical ground, – for even after Waterloo an Englishman may remember Crecy [4]  with pride. five days at Paris, where I saw Humboldt, [5]  but was disappointed by not meeting Espoz y Mina, [6]  for which I had waited a day. Fontainebleau, Auxerre, Dijon, Besançon, & over the Jura mountains to Neufchatel. At Besançon the fine scenery began. Yverdun where we went to see Pestalozzi, [7]  – such a man that if I had him in a cage I could make a fortune by carrying him from fair to fair. I like him well as an oddity, & a kind hearted, warm hearted strange fellow, – but as for his system, – it is one proof more how easily quackery of any kind makes its way in the world. Lausanne. Geneva, – a place which stinks worse than Lisbon or Edinburgh, – it is the very odour of heresy, – just as the cradle of Calvinism [8]  ought to stink. And it is built as if the very Demon of Calvinism had been the architect, & the prevailing principle had been not merely a contempt, but a hatred of any thing ornamental or beautiful. Chamberry here as we were to cross the French frontier, the Grand Chartreuse being in France, we were obliged to procure billets of health, owing to the report of an infectious disease in Piedmont. When we went to the third office thro which it was necessary to pass, the officer exclaimed when is this abominable comedy to end! He told us that upon every billet he had certified that no infectious disorder had existed in Piedmont, – but that the Prefect of the Isere [9]  – had some end in view by keeping up the delusion. Mount Cenis. The Savoyards were complaining loudly some that the King of Sardinia [10]  would send them no grain, others that the Piedmontese would allow none to pass. But the roads were absolutely thronged with carriages conveying it, – the top of the Cenis was literally like a fair or a market. The scarcity has been very severe in Savoy, & in great part of France, – still more so in some parts of Switzerland & Italy: – but with this as with robbers & pestilence, xxxx xxxx <evil> is heard of at a distance & sometimes not to be heard of on the spot which has been named as the scene. Where we have been we have certainly found that provisions were dear, – rather more so in relation to their average price than they have been in England: – grain is now coming by land from Marseilles to Switzerland. But in a very few weeks there is every appearance of plenty. The hay harvest is getting in, & it is an abundant one. They must by this time be cutting the corn in Italy: & here as well as there every thing is looking well.

Turin. Milan. Como, – there I found Landor, & heard of the Princess [11]  who bids fair to rank in history with Messalina & Joan of Naples. [12]  Her relations are infamous to the last degree of infamy, – the only respectable personage of the whole suite being – a Pelican, who has a carriage to himself – or herself – when the said Pelican travels. Of the three Gentlemen in attendance, the Prime Minister has been in six different x jails in Italy, & you know it is not for a trifle that a man obtains admission at into an Italian jail. [13]  – the second would have been a gentleman of high fashion in that part of the world <Holy Land> which is now covered by the Dead Sea, [14]  – & the third has distinguished himself as a practitioner with the stiletto. These wretches plunder her in every imaginable way, & she keeps up the most lavish expenditure by the simple means of never paying her debts. To Como it is said she will not return on this account. – Lugano, the Lago Maggiore. Over the Simplon. [15]  The Valais, – the most beautiful country that can be imagined, & with the most miserable inhabitants, Cretins & goitres being more numerous than I could possibly have supposed. I am satisfied that the water is the cause, for where the inhabitants drink clear water these dreadful curses are not found. [16]  They are frightful beyond description. From Martigny a three days excursion on mules to Chamounix, & the Mer de Glace, an absurd name for ice of the <a> Glacier <which ought to be called the Lake Valley of Ice>. There is neither beauty nor sublimity in a Glacier. Yesterday we arrived here, – tanned to the colour of the Copper Indians, & glad of a little rest. During seven weeks Senhouse & myself have never lain later than six – then only on the days when we were not travelling, & have much more frequently risen at four than at five.

The great industry of the people has surprized me. It is the same every where. There is more waste ground within twenty miles of London, upon any one line of road, than we have seen in the whole seven weeks that we have been travelling. France, Switzerland, Savoy, Piedmont, the Milanese, – it is every where the same, every shelf of the rocks is cultivated, & houses & villages are perched, where you might suppose it would tire a jack daw to reach them. And yet every where there is a degree of squalid poverty, which if it be not explained by the pressure of present scarcity, & the effects of a war which in the first place drained the male population, & lately brought armies thro the country, would appear altogether inexplicable. The women seem to be incessantly employed in agricultural labour & almost as soon as they cease to be children, become old at once, & look more like living mummies than like human beings, from constant exposure, filth, hard work & perhaps insufficient nourishment.

The Alps, – if the world should last another six thousand years, Skiddaw will still be Skiddaw, but there will be no Alps, they will have mouldered down, & formed a table land with the wreck. I could not have imagined such a scene of ruins. This it is which occasions the difficulty in making roads, & in keeping them up when made. The Mount Cenis road is constructed with the greatest care & skill, not the smallest runnel is permitted to cross the way; there are walls built up the side of the hill to conduct it to an arch under the road, & stone channels by the road side, – otherwise a single wet season would break up all that is done. Landslips are so frequent, that a part of the new line has been given up as too dangerous, & a new road is now constructing at prodigious expence in so spiral a line, that it passes four times over a cataract as steep as Lodore. The torrents & the rivers are of the colour of pease porridge, & much of the same consistency. The Rhone is of this colour when it enters the Lake of Geneva, & it issues out of it a clear deep blue: – it comes in the Bahar el Abiad, & goes out the Bahar el Azrak. [17]  Of course all that it brings in is left behind & must in time fill up the Lake, – a process which is very rapidly going on.

From Milan I sent home a large case of books, directed according to the arrangement which had been made for me in England. Will you tell Bedford that I saw the first letter dispatched which was to announce them to Mr Rothschild, [18]  – but that least there should be any mistake about the second, which my agent, a certain Signor Discacciati, [19]  seemed very much disposed to inclose to Cornaghi the printseller at Charing Cross, or Cockspur street, [20]  I wish GCB. would call upon the said Cornaghi. This second letter should inform Rothschild that such a box directed &c & marked E.N. is arrived by such a ship; – now as the box will be shipt from Genoa, I could not see the letter written at Milan, not knowing by what ship it would be sent; & I am apprehensive Discacciati will content himself with merely apprizing Cornaghi of it, who is his Magnus Apollo. [21]  – There are some curious books there. Among others the Bibliotheca Rabbinica of Bartolucci. [22]  – I wrote to G. C. B from Milan. Elmsley is gone to the Greek Islands. He made six attempts & all in vain to reach the top of Vesuvius – this I heard at Lausanne from an Englishman [23]  at the Table d’Hote.

I am very anxious to be at home at once, & somewhat uncomfortable at tarrying longer on the continent than my first intention, least it should throw me behind you in my movements to the North. – My journey has been very prosperous, & I shall come back with much more knowledge than I took out, – a capital which always turns to account. – I anticipated the result of the State Trials, [24]  – & foresee the consequence. Sooner or later it seems fated that the abuse of all our best institutions will bring on their destruction: – & this will be brought about not by the ambition of the Ruler but by the want of principle in the people. When the principle of private virtue fails, all institutions which are built upon it must fall. – I think of the subject propounded in your letter, & think xxxx that the remedy is effectual, – but it requires an establishment <& reform> of Alms Houses upon a principle which I have somewhere hinted at in the QR. & an extensive scheme for providing at first for vagabond children. [25]  The means I think could be devised, – but look about in vain for the men who would carry such a scheme into effect. Nevertheless, in these times, – which are the worst we have xxxx ever seen – nil desperandum. [26]  I will perpend them among the Alps of Switzerland & we will talk it over among my own mountains. Remember me to Mrs R.

God bless you



* Address: Angleterre/ To/ John Rickman/ St Stephens Court/ New Palace Yard/Westminster
Stamped: SS; [partial] EPAR/ ARLIE; [partial] P P/ MORSES
Postmark: FPO/ JY.10/ 1817
Endorsements: J Sontarbin; France Switzerland/ 1817
Watermark: A French horn/ bugle; M. & I. A. HUBERT/ IN BASLE
MS: Morgan Library, New York. Misc English, MA Unassigned. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Southey was staying with John Awdry (1766–1844), solicitor in Reybridge and husband of Jane, née Bigg-Wither (1770–1845), sister of Herbert Hill’s wife, Catherine. BACK

[2] A mountain pass between France and Italy, the traversal of which had been eased by a road constructed between 1803 and 1810. BACK

[3] The head monastery of the Carthusian Order, founded 1084, north of Grenoble. BACK

[4] Southey compares the British victory over the French at Waterloo (18 June 1815), with the victory over France at the battle of Crécy (26 August 1346) in the Hundred Years War. BACK

[5] Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the traveller, scientist and, in his voluminous writings, a leading authority on Latin America. BACK

[6] Francisco Espoz y Mina (1781–1836), Spanish guerrilla leader in the Peninsular War. He was in exile after leading an unsuccessful revolt against the royalist regime in September 1814. BACK

[7] Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746–1827), Swiss educational reformer. BACK

[8] Jean Calvin (1509–1564), the founder of Calvinism, which insisted souls were predestined to salvation or damnation, was based in Geneva from 1541 and the town’s established church, the Protestant Church of Geneva, followed his ideas. BACK

[9] Ferdinand de Bertier de Sauvigny (1782–1864), French émigré, Army officer and administrator. He was Prefect of Isère 17 October 1816–27 August 1817. BACK

[10] Victor Emmanuel I (1759–1824; King of Sardinia 1802–1821). BACK

[11] Caroline of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel, Princess of Wales (1768–1821; DNB), estranged wife of the Prince Regent. She lived at the Villa d’Este on Lake Como 1815–1817. BACK

[12] Two royal women who were infamous for marital infidelity: Messalina (c. 17/20–48 AD), third wife of Claudius (10 BC-AD 54; Emperor of Rome 41–54 AD); and Joan I (1328–1382; Queen of Naples 1343–1382). BACK

[13] Bartolomeo Pergami (1783/4–1842). He had initially been hired as a servant, but by this stage was running the Princess’s household. He was widely rumoured to be her lover, but the information given here about his past is gossip, probably relayed to Southey by Landor. BACK

[14] Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities destroyed by God for the sinfulness of their inhabitants, Genesis 13–19. The sin primarily associated with Sodom in Christian traditions was homosexuality, so Southey is implying that one of Caroline’s attendants was homosexual. Again, this information is merely local gossip and it is not possible to identify this member of Caroline’s household, or the one Southey claims was an assassin (the ‘practitioner with the stiletto’) with any certainty. BACK

[15] The Simplon pass, in the Swiss Alps, between Brig and Domodossola in Italy. BACK

[16] These conditions were actually caused by a lack of iodine in the soil. BACK

[17] Arabic names for the White and Blue Nile. Southey had discussed these rivers in some detail in his review of James Bruce (1730–1794; DNB), Travels to Discover the Source of the Nile in the Years 1768, 1769, 1770, 1771, 1772 and 1773 (1805), Annual Review for 1805, 4 (1806), 2–16. BACK

[18] Nathan Mayer Rothschild (1777–1836; DNB), London banker and founder of N. M. Rothschild & Sons in 1811. BACK

[19] Discacciati (dates unknown) showed Southey around the city on his visit to Milan in June 1817 and arranged the transport and insurance of the books he bought. He also attempted to arrange contact with Landor. BACK

[20] Paul Colnaghi (1751–1833), head of the printsellers, P. & D. Colnaghi, based at 23 Cockspur Street in London. Colnaghi was originally from an area near Milan. BACK

[21] ‘Great Apollo’; in other words his great oracle. BACK

[22] Guilio Bartolocci (1613–1687), Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica de Scriptoribus et Scriptus Hebraicis (1675–1694), no. 236 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[23] Unidentified. BACK

[24] These trials resulted from a public meeting at Spa Fields, London, on 2 December 1816. A group of revolutionaries attempted to lead part of the crowd in an attack on the Tower of London and the Bank of England. James Watson (1766–1838; DNB) was acquitted of High Treason after a trial on 9–16 June 1817 and the charges against Arthur Thistlewood (1774–1820; DNB), Thomas Preston (1774–1850; DNB) and John Hooper (dates unknown) were dropped. BACK

[25] A reference to Southey’s article ‘On the Poor’, Quarterly Review, 15 (April 1816), 187–235, which emphasised the importance of education and commended attempts to provide for the aged poor through contributory schemes that produced a form of pension (230–231). BACK

[26] ‘Do not despair’. BACK

Places mentioned

Skiddaw (mentioned 1 time)
Lodore (mentioned 1 time)