3223. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 22 December 1818

3223. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 22 December 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 22 Dec. 1818

My dear Wynn

I was truly glad to hear of your daughters recovery. [1]  I have been in a storm at sea in a Spanish vessel, [2]  – & the feeling when the weather had so sensibly abated that the danger was over, is the only one I can compare to that which is felt in a case like yours upon the first assurance x that the disease is giving way. Those writers who speak of childhood, or even of youth, as the happiest season of life seem to me to speak with little reason. There is indeed an exemption from the cares of the world, & from those anxieties which shake us to the very centre. But as far as my own experience goes, when we are exempt from trials of this kind {nature}, our happiness as we grow older is more in quantity & x higher in degree as well as in kind. What hopes we have are no longer accompanied with uneasiness, or restless desires; – the way before us is no longer uncertain, – we see to the end of our journey; the acquisition of knowledge becomes more & more delightful, & the appetite for it may truly be said to grow with what it feeds on. And as we set our thoughts & hearts in order for another world, the prospect of that world becomes a source of deeper xxxxxxxx delight than any thing which this world could administer to an immortal spirit. On the other hand we are vulnerable out of our-selves – & you & I are reaching that time of life in which the losses which we have to endure will be so many amputations, – the wound may heal but the mutilation will always be felt. Not to speak of more vital afflictions, the loss of a familiar friend casts a shade over the remembrance of every thing in which he was associated. – You & I my dear Wynn are less to each other than we were in old times, – years pass away without our meeting, nor is it at all likely that we shall ever again see as much of each other in this world, as we used to do in the course of one short term at Oxford. And yet he who is to be the survivor will one day feel how much we are to each other even now, – when all those recollections which he now loves to invite & dwell upon will come to him like spectres.

However I hope that both you & I may be permitted to do something more before we are removed. And I cannot but hope that you will take upon yourself a conspicuous part in that reformation of the criminal laws, which cannot much longer be delayed, & which will be infinitely better in your hands than in Romilly’s. [3]  Nor do I know any one (setting all personal feelings aside) by whom it could so fitly be taken up. I thought very unfavourably of Sir S. Romilly & of his projects; – that speech of Franklands [4]  was perfectly conclusive to my mind. But that alterations are necessary is certain, & the late trials for forgery show that they must be made, – even now with a bad grace, – but with a worse than the longer they are delayed. – To me it has long appeared a safe xxx proposition that the punishment of death is misapplied whenever the general feeling that it excites is that of compassion for the criminal. – A man & woman were executed for coining at the same time with Patch; – now what an offence was this to the common sense of justice! [5]  There is undoubtedly at this time a settled purpose among the Revolutionists to bring the laws into contempt & hatred. – & to a very great degree it has succeeded. The more reason therefore that where they are shown as plainly objectionable they should be revised. – But for the principle of making the sentence in all cases proportionate to the crime, & the execution certain, – nothing, in my judgement can be more impracticable, & I am sure nothing could lead to greater injustice than an attempt to effect it. The sentence must be sufficient for the worst state {highest degree} of the crime, & a discretionary power given allowed for tempering it to the level of the lowest. – You would take up the matter with a due sense of its difficulty, & with every possible advantage of character both in the House & in the country, – & moreover the disposition of the Ministers ought to be, & I really should suppose would be in your favour. If the business be suffered to fall into the hands of Brougham, you know what mischief might be apprehended, – xx he would embark in any thing for the sake of unpopularity, & in nothing is he more likely to embark as this.

There were some wretched verses in the Courier the other day [6]  saying that you were not spokesman enough to become leader of the opposition, [7]  & that Brougham was not gentleman enough. You would be pleased to see that they could say nothing worse of you. I was xxxxx with No doubt you have seen the Winchester pamphlett, – & the statement concerning the Croydon charity. [8]  A commission with such powers as Brougham required & with himself at the head of it would have been a more intolerable xxx {xx evil} than any thing which has existed in this country since the Committee of Sequestration. [9] 

I have written upon the Copy right question, [10]  – & had you been in town – the proofs should have been submitted to you. They have however been shown to Turner for his approbation & correction. I got a little angry, & could not help expending a little whipcord upon that Mr Professor Christian, who ought to be sent to his relations upon Pitcairns Island. [11]  At the end of the article I have said something upon the exceeding justice of the law which has taken from us the perpetual copy right of our own works. Upon this no man has more cause to speak feelingly. [12] 

God bless you my dear Wynn



* MS: National Library of Wales, MS 48123D. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 323–325 [in part; misdated 30 November 1818]. BACK

[1] Wynn had a growing family of five daughters: Charlotte (1807–1869); Mary (1808–1869); Harriet (1812–1878); Emma (1814–1824) and Sidney (1818–1867); and one son, Watkin (1816–1832). His final child was Charles (1822–1896). BACK

[2] Probably a reference to Southey’s journey to Spain in 1795; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 29 January [1796], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 146. BACK

[3] Sir Samuel Romilly (1757–1818; DNB), legal reformer and MP for Horsham 1807–1808, Wareham 1808–1812, Arundel 1812–1818 and Westminster June–November 1818. He had been Solicitor-General 1806–1807. Romilly committed suicide on 2 November 1818. BACK

[4] On 29 March 1811 the MP for Thirsk 1801–1815, William Frankland (1761–1815), had spoken against a bill proposed by Samuel Romilly, who, amongst other things, wished to restrict the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty. Frankland’s speech had been reported approvingly by Southey in the Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1811, 4.1 (1813), 151–162. BACK

[5] The suspension of cash payments in 1797 led the Bank of England, in an attempt to increase confidence in its paper banknotes, to prosecute 870 people for forgery over the next twenty years, over 300 of whom were hanged. On 5 December and 7 December 1818 four men accused of forgery were acquitted, leading to charges that the law was out of step with popular feeling on the matter, e.g. Morning Chronicle, 10 December 1818. The notorious case to which Southey refers is that of 8 April 1806, when, at Horsemonger Lane jail in Southwark, the husband and wife, Benjamin and Sarah Herring, were hanged, alongside the notorious murderer Richard Patch (c. 1770–1806, DNB), although their crime was forging small denomination coins. BACK

[6] A poem entitled ‘The Visit’, by ‘O’, had appeared in the Courier, 14 December 1818. It was a satire on the leaders of the opposition and included the lines ‘For too little the spokesman is W–nn for our ends,/ And too little the gentleman Br–m’. BACK

[7] Wynn was the leader in the House of Commons of the Grenvillite opposition group, who had decided to split away from the Whigs in July 1817; he was well aware of his own deficiencies as a speaker, which were not helped by his high, piping voice. Brougham was not the official leader of the Whigs, but he was one of their most forceful figures in the House of Commons. He was a member of a long-established landed dynasty, based at Brougham Hall, near Penrith, which claimed to have been established in the area since the 11th century. But Brougham was often perceived to be too ambitious and combative to be considered a gentleman. BACK

[8] Brougham had been campaigning since 1816 against the abuse of funds by charities and in 1818 the Charity Commission was set up, initially to examine those charities providing for the education of the poor. Brougham vehemently objected to its limited powers and scope in his Letter to Samuel Romilly, M.P. from Henry Brougham, Esq. M.P., F.R.S. Upon the Abuse of Charities (1818). This pamphlet (pp. 51–53) contained some stinging criticism that Winchester College, founded in 1382 to educate the ‘poor and indigent’, was attended in the main by the sons of by rich men. Liscombe Clarke (d. 1841) defended the College in A Letter to H. Brougham Esq. …: in Reply to the Strictures on Winchester College Contained in his Letter to Sir Samuel Romilly M.P. (1818); and William Lisle Bowles did the same in Vindiciae Wykehamicae; or, a Vindication of Winchester College, in a Letter to H. Brougham Esq., Occasioned by his Letter to Sir S. Romilly, on Charitable Abuses (1818). Brougham’s pamphlet (e.g. pp. 16, 28) also had much to say on the abuse of charities in Croydon, including the Whitgift Foundation. Defences of their conduct included John Ireland (1761–1842; DNB), A Letter to Henry Brougham, Esq. M.P. (1818). Southey (correctly) perceived Brougham’s actions as an attack on the Church of England and an attempt to remove some of its endowments for use in state education. BACK

[9] In 1643, during the Civil War, the Sequestration Committee was created by parliament as a means of confiscating the estates of royalists. BACK

[10] ‘Inquiry into the Copyright Act’, Quarterly Review, 21 (January 1819), 196–213. Southey argued for an increase in the period of copyright and against the requirement to donate a copy of a new publication to eleven university and other libraries. BACK

[11] Edward Christian (1758–1823; DNB), Downing Professor of the Laws of England at Cambridge University, published a Vindication of the Right of the Universities of the United Kingdom to a Copy of Every New Publication (1818) – it was one of the items savaged by Southey in his article ‘Inquiry into the Copyright Act’ (especially at 200–206). Christian’s brother was Fletcher Christian (1764–1793; DNB), mutineer on HMS Bounty who had, it was discovered in 1812, founded a colony of mutineers and native people on Pitcairn Island. BACK

[12] Southey argued that authors had a perpetual copyright in their works under the common law, until a legal decision by the House of Lords in 1774, in his ‘Inquiry into the Copyright Act’, Quarterly Review, 21 (January 1819), 199. This point had been much disputed for the previous thirty years. At the end of his article Southey pleaded for the ‘common and natural right’ to perpetual copyright to be restored (213). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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