1973. Robert Southey to James White [fragment], 25 October 1811

1973. Robert Southey to James White [fragment], 25 October 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick, Oct. 25. 1811.

My dear James,

By this time you are settled at Pembroke, [1]  know your way to your rooms, the faces of your fellow collegians, and enough I dare say of a college life to find its duties less formidable, and its habits less agreeable than they are supposed to be. Those habits are said to have undergone a great reformation since I was acquainted with them; – in my time they stood grievously in need of it; but even then a man who had any good moral principles might live as he pleased if he dared make the trial; and however much he might be stared at at first for his singularity, was sure ere long to be respected for it.

Some dangers beset every man when he enters upon so new a scene of life; that which I apprehend for you is low spirits … Walk a stated distance every day; and that you may never want a motive for walking, make yourself acquainted with the elements of botany during the winter, that as soon as the flowers come out in the spring you may begin to herbalize. A quarter of an hour every day will make you master of the elements in the course of a very few months. I prescribe for you mentally also, and this is one of the prescriptions; for it is of main importance that you should provide yourself with amusement as well as employment. Pursue no study longer than you can without effort attend to it, and lay it aside whenever it interests you too much: whenever it impresses itself so much upon your mind that you dream of it or lie awake thinking about it, be sure it is then become injurious. Follow my practice of making your latest employment in the day something unconnected with its other pursuits, and you will be able to lay your head upon the pillow like a child.

One word more and I have done with advice. Do not be solicitous about taking a high degree, or about college honours of any kind. Many a man has killed himself at Cambridge [2]  by overworking for mathematical honours; recollect how few the persons are who after they have spent their years in severe study at this branch of science, ever make any use of it afterwards. Your wiser plan should be to look on to that state of life in which you wish and expect to be placed, and to lay in such knowledge as will then turn to account. …

Believe me, my dear James,

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), III, pp. 317–318 [in part]. BACK

[1] White had gone up to Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1811. What follows is a letter of advice. BACK

[2] White’s brother, Henry Kirke White, was believed to have exacerbated his poor health by over-studiousness. BACK

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