3445. Robert Southey to John May, 22 February 1820

3445. Robert Southey to John May, 22 February 1820⁠* 

Keswick. 22 Feby. 1820

My dear friend

It seems a long while since I have heard from you, – no doubt you have been expecting to see me, – & indeed I should about this time have been preparing for my departure, had not two circumstances occurred to delay it. First the Kings death. [1]  Taking it for granted that some ex officio composition [2]  would be expected on this occasion, I shaped something like a plan, & pitched the tune in December when the first alarm was given: but when that alarm subsided, the thing was laid aside till a more convenient season. A fortnights delay must be set down to this score, about as much more to a more agreeable employment. The first volume of Brazil [3]  is to be reprinted to make up those sets which would otherwise be imperfect, about 170 in number. Very possibly I may never have another opportunity of sending it into the world, during my life time, with such improvements as fresh materials enable me to make. So I work at this also. A large insertion occurs in the first chapter, from an account of Cabrals discovery as given by one of the fleet to King Emanuel. The original is in the Torre do Tombo [4]  & it was first printed at the Rio in 1817. [5] 

I shall finish Wesley [6]  next week: but the printer [7]  is far behind me. I am not sure whether or not I have told you of a singular bequest which has been made to me by a person who shot himself on New Years day, – a great box of papers from which to prepare for the public an account of him & his opinions. You shall see when we meet the very curious anonymous letters which he addressed to me on this subject about a year ago, leading me to suppose that he was dying of disease. The papers are probably at this time at my brother Henry’s, to wait my arrival. I apprehend that there would be little difficulty in selecting from them matter enough for an interesting but a melancholy work. [8]  The question is whether it can be done without danger of doing mischief. In the present diseased state of the public mind frightful examples seem rather to excite imitation than abhorrence.

You know what a rose-coloured politician I was during the worst years of the war. My nature inclines me to hope & to exertion. And in spite of the evil aspects on every side, & the indications which are blackening wherever we look, I think that if we do not avert the impending dangers, we shall get thro them victoriously, let them come thick & threatening as they may. But it will not be without a heavy p cost. – The murder of the Duc de Berri [9]  surprized me more than a like tragedy would have done at home, where such crimes have perseveringly been recommended in those infamous journals, most of which have been suppressed by the late wholesome acts, [10]  – to say nothing of John Cam Hobhouse, & Co. [11]  The effect of such things, (as it is the end also of all revolutions) must be to strengthen the executive power. As no man can abuse his fortune without injuring it, so no people can abuse their liberty, without being punished by the loss of it, in whole, or in part. The time will come in this country when a suspension of the H. Corpus will be as regularly past as a Mutiny Bill, [12]  & when Journals of every kind will pass under the eyes of a Censor, as dramatic compositions do at this day, before they can be brought on the stage. [13]  My speculations lead xx me to look on to strong governments, & to a police as inquisitorial as that of our Saxon forefathers in the days of Alfred, [14]  or of Japan. [15]  We shall be driven to it, as a defence against Jacobinism, – or Jacobinism itself will still more certainly end in it. Come to it, I think we inevitably must. Is it within the xxx bounds of a reasonable hope that the <an> improved state of public opinion & an extended influence of religion may prevent what would the degradation which in the common course of things would ensue, after one or two halcyon generations? – How justly did the Romans congratulate themselves upon the security which they enjoyed under Augustus, [16]  – but how sure was the tyranny & corruption & ruin which ensued! Our chance of escaping from the same process of decay depends upon the question whether religion or infidelity are gaining ground. And if I am asked this question I must comfort myself by the wise & good old saying – Well Masters, God’s above.

You have heard no doubt of the discovery of Cicero de Republicâ. [17]  This was brought to my mind at this moment, by a thought whether we might not be verging towards another a state of things in which a general wreck of literature, & destruction of libraries would make part of the plans of Reform. – The proposal of a new alphabet has been made by a German reformer & approved by an English one [18]  because one of its effects would be to render all existing books useless! – It was said of old that there was nothing so foolish but some philosopher had said it. [19]  Alas there is nothing so mischievous or so atrocious, but that men are found in these days xxxxxxxxxx mad enough & malignant enough to recommend & to defend it.

We have had an influenza thro the house here, being the second since the beginning of the year. I am the only person who have escaped it. Your god daughter is gone for a few days to her Uncle Toms. Cuthbert who will be a year old on Thursday, continues to thrive. It would delight you to see the happiness of that little creature when he is sitting on my knee while I show him some prints of birds & beasts. – One thing more let me add, because you will be glad to hear it. My infirmity has somewhat strangely left me during the winter, without any means whatever having been used to remove it: & while my habits have been perhaps more sedentary than they ever were before. [20]  God bless you. Remember me to Mrs May & my friends Susan & Mary. [21]  I hope I shall see John [22]  when I see you in April. – Remember me also to John Coleridge.

Yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surrey
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ 25FE25/ 1820; 10o’Clock/ FE.25/ 1820 F.N.n
Watermark: WD & Co/ 1819
Endorsement: No. 211 1820/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 22d February/ recd. 28th do./ ansd. 15th March
Seal: black wax; arm raising aloft cross of Lorraine
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4pp,
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), V, pp. 22–23 [in part]; Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 184–186. BACK

[1] George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB) died on 29 January 1820. BACK

[2] i.e. a composition produced by Southey as Poet Laureate, in this case A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[3] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). A second edition of the first volume was published in 1822. BACK

[4] The Portuguese National Archive in Lisbon. BACK

[5] Manoel Aires de Casal (1754–1821), Corografia Brazilica, ou Relação Historico-Geografica do Reino do Brazil, 2 vols (Rio de Janeiro, 1817), I, pp. 12–34. This book was no. 3252 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Pedro Vaz de Caminha (c. 1450–1500) was a member of the fleet led by Pedro Alvares Cabral (c. 1467–c. 1520), which discovered Brazil in 1500. Caminha’s letter of 1 May 1500 announced the discovery to Manoel I (1469–1521; King of Portugal 1495–1521). Southey covered this new material in the second edition of the first volume of his History of Brazil (London, 1822), pp. 8–24. BACK

[6] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[7] Andrew Strahan (1749–1831; DNB), MP for various constituencies 1796–1820 and head of a highly successful printing business. BACK

[8] Southey eventually decided not to publish an edition of Elton Hamond’s writings. BACK

[9] Charles Ferdinand d’Artoise, Duc de Berri (1778–1820), a nephew of Louis XVIII (1755–1824; King of France 1814–1824), had been mortally wounded at the Paris Opera on 13 February 1820 by Louis Pierre Louvel (1783–1820), a Bonapartist. BACK

[10] A reference to the government’s ‘Six Acts’ of 1819, which included a new Criminal Libel Act (1819) and which extended stamp duty to those publications like Cobbett’s Political Register (1802–1836) that had hitherto avoided it by only publishing opinion rather than news, so allowing them to sell for only 2d. per issue. The government had also made a determined effort to prosecute radical newspapers. BACK

[11] John Cam Hobhouse, 1st Baron Broughton (1786–1869; DNB), radical and friend of Byron. He was radical and then Whig MP for Westminster 1820–1833, Nottingham 1834–1847, Harwich 1848–1851. Hobhouse had been arrested on 14 December 1819 and imprisoned in Newgate for his pamphlet A Trifling Mistake in Lord Erskine’s Preface (1819), which was deemed a breach of privilege by the House of Commons. He was not released until 28 February 1820. BACK

[12] Habeas corpus was the legal principle that prevented detention without trial; it was suspended for one year from March 1817. The Mutiny Act had been passed annually since 1689. It provided the legal framework to maintain discipline in the army and had to be renewed each year as an army could only be maintained in peacetime with parliament’s consent. BACK

[13] The Licensing Act (1737) provided that the scripts of all plays had to be submitted to the Lord Chamberlain for approval before they could be performed. BACK

[14] Alfred the Great (849–899; King of Wessex 871–899; DNB). During his reign, groups of ten households were formed into ‘tythings’ to protect their property and deliver criminals to justice. In effect, members were responsible for each other’s actions and the community could be fined for individuals’ wrongdoing. BACK

[15] In Japan under the Tokugawa regime (1603–1867), appointed town magistrates combined the functions of police, prosecutors and judges, assisted by a professional police force. Commoners were organised into ‘five family associations’, collectively responsible for the actions of all their members. Southey noted Japan’s police system in his review of Benjamin Haydon, New Churches, Considered with Respect to the Opportunities they Offer for the Encouragement of Painting (1818), Quarterly Review, 23 (July 1820), 549–591 (579). BACK

[16] Augustus (63 BC–AD 14; Emperor of Rome 27 BC–AD 14). BACK

[17] Marcus Tullius Cicero (106–43 BC), De Re Publica. Only part of the text survives. The largest part of this was uncovered in 1819 by the Cardinal and philologist Angelo Mai (1782–1852) as a palimpsest in the Vatican Library. BACK

[18] It is not clear who the German reformer of the alphabet was; the Englishman was probably Thomas Spence (1750–1814; DNB), The Grand Repository of the English Language (1775). BACK

[19] Marcus Tullius Cicero, De Divinatione (44 BC), Book 2, chapter 58, section 119: ‘Nihil tam absurde dici potest, quod non dicatur ab aliquo philosophorum’. BACK

[20] Southey was suffering from a rectal prolapse; see Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 3 October 1819, Letter 3356. BACK

[21] Two of May’s three daughters: Mary Charlotte (b. 1804) and Susanna Louisa (1805–1885). BACK

[22] May’s son John (1802–1879). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)


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