3512. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [c. 22-23 July 1820]

3512. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [c. 22–23 July 1820]⁠* 

My dear R.

I have opened one of the Red Books with which Mr Phillips [1]  provided me, with notes multorum generum [2]  from the Acta Sanctorum. [3]  Among them is an odd passage which seems to imply <that> a sort of polyandrianism existed in Galloway as late as the 12th century, [4]  – perhaps, if it be so, the last remains of that system which Cæsar found among the Britons. [5]  It is very certain that the Druidical religion existed till that time, & much later, in Wales. Davies has proved this beyond all controverting, by passages from the Welsh poets, in his Mythology of the Druids, which is much the most curious book that has ever been written upon Welsh affairs. [6] 

My intention is to begin the Moral & Literary History of England with the English language, [7]  – that is not to go farther back than the earliest extant pi compositions in that language, – except as far as a view of the state of things at that commencement renders a summary retrospect unavoidable. If there were not a necessary determination for me as not understanding Saxon, – it would be a proper one on other accounts, as the book is intended to be not for antiquarians & bibliographers, but for general readers. – The collections for it are made at leisure, at loose times, – odds & ends of time: – more matter of amusement & dissipation than of business. I am busy in finishing the introductory chapter for the Peninsular War. [8] 

We are going on well, thank God. Mrs R. & Miss Emma [9]  would be pleased with Cuthbert, who is as fine a boy as he promised to be when they saw him last year, as good natured, x more noisy & more amusing.

Revolutions in Italy will do no harm in that country [10]  – but if Austria should attempt to crush the revolutionary spirit by arms, & France interfere, which any French Government whether Bourbon or Buonapartean would eagerly do when fair occasion invited, – then I know not what would prevent a general war, except a general explosion on the continent, – & that indeed seems more than likely. The only hope then would be that it might be so general as to preclude all possibility of our interference, so they might then cut each others throats with fraternal hatred, & perhaps we might grow wise by looking on.

As for Messalina, [11]  – she acts like a desperate woman, & seems to be ruining herself –

God bless you



* Endorsements: Fr RS./ July 1820; July 1820
MS: Huntington Library, RS 398. ALS; 3p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 200–201 [in part].
Dating note: Dating from content; reports of the revolution in Naples did not appear in British newspapers until 21 July 1820. Southey would not have seen these until 22 July 1820, and this letter was written shortly afterwards. As it does not refer to Rickman’s communication of 21 July 1820 (received by Southey c. 24 July), this letter probably belongs to c. 22–23 July. BACK

[1] Probably Edward Phillips (1771–1844), Secretary to The Speaker 1814–1833. BACK

[2] ‘of many types’. BACK

[3] Acta Sanctorum (1643–1794), the huge compendium of hagiographies that Southey bought in Brussels in 1817; no. 207 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[4] Southey mentioned this idea in a note to his Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (London, 1829), II, p. 290. Southey’s source was the Vita of St Aelred (1110–1167; DNB), misattributed to John Capgrave (1393–1464; DNB), and inserted in Acta Sanctorum, 68 vols (Antwerp and Brussels, 1643–1940), January, Vol. I, p. 750. BACK

[5] Julius Caesar (100 BC–44 BC), Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book 5, lines 8–12, claimed the British tribes he encountered in his invasion of 54 BC practised polyandry. This passage is now usually interpreted as an attempt to discredit the British as barbarians. BACK

[6] Edward Davies (1756–1831; DNB), The Mythology and Rites of the British Druids (London, 1809), pp. 461–500, no. 797 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Davies did not claim that Druidism survived into the twelfth century, but only into the fifth and sixth centuries, and in Scotland, rather than Wales. BACK

[7] This project did not result in a book; the surviving notes that Southey put together were posthumously published as ‘Collections for the History of Manners and Literature in England’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 439–578. BACK

[8] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War, 3 vols (London, 1823–1832), I. pp. 3–62. BACK

[9] Emma Pigott (dates unknown), who accompanied Southey and Rickman on their Scottish tour 17 August–1 October 1819. It is difficult to be sure of Miss Pigott’s identity, but she might have been Emma Pigott (dates unknown), younger daughter and co-heiress of James Pigott (d. 1822) of Fitz-Hall, Iping, Sussex. Fitz-Hall was only five miles from Susannah Rickman’s home at Harting. Emma Pigott married, in 1824, Edward Brice Bunny (d. 1867) of Speen Hill, Berkshire. BACK

[10] A series of liberal revolutions in Italy had begun with a mutiny in Naples in July 1820. Austria did intervene to crush the revolution in 1821, but France did not object to this development. BACK

[11] Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821; DNB), estranged wife of George IV. He had pressurised his Cabinet into preparing a Bill of Pains and Penalties to dissolve the marriage and deprive her of the title of Queen. She rejected compromise terms offered by the Cabinet and arrived in England on 5 June 1820. Southey compares her to Messalina (c. AD 17/20–48), the notoriously dissolute third wife of Claudius (10 BC–AD 54; Emperor of Rome AD 43–54). BACK

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