1067. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1805

1067. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 18 May 1805 ⁠* 

Dear Rickman

Heaven knows in what humour the inclosed [1] may find you – but it must be a very unhappy one if it does not excite the risible muscles. – To such perfect Gobwinianism [2]  I do not think it worth while to xxxxx <reply>, – & if he should inquire of you concerning it – as he refers to you as a common friend, you may tell him so in what phrase you please – which may perhaps best be done by saying that I perfectly agree with him in opinion that his letter requires no answer. – It is probable that he attributes other articles to me besides those which are mine <(i.e. his own Chaucer & Malthus [3] )> – so let him. the man’s a fool, & his good or evil opinion or word, perfectly indifferent to me. The only good resultant is, that I am saved the ennui of hearing him snore in company any more, – & probably that Coleridge will thus accidentally be rescued from a very troublesome & very unworthy acquaintance, from whom he wanted resolution to deliver himself

I pray you preserve xx xxxxxx <his letter>. it is too precious to be lost – or I should have returned it to the Author in a black cover. You can send it in the next frankum magnum. [4] 

God bless you –


Saturday May 18. 1805.

Can you send me an old report about a whimsical prison which Jeremy Bentham obtained an act of Parliament to erect – It was called a Panopticon – or some such heathenish name. [5] 


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS./ May 18: 1805
MS: Huntington Library, RS 73. ALS; 2p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 385–386. BACK

[1] Southey had received from William Godwin, and now enclosed to Rickman, the following letter:

To Robert Southey, 15 May 1805


I have just been led by mere accident to look into the Annual Review for 1803. Two or three articles in that volume, in which I am treated with a low & despicable scurrility worthy of the times of bishop Gardiner & bishop Bonner, I recognise for yours. I know not well to what feelings the mind of the man who penned them is accessible, but I would willingly carry some feelings of moral compunction & moral confusion home to that mind.

There were several reasons why you ought not to have written those articles.

1.You must be conscious of the intellectual abilities of the man against whom you have thus written, however in these articles you bely that consciousness. Several parts of my Enquiry concerning Political Justice have been praised for uncommon acuteness & depth of reasoning by the most determined enemies of its doctrines; you cannot be blind to these qualities in that book. To the novel of Caleb Williams vigour of conception & strength of delineation have never been denied; I do not believe that you differ from all the world in these admissions. If you differ from me in some of my opinions, if you think that, being both of us engaged in one cause (as you profess in these articles), & I at least engaged in it with no common ardour, I have failed to serve it judiciously, that can be no reason for your affirming of a man, whom you know to be of uncommon powers of mind, that he is a blockhead. No cause that is worth serving, can be served by such falshoods.

2.You are not less fully convinced of my integrity, than of my intellectual powers. My private life, my conduct to my wife, my children, & my connections, is beyond exception. You feel, more deeply than most men, the sincere devotedness of heart with which, however you may suppose me to be mistaken, I gave myself up to the cause of truth & public interest. If ability, united with integrity, do not demand the respect of every one who sets up the slightest pretensions to either, I am then at a loss to conceive what foundations for respect can exist in the world.

3.You were, at the first appearance of the Enquiry concerning Political Justice, the most devoted advocate of the doctrines of the book. If you have since seen reason to alter your opinion, or if I have forfeited your approbation by what you may deem my injudicious management of th[e] controversy since, still you owed something to your former good opinion. An apostate, who immediately becomes the bitter & scurrilous enemy of the party he has deserted, is a character which the common sense of mankind has agreed to reprobate.

4.You were my personal acquaintance. Some decency, by all the laws of civilised society, was due to this circumstance. A few weeks after the publication of this volume, we dined together at the house of a common friend. With what sensations, if you were accessible to any ingenuous feelings, must you have sat down with a man, against whom you had asserted such gross falshoods, whose character, the result of honest & unwearied exertions in what he conceived to be the public cause, you had endeavoured to destroy, whose family you had done your best to starve, & against whose indignant eye you had no protection except the cloak of anonymous publication you had assumed?

5.You must have known that the scribblers of reviewers & periodical pamphlets had entered into a combination by the silliest & most impudent misrepresentations to write me down. You must have seen how the leaders of the church, & the fawning slaves of priestcraft & tyranny, w[ere] united against me. We were engaged by your own statement in one cause, the cause of human improveableness, of liberty, equality & mankind. What ought you to have thought of yourself, when you joined the vulgar & artful cry of the enemies of this cause against me? While no one as yet openly opposed my work, while it & its author appeared to possess an extensive popularity, you were its friend. When the refuse of every tyrannical & aristocratical party joined against me, & gave my book the appearance of being hunted out of the world, then you thought it prudent, & you thought it magnanim[ous], to stand up against me, to repeat the words of these hirelings, & to echo their sentences. I have too much singleness of heart, to endeavour to form to myself a party, or by the ordinary & accustomed means to curry favour with the drudges of literature, & to this is owing the proceedings of a crew, in the train of which you are the last volunteer.

It may seem strange that, in writing this letter, I pay you an attention which I never dreamed of paying to your brother reviewers & magazine-writers. But I have heard you so repeatedly represented by men of honour as an honourable man, that, against all hope & argument I cling to the idea; &, though I am satisfied that the writer of these articles, can have neither honesty nor worth, I render this oblation to your departed good name.

It is in vain for you to answer this letter. Between me & the person I address there can be nothing reciprocal. I address you as a judge addresses himself to a convicted criminal. If you think you can prove that you are not the author of these articles, we have common friends, Mr. Lamb, Mr. Rickman & Mr. Carlisle; &, though I have no idea of the possibility of overturning the evidence I possess, I shall listen to every thing they can allege with patience & respect.

W Godwin

Polygon, Somers Town,

May 15, 1805.

(MS: Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Abinger c. 53, ff. 47–51; Unpublished.With thanks to Pamela Clemit, editor of The Letters of William Godwin (Oxford University Press, forthcoming), in which a fully edited text will appear.) BACK

[2] Southey’s habitual misspelling of William Godwin’s name was meant to suggest his mouthiness. BACK

[3] Southey had reviewed Godwin’s Chaucer ... Including Memoirs of ... John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster; with Sketches of the Manners, Opinions, Arts and Literature of England in the Fourteenth Century (1803) in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 462–473. Southey’s review of Thomas Malthus (1766–1834; DNB), An Essay on the Principle of Population, as it Affects the Future Improvement of Society; with Remarks on the Speculations of W. Godwin, M. Condorcet and Other Writers (1803), appeared in the Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 292–230. BACK

[4] Rickman’s employer, Charles Abbott, the Speaker of the House of Commons, had the power to frank mail. Rickman used this facility on Southey’s behalf. BACK

[5] The Panopticon prison scheme of Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832; DNB) was discussed in parliament and a bill was passed in 1794 providing for the building of a penitentiary at Battersea, London. In 1798, with the building delayed, a committee of the House of Commons issued a favourable report on Bentham’s scheme. The discussions are reported in the Journals of the House of Commons, XLIV, 633–634. BACK

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