1147. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 15 January 1806

1147. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 15 January 1806 ⁠* 

Dear Rickman

Before I speak of myself let me say something upon a more important subject. Nature has given offensive armour for two reasons. in the first place it is defensive because it serves to intimidate. a better reason is that claws & teeth are the tools with which animals must get their living. X that the general system of one creature eating another is a benevolent one needs little proof; – there must be death, & what can be wiser than thus to make death subservient to life?

As for a state of nature, the phrase as applied to man is stark naked nonsense. Savage man is a degenerated animal. My own belief is that the present human race is not much more than six thousands years old – according to the concurrent testimony of all rational history – the Indian records are good for nothing. But add as many millenniums as you will, the question how came they here at first still recurs, this xxx infinite series, is an infinite absurdity, & to suppose them growing like mushrooms, or maggots in mud, is as bad. Man must have been made here, or placed here, with sufficient powers bodily & mental for his own support – I think the most reasonable opinion is that the first men were had a knowledge of language & of religion – in short that the tales of a golden or patriarchal age are in their foundations true. How soon the xxxxx civilized being regenerates under unfavourable circumstances has been enough proved by history. Free will – God, & final retribution solve all difficulties. that Deity cannot be understood is a stupid objection – without one we can understand nothing. – I cannot put down my thought methodically without much revision & re-arrangement – but you may see what I would be at – it is no difficult thing to harpoon the Leviathan [1]  & wound him mortally.

London disorders me by over-stimulation. I dislike its society more from reflection than from feeling. Company to a certain degree intoxicates me. I do not often commit the fault of talking too much, – but very often say what would be better unsaid, & that too in a manner not to be easily forgotten. People go away & repeat single sentences forgetting dropping all that led to them & all that explains them – xx very probably too in my hearty hatred of assentation I commit faults of the opposite kind. Now I am sure to find this out myself – & to get out of humour with myself; – what prudence I have is not ready at demand & so it is that <the> society of any except my friends tho it may be sweet in the mouth is bitter in the belly. Besides I get a head ache usually – how should it be otherwise when my habits are so thoroughly recluse?

I thank you for your offer & your advice – & will follow the one & accept the other. Don Manuel may be finished best in town – I xxxx can now see the extent of the subject & think it likely to make a third volume if indeed I should be able to give a true picture of this country as it now is. [2]  the book will have a permanent value – tho designed only for the purpose of raising ways & means. When the Emperor [3]  comes to town I wish you would send the two cargoes in your hands to Miss BarkerCongreve – Penkridge – Staffordshire, where I shall pick them up on my way. You remember her I dare say: she is to give me materials for a musical letter, [4]  & much incidental assistance – which she can well do being the cleverest woman I know, as well as one of the pleasantest.

Late in March I shall make my appearance, which is allowing myself a full month here to work at the Spaniard.

You may account by other means for the spread of the Mexican religion than by any love of blood. man is by nature a religious animal, & if the elements <of religion> were not innate in him (as I am convinced they are) sickness would make him so. You will find that all savages connect superstition with disease. – some cause which they can neither comprehend nor controul affects them painfully, – & the uniform remedy always is to appease an offended Spirit or drive away a malignant one. Even in enlightened societies you will find that men more readily believe what they fear than what they hope. religions therefore which threaten damnation, & which impose xxxx privations & self-torture have always been more popular than any other. How many of our boys amusements consist in bearing pain, – grown children like to do the same from a different motive, – you will more easily persuade a man to wear a hair cloth drawers, to flog himself, or swing upon a hook, than to conform to the plain rules of morality & common sense. I shall have to xxxxxx look into this subject when writing of the spirit of Catholicism, which furnishes as good an illustration as the practices of the Hindoos. Here in England you find Calvinism is the popular faith, – where one man believes in universal restitution, there are fifty who believe that he will be damned for his damnable opinion. Beyond all doubt the religion of the Mexicans is the most diabolical that has ever existed – it is not however by any means so mischievous as the Braminical system of casts, which, wherever it exists, has put a total stop to the amelioration of society. The Mexicans were rapidly advancing. Were you more at leisure I should urge you to bestow a weeks study upon the Spanish language for the sake of the mass of information contained in their travellers & historians. I cannot express to you the utter contempt in which I hold Robertson in consequence of having read what he ought to have studied. [5] 

My indisposition has thrown me back – or the campaign would have been nearly at an end. [6]  I am in the midst of Roscoes book, [7]  which improves upon a second perusal, & satisfies my judgement tho it disappointed my curiosity. X The new edition of Spenser, Ellis’s Romances, & the Ossian controversy are the only remaining articles which will require any expence of labour [8] 

God bless you


Tuesday. Jany 15. 1806.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS./ 6 Janry/ 1806
MS: Huntington Library, RS 84. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 16–18 [in part]. BACK

[1] In Leviathan or The Matter, Forme and Power of a Common Wealth Ecclesiasticall and Civil (1651), Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679; DNB) argued that humanity in the state of nature tended towards chaos and violence. BACK

[2] Southey’s Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish was published in three volumes, by Longman in 1807. BACK

[3] A reference to Rickman’s employer, the Speaker of the House of Commons, Charles Abbott. Southey had dubbed him the ‘Emperor of the Franks’, because of his power to frank mail, which Rickman used on Southey’s behalf. BACK

[4] No letters on this subject are included in Letters from England. BACK

[5] William Robertson (1721–1793; DNB), historian, about whose History of America (1792) Southey was habitually dismissive. BACK

[6] A reference to Southey’s reviewing work for the Annual Review. BACK

[7] Southey reviewed William Roscoe, The Life of Pope Leo X, Son of Lorenzo de’ Medici (1805), in the Annual Review for 1805, 4 (1806), 449–467. BACK

[8] Southey reviewed in the Annual Review for 1805, 4 (1806): George Ellis, Specimens of Early English Metrical Romances (1805), 536–544; Henry John Todd (bap. 1763-1845; DNB), The Works of Edmund Spenser (1805), 544–555; Malcolm Laing (1762–1818; DNB), The Poems of Ossian, Containing the Poetical Works of James Macpherson in Prose and Verse, with Notes and Illustrations (1805), 615–620; Archibald Macdonald (1739–1814; DNB), Some of Ossian’s Lesser Poems Rendered into Verse [from Macpherson]; with a Preliminary Discourse, in Answer to Mr. Laing’s Critical and Historical Dissertation on the Antiquity of Ossian’s Poems (1805), 620; Henry Mackenzie (1745–1831; DNB), Report of the Committee of the Highland Society of Scotland, Appointed to Inquire into the Nature and Authenticity of the Poems of Ossian (1805), 679–699. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Congreve, Staffordshire (mentioned 1 time)