476. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 9 January 1800

476. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 9 January 1800 ⁠* 

Thursday. 9 Jany. 1800.

The subject of your letter is important. [1]  I had considered it cursorily, for my mind has been more occupied by the possible establishment of a different state of society, than by plans for improving the present. To my undertaking the work you propose I wish there were no obstacles, but a very important one exists in the nature of my own powers. The compositions in which I have indulged have encouraged rapidity of feeling, a sudden combination of ideas, – but they have been unfavourable to regular deduction & methodical arrangement. another objection arises from my present plans. I wish to try the effect of a better climate in removing nervous disorders which are, & long have been, growing upon me. However, I am impressed by your letter, & should much like to talk with you upon the subject & map out the country before us. Have you not leisure for a visit to Bristol? We shall be truly glad to have you our guest, – & here is a rich chemical harvest to be reaped.

I do not see why you, a man of leisure should not execute the work you propose to me. the only possible advantage of my executing it is, that I have, what the booksellers call, a good name, & could thus procure a degree of immediate attention. But an able book sooner or later must make its way. It is has often excited my wonder, not that you buried yourself – (for I love the country & its quietness) but that you buried your knowledge at Xt Church. The studies which constitute your amusement might produce emolument, a solid benefit – for of reputation I do not suppose you ambitious. Were you disposed to print even your loose memorandums – such as the remarks you made upon the Edda [2]  – the account of the camp at Blandford [3]  &c – I could perhaps open a market for you in the Monthly Magazine. the pay is little: five guineas the sheet of sixteen pages – but these things you are perpetually writing & the additional labour of thought would be none. I had even thought of writing to propose this to you.

Biddlecombe misinformed – or rather half-informed you of the Simoom [4]  incident in my romance. I had made it destroy the man in the act of murder, using a natural agent as a miraculous interposition. To this poem I have planned a useful appendage, extensive notes relative to Eastern customs &c, & speculations upon the causes of the slavery & degradation of that part of the world, & upon the possible remedies. [5]  Poetry does not wholly engross my attention. the History of Spanish & Portugueze literature is a subject on which I design to bestow much labour, & in which much useful matter may be conveyed. [6]  but poetry is my province, – & at present no unimportant one: it makes its way where weightier books could not penetrate, & becomes a good mental manure.

I shall be selfishly sorry if you leave Xt Church. the prospect of having you my neighbour, considerably influenced me in taking the Burton house. however if I recover my health London must be my place of residence, & xxx you probably will be drawn into that great vortex – a place which you & I see with widely different eyes. much as I enjoy society, rather than purchase it by residing in that huge denaturalized city, I would rather <prefer> dwelling on Poole Heath. Bristol allows of country enjoyments – magnificent scenery, & an open sky view, for in London you neither see earth, air or water undisguised. we have men of talent here also, but they are not gregarious – at least not regularly so as in Norwich & London. I mingle among them, & am in habits of intimacy with Davy, by far the first in intellect. with him you would be much pleased; – & if you have any experiments to make in chemistry the Pneumatic Institution will afford you every opportunity. Chemical science indeed is advancing more rapidly here than in any part of the world. the medical theatre is about to be built here. [7]  x  Dr Beddoes will lecture very shortly upon popular medicine, [8]  with the hope of giving a little commonsense notion how common disorders should be treated. he is a very useful man – not a profound one. Certainly this place has in my memory greatly advanced. Ten years ago Bristolman was synonimous with Bœotian [9]  in Greece, & now, we are before any of the provincial towns.

The Corsican [10]  has offended me & even his turning out the Mamalukes will not atone for his rascally constitution. The French are children with the physical force of men. unworthy, & therefore incapable of freedom. Once I had hopes – the Jacobines might have done much – but the base of morality was wanting, & where could the corner stone be laid? They have retarded our progress for a century to come. Literature is suspected & discouraged [MS torn] cursed methodism, & catholic system of persecution & slavery [MS torn] gaining ground. Our only hope is from more expeditions [MS torn] & the Duke commander, [11]  new disgrace & new taxes may bring the nation to their senses – as bleeding will tame a madman. Still however the English are the first people– the only men. Buonaparte has made me Anti-Gallican – & I remember Alfred & the two Bacons, & Hartley, & Milton & Shakespere [12]  with more patriotic pride than ever.

The Beguines I had looked upon as a religious establishment – & the only good one of its kind. When my brother  [13]  was a prisoner at Brest the sick & wounded were attended by Nuns, & these women had made themselves greatly beloved & respected. I think they had been regularly professed – & were not of this lay order. I think I see the whole importance of your speculations. Mary Wollstonecraft was but beginning to reason when she died. her volume [14]  is mere feeling, & its only possible effect to awaken a few female minds more excitable than the common run, the one you purpose would go [MS torn] different grounds, & enter into detail. the more my mind dwells upon it, the stronger interest it takes. I could work under your directions – & would work, willingly at least if not well. Come, I pray you, to Bristol: talk over the plan, & map it out, & methodize my rambling intellect– I will submit to any drilling that shall discipline it to good purpose.

Direct Kingsdown Parade. Bristol. & say when you will come – & when you are come you will find us near the Montague Tavern. the name Roulwright on the door. My Mother has found as usual her companion cough for the winter. Edith is well. both desire to be remembered to you, & both will be glad to see you here. George is turned banker. [15]  – & my brother Tom, the Admiral that is to be, has made another recapture I see by the Plymouth news. [16] 


yours with respect & esteem

Robert Southey

Your letter lay some days at Cottles or mine would not have borne so late a date.


* Address: To/ Mr John Rickman/ Christ Church/ Hampshire. A. / Single
Postmark: BRISTOL/ JAN 9 1800
Endorsement: Jan. 9: 1800
MS: Huntington Library, RS 3. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 44–47 [in part]; Orlo Williams, Lamb’s Friend the Census-Taker. Life and Letters of John Rickman (Boston and New York, 1912), p. 24 [paraphrased, but not quoted]. BACK

[1] A reply to Rickman’s letter to Southey, 4 January 1800, proposing a system of ‘beguinages’, modelled on lay Catholic communities of women in the Low Countries, in which poor single women could work and live together. BACK

[2] Possibly Rickman’s response to Amos Simon Cottle’s Icelandic Poetry, or the Edda of Saemund translated into English Verse (1797). BACK

[3] A camp for Volunteers at Blandford, Dorset. BACK

[4] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 2, lines 393–401 in which the Simoom, a hot, dry, dust-laden wind, kills the evil sorcerer Abdaldar as he is about to stab Thalaba. BACK

[5] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) did not contain this ‘appendage’, but it did have extensive notes on Southey’s sources. BACK

[6] Southey did not write his projected history of the literature of the Iberian peninsula. BACK

[7] The reference is obscure. A ‘Theatre of Anatomy’ did not open in Bristol until 1807. Southey’s comment could be a garbled observation relating to Beddoes’s concern to disseminate his researches via theatrical public demonstration. Moreover, his awareness of medical theatres in other cities may have led Beddoes to consider opening a similar venue in Bristol. For example, Beddoes’ Contributions to Physical and Medical Knowledge, Principally from the West of England (Bristol, 1799), p. 19 described a ‘theatre’ in a Glasgow infirmary where students could observe operations. BACK

[8] Beddoes gave regular lecture series in Bristol in the 1790s and early 1800s. His interest in popular medicine resulted in Hygëia; or, Essays Moral and Medical on the Causes Affecting the Personal State of Our Middling and Affluent Classes (1802). BACK

[9] In ancient Greece, natives of Boetia were regarded by their fellow Greeks as slow-witted and provincial. Southey is making the point that natives of Bristol (his birthplace) had once been similarly perceived by their countrymen. BACK

[10] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; First Consul 1799–1804, Emperor of the French, 1804–1814). Born in Corsica. Napoleon had conquered Egypt in 1798 and ended the rule of the Mameluke elite, but he had also played a key role in the Brumaire coup of November 1799 and the creation of the Constitution of the Year VIII, which concentrated power in the hands of three Consuls, with himself as First Consul. BACK

[11] Frederick, Duke of York (1763–1827; DNB), younger brother of George III and Commander-in-Chief of the British Army 1795–1827. He was in command of the failed Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland in 1799. BACK

[12] Alfred the Great (849–899; reigned 871–899; DNB); Roger Bacon (c. 1214–1294; DNB) Franciscan friar and scientist; Francis Bacon (1561–1626; DNB) statesman, philosopher and scientist; David Hartley (1705–1757; DNB) doctor and founder of the associationist school of psychology. BACK

[13] See Southey’s letter to the Monthly Magazine, 4 (August 1797), 87–88 (The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part 1, Letter 241). BACK

[14] Probably Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). BACK

[15] George Fricker had joined the Bristol bank of John Savary (d. 1831). BACK

[16] Star, 6 January 1800, reported that Tom Southey’s ship, the Sylph, had retaken the brigantine, Duke of Clarence, which had been captured by a French privateer. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Christ Church (mentioned 2 times)
Burton (mentioned 1 time)
Norwich (mentioned 1 time)
Kingsdown Parade, Bristol (mentioned 1 time)
Cottles (mentioned 1 time)