Prophets in Southey's Letters and Manuscripts

Prophets in Southey’s Manuscripts and Correspondence

The excerpts from Southey’s manuscripts and letters presented here disclose his continued interest in, and personal knowledge of, the prophets of his era—Bryan, Brothers, Southcott. They also show that he based some of his fictional characters on them—the prophet Neolin, in Madoc, being based on Brothers. Most of the letters date from the period when he was writing Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella (1807), and reveal the research he undertook for that volume: he even planned to visit Southcott at home and Brothers in the asylum. The manuscript passages are from the working draft of Letters from England now kept at Chetham’s Library, Manchester; they reveal that the account published in 1807 differed in wording and in the order of the sections discussing prophecy.

Robert Southey to William Taylor

  • Date: 9 April 1805
  • Address: To/ M W Taylor Jun./ Surry Street/ Norwich
  • Location: Huntington Library, HM 4873
  • Published: A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the late William Taylor, of Norwich, ed. J. W. Robberds, 2 vols (London, 1843)

Neolin is the common mixture of rogue & madman to be found in all from Zerdasht [1]  to Richard Brothers, with the courage & presence of mind of Mohammed.

Robert Southey to John Rickman

  • Date: 19 March [1806] [dating from JR’s endorsement]
  • Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
  • Location: Huntington Library, RS 86
  • Published: Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, ed. J. W. Warter, 4 vols (London, 1856).

Besides the Asiatic fables are full of resemblances to Xtianity, which have been advanced by Dupuis & Volney [2]  on the one hand to prove that the whole is astronomical allegory, — & by Maurice & Halhed [3]  on the other to show that the mysteries of Religion were revealed to the Patriarchs. These gentlemen should first have enquired to all of these xxxxxxxxx xxxxx xxx the xxxxx <xxxx> <when> this trade in xxxxxxxxx mythology was carried on.

If there be any one thing in which the world has decidedly regenerated it is in the breed of Heresiarchs. They were really great men in former times, devoting great knowledge & powerful talents to great purposes. In our days they are either arrant mad men, or half rogues who pick out the worst parts of the established creed. I am about to be the S Epiphanius [4]  of Richard Brothers & Joanna Southcote — what say you to paying these worthies a visit some morning? the former is sure to be at home Haslam [5]  would introduce us, & we might get xxx <Gods Nephew to give us his> opinion of Joanna. I know some of his witnesses & could enter into the depths of his system with him. D. Manuel ought to see Bedlam. As for Joanna, though tolerably versed in the history of human credulity, I have never seen any thing so disgraceful to common sense as her previous publications; — but I am afraid that in all these cases it may be laid down as a general rule that the more nonsense the better. Whenever a point of doctrine has been discussed the most absurd has carried the day.

Metaphysicians have become less mischievous but a good deal more troublesome. There was some excuse for them when they believed their opinions were necessary to salvation — & it was certainly better for plain people like you & I that they should write by the folio, than talk by the hour. What a happy thing would it have been for Stoddart [6]  had he been born in those ages when transubstantion [sic] was xxx philosophically explained, & the divine & human natures subjected to synthesis & analysis in the crucible of a metaphysicians skull.

The reign of fabulous Xtianity must be drawing to its end. In France it is over, unless Bonaparte should take it in his head to endow the church better, — for which I do not think he wants inclination so much as money. In Germany the thing is done. the clergy are philosophizing Xtians, or Xtianizing philosophers. In my countries Spain & Portugal the old house stands, but there is the dry rot in its timbers, the foundations are undermined, & the next earthquake will bring it down. Here I do not like the prospects,—sooner or later a hungry government will snap at the tithes;—the clergy will then become state pensioners, or parish pensioners, x in the latter case more odious to the farmers than they are now, in the former the first pensioners to be ame[MS torn] of their stipends. Meantime the damned system of Calvinism spreads like a pestilence among the lower classes. I have not the slightest doubt that the Calvinists will be the majority in less than half a century;—we see how catching the distemper is & do not see any means of stopping it. There is a good opening for a new religion, but the founder must start up in some of the darker parts of the world—it is Americas turn to send out apostles. A new one there must be when the old one is worn out —I am a believer in the truth of Christianity, but truth will never do for the multitude; there is an appetite for faith in us, which if it be not duly indulged turns to green sickness & xxxx feeds upon chalk & cinders. The truth is man is not made for this world alone, & speculations concerning the next will be found at last the most interesting to all of us—

Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn

  • Date: 3 September 1806
  • Address: To CWWilliams Wynn Esq M P./Wynnstay/ Wrexham
  • Location: National Library of Wales MS 4812D
  • Published: New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Kenneth Curry (New York, 1965).

I have just finished an account of Joanna Southcott, which, if you are not well informed upon the subject – will surprize you. You will hardly credit believe that such blasphemies should be tolerated, or such credulity be found in England at this time. It would be a fit thing to ship her & a ship load of her disciples off for Botany Bay.

Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn

  • Date: [March-April 1807]
  • Address: None
  • Location: National Library of Wales MS 4813D
  • Unpublished.

My dear Wynn . . .

. . . This is a very miscellaneous cargo, & the dullest part it – that is the account of Animal Magnetism – is the most extraordinary. That & the accounts of Swedenborgianism & of Joanna Southcott which are yet to come will show you that nothing is too monstrous to find believers in this enlightened age.

Robert Southey to William Taylor

  • Date: [July 1807?]
  • Address: To/ W Taylor Jun Esq/ Surry Street/ Norwich/ Single
  • Location: Huntington Library, HM 4856
  • Published: A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the late William Taylor, of Norwich, ed. J. W. Robberds, 2 vols (London, 1843).

Owen lent me when I was last in town a tale of King Arthurs Court from the Mabinogion, truly Welsh & savage. If it be possible to make him get thro this work Turner [7]  will do it, but poor Owen is one of Joanna Southcotts four & twenty Elders, – to whom Espriella will soon introduce you, if you x are yet ignorant of this mystery of fatuity rather than iniquity. You will find too an account of the Swedenborgian mythology there, – if you make a Decameron take some of these wild heresies for the creed of a tale, & let us see a Swedenborgian romance, a Manichæan one &c –

Robert Southey to John May

  • Date: 7 July 1807
  • Address: To/ John May Esqr-/ Richmond/ Surry
  • Location: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin
  • Published: The Letters of Robert Southey to John May, ed. Charles Ramos (Austin TX, 1976).

In reading this book you will easily distinguish what is written for Espriella from what is written thro him. Those letters which relate to the state of sectarianism contain some curious matter. Bryan I knew personally, & heard from his own lips his history, & his explanation of the system of Brothers. He it was who took the knife to stab Brothers, as he himself told me. Where these letters are not written from personal knowledge the materials have cost me some money <in> x procuring them, & some time in examining them — the facts are not affected by the Catholic colouring. It is the genuine heretical history of our own times.

Robert Southey to James Grahame

  • Date: 4 January 1808
  • Address: None
  • Location: National Library of Scotland, MS 20768

I should perhaps call myself a Quaker. But I have no Quaker superstitions, & can see their errors with a strong eye. All sects appear to think unworthily of man & his maker. You may recognise their opinions thro the assumed character of a thorough Papist. – As for Joanna Southcote surely that such a woman can find believers is an extraordinary fact in the history of the present times. William Owen the Welsh Scolar is one of her four and twenty elders! Bedlam is the place for such half lunatic half-imposters because they infect others. I have seen instances of the mischief Brothers did in making tradesmen leave their business & their families, all that relates to him & Bryan is written from personal knowledge. I knew Bryan & heard the whole system from his own mouth, & he it was who went with the knife to stab Brothers & told me the fact himself. The main value of the book is its thorough veracity. To the best of my knowledge I have good authority for every single thing which it asserts.

Robert Southey to John Rickman

  • Date: [July 1808] [dating from JR’s endorsement]
  • Address: To/ John Rickman Esq./ S Stephens Court/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster
  • Location: Huntington Library, RS 131
  • Published: The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, ed. C. C. Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849-50)

Bonaparte has one benefit more to confer upon the Spaniards — to put both their King & their Prince out of the way, — which I doubt not he will do. His work of destruction is not quite completed, I hoped & expected to have seen him destroy the House of Austria & the Turkish Empire. two great evils which cumber the earth. He may perhaps turn upon these as an excuse for leaving Spain alone, — but in Spain the fire has broken burst out which will consume. — Well done my friend William Bryan the Prophet, you certainly did prophecy to me in S Stephen Court concerning Spain, as truly as Moore Francis Moore did in his Almanach last year concerning the Grand Turk. [8] 

Manuscript Draft of Letters from England

  • Date: 1805-7
  • Location: Chetham’s Library, Manchester. Mun. A.4.2.
  • [cf. Letter LIV of the 1807 first edition]

But there is another class to whom it is pernicious:—these are they who having read without knowledge think themselves qualified to explain difficult texts, & meddle with the edged tools of theological controversy. One man reading that my father is greater than I becomes without farther consideration an Arian. The phrase Son of Man makes another a Socinian, a third extracts Calvinism out of St Paul. There is a sect called the Jumpers who run out of their conventicle into the streets shouting out Glory be to God in their own language, & jumping the while with incessant vehemence—till their strength is literally exhausted. If you ask the reason of their frantic devotion they can give you xxx for it, the blind man whom Peter & John healed leaped & praised God, & David danced before the Ark! These fanatics are confined to Wales, where the people are half savages. [9] 

Many of the higher class as you may suppose live so entirely without God in the world, that to them it would be of no consequence if the Scripture xxx was in no other language than the original Hebrew. But in all ranks of society there are numbers of persons to whom the perusal of Gods own word is an inestimable comfort, in sickness & in old age, in resignation under sorrow or in thankfulness for xxx the blessing vouchsafed. the Bible is to them in stead of beads or masses—they go it [sic] with humble hearts & perfect faith, & fervently feel all that they understand, & devoutly believe all which is above their comprehension. Father Antonio these persons are schismatic because they are born so. it is their misfortune—not their crime--& I hope I may be permitted to hope that in this case the sins of the fathers may not be visited upon the children.

How far then Do I then think, from what I have learnt <it has produced> in England, that the domestic use of the Holy Scriptures would be beneficial in Spain? speaking with due diffidence & perfect submission to xxx the Holy Catholic Church I am of opinion that it would. Melius est aliquid nescire quam cum periculo discere—St Jerome has said thus [10]  & St Basil compared the effect of the scriptures upon weak minds to that of strong meat upon a sickly stomach—But the days of Julian Fernandez & Cypriano de Valera [11]  are happily over—we have an authorised translation free from perversion & were it printed it in a cheaper form, I think much of the good which it does in England would be produced, & xxx some of the evil, especially if according to the decree of the Council of the Trent, no person were permitted to have it in his possession without the permission of his Priest. It might also have the useful effect of supplanting some of the books of devotion which savour too much of credulity, & do little honour to religion. But in saying this I speak with humbly & with perfect submission to authority.

The English Bible is regarded as one of the most beautiful specimens of the language, & the book which has fixed it. In order to preserve the text correct the privilege of printing it is restricted to the two universities, yet some impressions once got abroad wherein the negation in the 7 commandment had been omitted, & it was said Thou shalt commit adultery. Booksellers There have <been> devised a means of eluding this exclusive privilege by printing a commentary with the text, & in two magnificent Bibles—the price of the one being about 30 pieces of eight! this was so openly practised as a mere evasion, that the commentary consisted in a single line in every sheet, printed in the smallest type, & so near <close to> the bottom of the page that it could be pared off in binding. These books it may be supposed are truly magnificent & honourable to the state of arts in the country, but there are a set of booksellers in xxx xxx whose main business consists in printing worthless & catchpenny publications for the ignorant in the country, & they have always a great Family Bible as they call it in course of publication, ornamented with faithful engravings & published periodically because most of the deluded people who purchase it could not pay for it in any other manner. The cover of one of their number was wrapt round some trifling article which I bought the other day at a stationers,—it professed to render the most difficult passages clear & familiar, to rectify mistranslations, reconcile the doubtful, confound the infidel, establish the peace & happiness of Christian families in this world, & secure their eternal salvation in the next!

[marginal note facing the Jumpers and the miracle of the blind man] ‘the Babe leaped in Elizabeths womb when she heard the salutation of Mary


[f. 229v Southcott]

If Adam she says had refused listening to a foolish ignorant woman at first, the man might refuse listening to a foolish ignorant woman at last—

with Rulers the age of anarchy—with the people the age of Oppression

above all if we remember


[f. 230 a list of Southcott’s publications, indicating the extent of Southey’s research and crossed through by him when cited in the text]

Title at the end of the Book—

Sealing 17.48 K.C> 301 4 Bible 1. Sound an alarm

The Evening Star. 7 B with title at the end.

Sealed Prophecies – 9 D

Pomeroy. 18 D Josephs Book Trial 139 1 Bible 57 Jehovakim

277. Sixth part – she a bone from Christ—as Eve was a bone from Adam.

285 D The Woman the 12 stars & 24 Elders. Trial xxxiii.

287. D her request that Satan might be set off hard[?] on the altar

Dreams 28. <23.> J.S. how she killed the Devil.—Cont. of Prophec. 35.

30. D Drunk by the Lord

38 D Mr Leach

70 D Day of Judgement begun

80 D Sanderson D 101.

46. Cont. of Proph. the Rampant Witness

Sound an alarm. 11. J’s visitation—

--22. 23. The Devil

--36. four people call themselves Christ!

--61 The Woman

Word to the Wise. 20-- D

Divine & Spiritual Letters. 50. D
60- D
84. The Devil is with Moon
92- D
94- D

2 Book of S Prophecies—71. not lengthen the cushions[?]


[f. 232v: a list of phrases on Southcott, crossed through by Southey when they had been incorporated into the main text]

Her handwriting was illegible—so at last she found it convenient to receive an order to throw the pen away--& dictate--& she says—or the Spirit for her, that her words flow faster than her scribes can pen them

they believe that she hath claimed the promise in the creation for the woman to be the helpmate to man.

Trial. 115. The Woman & the Devil

Now as the man was betrayed by the Woman, & cast his blame on me for giving him the Woman, it is to man I must clear myself that I did not give him the Woman in vain. Thus say they the Promise that Woman should be the Helpmate of Man is fulfilled.


[f. 233 the narrative begins differently for the first few lines from the 1807 first edition, letter LXX:]

An arch-heretic of the same sex is now establishing a sect in England, founded upon the same portentous blasphemy. <the name of this woman is J S> she however neither boasts of the charms of her forerunner—nor needs them--<she is> old, vulgar & illiterate, -- xxx in all the innumerable volumes which she has published there are not three <connected> sentences of commonsense in sequence <in sequence> & the matter & the language are alike in contempt of common sense & common syntax. When Poets feign an enchantress <Then if the Poets> they place a golden goblet in her hand, & the draught is <magic> Yet this woman has her followers in England—in the educated classes--& even among the beneficed clergy! * [mark indicating quotation to be inserted here] The enchanted fountains which are described in romance flow with such clear & sparkling water <streams water> which tempting the traveller to thirst—here there may be a magic in the draught but he who can drink of so foul a stream must <first previously> have lost his senses xxx the filth & the abominations of daemonical witchcraft are emblematical of such delusions—not the golden goblet & the bewitching allurement of Circe & Armida.

(And these things are believed in England! in England where Catholick Xtians are so heartily despised for their superstitions—in England where the people think themselves so enlightened in the country of reason & philosophy & free enquiry.—It is amusing to observe how this life of ours is denominated by every writer as it suits his own views—with the Infidel it is the Age of Reason, with the churchman the Age of Infidelity, with the chemist the Age of Philosophy – with the speculator the Age of Free Enquiry & Every man beholding the prospect thro a coloured glass & making <giving> it sunshine or shade <shade> frost or verdure, according to his own fancy—none looking round him & seeing things <it> fairly as they are <it is>. Truly there never was an age or country so favourable for the success of imposture & the growth of superstition as this very age & this very England. If we remember the unlimited toleration which the law allows, the contemptuous indifference of the clergy to all opinions <any blasphemy> which does not immediately threaten themselves—the want of anchorage for the ignorance of the great majority of the people, & that mere knowledge of reading & writing which makes them satisfied then with their own knowledge because they can read the delusive books which are addressed to them & compare them with the bible—of which they are instructed to consider themselves competent expounders—the want of anchorage for their faith—the want of able direction for their souls, so that – the rapidity with which news of every kind false as well as true is circulated thro the kingdom—the eagerness with which they who are disposed to credit imposture listen to any new blasphemy. the contemptuous &c--& the unlimited &c we must acknowledge that there never was any &c)
[this paragraph appears in parenthesis--marked for transposition. It appears at the end of Letter LXX of the 1807 edition:]


[1] Zoroaster, Zarathustra: the Persian prophet, born over a thousand years before Jesus, who founded the religion of Zoroastrianism. One of Southey’s earliest schemes was to write epic poems on all the world’s major religions and mythologies, including Zoroastrianism, about which he had read in Bernard Picart’s Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723-43) and in the 1771 French translation of the Avesta by Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron. He never fulfilled this purpose. BACK

[2] Charles François Dupuis (1742-1809), French scientist and politician, who published his extensive, twelve volume, Origine de tous les Cultes, ou la Réligion Universelle in 1795, positing the common origin of all astronomical and religious mythologies. He continued this argument in his Mémoire Explicatif du Zodiaque, Chronologique et Mythologique (1806); Constantin François de Chassebœuf, Comte de Volney (1757-1820), French philosopher, historian and orientalist, who predicted the union of the world's religions in recognition of their shared common truths in Les Ruines, ou Méditations sur les Révolutions des Empires (1791). BACK

[3] Thomas Maurice (1754-1824), oriental scholar and historian, who published Indian Antiquities (1792-1796) with the polemical intent of defending the historicity of the Bible against the French scholars, Dupuis and Volney, who argued that all the world's religious myths were allegorical; Nathaniel Brassey Halhed (1751-1830), orientalist and philologist, who saw aspects of Hinduism as anticipated by Biblical tradition. BACK

[4] Saint Epiphanius (ca. 310-403), Bishop of Salamis, compiled a huge compendium of heresies. BACK

[5] John Haslam (1764-1844), surgeon-apothecary at Bethlem Lunatic Asylum (Bedlam). BACK

[6] John Stoddart (1773-1856), lawyer, Tory journalist, acquaintance of Southey and of Coleridge in Malta. BACK

[7] Sharon Turner (1768-1847): lawyer and historian of English and Welsh culture who lived at Red Lion square near the British Museum and used the manuscripts thus accessible to him to compile a History of the Anglo-Saxons, 4 vols (1799-1805), on which Southey drew in Madoc (1805). BACK

[8] Francis Moore (1657-1715), founder of Moore’s Almanac, in which the downfall of the Sultan Selim III was forecast. Selim (1761-July 1808) was assassinated. BACK

[9] A practice among some Calvinistic Methodists in Caernarvon, North Wales, beginning in the 1740s, and spreading through Cardiganshire, persisting into the early nineteenth century. BACK

[10] ‘It is better to remain without knowledge, safe, than with danger to learn’, St Jerome, Letter 22, Ad Eustochium de custodia virginitatis. BACK

[11] Julian Fernandez, a sixteenth-century Spanish Protestant who smuggled Protestant translations of the Bible into Spain from Germany; Cypriano de Valera (1532?-1602?), editor of a translation of the Bible into Spanish, 1602, who, in fear of persecution in Spain, lived in exile in Britain. BACK