2695. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 8 January 1816

2695. Robert Southey to Neville White [fragment], 8 January 1816 ⁠* 

Keswick, Jan. 8. 1816.

My dear Neville,

Did you ever watch the sands of an hour-glass? When I was first at Oxford, one of these old-fashioned measurers of time was part of my furniture. I rose at four o’clock, and portioned out my studies by the hour. When the sands ran low, my attention was often attracted by observing how much faster they appeared to run. Applying this image to human life, which it has so often been brought to illustrate, (whether my sands run low or not, is known only to Him by whom this frail vessel was made, but assuredly they run fast), it seems as if the weeks of my youth were longer than the months of middle age, and that I could get through more in a day then, than in a week now. Since I wrote to you, I have scarcely done anything but versify; [1]  and certain it is that twenty years ago, I could have produced the same quantity of verses in a fourth part of the time. It is true they would have been more faulty; but the very solicitude to avoid faults, and the slow and dreaming state which it induces, may be considered as indications that the season for poetry is gone by, – that I am falling into the yellow leaf, or, to use a more consoling metaphor, and perhaps a more applicable one, that poetry is but the blossom of an intellect so constituted as mine, and that with me the fruit is set, – in sober phrase, that it would be wisely done, if henceforth I confined myself to sober prose. And this I could be well content to do, from a conviction in my own mind that I shall ultimately hold a higher place among historians (if I live to complete what is begun) [2]  than among poets. . . .

The affair of Lavalette, in France, pleases me well, except as far as regards the treatment of his wife for having done her duty. [3]  The king ought not to have pardoned him, and the law ought to have condemned him: both did as they ought, and, as far as depended upon them, his civil life was at an end. I should have had no pity for him if the axe had fallen; but a condemned criminal making his escape becomes a mere human creature striving for life, and the Devil take him, say I, who would not lend a hand to assist him, except in cases of such atrocious guilt as make us abhor and execrate the perpetrator, and render it unfit that he should exist upon earth.

Of home politics, I grieve to say that the more I think of them, the worse they appear. All imaginable causes which produce revolution are at work among us; the solitary principle of education is the only counteracting power; and God knows this is very partial, very limited, and must be slow in its effects, even if it were upon a wider scale and a more permanent foundation. If another country were in this state, I should say, without hesitation, that revolution was at hand there, and that it was inevitable. If I hesitate at predicting to myself the same result here, it is from love or from weakness, from hope that we may mercifully be spared so dreadful a chastisement for our follies and our sins, and from fear of contemplating the evils under which we should be overwhelmed. God bless you!

Yours most affectionately,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 146–148 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey was writing The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). BACK

[2] Primarily Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819); and his uncompleted ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[3] Antoine Marie Chamans, Comte de Lavalette (1769–1830), a Minister under Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815), had been condemned to death by the Bourbon regime on 21 November 1815. Louis XVIII (1755–1824; King of France 1814–1824) refused to pardon him. However, Lavalette had escaped from prison on 20 December 1815, on the eve of his execution, by changing clothes with his wife, Émilie de Beauharnais (1781–1855); she was imprisoned, but was released on 23 January 1816. Lavalette made his way firstly to England, with the assistance of three radical sympathisers, Michael Bruce (1787–1861), John Hely-Hutchinson (1787–1851) and Sir Robert Wilson (1777–1849; DNB); then to the Netherlands, and eventually to Bavaria. The three English conspirators were tried between 22–24 April 1816 and were found guilty and sentenced to three months imprisonment. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)