2749. Robert Southey to Sharon Turner, 2 April 1816

2749. Robert Southey to Sharon Turner, 2 April 1816⁠* 

Keswick. 2 April. 1816.

My dear Turner

You will shortly I trust receive my “Pilgrimage”, [1]  – the notes & title-page to which would have been at this time in the printers hands, – if I had not been palsied by the severe illness of my son, – who is at this time in that such a state that I know not whether there be more cause for fear or for hope. [2]  In the disposition of mind which an affliction of this kind induces, there is no person to whom I feel so much inclined to converse with as with you.

I have touched in the latter part of my poem upon the general course of human events, & the prospects of society. But perhaps I have not explained myself as fully & as clearly as if I had been writing in prose. The preponderance of good & the progressiveness of truth & knowledge & general well-being, I clearly perceive, – but I have delivered an opinion that this tendency to good is not an overruling necessity, & that that which is, is not necessarily the best that might have been, – for this in my judgement would interfere with that free agency upon which all our virtues & indeed the great scheme of revelation <itself> is founded.

Time, my own heart, & more than all other causes, the sorrows xx with which it has been visited (in the course of a life that on the whole has been happy in a degree vouchsafed to few even among the happiest) have made me fully sensible that the highest happiness exists when <as> the only consolation is to be found, in a deep & habitual feeling of devotion. Long ere this would I have preached what I feel upon this subject, – if the door had been open to me. [3]  But it is one thing to conform to the Church, preserving that freedom of mind which in religion more than in all other things is especially valuable, – & another to subscribe solemnly to its articles. Christianity exists nowhere in so pure a form as in our own Church, but even there it is mingled with much alloy, – from which I know not how it will be purified. I have an instinctive abhorrence of bigotry, when dissenters talk of the Establishment, they make me feel like a high Churchman, – & when I get among high churchmen, I am ready to take shelter in dissent.

You have thrown a new light upon the York & Lancaster age of our history by showing the connection of those quarrels with the incipient spirit of reformation. [4]  I wish we had reformed the monastic institutions instead of destroying them. Mischievous as they are in Catholic countries they have yet this good about them that they they hold up something besides worldly distinction to the respect & admiration of the people, & fix the standard of virtue higher than we do in protestant countries. Would that we had an Order of Beguines in England. [5]  There are few subjects which have so unfairly discussed as the monastic institutions, the protestant condemns them in the lump, – & the Romanist crams his legends down your throat. The truth is that they began in a natural & good feeling, tho somewhat exaggerated, – that they produced the greatest public good in their season, – that they were abominably perverted, & that the good which they now do, wherever they exist, is much less than the evil. – Yet if you had seen, as I once did, a Franciscan of fourscore, with a venerable head & beard, standing in the cloister of his convent where his brothers lay buried beneath his feet, & telling his beads, with a countenance expressive of the most perfect & peaceful piety, – you would have felt with me how desirable it was that there should be such institutions for minds so constituted. [6] Xx The total absence of religion from our poor-houses, – alms-houses – & hospitals is as culpable in one way, as the excess of superstition is in another. I was greatly shocked at a story which I heard from Dr Gooch, – a woman of the town was brought to one of the hospitals having been accidentally poisoned: – almost the last words which she uttered were, that this was a blasted life, – & she was glad to have done with it! Who will not wish that she had been kissing the crucifix, & listening in full faith to the most credulous priest! – I say this with reference to her feelings at that moment, – & the effect upon xx others, than as to her own future state, however aweful that consideration may be. The mercy of God is infinite, & it were too dreadful to believe that they who have been most miserable here should be condemned to endless misery hereafter.

But I will have done with these topics, – because I wish to say something respecting your second volume. You have surprized me by the additions which you have xxx made to our knowledge of our own early poetry. I had no xxx notion that the Hermit of Hampole [7]  was so considerable a personage – nor that there remained such a mass of unedited poetry of that age. The Antiquarian Society [8]  would do well to publish the whole however much it may be. You are aware how much light it would throw upon the history of our language, of our manners, & even of civil transactions; – for all these things I should most gladly peruse the whole mass. – St Francisco Xavier is not the Xavier who wrote the Persian life of Christ. [9]  P.3 you mention some Norse verses which related to Portugueze history: – if the Scald Halldors poem be not too long may I request you to transcribe it for me, – as a document for my history. [10]  Observe that this request is purely conditional, as regarding the extent of the poems. If it be more than a half hours work, it would be unreasonable to ask for time which you employ so well, – & of which you have so little to spare.

Remember me to Mrs Turner, Alfred & your daughter [11]  – We are in great anxiety, – & with great cause, – but there is hope. My wish at such time is akin to Macbeths [12]  – but in a different spirit – a longing that the next hundred years were over & that we all were in that a better world where happiness is permanent, & there is neither change nor evil. God bless you

Yrs very affectionately

R Southey.


* Address: To/ Sharon Turner Esqre/ Red Lion Square/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 5 AP 5/ 1816
Endorsement: 2 April 1816
MS: Beinecke Library, Osborn MSS File ‘S’, Folder 14184. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 154–158. BACK

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

[2] Herbert Southey died on 17 April 1816. BACK

[3] Southey’s attendance at Balliol College, Oxford in 1792–1794 was financed by his uncle, Herbert Hill, in the expectation that he would become a clergyman in the Church of England. But Southey refused this career path as it would require him to subscribe to the Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles. BACK

[4] In his The History of England, 3 vols (London, 1814–1823), II, pp. 212, 425, Turner drew attention to the protection of the early reformer, John Wycliffe (c. 1331–1384; DNB), by John of Gaunt (1340–1399; DNB) of the House of Lancaster. BACK

[5] The Beguines were medieval communities of lay women in the Low Countries, in which Southey and Rickman had a long-standing interest. BACK

[6] This incident probably occurred during one of Southey’s visits to Portugal and Spain in 1795–1796 or 1800–1801. BACK

[7] The History of England, 3 vols (London, 1814–1823), II, pp. 459–462, Turner discussed Richard Rolle (1290–1349; DNB), the ‘Hermit of Hampole’, especially his English poem, ‘The Prikke of Conscience’. BACK

[8] The Society of Antiquaries, founded 1751. BACK

[9] Turner makes this erroneous attribution at The History of England, 3 vols (London, 1814–1823), II, p. 341. He confused St Francis Xavier (1506–1552), the co-founder of the Jesuit order, with Jerome Xavier (1549–1617), author of Mir’at ul Quds, a Life of Christ in Persian. BACK

[10] In The History of England, 3 vols (London, 1814–1823), II, p. 3, Turner notes that in the course of his crusade of 1107–1110, Sigurd I (c. 1090–1130; King of Norway 1103–1130) defeated Moorish forces at Cintra and Lisbon in 1109. He states these exploits were recorded by the ‘Scald Halldor’. The verses are preserved in the ‘Saga of Sigurd the Crusader and his brothers Eystein and Olaf’ in Snorri Sturlason (c. 1179–1241), Heimskringla (c. 1225). BACK

[11] Mary Turner, née Watts (1778–1843); Alfred Turner (1796–1864), eldest son of Sharon Turner, later a solicitor; and one of Turner’s daughters – either Emilia (b. 1798), Eliza Mary (1799–1874), Mary (1801–1870) or Harriet (b. 1803). BACK

[12] Probably a reference to Macbeth, Act 1, scene 3, lines 91–96: ‘Had I but died an hour before this chance,/ I had lived a blessed time; for, from this instant./ There’s nothing serious in mortality:/ All is but toys: renown and grace is dead;/ The wine of life is drawn, and the mere lees/ Is left this vault to brag of’. BACK

People mentioned

Southey, Herbert (1806–1816) (mentioned 1 time)
Gooch, Robert (1784–1830) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)