2911. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 31 January 1817

2911. Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 31 January 1817⁠* 

31 Jany 1817 Keswick

My dear Sir

I have not seen the book which you speak of; – but I have transmitted the substance of your remarks to the reviewer, (be he who he may, – for I know not) – observing of course the secrecy which you desire & giving them all the weight I can. [1] 

Many years ago, I remember upon some forgotten occasion, either talking or writing to Scott upon the subject of Claverhouse & the Covenanters, [2]  – to the very purport of your remarks; & I recollect observing that tho this bloody persecutor was celebrated on earth by the name of Dundee, Claverhouse was the name by which the Devil knew him. [3] James Grahamexx had the right feeling upon this subject, & never wrote more like a poet than when he touched upon it. [4]  I urged him as strongly as I could to take those times & circumstances as the groundwork either for a dramatic or narrative poem, – a subject perfectly congenial to his powers, & which he could have executed admirably. But he preferred ploughing away in his Georgics, [5]  & wasting his efforts upon a sterile soil.

I hope from your mention of Lord Calthorpe [6]  that Mr Francis [7]  was mistaken in representing him to be in a dangerous state of health. Yet when I saw him I could not but fear that he was one who was not long to be a sojourner on earth. There is an expression in his countenance at times which has more of heaven than of earth about it, – something which is at once inexpressibly sweet but mournful, – like the smile of a broken heart.

I shall look anxiously for your name in the debates. From false doctrine, heresy & schism Parliament cannot deliver us; – but from sedition, privy conspiracy & rebellion it may.

Believe me my dear Sir

yours with the greatest respect

Robert Southey.


* Endorsements: Pte * Mr Southey Claverhouse/ dear Calthorpes smile; a short bit may be extracted; Pte Mr Southey – / Claverhouse/ Ld Calthorpe
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 2 vols (London, 1840), II, pp. 358–359 [in part]. BACK

[1] See Southey to John Murray, 31 January 1817, Letter 2910. Walter Scott’s Tales of My Landlord (1816) was reviewed in Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 430–480. The review was probably by many hands, including Scott himself, William Erskine (1768–1822; DNB) and William Gifford. One of these two Tales was Old Mortality (1816), centred on the Covenanters’ rebellion in South West Scotland in 1679. John Graham of Claverhouse, 7th Laird of Claverhouse and 1st Viscount Dundee (1648–1689; DNB) was a key figure in suppressing the rebellion; Scott’s portrayal of Claverhouse was ambiguous, drawing attention to both his bravery and his capacity for cruelty. Wilberforce objected both to the portrayal of Claverhouse and the book’s use of passages from the Bible. BACK

[2] See Robert Southey to Walter Scott, 8 December 1807, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Three, Letter 1392. BACK

[3] Claverhouse’s name seemed appropriate to Southey as it could be construed as ‘slaughterhouse’. BACK

[4] Grahame condemned Claverhouse strongly in a note to his poem, The Sabbath (1804). BACK

[5] James Grahame’s British Georgics (1809). BACK

[6] George Gough-Calthorpe, 3rd Baron Calthorpe (1787–1851), friend of Wilberforce. He provided Wilberforce with a seat in Parliament that he controlled at Bramber 1812–1825. BACK

[7] Clement Robert Francis (1792–1829), nephew of James Burney and friend of Wilberforce. Southey had met him in the Lakes in 1816. Francis was later a clergyman and Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 1 time)
Grahame, James (1765–1811) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)