2912. Robert Southey to Sir George Beaumont, 1 February 1817

2912. Robert Southey to Sir George Beaumont, 1 February 1817⁠* 

Keswick, 1 Feby. 1817.

My dear Sir,

We have usually a good many water-fowl offered for sale at this time of the year, but this winter we have had none, from which I conclude that the season has been as mild abroad as it is at home, and that the web-footed family, who direct their movements by the temperature, and not by the almanac, are waiting till the winter begins. I should very much enjoy this mild open weather if I had not some apprehensions for what is to come. Vegetation is fearfully premature in this country. The children [1]  gathered a primrose and a flos adonis [2]  on Christmas Day; to-day they brought me in wall-flowers, and the polyanthuses have been in full bloom for some time. It looks ill to see things thus out of time. If the seasons continue out of order we may dread the failure of another harvest, and, in the present state of men’s minds, such an evil is indeed to be dreaded. But for one’s own personal feelings never was such a month of January. I was on Walla Crag a fortnight ago, and a day in September could not have been warmer. And for effects, never have I witnessed finer than what have been almost daily displayed, from vast masses of soft swelling cloud, hovering about the whole range of mountains from Borrowdale to Grisdale, and the sun – who shouts to the god of painters as well as poets – moving among them, and producing all imaginable glories. A few days back there was the most striking effect I ever remember to have seen. The depth of Newlands was filled with an exceedingly dark cloud, in form like a truncated pyramid, and the sun appearing just upon the summit, shot its rays down on all sides, literally like streams of light.

Miss Barker is painting with great perseverance, and, as far as I can judge, with great success. She tells me a great deal about difficulties, and of being provoked with what she has done, and with what she is doing, but she goes on as long as the light will permit. Miss Hutchinson is with her at present, and has been employing herself very kindly as an amanuensis for me. Hartley is safely landed at Merton, [3]  and Derwent returned this day to school. [4] 

The papers interest me very much at this time. I am a good deal surprised at Marquis Wellesley’s speech upon the Address. [5]  Of all cries, the cry for retrenchment is the most senseless. Of the many causes which have combined to produce the existing difficulties, the greatest is unquestionably a sudden and enormous diminution of expenditure, – Government spending from forty to fifty millions a year less than during the war. And as a remedy for this unavoidable evil they are advised to diminish the expenditure still further! Nor does any person seem to perceive that when so many hands are out of employ, every soldier that shall be disbanded must either want employ himself, or deprive some other person of it: so many as you disband so many will you cast, in some form or other, upon the public, totidem numeris, if not totidem personis. [6]  Some will go to the parish, some to the highway, and not a few will be found in the mobs which are beginning to try their strength with the established authorities.

I am glad to see the decided manner in which Mr. Canning spoke concerning Parliamentary Reform. [7]  Yet there are some things which I could wish we were well rid of, as Tillotson said of the damnatory clauses in the Athanasian Creed. [8]  The great sinecures are among these things: the saving to be effected by abolishing them is a mere nothing, not worthy to be mentioned, but they afford a fair topic for mischievous men, and therefore, as long as they continue, they do a great deal of harm. But if there were no other objection to removing them, the triumph which it would give these vagabonds, in whatever manner the thing were done, is a very weighty one. I well remember when the Talents [9]  came into power, thinking that that was the time. An enormous increase of taxation was necessarily laid on. Had the Grenvilles then given up their sinecures (instead of passing an Act for enabling Lord G. to hold two places, which his own subsequent conduct clearly proved ought not to have been united in one person), they would have acquired a popularity which even their blunders could scarcely have shaken. [10] 

My good friend Nash has a very deep sense of the kindness which he experienced at Coleorton. [11]  We mean to pass six weeks together on the Continent in the months of May and June; so I shall hope to see you in April on my way through town. If Mr. Westall be with you, pray remember me to him. My ‘womankind’ as the Antiquary calls them, [12]  beg to be remembered to Lady Beaumont; so would our neighbours if they knew I were writing.–

Believe me, Sir George, very truly and respectfully yours,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from William Knight (ed.), Memorials of Coleorton, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1887)
Previously published: William Knight (ed.), Memorials of Coleorton: Being Letters from Coleridge, Wordsworth and his Sister, Southey, and Sir Walter Scott to Sir George and Lady Beaumont of Coleorton, Leicestershire, 1803 to 1834, 2 vols (London, 1887), II, pp. 179–183. BACK

[1] Probably Southey’s daughters Edith May, Bertha, Isabel and Kate and their cousin Sara Coleridge. BACK

[2] An ornamental and medicinal plant, it has scarlet flowers with a darker base. BACK

[3] Merton College, Oxford, where Hartley Coleridge was a student. BACK

[4] The school in Ambleside run by the Revd John Dawes. BACK

[5] Marquis Wellesley had spoken in the House of Lords on 29 January 1817 in the debate on the Prince Regent’s Address on the opening of Parliament. He argued that ‘the great and original cause of all our evils was, the magnitude of our expenditure’. BACK

[6] ‘the same number if not the same people’. BACK

[7] Canning had spoken in defence of the government in the House of Commons on 29 January 1817, in the debate on the Prince Regent’s Address on the opening of parliament. His speech included a ringing denunciation of parliamentary reform: ‘I deny the assumption, that the House of Commons, as it stands, is not, to all practical purposes, an adequate representative of the people.’ BACK

[8] John Tillotson (1630–1694; DNB), Archbishop of Canterbury 1691–1694. In a letter to Gilbert Burnet (1643–1715; DNB) of 23 October 1694 he condemned the Athanasian creed, the statement of Christian orthodoxy drawn up c. AD 420 and attributed to the Greek theologian St Athanasius (293–373). Assent to it remained, however, the eighth of the Church’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Faith. Tillotson may have particularly disliked verses 2 and 42 of the Creed that asserted all non-believers would ‘perish eternally’ – Southey certainly disapproved of them, as well as of the Creed’s relentless emphasis on the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. BACK

[9] The ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ 1806–1807, of which Lord Grenville was Prime Minister. BACK

[10] When Lord Grenville became Prime Minister in 1806 he, as usual, became First Lord of the Treasury. However, the law required him to give up the lucrative sinecure of Auditor of the Receipt of the Exchequer (a post he had held since 1794), as this role could not be held at the same time as the First Lordship. Grenville’s solution was an Act of Parliament to allow him to hold both offices together. This was felt to be particularly reprehensible because it placed Grenville in the position of auditing his own Department’s accounts. The Auditorship was merely part of the Grenville family’s group of sinecures, though. One of Grenville’s brothers, George Grenville, 1st Marquess of Buckingham (1753–1813; DNB) was Teller of the Exchequer (worth £23,000 in 1808 alone); while his other brother, Thomas Grenville (1755–1846; DNB), was Chief Justice of Eyre, south of the Trent (worth £2,316 per annum). BACK

[11] Beaumont’s estate in Leicestershire. BACK

[12] Edith Southey, Sara Coleridge, and Mary Lovell. In Walter Scott’s The Antiquary (1816), the eponymous central character refers to all the women in his household as his ‘womankind’. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)