2943. Robert Southey to William Smith, 17 March 1817

2943. Robert Southey to William Smith, 17 March 1817⁠* 

For the Courier.


To William Smith Esqre M.P.


You have thought proper to attack me in the House of Commons in language which I shall not imitate, – however fitly it might be applied to Mr William Smith. [1] 

You call upon the Government to prosecute me for a work written in the year 1794, & now first published, for motives which cannot be mistaken, by some person as little scrupulous as yourself concerning the means by which he may gratify the malignity of factious feeling. [2]  And you bring it as a heinous charge against me that having entertained wild & extravagant notions of liberty in my youth, three & twenty years should have produced a change in the opinions of one whose life has been devoted to unremitting study, & who may say to in the words of Bentley to you & to such as you, that he has forgotten more than ever you learnt. [3] 

In my youth I fell into the political opinions which the French Revolution scattered over Europe. Mr William Smith may possibly be acquainted with other persons who were republicans at that time, & have long since ceased to be so with as little impeachment of their integrity as their judgement. From the metaphysics & the atheism which were usually connected with those principles, I was at all times free: & instead of connecting myself with clubs at home, I gave up the course of life for which I had been designed, & the prospects of advancement in any professional line, which it will be no presumption for me now to say were within my reach, [4]  – that I might retire into the wilds of America, & there with a few persons as inexperienced & as enthusiastic as myself, lay the foundations of a community upon what we believed to be the system of Christian equality. It matters not in what manner that purpose, happily for ourselves, was xxxx frustrated. Erroneous as it was, God forbid that I should ever feel ashamed of such an error! And God be thanked that the intemperate & misapplied expression of the opinions upon which I proceeded before I was twenty years of age, – is the worst offence with which I can be charged by Mr Brougham, [5]  sore as he is from many a well-merited chastisement, – by the gratuitous hostility of Mr Wm Smith, & by Envy, Hatred, Malice & all Uncharitableness.

You believe that I was sincere when, according to your own judgement (& it is one of the very few subject on which I agree with it) <my opinions> were grossly erroneous; & you do not believe that the course of years & events may have corrected me where I was wrong, & confirmed me in what was right. The events of the last five & twenty years have been lost upon you, & perhaps you judge of me by yourself. This Sir you may think a fair criterion, but I must protest against being measured by any such standard.

The offence which I have committed is, that I did not transfer to the French Emperor [6]  that interest which at one time I felt for the French Republic; – that I did feel that same interest for the Spaniards, & to the best of my power proclaimed the opinion that perseverance against Bonaparte would be crowned with success, – standing upon firm ground, when you were stuck fast in the Slough of Despond. [7]  In this also I have offended, that while I have never ceased in my writings to point out the real evils of society, & to press upon the public mind the necessity of bettering, in every way, the condition of the poor, I have lifted up my voice against the Apostles of Anarchy, & my voice has been heard. There are those among us who imitate in their writings as far as they dare, the words of the French Revolutionists, & if the opportunity were come would imitate them as faithfully in their deeds. I used to include Mr William Smith among those persons who tho’ they cooperated with these incendiaries, were nevertheless actuated by good intentions, & entitled for their general character to respect. This opinion must now be qualified. The xxxx xx unwarrantable attack which in his parliamentary character he has made upon an individual, not present to vindicate himself & reply to the foul slander as it deserved, entitles me to think as ill of his disposition as of his discretion

I am Sir

Yrs with every with as little courtesy as you deserve

Robert Southey.

17. March. 1817


* MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 3p.
Note on MS: The letter survives as an early draft, which is reproduced here. Southey made a fair copy, which appears not to have survived, and he sent this as an enclosure to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn on 17 March, 1817, Letter 2944. Wynn’s absence from home meant there was a delay in his receiving it. By the time he did so, the debate had moved on and so Southey decided to incorporate this letter into his pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P. (1817). BACK

[1] Smith had denounced Southey in the House of Commons on 14 March 1817 in the debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill, condemning ‘the settled, determined malignity of a renegado’ and comparing Southey’s arguments against radical views in the Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 227, with those expressed in Wat Tyler (1817), Act 2, lines 103–112. BACK

[2] In 1794 Southey had sent James Ridgway (1755–1838) and Henry Symonds (1741–1816), radical booksellers, then in Newgate prison, a copy of his Jacobin drama Wat Tyler; see Robert Southey to Edith Fricker, [c. 12 January 1795], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 123. Ridgway and Symonds did not publish it and it remained in manuscript until a pirated publication, designed to embarrass the now anti-Jacobin Southey, appeared in 1817. Having taken advice from Rickman, Wynn and Turner, Southey launched a suit in Chancery so as to gain an injunction suppressing the publication. His case was not heard until 18–19 March 1817. BACK

[3] Richard Bentley (1662–1742; DNB), classical scholar and Master of Trinity College, Cambridge. Richard Cumberland (1732–1811; DNB) had reported that when a schoolmaster had promised to make Cumberland as learned as his grandfather, Richard Bentley, the latter had exclaimed to the schoolmaster: ‘Pshaw, Arthur, how can that be, when I have forgot more than thou ever knew’st?’, Memoirs of Richard Cumberland. Written by Himself, 2 vols (London, 1807), II, p. 33. BACK

[4] Southey left Balliol College, Oxford without a degree in 1794 and declined to become a clergyman as he could not subscribe to the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles. BACK

[5] Southey may be referring to Brougham’s speech on the Seditious Meetings Bill in the House of Commons on 24 February 1817, when he contrasted the unwillingness of the government to prosecute Southey’s early radical play Wat Tyler, with its pursuit of radical writers. BACK

[6] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; First Consul 1799–1804; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815). BACK

[7] In John Bunyan (1628–1688; DNB), Pilgrim’s Progress (1678–1684), a bog into which Christian sinks under the weight of his sins and his guilt for them. BACK