3033. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend, 31 October 1817

3033. Robert Southey to Chauncy Hare Townshend, 31 October 1817⁠* 

Oct. 31. 1817.

My dear Chauncey,

During this fine autumn (the finest which we can remember in this country) I have frequently regretted that you were not with us, upon our mountain excursions; and thought sometimes how busily your hammer would have been at work among the stones, over which I was treading as ignorantly as the cart-horse in our company.

You have not estimated Neville White more favourably than he deserves. There does not breathe a better or a nobler heart. Men are sometimes strangely out of their place in this world: there, for instance, is a man living in Milk Street, [1]  and busied about Nottingham goods, who, if he were master of a palace and a princely fortune, would do honour to the one, and make the best possible use of the other. I felt towards him just as you have done, at first sight; and recognising instantly the character, scarcely perceived that the individual was a stranger. There is more in these sympathies than the crockery class of mankind can conceive, or than our wise men have dreamt of in their philosophy. [2] 

Your picture of the Norfolk scenery is very lively and very just. I have been twice in my life at Norwich, and once at Yarmouth, [3]  many years ago, long enough to have drawn from that open and level country some images, which were introduced in Thalaba. [4]  I remember writing an epistle in blank verse from thence in 1798, which had some descriptive lines that might be worth transcribing, if they were at hand. [5]  It was the unbroken horizon which impressed me, appearing so much wider than at sea; and the skyscapes which it afforded. I had the same impression in passing through Picardy; [6]  and if I lived in such a country, should perhaps find as many beauties in the sky as I do here upon the earth. Anywhere I could find food for the heart and the imagination, at those times when we are open to outward influences, except in great cities. If I were confined in them, I should wither away like a flower in a parlour window. Did you notice the cry of the bittern in that country? I heard it between Yarmouth and Norwich. Its spiral flight, when it takes wing, is as remarkable and as peculiar as its cry. This bird has been extirpated here; only one has been seen since I have resided at Keswick, and that was shot by a young Cantab, who ate it for his dinner, and had no more brains in his head than the bittern. [7] 

Having nothing to hope in this world, and nothing to desire in it for myself, except as quiet a passage through it as it may please God to grant, my mind, when it takes its course, recurs to the world which is to come, and lays as naturally now the scenes of its day-dreams in Heaven, as it used to do upon earth. I think of the many intimacies I have made among the dead, and with what delight I shall see and converse with those persons whose lives and writings have interested me, to whom I have endeavoured to render justice, or from whom I have derived so much pleasure and benefit of the highest kind. Something perhaps we shall have to communicate, and oh I how much to learn! The Roman Catholics, when they write concerning Heaven, arrange the different classes there with as much precision as a master of the ceremonies could do. Their martyrs, their doctors, their confessors, their monks and their virgins, have each their separate society. As for us poets, they have not condescended to think of us; but we shall find one another out, and a great many questions I shall have to ask of Spenser and of Chaucer. Indeed, I half hope to get the whole story of Cambuscan bold; and to hear the lost books of the Faëry Queen. [8]  Lope de Vega [9]  and I shall not meet with equal interest, and yet it will be a pleasant meeting.

What are you now about? If I had seen you here, where we could have conversed at leisure and without reserve, I would have told you of my own projects, formed in youth and now never to be resumed, talked over your own, and have endeavoured to show you where you might gather the freshest laurels. God bless you!

R. S.


* 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. 282–284. BACK

[1] Milk Street, near Cheapside in the City of London; White’s main residence at this time. He was engaged in the hosiery (‘Nottingham goods’) trade. BACK

[2] The final part of the sentence is a paraphrase of Hamlet, Act 1, scene 5, line 168. BACK

[3] Southey had visited Norwich in 1798 and 1806, and the coastal town of Great Yarmouth in 1798. BACK

[4] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Southey may be referring to Book 5, lines 110–119, where the bittern makes a rather incongruous appearance, as it is much more common in Norfolk than in Arabia. BACK

[5] For the poem see Southey to Edith Southey, 4 June 1798, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 322. BACK

[6] Southey passed through Picardy in May 1817 during his continental tour. BACK

[7] The appearance of Cambridge students in the Lake District on reading parties was becoming increasingly common at this time; the identity of the student who shot the bittern is not recorded. BACK

[8] Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1340–1400; DNB), whose ‘The Squire’s Tale’ related the story of King Cambuscan; and Edmund Spenser (1552? –1599; DNB), author of The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). The concluding books of Spenser’s poem had, according to an apocryphal story, been written but then lost by a careless servant. BACK

[9] The prolific Spanish author Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562–1635). BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Norwich (mentioned 2 times)
Yarmouth (mentioned 2 times)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)