3039. Robert Southey to Joseph Blanco White, 19 November 1817

3039. Robert Southey to Joseph Blanco White, 19 November 1817⁠* 

Keswick. 19 Nov. 1817.

My dear Blanco

I thank you for your Lectures. [1]  They are admirably adapted for their occasion, – one of my children is old enough to profit by them, & I have put them into her hands. It is indeed curious that such a teacher should have come to us from Seville! Whatever the result of the convulsion in Spain may have been to others, you at least have obtained in its consequences a benefit which is beyond all price. Nor is this Exposition of our Divine Religion the less remarkable for the place where it has been written. [2]  God grant that the good seed may take root where you have so faithfully sown it, & that it may not be choked by weeds. Mr Fox is said to have died an unbeliever, in doubt even of a future state. I know how prevalent this fatal error is among the persons of his party, & trace it but too clearly in much of their political conduct; – it is the secret principle which explains things otherwise inexplicable. Hence their eagerness to cooperate with Catholics, Methodists, or Socinians [3]  against the Established Church: hence their adherence to Buonaparte [4]  in spite of his atrocious tyranny. The evil is increasing among us, & on the other <hand> a spirit of fanaticism as wide from the truth increases also. We stand in need of able & zealous labourers, & it is a consolation to see that by Gods blessing, they are not wanting.

During my journey I made what enquiry I could concerning the state of religion in the Protestant Cantons of Switzerland, where I had an opportunity of seeing some of the Clergy. During these late years which have dislocated the whole fabric of civil society it has not escaped serious injury. The power of the clergy has been lessened, – it was not too great, & it was used discretely. Their influence has diminished with it, & a visible deterioration of morals is the consequence. Geneva has become a school of Socinianism: it was never a good school, & we in England have sustained much injury <evil> from it in former times: [5]  but this change is for the worse. It is not from the ashes of Socinus whom they murdered so cruelly [6]  that it has arisen, it is the thin cloak which Philosophism condescends to wear. Their countryman Jean Jacques has left his leaven there, & a blast from Ferney has infected the place. [7]  Yet I think good may be deduced from it. The Pastors in other Cantons appear to be awakened by it & it may occasion a revival of sound doctrine and of zeal.

You will see in the next Quarterly Review that I have translated one or two of Lope de Vega’s devotional sonnets. [8]  I do not possess Sanchas edition of his works, [9]  & unluckily have only the first part of his Rimas Sacras, where among many gross absurdities are some of his x most powerful writings. [10]  If I could have afforded the time I should have translated more, but my long absence from home has drawn on me heavy arrears of work. I am proceeding in the press with my history of Brazil, the most laborious historical work which has ever been composed in my our language. [11]  The history of the Peninsular war is in progress; [12]  – & I indulge myself at intervals by going on with a life of John Wesley upon such a scale & with such comprehensive views of the subject, that it will xx xxx xx include an important portion of ecclesiastical history. [13]  Then I have a poem in hand, – a little volume it will form, – its title A Tale of Paraguay.

– vain feelings to excite
No tales of morbid sentiment I sing,
Nor tell of idle loves with ill spent breath,–
A reverent offering to the Grave I bring,
And twine a garland for the brow of Death. [14] 

This is the conclusion of the dedicatory lines which are addressed to my daughter Edith & this will show you the character & spirit in which I am composing the poem.

I trust we shall see you next summer. Come when the days are lengthening, that you may see our country in its greatest beauty. I went thro the finest parts of Switzerland & saw beyond the Alps the Lakes Como, Lugano, & Maggiore; yet this country has borne the comparison; – the charm of its proportion compensates for every thing in which it is inferior. And the bountiful clearness of its streams is perfectly delicious after the turbid torrents of the Alps, which carry with them the wreck of those crumbling mountains & produce goitres & cretinism. [15]  You will find here quiet & an air which I believe to be as wholesome as any in this island; – Bedford was sent here by his Physicians in despair for a liver complaint, & if his recovery can be assigned to any definite cause it must be to the air of these mountains.

It was at Como that I first read of the revolution at Pernambuco in the Lugano Gazette; – & I guessed but too truly that the man who was there called Isaac Ribeiro Person: would prove to be Ribeiro Pessoa, [16]  – a man with whom I was in communication thro my friend Koster, & with whose history & opinions I was perfectly well acquainted. He was a man of great ability & of excellent heart: a priest, who saw the falsehood x xx of his own church & unhappily did not see the truths which are smothered under it. With the best feelings, & the best intentions, he xxxx <lent> the whole weight of his talents & high character to this miserable attempt, – & when once in blood, was in immediate xxx xxxx <danger of> plunging himself into the deepest damnation. He had consented to the desperate resolution of setting fire to the city – murdering all the royalists in their power; – but I rejoice to say that Kosters expostulations moved him from this purpose. He perished by his own hand – God be merciful to his soul! – He has left a woman whom he regarded as his wife, & several children. This is a dismal story. the man who thus died an Atheist, & a traitor & a rebel was a noble creature, who might have been an ornament & a benefactor to his country & his kind.

God bless you my dear Blanco

Yr affectionate friend

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ J Blanco White Esqr/ 9. Bury Street/ St James’s Square/ London
Stamped: [partial] KESWICK
Postmark: E/ 22 NO 22/ 1817
MS: University of Liverpool Library, R.P.XXI.9.3. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Hamilton Thom (ed.), The Life of the Reverend Joseph Blanco White, 3 vols (London, 1845), I, pp. 310–312 n. BACK

[1] Blanco White’s Preparatory Observations on the Study of Religion: in Eight Lectures, delivered before the Children of a Family in High Life, by their Tutor, a Clergyman of the Church of England (1817). BACK

[2] Blanco White’s work had been written whilst living in the household of Lord Holland at Holland House in London. The house functioned as the social centre of the Whig party. BACK

[3] Followers of the theology of Fausto Paolo Sozzini, (Socinus) (1539–1604); effectively the term was used as an alternative for Unitarian, or someone who denied the existence of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus. BACK

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

[5] Geneva was the headquarters of Jean Calvin (1509–1564) from 1541 onwards and a centre for the dissemination of his theology. Southey particularly disliked Calvinism’s insistence on the predestination of souls to damnation or salvation and believed this theology had inspired many Parliamentarians in the English Civil War and Commonwealth 1642–1660. BACK

[6] Sozzini (Socinus) died peacefully in Poland; Southey has confused him with Michael Servetus (1509/1511–1553), a Spanish doctor and theologian who held unorthodox views on the Trinity and who was burned in Geneva for heresy. BACK

[7] Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), deist philosopher from Geneva; Ferney, a town in France close to Geneva, was the residence of François-Marie Arouet (Voltaire) (1694–1778) from 1759 to 1778. Voltaire, too, was a deist. BACK

[8] In Quarterly Review, 18 (October 1817), 1–46, Southey reviewed Lord Holland, Some Account of the Lives and Writings of Lope Félix de Vega Carpio, and Guillen de Castro (1817). The religious sonnets translated by Southey (at 8–9) were ‘Sirvio Jacob los siete largos anos’ and ‘Quando la Madre Antigua reverdeze’, Sonnets V and XI in Felix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio (1562–1635), Segunda Parte de las Rimas (1604). BACK

[9] Antonio de Sancha (1720–1790), Collección de las Obras Sueltas: assi en Prosa, como en Verso, de D. Frey Lope Felix de Vega Carpio (1776–1799). BACK

[10] Félix Arturo Lope de Vega y Carpio, Rimas Sacras (1614), no. 3673 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[11] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[12] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[13] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[14] A Tale of Paraguay (1825), ‘Dedication’, lines 108–111. BACK

[15] These conditions were actually caused by a lack of iodine in the soil. BACK

[16] Joam Ribeiro Pessoa de Melo Montenegro (1766–1817), a priest who was a member of the provisional government set up by a group of revolutionaries in Pernambuco, 8 March–18 May 1817. He committed suicide in the town of Paulista after the defeat of the revolutionary forces and the fall of Recife, the provincial capital. Southey read of his death in the Gazzetta di Lugano (1814–1821), a liberal weekly newspaper that circulated widely in Switzerland and northern Italy. BACK

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