3061. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 1 January 1818

3061. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 1 January 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 1st Jany 1818.

My dear Wynn

Many happy returns of the new year to you & yours! It is now thirty years since you & I first met in Deans Yard, [1]  – & in the course of those years half the human race who were then living have gone under ground. How long either of us may keep above it, God knows, but while we do, there is little likelihood that any circumstances can break or loosen an attachment which has continued so long. Your path has been just what might have been predicted, straight, honourable, & in full view, – only that one might have expected to have found you on the other side the house, [2]  & in office; [3]  – & one day or other, (the sooner the better) I trust to see you there. What mine might have been without your helping hand, [4]  when I was among the bogs & briers; I know not: – with that help it has been a very pleasant uphill road, with so many odd incidents by the way that the history of them would make no bad Pilgrims Progress, – especially as I am now at rest among the Delectable Mountains, & have little more to do than to cross the river whenever my turn comes. [5] 

We are enjoying a beautiful winter here. No snow has yet fallen in the valley, & it lies on the xxx fells not raggedly but in an even line, so that Skiddaw & Grisdale [6]  bear no distant resemblance to the Swiss mountains, & imbibe tints at morning & evening which may vie with any thing that ever was seen upon Mont-Blanc or the Jungfrau. Have you noticed the news from the North Pole? – [7]  to me it is more interesting than any thing that has happened since the Battle of Waterloo, [8]  or seems likely to happen. The Greenlandmen got as far as 84 & had then no ice in sight, – the coast of East Greenland which has been shut up for four or five hundred years was open. It is believed that some great convulsion of nature has broken up the ice about the pole, – the floating masses occasioned those unnatural cold winds from the S. & S. W. which pinched us with cold in Burgundy & Franch Comte at the end of May last. Most probably a volcano has broken out there, – for for the last two years there have been no fish upon the coast of Kamtschetka. [9]  What if we should accomplish the N West passage, this year, & perhaps reach the Pole! [10] 

I am writing for the QR. upon the Poor Laws, or rather upon the means of improving the lower classes, – a practical paper, containing I think some hints which any clergyman, or other influential person in a parish may usefully improve. [11]  It is not unlikely that I may gradually withdraw from the review, – that is to say as soon as I can live without it; – it takes up far too great a portion of my time: for altho no man can take to task-work with less reluctance, still from the very circumstance of its being task-work, – something which must be done, & not which I desire at the time to do, it costs me twice or thrice the time of any other composition; – as much perhaps in the course of the year as it took xx to write Thalaba, or Kehama. [12]  This last poem is going to press for a fourth edition; – they sell slowly & steadily, & will keep moving onward when some of their greater contemporaries shall have fallen asleep by the way side, to wake no more.

The life of Wesley is my favourite employment just now, & a very curious book it will be; – looking at Methodism abroad as well as at home, & comprehending our religious history for the last fourscore hundred years. [13]  I am sure I shall treat this subject with moderation. ––I hope I come to it with a sober judgement, a mature mind, & perfect freedom from all unjust prepossessions of any kind. I have nothing There is no party which I am desirous of pleasing, none which I am fearful of offending, nor am I aware of any possible circumstance which might tend to bias me one way or other from the straight line of impartial truth. For the bigot I shall be far too philosophical, for the libertine far too pious, – the Archdeacon Hooks [14]  & other such Ultra-Churchmen will think me little better than a Methodist, & the Methodists will wonder what I am, “Αγια ‘Αγιοις will be my motto. [15] 

My books from Milan have reached London, – something more than 100 volumes. Ramusio is among them, & the Gesta Dei. [16]  I have not yet heard of my Acta Sanctorum, – the arrival of which will xx form a grand day in my life. [17]  Little [MS torn] as I find for poetry, & seldom indeed as I think of it, there is yet a sort of reluctance in me wholly to give up any scheme of a poem on which I have ever thought with any degree of fondness; – & because I had meditated a Jewish poem many years ago [18]  I bought at Milan the great Biblotheca Rabbinica of Bartolacci [19]  as a repository of materials. Could I have afforded to have written verses during those years when nobody bought them I verily believe I should have written more than any of my predecessors.

As soon as the first canto of the Paraguay Tale is finished I will transcribe & send it. It moves the slower because of the metre. [20] 

God bless you



* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqre/ Llangedwin/ Oswestry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4813D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 292–294 [in part]. BACK

[1] A central feature of Westminster School, where Southey and Wynn had first met in 1788. BACK

[2] Wynn was a leading figure in the Grenvillite group that had coalesced around his uncle, Lord Grenville, in 1803–1804. They had been in opposition ever since they participated in the ‘Ministry of All the Talents’ in 1806–1807; but they fundamentally disagreed with the Whig opposition on a number of points and were in many ways closer to the position held by the government, e.g. on supporting the war with France in 1803–1815 and opposition to parliamentary reform. The Grenvillites finally decided to separate from the Whigs in July 1817 to form a ‘third party’ and joined the government in 1822. BACK

[3] Wynn had briefly served as Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department in 1806–1807, but on 2 June 1817 he had been defeated in the election for The Speaker of the House of Commons. He was not to hold office again until 1822, when he became President of the Board of Control. BACK

[4] Wynn had paid Southey an annuity of £160 from 1797, until he secured a government pension of £200 per annum for Southey in 1807 (Southey was actually worse off under this arrangement as he had to pay fees and taxes). BACK

[5] Southey was fond of portraying life via allusions to John Bunyan (1628–1688; DNB), Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). The Delectable Mountains were encountered by Christian and Hopeful after their escape from Doubting Castle. There they were able to glimpse the Celestial City and were shown some of the delights of Paradise. To finally reach the Celestial City, though, they had to cross the River of Death. BACK

[6] Grizedale Pike is a fell to the southwest of Keswick, visible from Southey’s home, Greta Hall. BACK

[7] Reports of events in the Arctic were widespread in British newspapers, e.g. Morning Chronicle, 22 November 1817, which coincides closely with Southey’s information. BACK

[8] The battle in which an allied force finally defeated the French army on 18 June 1815, so ending the wars of 1793–1815. BACK

[9] British newspapers had recently carried a number of extracts from Hamburg papers, e.g. Morning Chronicle, 8 December 1817. One of the extracts reported that in the Kamchatka peninsula ‘in the course of last winter an incredible number of bears have left the woods, frequently entered the houses of the Kamtschdales; in many places have attacked and devoured the inhabitants; nay traces have even been found of their having killed and devoured each other; at the end of the winter many bears were found who had perished of hunger. In several settlements they have killed from two to three hundred bears, the oldest Kamtschadales do not remember ever to have seen so many bears so savage and blood-thirsty. The cause of this savageness and of their hunger is, that for these two years past there has been an entire want of fish in the Kamschatka sea, and fish, as is well known, are the chief food of the bears, which being usually so abundant in those waters, they easily contrive to catch. A couple of shocks of an earthquake have been lately felt in the Peninsula.’ BACK

[10] Newspaper accounts (e.g. Morning Chronicle, 22 November 1817) reported that the Royal Society was pressing the government to mount an expedition to search for the North West passage and offering fishermen a bounty to explore the area. Two Royal Navy expeditions were made. In April 1818 one commanded by David Buchan (1780–1838; DNB) and John Franklin (1786–1847; DNB) explored the Arctic sea around Spitsbergen; another commanded by John Ross (1777–1856; DNB) sought a North West passage around Baffin Island. Neither was successful. BACK

[11] The review of the Report of the House of Commons Select Committee to consider the Poor Laws (1817) in Quarterly Review, 18 (January 1818), 259–308, was actually mainly written by John Rickman. BACK

[12] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and The Curse of Kehama (1810). The fourth edition of the latter was published in 1818. BACK

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

[14] James Hook (c. 1772–1828; DNB), Archdeacon of Huntington 1814–1818, Dean of Worcester 1825–1828 and noted Anglican polemicist. Southey had known him at school at Westminster and regarded him with disdain. BACK

[15] The proclamation at the elevation of the host in the Mass: ‘holy things for holy people’. BACK

[16] Giovanni Battista Ramusio (1485–1557), Navigationi et Viaggi, 3 vols (1556–1588), no. 2382 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Jacques Bongars (1554–1612), Gesta Dei per Francos (1611), no. 1193 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[17] Southey had bought in Brussels the massive compendium of hagiographies entitled Acta Sanctorum, 53 vols (1643–1794), no. 207 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[18] Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 11, for Southey’s brief notes on ‘Jewish Stories’ that might be turned into epic poetry; and pp. 2–3 for his ideas for a poem on Noah and the flood, outlined in 1800–1801. None of these projects came to fruition. BACK

[19] Giulio Bartolocci (1613–1687), Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica de Scriptoribus et Scriptus Hebraicis (1675–1694), no. 236 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[20] A Tale of Paraguay, in Spenserian stanzas, was not finished and published until 1825. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Skiddaw (mentioned 1 time)