3210. Robert Southey to John May, 16 November 1818

3210. Robert Southey to John May, 16 November 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 16 Nov 1818

My dear friend

Yesterday as I was going to dine at the Island I took up my letters on the way & found among them one from John Coleridge informing me that your son has been involved in the affair at Eton. [1]  The news was introduced by speaking of a heavy affliction that had fallen upon you, & I can hardly express xxxxx how great a relief it was when I found that it was nothing worse, – nothing that affected life or limb, – nothing that touched you in the heart of your affections, – nothing but some temporary inconvenience, & a vexation rather than a grief. It is no ill sign when a boy goes wrong in such cases from a quick sense of honour, & a generous sympathy with his companions: – it shows that the heart {great principle} is right { – the main spring – } & then we are sure that xxxx {every thing else} will come right in time. If I had learnt that John had got for himself the character of being what we used to call at Westminster [2] a great beast, that is one who delighted in tormenting all who were in his power, or that he had shown any of those dispositions which are sometimes so early & so strongly shown that they it seems almost as if the miserable possessers were doomed to reprobation xxxxxxx, – then indeed I should have felt that you were visited with the most poignant & most irremediable of all afflictions. But this affair will do the boy no hurt in his fortunes, & may even prove beneficial to him by inducing a sense of error & of the consequences of error which may possibly prevent more important aberrations. It is like a child’s burning his finger.

I know something of rebellions, Xxxx & generally suspect that there has been some fault in the master as well as in the boys, just as I know that a mutiny in a man of war affords a strong presumption of tyranny against the Captain. Without understanding the merits of this case, it is easy to perceive that the boys believed their privileges were invaded & fancied that the Magna Charta of Eton was in danger. [3]  (The Habeus Corpus in schools is in favour of the Governors, – a writ issued against the subject & affecting him in tail. [4] ) John took the patriotic side, acting upon Whig principles. They are very good principles in their time & place; & youth is a good time & school a good place for them. When he grows older he will see the necessity of subordination & learn that Order should be a more sacred name than Liberty, – or rather that it is only by means of Order that Liberty can be secured. John I dare say already feels that he has done wrong, because he must see that he has grieved his excellent parents. But the sense of having done wrong may be use in softening his spirit, & happy are they who purchase experience {early &} at no dearer rate.

I have a fellow feeling for your son, because I was myself expelled from Westminster. Not for a rebellion (tho in that too I had my share –) [5] by but for an act of Authorship. Wynn & Bedford, & Strachey (who is now Chief Secretary at Madras) & myself planned a periodical paper in emulation of the Microcosm. [6]  It was not begun till the two former had left school, & Bedford & I were the only persons actually engaged in it. I well remember my feelings when the first number appeared on Saturday, March 1. 1792. It was Bedfords writing but that circumstance did not prevent me from feeling that I was that day born into the world as an author, – & if ever my head touched xx the stars while I walked upon the earth it was then. It seemed as if I had xxx overleapt a barrier which till then had kept me from the fields of immortality wherein my career was to be run. In all London there was not so vain, so happy, so elated a creature as I was that day. And in truth it was an important day in my life, far more so than I or than any one else could have anticipated, – for I was expelled for the fifth number. The subject of that number was flogging & Heaven knows I xxx {thought} as little xxxx of giving offence by it as I xxxx if by it as of causing an eclipse or an earthquake. I treated it in a strange whimsical ironical sort of manner, to prove that it was an unchristian practise because it had formed a part of the religious ceremonies of the Heathens, & the Fathers had held that the Gods of the Heathens were our Devils, & so I proved it to be an invention of the Devil & therefore unfit to be practised {in schools}; & tho xxx this was done with very little respect for the Devil, or the Father, or the Heathen Gods, or the Schoolmasters, yet I as little expected to offend one as the other. [7]  I was full of Gibbon at the time & had caught something of Voltaires manner. [8]  And for this I was privately expelled from Westminster & for this I was refused admission at Christ Church where Randolph [9]  from the friendship which he then professed for my Uncle could not else have decently xx refused to provide for me by a studentship. And so I went to Balliol instead, in a blessed hour; – for there I found a man of sterling virtue, Edmund Seward) who led me right, when it might have {been} easy to have led me wrong. I used to call him Talus [10]  for his unbending morals & iron rectitude, – – his strength of body also justified the name. – His death in the year 1795 was the first severe affliction that I ever experienced, – & sometimes even now I dream of him & wake myself by weeping because even in my dreams I remember that he is dead. I loved him with all my whole heart, xx xxx xx & shall remember him with gratitude & affection as xxxxx one who was my moral father to the last moment of my life & to meet him again will at that moment be one of the Joys to which I shall look forward in eternity. And there you shall know him too! –

My dear John May I have got into {a} strain which I neither intended nor foresaw – misfortunes, as the story says, are good for something. The stream of my life would certainly have taken a different direction if I had not been expelled, – & I am satisfied that it could never {have} held a xxxxxxx {better} course. To your son the only difference will be that he will pass two years with a private tutor which would otherwise have been passed at Eton a public school. And he has already had enough of a public school, to derive from it, what after all is the most important acquisition to be learned there, – a knowledge of what it is, & of the world, – that is to say of a great number of his contemporaries who will be auspicious in it from their rank fortune & stations hereafter. Those years moreover which he would otherwise have spent at Eton are precisely those in which such a school is most dangerous.

Had I not been dining out yesterday I should not have let a post pass without writing to you on such an occasion. Vexatious however is the worst epithet that it deserves, & you who have borne real & great misfortunes with perfect equanimity will not long be disturbed by what has now happened. I was about to have written to you on other subjects, & will not long delay doing so, but I will not mingle them with this. Remember me most kindly to Mrs May & to my young friends Mary & Susan. [11]  I am not sure that I put the two names in their right order, or should appropriate them rightly if I saw the owners, – but if when their pictures are taken the likenesses be as vivid & true to the life as the two countenances which are now in my minds eye, – you will be well pleased with the artist.

God bless you my dear friend

believe me ever most truly & affectionately yours

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ 4 Xx Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [partial] E/ 18 NO 18/ 18
Endorsement: No 202 1818/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 16 Novr 1818/ recd 28th/ ansd 30th
MS: Houghton Library, bMS Eng 265.1 (27). ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 318–321 [in part]. BACK

[1] John May (1802–1879) had been expelled from Eton for his part in an incident known as ‘Palk’s Rebellion’, that occurred on 3–4 November 1818. BACK

[2] Southey’s school, which he attended 1788–1792. BACK

[3] Magna Carta (1215) was perceived as a founding statement of the liberties of the subject and the rule of law: the key issue in ‘Palk’s Rebellion’ seems to have been the decision to bring forward curfew in the school’s boarding-houses from 6pm to 5pm. BACK

[4] An elaborate legal pun: habeas corpus, the legal principle that prevented detention without trial, literally means ‘you have the body’; and an estate ‘in tail’ is the inheritance that legally belongs to the donee’s direct descendants. Southey uses these terms to make a pun on flogging. BACK

[5] Southey took part in the rebellion of 1790 at Westminster School. BACK

[6] The Flagellant, which ran for nine issues 1 March–26 April 1792; its model was the Microcosm (1786–1787), produced by Eton schoolboys, including George Canning. BACK

[7] Southey’s authorship in the fifth issue of The Flagellant (29 March 1792) of an essay which claimed flogging was an invention of the devil and parodied the Athanasian creed, caused a scandal and led ultimately to his expulsion from Westminster School. BACK

[8] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB), whose History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788) was critical of the early history of Christianity; and François-Marie Arouet, ‘Voltaire’ (1694–1778), a deist, renowned for his critique of the Catholic Church. BACK

[9] John Randolph (1749–1813; DNB), Canon of Christ Church, Oxford and Regius Professor of Divinity 1783–1807, Bishop of Oxford 1799–1806, Bishop of Bangor 1806–1809, Bishop of London 1809–1813. He was a contemporary of Herbert Hill at Christ Church, Oxford. BACK

[10] The ‘iron man’ who dispenses justice with an iron flail in Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; DNB), The Faerie Queene (1590–1596), Book 5. BACK

[11] Mary Charlotte (b. 1804) and Susanna Louisa (1805–1885), May’s elder daughters. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Balliol (mentioned 1 time)