1985. Robert Southey to [Henry Herbert Southey], 18 November 1811

1985. Robert Southey to [Henry Herbert Southey], 18 November 1811 ⁠* 

Von Troil [1]  does not enumerate consumption among the diseases of Iceland, – which is remarkable, because Horrebow (who wrote before him) does. He says “it is usual with the men about the age of fifty to fall into a decay, by reason of the various disorders that come upon them & at last put an end to their lives. Consumption & asthmas, the reigning disorders among them, are occasioned chiefly by the many hardships they endure at sea in fishing, & their carelessness of preserving their health. They do not mind jumping into the sea to save their boat from running aground, or receiving damage against the rocks, & frequently keep on their wet cloaths, even in frost & snow, without changing any thing. – Coughs & consumption so afflict them that none hardly ever wear as well, or have such florid complexions as the people of Denmark.” [2] 

Olafsen & Povelsen give the same account – about the age of fifty, they say the people Icelanders begin to lose their strength. catarrhal fevers are very prevalent, but more so in the interior than along the shore, probably from the circumstance that the inhabitants throw of their clothes during & after the hay season, & thereby expose themselves to colds. The fevers are accompanied with a cough & expectoration, & it has been observed that this expectoration is not the same with young as with old people; the former only throw up phlegm while the latter expectorate a more viscid substance.” [3] 


I have just stumbled upon a passage which shows how strongly the Spaniards are impressed with a belief that consumption is contagious. It appears that when a woman died of consumption leaving a child at the breast, – other women were afraid to suckle it. – una carxi caritativa muger, is spoken of, que se encargó de criar un niño de pecho, cuya madre murió etica, y por tanto no se atrevian à darle de mamar otras mugeres.

Espana Sagrada. T. 17. P. 214. [4] 


Here is a fact entirely to your purpose. [5]  Lord Molesworth (p. 91) says few or none of the Danes are troubled with coughs, catarrahs, consumptions, or such like diseases of the lungs. I am persuaded, he adds, their warm stoves, with the plenty & pureness of their firing (which is beech wood) contributes as much to their freedom from these kinds of maladies, as the grossness & unwholesomeness of our coals in London doth to our being so universally troubled with them. [6] 



“Coughs are of very rare occurrence, notwithstanding the constant practice of drinking snow & ice water, even after swallowing pure grease or fat, which perhaps may prevent its bad consequences. However this may be the Laplanders seldom die from catching cold. Cases of phthisis, or consumption, do indeed now & then occur among them – & pleurisies are very common especially in spring & autumn – <some elderly people are afflicted with asthma, & hoarsenesses now & then occur in the winter & spring.>

Linnæus’s Tour in Lapland. 1. 34. [7] 


Consumption is very prevalent in North America, among the Indians as well as the Anglo-Americans. If you want chapter & verse for this I can send you abundant authorities.

You are acquainted with Mr Whartons sister. [8]  Is she not related to the Dr Wharton who was Grays [9]  correspondent? I wish you would ascertain for me whether Grays letters, after Mason had made his selections from them, [10]  were returned to Dr Wharton, as I pres suppose they were, – if they are still in being, – & if they would be communicated to a Gentleman & a Scholar, who x x designs to publish an edition of the Poets works, with such a commentary as his own classical attainments will qualify him to produce. It is believed that Mason suppressed almost every thing in the letters which related to Grays individual concerns; – there exists no motive of delicacy now for such suppression. The person for whom I make these enquiries is a clergyman, a young man, who distinguished himself very much at Oxford, & who seems to me very likely to make a distinguished figure in literature. His name is Mitford. [11] 

Of course we shall see you before you go to London. Arrange your plans so as to give yourself a holy day here on upon the way. Gooch did not stay here long enough. I am glad he has set you to work – but do not give up the Crusades. [12] 

God bless you


Nov. 18. 1811.


* Address: To/ Dr Southey/ Durham
MS: Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, KESMG 1996.5.81. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 242–244. BACK

[1] Uno Von Troil (1746–1803), Letters on Iceland (1780). Southey’s copy was no. 2834 in the sale catalogue of his library. Southey was at this time reviewing two more recent works on Iceland, Sir George Steuart Mackenzie (1780–1848; DNB), Travels in the Island of Iceland, in the Summer of the Year 1810 (1811) and Sir William Jackson Hooker (1785–1865; DNB), Journal of a Tour in Iceland, in the Summer of 1809 (1811); see Quarterly Review, 7 (March 1812), 48–92. BACK

[2] Niels Horrebow (1712–1760), The Natural History of Iceland (London, 1758), p. 103. Southey’s copy was no. 1428 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[3] Travels in Iceland, by Messrs Olafsen and Povelsen (London, 1805), p. 12. Southey’s copy was no. 3468 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[4] Enrique Florez (1702–1773), Espana Sagrada, Theatro Geographico-Historico de la Inglesia de Espana, 42 vols (1754–1801), XVII, p. 214; Southey’s copy was no. 3468 in the sale catalogue of his library. The Spanish translates as: ‘A charitable woman [...] who took it upon herself to breastfeed a child, whose mother died consumptive, for which reason other women refused to feed him.’ BACK

[5] Henry Herbert Southey was working on Observations on Pulmonary Consumption, published in 1814. BACK

[6] Robert, 1st Viscount Molesworth (1656–1725; DNB), An Account of Denmark, as it was in the Year 1692, 3rd edn (London, 1694), p. 84. BACK

[7] Carl von Linnaeus (1707–1778), Lachesis Lapponica: or A Tour in Lapland, 2 vols (London, 1811), I, p. 34. Southey’s copy was no. 1730 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[8] Probably a reference to one of the three living sisters of Richard Wharton (1764–1820), MP for Durham 1802–1804, 1806–1820. He was Junior Secretary at the Treasury 1809–1814. Southey may be referring to Margaret Wharton (dates unknown); Elizabeth Wharton (dates unknown); or Deborah Wharton (dates unknown), who had married Thomas Brand (1750–1814), Rector of Wath and Chancellor of Lincoln Cathedral 1808–1814. BACK

[9] The poet and literary scholar Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB), whose friends and correspondents included the physician Thomas Wharton (1717–1794), member of a prominent Durham family. Richard Wharton, MP for Durham, and his sister, mentioned in footnote 8, were among the eight children of Thomas Wharton. BACK

[10] William Mason (1725–1797; DNB) had included bowdlerised and censored version of Gray’s letters in his The Poems of Mr. Gray, to which are Prefixed Memoirs of His Life and Writings (1775). Mason’s combination of ‘life and letters’ was highly influential on later biographers, including Southey, who used a similar format in his edition of William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB). BACK

[11] Mitford became a distinguished editor of Gray. His publications included, Poems of Thomas Gray with Critical Notes, a Life of the Author and an Essay on His Poetry (1814), The Works of Thomas Gray (1816) and contributions to the Aldine edition of 1835–1843. Southey offered to help Mitford locate Gray’s surviving correspondence; see Southey to John Mitford, 20 March 1811, Letter 1886. BACK

[12] Henry Herbert Southey had been conducting research on the crusades. BACK

People mentioned

Gooch, Robert (1784–1830) (mentioned 1 time)
Mitford, John (1781–1859) (mentioned 1 time)