38. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 8 January 1793

38. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 8 January 1793 ⁠* 

Bath. Tuesday evening. Jany. 8th. 1793.

your last containing the Xmas ode reached me before I left Bristol — which spot dull as it is I much regret when compared with Bath & shall revisit tomorrow. on Saturday sevennight hence I hope to take possession of my rooms at Baliol — once more to enter upon a course of doctorial learning & fetter inclination in the chains of pedantry & precedent.

In an age when the liberty of the press has been so openly attacked (may this fellow who now grinds god save the King on a hand organ to my inexpressible annoyance, in the next world keep company with Alexander the great Louis the great [1]  & all the rest of the sovereigns of mankind — in an age when invectives are substituted for argument & a standing army is produced as a convincing reason — it is a circumstance equally uncommon & flattering to argue dispassionately with a friend upon political subjects & still to keep him a friend — you ask my arguments — they indeed ought to be unresistible since they withstand every friend I have & only remain from every attack the firmer — may they find an abler supporter! your letter is at Bristol so I have only to trust to a head too much occupied with domestic distress to argue methodically. it is unjust (you say) that the minority should give law to the majority — not withstanding the many associations that cover our pissing posts to the great annoyance of Leakes patent pills & Velno’s vegetable syrup [2]  I must still very much doubt that the monarchical advocates are the majority. admitting however the fact (which is yielding a great point) I will mention two or three parallel instances. when England emancipated from papal tyranny what was the majority? an argument adduced from religion will not be despised by you. did not a few fishermen spread their doctrines over the world? & had persecution always clouded Xtianity what would have been its success? — the genius of Paganism was tolerant. truth obtained a hearing & it asked no more. god forbid that one wish should enter in my heart to plunge England in blood. I only ask the free exercise of reason. Truth never shuns investigation. Falshood only fears the spear of Ithuriel. [3]  the objections to monarchy (“the monstrous faith of many made for one”)  [4]  are such, that even its adherents are obliged to own a republic best in theory. experience tells us it is possible in practice. Thebes Sparta — Athens & Carthage have been. America is.

since the days of Nimrod [5]  the first usurper mankind have been engaged in the work of destruction. war is the gain of Kings or Aristocrats — but what matters it to the shepherd the manufacter still less to the philosopher to whom a tract of country belongs or which way the fanciful balance inclines? is it not as easy for ambassadors to prevent as to terminate a war? or what acquisition has been obtained in recompense for the oceans of blood lavished in Germany? had England been a republic would it have been fed with the blood of her children for the long term of contest between York & Lancaster? [6]  would it have plunged in civil war against a Stuart would Hampden & Falkland [7]  have bled? or would the disturbances of 1715 & 1745 [8]  have ever happened? these wars have been occasioned by the abuse of power or by disputed successions. the others wars which have leaked away our treasures & lavished our blood are owing to monarchy at least the majority of them. our long wars with France originated in the chimerical pretensions of Edward the third [9]  — & to what can all the continental slaughter of Englishmen be attributed but to Hanoverian interest? [10]  these instances are from our own annals — with the book of history you are well acquainted & if you examine the origin of almost every war you will deduce then from the same source of iniquity. the ambition of Rome you will object as an instance of Republican ferocity but Rome was an aristocracy. a government scarcely less hideous in its distorted features.

to such as we are who wish not to attain the enjoyments of power with the loss of virtue & content it little matters how the world wags. interest is too contemptible to affect us & our motive can only be a wish for the general welfare. to self all is tolerable — what is it to man or to humanity! look at the hundreds of aged & infirm mendicants who throng your streets — & then ask your own heart if all is right — that Bedford will answer with justice. the labourer toils during the years of vigor & earns his scanty morsel with the sweat of his brow — yet this man even in the vilest beer he drinks pays to support a set of pensioned courtiers who drink their wines heedless of his wants & cry out — all is right — like Dr Pangloss [11]  when every thing belies them. if this labourer has a wife & family (& surely in a well regulated state from these circumstances advantages only could ensue) he is still more distrest — sickness comes on — his hard earned wages go if he be in his parish how pitiful is the allotted relief! if he be not what resource remains! is not the press gang a grievance? are not the multitude of sinecure places a grievance? is not imprisonment for debts unavoidably contracted a grievance?

our house of Lords have the power of rejecting any tax. they consequently as much as possible shift them upon the people. is this as it should be. the name of Lord carries nothing in it & an equal education would make any Lord & my shoemaker equally philosophic. now I affirm that the first duty of [MS torn] where Liberty & Equality flourish is to regard the education of the people.

perhaps I may one day draw up my theory in a more regular plan — at present I will conclude with a few remarks upon the present mode of proceeding. Edmund Burke [12]  begins the attack — he is answerd by the glorious genius of Mackintosh [13]  & the bold freedom of citizen Paine [14]  — the advocate of oppression are dumb the militia is summoned. & argument is endeavoured to be suppressed by force. you must have seen the witty letter of Thomas Bull [15]  — are those reasons (my friend) sufficient to convince the philosopher or the man? good god are we to hear again of the divine right of Kings & the impiety of the unanointed republic? if scripture must be drawn in be it our test — we have the retreat of Sennacherib & the asses of Saul [16]  — are you & I less wise or less virtuous than George the third [17]  because we have not been greased by an archbishop! monarchy was established by force — superior strength or wisdom are necessary — but shall we find either in any crowned heads? two Antonines & Titus & an apostate [18]  alone illumine the black catalogue of Roman emperors. in modern Europe look at all nations & all ages — you will find but one Alfred & one Henry the fourth [19]  — our present soveriengs are no ways remarkable. who will praise the consistency of the last Louis [20]  — the humanity of Catherine [21]  or the wisdom of —————.

Solons [22]  law that no man in any public commotion should be neuter was a wise one & would have well suited me. improvements never can be made if we are compelled to tread the paths of precedent. but these political discussions lead one on too far I have said nothing of your Xmas ode it is not with me but I can remember nothing [MS torn] it that is not good. let me hint you a good subject for an imitation of your vates Flaccus. [23]  you do not disapprove the conduct of La Fayette [24]  — apply Justum & tenacem propositi virum [25]  to him.

I have some satires which I much wish to show you but I dare not trust them — you shall see them when we meet. I shall write again from Bristol before I depart. your last I conceive to have been written before the receit of two of mine. remember Bedford though I condemn a defence of Suicide I look not upon it as a deadly sin. every thing of that kind depends upon circumstances. Cato & Brutus [26]  were incapable of guilt. remember me to little Joseph

& believe me yours affectionately

Robert S.

I heard from the learned Pig [27]  on Thursday.


* Address: Grosvenor Charles Bedford/ Old Palace Yard/ Westminster
Stamped: BATH
Postmark: AJA/ 10/ 93
Watermark: Crown and anchor with G R underneath
Endorsement: 8 Jany 1793
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 22. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Alexander the Great (356–323 BC; reigned 336–323 BC), and Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–1792). BACK

[2] Presumably a patent medicine recommended by John Leake (1729–1792; DNB), man-midwife who published a Dissertation on the Properties and Efficacy of the Lisboa Diet Drink in the Venereal, Scurvy, Gout &c. (1767), an alleged cure for syphilis, ‘The French Disease’. Velno’s vegetable syrup was a patent medicine supposed to cure venereal disease. BACK

[3] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), Paradise Lost (1667), Book 4, lines 810–813. The spear of Ithuriel could penetrate any disguise, and revealed Satan in the guise of a toad. BACK

[4] A misquotation of Alexander Pope (1688–1744; DNB), An Essay on Man: Epistle III (1732–1734), line 242. BACK

[5] Old Testament king and reputed builder of the Tower of Babel; see Genesis 10: 8-14. BACK

[6] The English civil war (1455–1487), known as the ‘War of the Roses’, between supporters of the rival royal houses of York and Lancaster. BACK

[7] Lucius Cary, 2nd Viscount Falkland (1609/10–1643; DNB), died at the first battle of Newbury, and John Hampden (1600–1643; DNB), died of wounds received at the battle of Chalgrove. BACK

[8] The failed Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745, which aimed to put James III (1688–1766; DNB), the Old Pretender, on the throne. BACK

[9] Edward III’s (1312–1377; reigned 1327–1377; DNB) claims to the throne of France had led to the Hundred Years War. BACK

[10] After 1714, British sovereigns were also rulers of the kingdom of Hanover in Germany, leading to accusations that Britain became involved in continental wars only to defend the interests of Hanover. BACK

[11] A character in Voltaire’s (1694–1778), Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759) who, despite evidence to the contrary, consistently asserts all is well in this ‘best of all possible worlds’. BACK

[12] Edmund Burke (1729/30–1797; DNB), Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). BACK

[13] James Mackintosh (1765–1832; DNB), Vindiciæ Gallicæ: A Defence of the French Revolution and its English Admirers (1791). BACK

[14] Thomas Paine (1737–1809; DNB), The Rights of Man (1791–1792). BACK

[15] [William Jones, ‘of Nayland’ (1726–1800; DNB)], One Penny-worth of Truth, from Thomas Bull to his brother John (1792). BACK

[16] Sennacherib, King of Assyria 704–681 BC; see 2 Kings 19: 35. Saul, first king of Israel 1047–1007 BC; see 1 Samuel 10, the subject of Southey’s ‘Saul and His Asses’, published in the Morning Post, 17 July 1798. BACK

[17] George III (1738–1820; reigned 1760–1820; DNB). BACK

[18] Southey could be referring to a number of Roman emperors of the Antonine dynasty, including Trajan (53–117; reigned 98–117), Hadrian (76–138; reigned 117–138), Antoninus Pius (86–161; reigned 138–161) and Marcus Aurelius (121–180; reigned 161–180); together with Titus (39–81; reigned 79–81) and Julianus the Apostate (331/2–363; reigned 361–3). BACK

[19] The English kings Alfred the Great (848/9–899; reigned 871–899; DNB) and Henry IV (1366–1413; reigned 1399–1413; DNB). BACK

[20] Louis XVI (1754–1793; reigned 1774–1792). BACK

[21] Catherine II (1729–1796; reigned 1762–1796), Empress of Russia. BACK

[22] Solon (c. 640–558 BC), Greek statesman and poet, whose reforms earned him the title ‘Father of Athenian democracy’. BACK

[23] A reference to Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC)) as a prophet or soothsayer (the word ‘vates’ denoting one of the three classes of Celtic priesthood, with the other two being druids and bards). Southey is suggesting that Grosvenor Charles Bedford admired the Roman poet so much that he treated him as a prophet. BACK

[24] Marie-Paul-Joseph-Roch-Gilbert Motier, Marquis de LaFayette (1757–1834), French general and politician. Active on the American side in the War of Independence, but a moderate during the French Revolution, he fled to Austria in August 1792, where he was imprisoned. BACK

[25] A paraphrase of Horace (65–8 BC), Odes, Book 3, no. 3, lines 1–4. The Latin translates as ‘a man just and steadfast of purpose’. BACK

[26] The Roman republicans, Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis (95–46 BC) and Marcus Junius Brutus (85–42 BC), who both committed suicide. BACK

[27] A nickname for a friend at Westminster School whose identity is unknown. It might be a reference to Peter Elmsley, who was both clever and plump. The ‘learned pig’ was also a well-known fairground show; see Southey’s Letters From England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, 3 vols (London, 1807), III, pp. 48–9. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Balliol (mentioned 1 time)
College Green, Bristol (mentioned 1 time)