3393. Robert Southey to John May, 23 November 1819

3393. Robert Southey to John May, 23 November 1819⁠* 

Keswick. 23 Nov. 1819.

My dear friend

I thank you for your solicitude concerning me. A few weeks can make little or no difference in an infirmity like mine, – which is now a chronic one, & which if it should not be cured may probably be prevented from growing worse, & rendered very bearable. [1]  My journey cannot be accelerated on that account, for I must not leave home before the life of Wesley [2]  is finished & before provision is made for my ways & means in the Q. R. [3]  At present my finances are in a worse state than they have been for some years, owing to the great expence of time upon the Brazilian history, [4]  & to the harvest of Roderick being over. [5]  Things will soon be in a better train, – & by making good use of my time xx now I may look for a spring tide in due season. Wesley will be finished for publication in January, – I hope to set out at the end of that month, & as soon as I return, the Peninsular War goes to press. [6] 

You ask my opinion respecting the present state of things. The persons who are mainly to blame are the Law Officers for the last ten years, who I Sir Wm Garrow especially. [7]  By their criminal negligence the press has been suffered to become the most powerful engine of mischief that ever was brought to bear against the welfare of society. I know nothing of the course which Ministers mean to pursue, – except that they have no intention of suspending the H. Corpus. [8]  They are wise in this, because the temporary advantage is not worth the outcry that would be raised against it. Not that I would regard outcry & unpopularity for the sake of any permanent good: but the suspension of this Bill Act would only procure a suspension of danger, – you would shut up a dozen or a score of miscreants, who in <under> any other government would be hanged as they richly deserve, – & at the end of the term they would be let loose to return to their old work. The great object is to check the abuse of the press by providing an effectual punishment for sedition & blasphemy; that punishment should be fugitation for life – banishment is better than transportation. [9]  If the offences are not sufficiently defined by the law, new laws should be made: xx every work of the kind should be prosecuted, without exception, & as soon as a prosecution is commenced, the sale should be suspended, – as when an injunction is moved for. These measures would be effectual if juries were found to do their duty.

With regard to the Radicals I have heard enough, from the testimony of men who would willingly think otherwise, to convince me that the disturbed districts ought to be put under military law. They are not very numerous at Carlisle, but they have their propagandists about the country, & the language which they hold is to the last degree atrocious. They make no secret of their intention to begin by cutting off those persons whom they regard as their enemies, – nor even of designating the men whom they have proscribed. I heard yesterday of a fellow who said he should have his first shot at a certain magistrate for whom he had formerly worked. That these Yahoos [10]  will soon be reduced to submission I have no doubt, – they may commit a few murders first (I should be sorry to live near them -) & in that cursed manufacturing district round about Manchester there may very probably be riots which will not be suppressed without <much> bloodshed. But the result is certain. The soldiers are not yet seduced (if they were all would be over, – & inevitably they will be, if the press is not curbed) – & in the present state of popular feeling, it is felt to be cotton versus corn, – & corn has the stronger party as well as the better cause. – Gov The crisis has arrived in good time, & Government I believe will find itself stronger than usual. I know that in this country the Whigs have lost their most respectable some of their most respectable adherents. If any thing indeed could render that party more odious & contemptible than they already were for their whole conduct during the war with Buonaparte, [11]  it would be the manner in which they have endeavoured to xxxx the form a left-handed marriage [12]  with the Radicals.

As for the Manchester business, [13]  it is preposterous to consider that as any thing more than an accident (in the school meaning of the term.) [14]  I have no doubt that the meeting was illegal, – no doubt that it ought to have been dispersed, – & any man who [MS missing]self for a moment in the situation of the Magistrates will be convinced that they could their meaning was good, & that they were acting according to the best of their judgement. They erred in ordering the yeomanry to support the civil power, instead of employing the hussars. [15]  For the yeomanry after bearing a great deal, lost their temper, which tried soldiers would not have done. But right or wrong should be left to the laws as a separate point; & <this business> ought never to have diverted the public attention from that disposition in which the meeting originated.

Thus much for the immediate state of things. How long & how surely I have seen it coming on, you well know. Enough upon that subject is said in Espriella, in the Ed: Register & in the Q.R. [16]  to justify a confidence in my own foresight, – which I should be very glad if I did not feel at this time. For tho the Yahoos will in all likelihood be presently quieted, & kept quiet by some salutary law respecting public meetings, – I cannot conceal from myself that all things in this country are tending to Revolution, & that nothing but the Providence of God can save us from it. Nevertheless, it is as it was in the days of Noah, [17]  with me as well as other people. If the cataclysm comes it will find me in my usual occupations. I can do nothing to avert the evil, except by pointing it out, – but I shall be the last man to despair.

If you have seen Henry lately he will have told you that the death of Lord Somerville gives me some prospect of a – lawsuit. [18]  The relationship was very remote, – (that of third cousin) – but the property which was bequeathed to him by his mothers Uncle [19]  was intended to revert to the Southeys, in case of his dying without issue. [20]  It is about 1000£ a year, Lord S sold the whole, & whether I shall be able to recover any part of it is very doubtful. Turner is enquiring into the business at present, & I shall have the best advice. If it comes into a court of justice, – the property lies in John Coleridges circuit, & I should xxx be well pleased to trust my cause in his hands. [21] 

My family are rather in an ailing state, – not yet braced for the season. Three of them are at an anxious age – Cuthbert in his first & Isabel in her second teething. And your god daughters constitution is settling. She is looking pale & thin, – & I wish we were within reach of her Uncle Henry. Remember us to Mrs May – my next shall be about Scotland – as you desire. [22] 

God bless you –yrs affectionately – R Southey


* Address: To/ John May Esqre-/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: [2 illegible]
Watermark: G W/ 1816
Endorsement: 209. 1819/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 23d November/ recd. 30th do./ ansd. 1st Decr
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4pp.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 180–182. BACK

[1] Southey was suffering from a rectal prolapse; see Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 3 October 1819, Letter 3356. BACK

[2] Southey’s The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[3] The Quarterly Review. BACK

[4] The third and final volume of Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819) had appeared in October 1819. It ran to 950 pages. BACK

[5] In autumn 1818 Southey had estimated that Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), had so far ‘brought me not less than 700£’; see Southey to Herbert Hill, 18 September 1818, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Five, Letter 3195. The poem went into a new edition in October of the same year. Although it took a little while for this to recoup its expenses, Southey’s claim here, in 1819, that he could not rely on Roderick to augment his finances was somewhat misplaced. The poem continued to sell at reduced levels, but still better than others of his works. For example, between June 1820–June 1821, 330 copies sold, bringing Southey profits of £85 16s 3d; see Longman Archive, University of Reading, Joint Commission and Divide Registers, 2D. BACK

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

[7] William Garrow (1760–1840; DNB) Solicitor General (1812–1813) and Attorney General (1813–1817). In these offices he had the main responsibility for deciding whether to prosecute radical publications for sedition or blasphemy. BACK

[8] Habeas corpus is the legal principle that prevents detention without trial; it was suspended for one year from March 1817. Parliament reconvened on 23 November 1819 to pass the ‘Six Acts’ suppressing radical agitation – habeas corpus was not suspended. BACK

[9] Among the ‘Six Acts’, the Criminal Libel Act (1819) made banishment the punishment for a second offence and anyone breaching the sentence was to be transported for 14 years. The original version of the Bill had made transportation for seven years the punishment for a second offence and death the punishment of last resort. BACK

[10] Jonathan Swift (1667–1745; DNB), Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Part 4 described a race of beings called the Yahoos, who were ignorant, coarse and incapable of reason. They closely resembled human beings. Here Southey uses the term to refer to the mob. BACK

[11] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815). Southey felt the Whigs had favoured Bonaparte during Britain’s war with France 1803–1814, 1815. BACK

[12] A morganatic marriage between a royal or noble groom and a bride of lesser status, as in the alliance between upper-class Whigs and plebeian radicals. BACK

[13] The ‘Peterloo’ Massacre on 16 August 1819, when at least eleven people were killed after local magistrates ordered the dispersal of a huge radical meeting in Manchester. BACK

[14] Southey may be suggesting that the ‘Peterloo’ incident was a distraction from the essential question of the times, which was whether a revolution could be prevented, as in the distinction in Greek philosophy between the ‘essential’ and ‘accidental’ qualities of a thing. BACK

[15] When the Manchester magistrates ordered the arrest of the main speakers at the meeting at St Peter’s Field on 16 August 1819, the task was delegated to the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry, a body of upper-class local volunteers; they began to attack the crowd indiscriminately, and the crowd responded by throwing brickbats at the Yeomanry. Finally, the meeting was dispersed by regular troops, primarily the 15th Hussars. BACK

[16] Southey lists a series of works in which he warned of the dangers from industrialisation and revolution. See, for instance: Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, 3 vols (London, 1807), III, p. 133; Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 229; ‘Inquiry into the Poor Laws’, Quarterly Review, 8 (December 1812), 319–356. BACK

[17] In Genesis 6–9, Noah was ordered to build an ark to save representatives from all species from a universal flood. BACK

[18] John Southey Somerville, 15th Lord Somerville (1765–1819; DNB), agricultural reformer and third cousin of Southey, had died on 5 October 1819. This produced a further round of legal tangles over the Fitzhead estate in Somerset that Somerville had inherited. BACK

[19] Somerville’s mother was Elizabeth Cannon Lethbridge (d. 1765), the daughter of Mary Southey (1704–1789) and niece of John Cannon Southey (d. 1768). The latter had inherited the Fitzhead estate from his mother Mary Cannon (1678–1738). On his death, John Cannon Southey had left a complex, ill-judged, will which named Somerville as his primary heir, and, if Somerville died without heirs, Southey’s father and two uncles as the residuary legatees, their rights passing, in turn, to their children. Of the three Southey brothers only Southey’s father married, leading the poet to believe (after the death of his father and paternal uncles) that he and his brothers were now the rightful heirs to the Fitzhead estate. BACK

[20] Somerville had died unmarried. His title was inherited by Mark Somerville, 16th Lord Somerville (1784–1842), a half-brother who was unconnected to the Southeys or the Fitzhead inheritance. BACK

[21] As the Fitzhead estate was in Somerset it fell into the geographical area covered by John Taylor Coleridge, who had been called to the Bar on 26 June 1819 and had joined the western circuit and Exeter sessions. May had financed Coleridge’s legal studies, including loaning him £1000 earlier in 1819 to support his career at the Bar. BACK

[22] Southey’s tour of Scotland lasted from 17 August until 1 October 1819. For his record of events, see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. Charles Harold Herford (1929). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)