3517. Robert Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, [c. 29 July 1820]

3517. Robert Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, [c. 29 July 1820]⁠* 


You have done me justice in believing that I am not the author of the criticism in the Quarterly Review upon the Revolt of Islam. [1]  I have never in any of my writings mentioned your name, or alluded to you even in the remotest hint, either as a man, or as an author. Except the Alastor [2]  which you sent me, I have never read or seen any of your publications since you were at Keswick. [3]  The specimens which I happen to have seen in reviews & newspapers have confirmed my opinion that your powers for poetry are of a high order – but the manner in which those powers have been employed is such as to prevent me from feeling any desire to see more of productions so monstrous in their kind & so pernicious in their tendency. You perceive Sir that I speak as I think, and therefore you will not ascribe my ready and direct denial of the criticism to the sort of menace which your note conveys – nor understand it as acknowledging in any man a right to call upon me for such a denial upon no better grounds than a mere suspicion which he or his friends may chuse to entertain. Those friends of yours who have persisted in affirming that I am the author can have had no other grounds; they have committed the gross impropriety of affirming positively what they could not possibly know to be true, & what happens to be absolutely false.

I reply to you Sir because I cannot think of you without the deepest compassion. Eight years ago you were somewhat displeased when I declined disputing with you upon points which are beyond the reach of the human intellect telling you that the great difference between us was, that you were then nineteen & I was eight & thirty. Would that the difference were no greater now! You wrote to me when you sent me your Alastor that as you tolerated my opinions, you supposed I should tolerate yours. [4]  Few persons are less intolerant than myself by disposition as well as by principle but I cannot admit that any such reciprocity is justly to be claimed. Opinions are to be judged by their effects & what has been the fruit of yours? Do they enable you to look backward with complacency or forward with hope? Have you found in them a rule of life conducive either to your own happiness, or to that of those who are most nearly and dearly connected with you? Or rather have they not brought immediate misery upon others & guilt – which is all but irremediable, on yourself. [5] 

The tone of your letter gives me a right to address you thus & there is one passage in it which induces a hope that I may not be addressing you in vain, for it appears that deadly as your principles have proved, they have not yet wholly hardened your heart. Attend I beseech you to its warnings. Do not let any feeling of pride withold you from acknowledging to yourself how grievously & how fatally you have erred. You rejected Christianity before you knew, before you could possibly have known, upon what evidence it rests: how utterly unlike in this & in every other respect to the superstitions & fables of mens devices with which you in your presumptuousness have classed it. Look to that evidence while you are yet existing in time, – & you may yet live to bless God for any visitations of sickness xx & suffering which by bringing you to a sense of your own miserable condition may enable you to hope for forgiveness & teach you where to look for it. God in his infinite mercy bring you to this better mind!

This is not the language of party animosity or of personal ill will. Of the latter you will at once acquit me, – & if you do not acquit me as readily of the former it is because you do not know me enough, & are too much under its influence yourself. I can think of you only as of an individual whom I have known & of whom I once entertained high hopes, admiring his talents & giving him credit for good feelings & virtuous desires, & whom I now regard not more with condemnation than with pity. Believe me therefore to be

your sincere well-wisher.

Robert Southey.


* Endorsement: Southey &/ Shelley
MS: British Library, Add MS 47553. TR; 3p.
Previously published: Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), pp. 359–360 [undated].
Note on MS: The letter is a reply to that sent by Shelley, 26 June 1820. Southey’s letter survives in an undated transcript by Edith May Southey, which was sent by Southey to John Taylor Coleridge on 19 January 1821. Our copy text is taken from this. The text contains very minor verbal differences from the version published in Dowden. These differences do not affect the sense.
Dating note: Dating from content and from information in other surviving correspondence; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 29 July 1820, Letter 3516. BACK

[1] In a letter of 26 June 1820, Shelley had accused Southey of writing a hostile review of Laon and Cythna, or the Revolution of the Golden City (1818; published late 1817) and The Revolt of Islam. A Poem, in Twelve Cantos (1818); see Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), pp. 358–359. This review had appeared in the Quarterly Review, 21 (April 1819), 460–471. It concluded with an ad hominem attack that suggested the reviewer knew a great deal about Shelley’s personal affairs: ‘if we might withdraw the veil of private life, and tell what we now know about him, it would be indeed a disgusting picture that we should exhibit, but it would be an unanswerable comment on our text; it is not easy for those who read only, to conceive how much low pride, how much cold selfishness, how much unmanly cruelty are consistent with the laws of this “universal” and “lawless love.” But we must only use our knowledge to check the groundless hopes which we were once prone to entertain of him’ (471). The article had, moreover, described Shelley as ‘an unsparing imitator’ and The Revolt’s language and versification as a ‘copy’ of Southey’s, though ‘altogether more luxuriant and ornate than the original’ (461). Shelley was mistaken in attributing the review to Southey, who had a policy of not reviewing contemporary poetry. Its author was John Taylor Coleridge. BACK

[2] Alastor; or, the Spirit of Solitude (1816), no. 2547 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Shelley had sent Southey a copy on 7 March 1816, accompanied by a letter that stated his admiration for Southey ‘as a poet’ and acknowledged the gap between their ‘moral and political opinions’; see Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), p. [357]. BACK

[3] Shelley had visited Keswick, and met Southey, from November 1811 until February 1812. Initially somewhat taken with one another, mutual disillusionment had soon set in. BACK

[4] A paraphrase of Shelley’s letter of 7 March 1816: ‘believing that you [Southey] have so much general charity as to forget, like me, how widely in moral and political opinions we disagree, and to attribute that difference to better motives than the multitude are disposed to allege as the cause of dissent from their institutions’, Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), p. [357]. BACK

[5] A direct reference to Shelley’s abandonment of his first wife, Harriet, and her subsequent suicide. BACK

People mentioned

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)