3538. Robert Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 12 October 1820

3538. Robert Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 12 October 1820 ⁠* 

Keswick. 12 Oct. 1820

Yesterday, sir, I recieved your present of the Cenci & the Prometheus. [1]  I thank you for these books, & little as the time is which I can allow for correspondence of any kind, I think it proper to reply to your letter of Augt 29th which announced them. [2] 

You tell me that I have selected out of a life otherwise not only spotless, but spent in xx impassioned pursuit of virtue a single passage which looks like a blot, merely because you regulated your domestic arrangements without reference to the notions of the vulgar. And you accuse me of passing a rash & unjust judgment. [3]  Let us look to the case. I will state it with no uncharitable spirit, & with no unfriendly purpose.

When you were a mere youth at College you took up atheistical opinions. You endeavoured to make proselytes to this opinion in a girls boarding school, one of the girls [4]  was expelled for the zeal with which she entered into your views & you made her the most honorable amends in your power by marrying her. Shortly afterwards you came to Keswick. [5]  There was no appearance when I saw you that your principles had hardened <injured> your heart as yet you had had no proof of this tendency in yourself, – but you had seen a memorable one in the conduct of your first speculative & literary associate [6]  who accompanied you on your matrimonial journey to Scotland, & on the way back would have seduced your wife. This I heard from your own lips. Your feelings at that time were humane & generous & your intentions good. I felt a greater interest in your welfa[MS torn] <welfare even than I> expressed to you, & took such indirect means as were in my power of assuring your <your> father [7]  that erroneous as your conduct was, it was still to be expected that your heart would bring you right, & that every thing might be hoped for from your genius & your virtues.

Such was my opinion of you when we parted. What I heard of your subsequent conduct tended always to lower it except as regarded your talents. At length you forsook your wife because you were tired of her & had found another woman [8]  more suited to your taste. You could tell me a history, you say, which would make me open my eyes. Perhaps they are already open. It is a matter of public notoriety that your wife destro[MS torn] herself <destroyed herself>. [9]  Knowing in what manner she bore your desertion, I xxxxx never attributed this to her sensibility on that score, – & I have heard it otherwise explained. I have heard that she followed your example as faithfully as your lessons & that this catastrophe was produced by shame. [10]  – Be this as it may, ask your own heart, whether you have not been the whole, sole & direct cause of her destruction? You corrupted her opinions, you robbed her of her moral & religious principles, you debauched her mind. But for you & your lessons she might have gone through the world innocently & happily.

I will do you justice Sir. While you were at Keswick you told your bride that you regarded marriage as a mere ceremony, & would live with her no longer than you liked her. I dare say you told her so before the ceremony & that you persuaded her that there was nothing sacred in the tie. But that she should have considered this xx <to be> the condition upon which she was married, – or that you yourself at that time looked forward to a breach of the connexion I do not believe. I think still too well of your original nature to believe it. She trusted to your heart, not your opinions. Your first love, the wife of your youth, she relied upon your generosity your truth your affection your tenderness might well rely upon these, & with the more confidence when she became the mother of your first children. [11]  No! Sir, you were not depraved enough to think you should ever desert her when you talked of it as a possible event, – & if you had not tampered with your own heart by speculating upon such possibilities & contemplating them as allowable, her confidence in you would not have been decieved. That sophistry which endeavours to confound the plain broad distinction between right & wrong can never be employed innocently or with impunity. Som[MS torn] <Some men are> are wicked by disposition, others become so thro xxxxx weakness yielding to tempta[MS torn] <tem temptation but> but you have corrupted in yourself an excellent nature, you have sought for temptation & courted it, & have reasoned yourself into a state of mind so pernicious, that your own character, with your domestic arrangements as you term it might furnish a subject for the drama more instructive & scarcely less painful, than the detestable story of the Cenci. [12]  And this has proceeded directly from your principles. ’Εκαςοι αδεοι, [13]  it is the Atheist’s Tragedy. [14] 

You say that your only <real> crime is the holding opinions something similar to those which I once held respecting the existing state of society. That Sir, is not your crime, – it would only be your error. Your offence is moral as well as political, – practical as well as speculative. Nor were my opinions ever similar to yours in any other point, than that desiring, as I still desire, a greater equality in the condition of men, I entertained erroneous notions concerning the making of that improvement in society & the means whereby it was to be promoted. Except in this, light & darkness were not more opposite than my youthful opinions & yours. You would have <found> me as strongly opposed in my youth as I am at this time to Atheism and immorality of any kind & to that abominable philosophy which teaches self-indulgence rather than self-restraint.

The Christianity which I recommended to your consideration is to be found in the Scriptures & in the book of Common Prayer, [15]  I would fain lead you to apprehend that there is judgement after death, & to learn & understand & feel that all sins may be forgiven through the merits & mediation of Jesus Christ. You mistake my meaning when you suppose that I wished you to be afflicted with bodily sufferings, – but I repeat, that any affliction which might bring you to a better mind would be a dispensation of mercy. [16] 

And here Sir our correspondence must end. I never should have sought it; but having been led into it, it appeared to me a duty to take that opportunity of representing you to yourself as you appear to me, – with little hope indeed of producing any good effect, & yet not altogether hopeless. For tho you may go on with a bedark[MS torn] <bedarkened mind> a seared conscience, & a hardened heart, – there will be seasons of mis[MS torn]hen <misgivings when> that most sacred faculty which you have endeavoured to destroy makes itse[MS torn] <makes itself felt>. At such times you may remember me as an earnest monitor whom you cannot s[MS torn]ect <suspect> of ill-will & whom it is not in your power to despise, however much you may wish to repel his admonitions with contempt.

Believe me Sir

Your sincere well wisher

Robert Southey.


* 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. 363–366.
Note on MS: The letter is a reply to that sent by Shelley, 17 August 1820. Southey’s letter survives in an undated transcript by Edith May Southey (though the date written at the top of the transcript is in Southey’s hand). Our copy text is from this transcript. It was sent by Southey to John Taylor Coleridge on 19 January 1821. The text contains some verbal differences from the version published in Dowden, which was based on a transcript made by Caroline Bowles that seems not to have survived; see Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), p. 363 n. The text in Dowden contains some variants, notably the addition of two sentences to the paragraph on Shelley’s marriage (see note 14 below). BACK

[1] Shelley’s The Cenci. A Tragedy, In Five Acts (1819) and Prometheus Unbound A Lyrical Drama in Four Acts with Other Poems (1820). These volumes were no. 2452 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[2] ‘29’ August is probably an error by the transcriber of Southey’s letter. Southey here replies to points made in a letter sent to him by Shelley on 17 August 1820; see Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), pp. 361–363. BACK

[3] When writing on Shelley’s principles, Southey had asked ‘have they not brought immediate misery upon others & guilt – which is all but irremediable, on yourself’, Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, [c. 29 July 1820], Letter 3517. This was a direct reference to Shelley’s abandonment of his first wife, Harriet Shelley, and her subsequent suicide. BACK

[4] Harriet Westbrook and Shelley had married in Edinburgh on 28 August 1811 after they eloped. Harriet was a pupil at Miss Fenning’s school at Church House, Clapham, with Shelley’s sister, Hellen (1799–1885). BACK

[5] Shelley lodged in Keswick from November 1811 to February 1812 and met Southey a number of times. BACK

[6] Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792–1862; DNB) and Shelley had been sent down from University College, Oxford, for co-authoring the Necessity of Atheism (1811). Hogg had fallen in love with Harriet Shelley and had made his feelings plain to her when he visited the Shelleys in Edinburgh after their marriage, and when they stayed with him in York in 1811. BACK

[7] Timothy Shelley (1753–1844), MP for New Shoreham, Sussex, 1802–1818. He had broken off relations with his son after Shelley’s elopement and taken steps to disinherit him. Southey had asked John Rickman if he could speak to Timothy Shelley and persuade him to reconcile with Shelley; see Southey to John Rickman, 6 January 1812, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2013. BACK

[8] Mary Godwin (1797–1851; DNB), with whom Shelley eloped to the continent on 28 July 1814. BACK

[9] Harriet Shelley committed suicide by drowning. Her body was recovered from the Serpentine, London, on 10 December 1816. BACK

[10] The circumstances of Harriet Shelley’s death were not public knowledge. The inquest on Harriet Shelley described her as ‘Harriet Smith’, the name under which she had been living, and produced the inconclusive verdict of ‘Found dead in the Serpentine river’. The Times, 12 December 1816, only reported that an unnamed ‘respectable female’ had been found drowned in the Serpentine, that she was living apart from her husband, who was abroad, and that she was ‘far advanced in pregnancy’. However, Harriet Shelley’s pregnancy and suicide were the subject of a great deal of gossip in literary circles and Southey could have learned of them on one of his visits to London. BACK

[11] Shelley’s children by Harriet: Eliza Ianthe (1813–1876) and Charles (1814–1826). BACK

[12] Based on the life of the Italian aristocrat Beatrice Cenci (1577–1599), Shelley’s verse drama, The Cenci (1819), focused on a father’s rape of his daughter and her plot to arrange his murder. BACK

[13] ‘Atheists one and all’; one of the inscriptions written by Shelley in the visitors’ album at Montanvert in Switzerland on 25 July 1816, and which Southey saw on 26 June 1817 on his continental journey; see Southey to John May, 1 August 1817, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Five, Letter 3005. BACK

[14] Cyril Tourneur (d. 1626; DNB), The Atheist’s Tragedy (1611). The eponymous ‘Atheist’ kills himself at the end of the play. The version of Southey’s letter published by Dowden has the following additional two sentences here: ‘You might have regulated your domestic arrangements, you say, quite as conveniently to yourself if you had descended to the base thoughts of the vulgar. I suppose this means that you might have annulled your marriage as having been contracted during your minority’, The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), p. 365. BACK

[15] The Book of Common Prayer (1662), the prayer book of the Church of England. BACK

[16] ‘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’, Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, [c. 29 July 1820], Letter 3517. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 3 times)