3573. Robert Southey to [Thomas Thompson], 1 December 1820

3573. Robert Southey to [Thomas Thompson], 1 December 1820 ⁠* 

Keswick. 1 December. 1820


Your pamphlett <little parcel> has duly reached me. I am much obliged to Mrs Fry [1]  for the <pamphlett> to you for the trouble you have taken in forwarding it. I am obliged to you also for your letter, as it becomes me to be to any one who in the spirit of good will endeavours to set me right, where he thinks me to be wrong.

It is exceedingly <very> probable that the passage quoted from Cotton Mather is as you represent it, a collection of choice expressions culled from one or more of Fishers works, & not a simple extract, which I certainly <had> considered <supposed> it to be; – a mistake which I am very readyily to admit, was made for want of due consideration. [2]  The passage appeared to me a curiosity, & as such I inserted it, in connection with John Owens name, with as little reference to the existing Society of “Quakers” as if no such Society had been in existence. Nothing indeed could be farther from my intention than that of offering any offence to a community of Christians, which as a community I respect, & among whose members there are some for whom I entertain <feel> great individual & personal respect & regard.

With regard to the opinion expressed <in that note> concerning the railing language of the Quakers in their first age, I believe it to be well founded. [3]  You have xxxxx <adduced> some strong instances from Cotton Mather, – but neither in Cotton Mather, nor in any other author, Churchman or Sectarian, with whose writings I am acquainted, could you find page after page of pure railing, such as is found in some of the books of the early Quakers, – Edward Burroughs [4]  for example. I can however admire what was <is> worthy of admiration in them, without being blind to this [5] errors. Of these <And> I am well convinced, that in writing the life of a great & good man, no greater injury can be done to him than that of concealing his faults & errors, for the sake of representing him as perfect. For a judicious reader <in perusing a panegyric> is always likely to abate more <of his admiration> from an undeservin xxxx panegyric, than a fair & open statement would have led him to subtract

<De mortuis nil nisi verum, [6] that is, when so much time has elapsed that the truth may be spoken without injury to any one, – nil nisi bonum [7]  while any persons are living whom the <whole> truth might afflict or wound.>

I remain Sir

yrs respectfully

Robert Southey.


* MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 2p.
Note on correspondent: Identified from a copy of the letter in Haverford College, Thomas Thompson Letter Book, MC.975.02.024. BACK

[1] Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845; DNB), Quaker, prison reformer and philanthropist. When she discovered Southey was planning to write the life of George Fox (1624–1691; DNB), founder of Quakerism, she had visited Southey, hoping to dissuade him, but eventually agreed to help in the project; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 27 October 1820, Letter 3544. BACK

[2] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, p. 429, in which Southey quoted Cotton Mather (1663–1728; DNB), Magnalia Christi Americana, or the Ecclesiastical History of New England from 1620 to 1698 (London, 1702), Book 7, p. 26; no. 1904 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. This recorded the denunciation by an early Quaker, Samuel Fisher (1605–1665; DNB), of John Owen (1616–1683; DNB), Nonconformist preacher and theologian. BACK

[3] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, p. 429: ‘It was indeed a species of rhetorick in which they indulged freely, and exceeded all other sectarians.’ BACK

[4] Edward Burrough (1634–1663), early Quaker and polemicist. BACK

[5] this: written over ‘their’. BACK

[6] ‘Of the dead [say] nothing but what is true’. BACK

[7] ‘[Say] nothing but what is good’ BACK


Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)