3663. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 4 April 1821

3663. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 4 April 1821⁠* 

My dear Wynn

I did not omit Henry 5 from any remains of prejudice, but because I wished not to lengthen a muster roll which was likely to be too long, & is indeed disproportionate to the other parts of the poem. [1]  Yet certainly I cannot agree with you in thinking that Coeur de Lion [2]  might be displaced to make room for him, for Richard must ever be one of the heroes of romance. Madam Stael [3]  told me she meant to make him the hero of a prose epic. His taste for Saracens heads [4]  was something like that for Irish bacon which prevailed in Wales about the same time, [5]  & belonged rather to the age than to the individual. But Richards you know was only a display to frighten the Saracens, whereas the bacon was no doubt for use. Barbarous customs kept their ground longer in this island than historians seem to have observed. Did I tell you that in Galloway something like the polyandrian system of the ancient Britons appears to have prevailed as late as the 12th century? So at least I interpret a passage in the Acta Sanctorum. [6] 

You speak of Davy in one of your letters. When you saw him at Bristol I was in habits of the greatest intimacy with him; – but that intimacy has fallen off, less from remoteness of place & dissimilarity of pursuits, than because of the effect which high life & prosperity have produced upon him; an xxx effect <which> has been such, that for many years I have felt more pain in his company from remembering what he was than any pleasure to be derived from his conversation could compensate. A great man most unquestionably he is in one line, but in that line he would be even greater than he is if the world had less hold upon him. It has made him vain, selfish & sensual, – & weaned him from all his old friends.

Old friends are the best of all possessions, & there is nothing in this world which can supply their loss.

The King sends me word [7]  that he has read the Vision of Judgement twice, is much gratified with the Ded. & pleased with the poem. The Ded. was a good one as it originally stood, for I had touched upon the state of the press in it in a way which pleased myself both as to the matter & the form. [8]  This was not struck out from any fear of the obloquy which it would provoke, but because I thought it might seem out of its place, & as it were, intruded where I had no business to introduce it. – Concerning the metre I have the full & entire concurrence of the Poets whom have I know, & of the female readers. Nor indeed have I heard as yet of any repugnance to it, except from you, whom as you know I expected to ride upon an insurmountable obstacle. [9] 

I am now taking up the Tale of Paraguay [10]  with the determination of going thro with it, – for the most cogent of all reasons. – And I shall have to send you ere long that history of Lope de Aguirre which was inserted in the E Ann. Register, reprinted in a little volume making the 34th of my operas in that size [11] 

Is the second vol. of the Scriptores Rerum Hibern: published? I [MS missing]ver it is. I will, if I possibly can, review it, in the hope of bringing it into notice or at least of giving to the Editor that commendation to which he is so fully entitled. [12] 

God bless you

Yrs affectionately


April 4. 1821.


* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqre M.P./ Whitehall/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: FREE/ 7 AP 7/ 1821
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4813D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 244–246. BACK

[1] Henry V (1387–1422; King of England 1413–1422; DNB) did not appear in Canto 8, ‘The Sovereigns’, of A Vision of Judgement (1821). Southey had a youthful antipathy to the monarch, expressed in Joan of Arc (1796) and ‘King Henry and the Hermit of Dreux’, Morning Post, 24 September 1798. BACK

[2] Richard I (1157–1199; King of England 1189–1199; DNB), named as one of ‘The Sovereigns’, A Vision of Judgement (1821), Canto 8, lines 17–28. BACK

[3] Anne Louise Germaine de Staël-Holstein (1766–1817), Swiss writer; Southey had met her a number of times in London in September–October 1813. BACK

[4] In the fourteenth-century romance, Richard Coer de Lyon, the king is represented as enjoying eating his Saracen enemies during the Third Crusade (1189–1192). BACK

[5] An allusion to the twelfth-century Vita Griffini Filii Conani—the Life of Gruffudd ap Cynan (c. 1055–1137; Prince of Gwynedd 1081–1137), in which Southey had interpreted a phrase to suggest that the corpse of the leader of an invading force from Ireland was literally used as bacon. The unfortunate subject of this story was Trahaern ap Caradog (d. 1081; Prince of Gwynedd 1073–1081), who was killed fighting Gruffudd ap Cynan at the Battle of Mynydd Carn in 1081. BACK

[6] Southey mentioned this idea in a note to his Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (London, 1829), II, p. 290. Southey’s source was the Vita of St Aelred (1110–1167; DNB), misattributed to John Capgrave (1393–1464; DNB), and inserted in Acta Sanctorum, 68 vols (Antwerp and Brussels, 1643–1940): January, vol. I, p. 750. Julius Caesar (100 BC–44 BC), Commentarii de Bello Gallico, Book 5, lines 8–12, claimed the British tribes he encountered in his invasion of 54 BC practised polyandry. Modern commentators tend to interpret this passage as propaganda to discredit the British as barbarians. BACK

[7] See Southey to William Knighton, 30 March 1821, Letter 3661. BACK

[8] A Vision of Judgement (London, 1821), ‘Dedication’, pp. [v]–viii. The ‘Dedication’ was undoubtedly controversial, not only praising Britain’s victory in the war against France, but stating: ‘The same perfect integrity has been manifested in the whole administration of public affairs’ (vi), not a view the Whig opposition endorsed. However, the earlier draft of the ‘Dedication’, in Huntington Library, San Marino, HM 2733, shows Southey had intended to go much further and urge that ‘adequate remedy should be applied to that intolerable licentiousness of the press … either by the vigorous application of existing laws or by the enactment of such new ones as the suspension of the abuse may render necessary’. BACK

[9] A joke played on Wynn at Westminster School. His theme ‘Pride is an insurmountable obstacle’ was corrected by a friend (possibly Southey) to ‘I ride an insurmountable obstacle’. Wynn then proceeded innocently to read out the amended version to the class, causing him much embarrassment. BACK

[10] A Tale of Paraguay (1825). BACK

[11] Southey’s The Expedition of Orsua; and the Crimes of Aguirre (1821), originally intended to be part of the History of Brazil (1810–1819) and first published in Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1810, 3.2 (1812), i–l. It was published in duodecimo, making it, by Southey’s calculation, the thirty-fourth edition of any of his works in this format. BACK

[12] Charles O’Conor (1764–1828; DNB), Rerum Hibernicarum Scriptores Veteres, 4 vols (1814–1826), no. 2112 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. O’Conor was a priest from a well-known family of Irish scholars. His book was an edition of some of the Irish manuscripts in the library at Stowe, where he worked as chaplain to Mary, Marchioness of Buckinghamshire (d. 1812), the sister-in-law of Wynn’s uncle, Lord Grenville. O’Conor also edited Bibliotheca MS. Stowensis. A Descriptive Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Stowe Library, 2 vols (1818–1819). Southey did not review these works in the Quarterly Review. BACK

People mentioned

Davy, Humphry (1778–1829) (mentioned 1 time)
George IV (1762–1830) (mentioned 1 time)