3672. Robert Southey to Herbert Hill, 18 April 1821

3672. Robert Southey to Herbert Hill, 18 April 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 18 Apr. 1821.

It is certainly very remarkable that the passage in Peter Martyr should have been overlooked. [1]  I suppose that persons who were writing upon the subject looked into his Decades, [2]  as relating wholly to American affairs, & neglected to search his Epistles, which were indeed exceedingly rare till the Elzevirs reprinted them from a copy in the Lamoignon library, [3]  of which it is said in the Preface quod vix ac ne vix quidem aliunde comparari posset. [4]  The original edition is a black letter book printed at Alcala. Men investigating the history of the disease were more likely to have recourse to histories & memoirs of the wars in Italy, than to a work which relates to the affairs in Spain. But tho it may thus be explained why medical authors should not have looked for it where it was to be found, it is certainly most remarkable that historians, whose business it was to have read these Epistles (important as they are in the history of that most important age) should not have noticed a passage so decisive upon a very curious & disputed question. Yet I think they must have overlooked it, – for certainly xx it puts an end to all doubt. – The truth is that most historians have contented themselves with referring to many of their authorities, instead of reading them.

I well know how little credit is due to Edward S. It is scarcely possible that he should not have known the state of his Aunts affairs & the extent of her debts, – so far at least as to be sure that they would only be limited by the impossibility of contracting more. You had not told me the nature of her disease. – Requiescat in pace. The inscription in its shorter form is just what it should be. – Your mind is relieved from what must have been its most painful burthen, & I trust you are now recovered from what you have gone thro.

I shall be anxious till I hear that Georgiana & my namesake are well thro the most formidable of all those diseases which the want of a medical police has entailed upon every one. – With regard to the Quarantine laws, I believe they are ridiculously inefficient, & stand greatly in need of revisal, but our wiseacres were disposed to listen to a preposterous theory that the plague is not infectious! I dined once in company with the great champion of this most absurd & most perilous notion, – a certain Dr Adams, [5]  who once resided at Madeira; we talked upon the subject, & never did I meet with any man who so obstinately bade defiance to logic & common sense in his reasonings.

The natural consequence of the Catholic question [6]  whenever it may be carried, are in Ireland a civil war for the sake of a Catholic Establishment there, in England, the repeal of the test act, [7]  Dissenting corporations wherever the Dissenters are in strength, & by the influence of the Members whom they will return, – a committee to inquire into the grievance of Tythes. The first unprincipled Minister, or the first Liberal one (which is pretty much the same thing) will very gladly take advantage of such a Committee to do with the Tythes what Mr Pitt thought of doing with them, – & what he did with the Land Tax, [8]  – an act & an intention which show how shallow a statesman he was. – You would readily understand that I omitted both Pitt & Fox, because xx conspicuous as they were in the late reign, they neither of them in my judgement have done any good to their country, nor will confer any honour upon it in the judgement of posterity. [9] 

I am very glad that you are satisfied with my metre. [10]  Indeed it was owing to the spur which you gave me in November last, that I took up the half-told story & went thro with it. Some very gratifying opinions have reached me concerning it, & likewise concerning the manner in which I have alluded to Lord Byrons abominable writings, – for which many persons have thanked me. [11]  – At present I have resumed the Tale of Paraguay, [12]  & am making progress in it, looking to it as my Ways & Means for the winter. – Today I return the 18th proof of my first vol. of the War, [13]  & the 3d. of Lope de Aguirre. [14] 

Love to my Aunt – & Edward – & the children –

God bless you



* Address: To/ The Reverend Herbert Hill/ Streatham/Surry.
Stamped: KESWICK/298
Postmark: 10 o’clock/ Ap. X1/ 1821 F Nn; E/ 21 AP 21/1821
MS: Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, WC 206. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Peter Martyr d’Anghiera (1457–1526), Opus Epistolarum (Amsterdam, 1670), p. 34, no. 1902 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library; a passage which suggests syphilis was known in Europe before the discovery of America in 1492. BACK

[2] Southey also possessed Peter Martyr d’Anghiera’s De Rebus Oceanicus et Novo Orbe … De Babylonicae Legatione … et … De Rebus Aethiopicis (1574), an edition of this author’s ‘Decades’, no. 1811 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[3] The library of Guillaume de Lamoignon (1617–1677), French jurist. BACK

[4] The passage translates as ‘it could scarcely, and not even scarcely, be obtained from any other place.’. Its source is Peter Martyr d’Anghiera, Opus Epistolarum (Amsterdam, 1670), ‘Preface’ [unpaginated]. Southey’s edition was published by the Dutch booksellers, printers and publishers, Louis Elzevir (1604–1670) and Daniel Elzevir (1626–1680). The original edition had been printed at Alcala de Henares, near Madrid, in 1530. BACK

[5] Joseph Adams (1756–1818; DNB), who lived at Madeira 1796–1805 and was a crucial figure in the promotion of vaccination. In his Inquiry into the Laws of Different Epidemic Diseases (London, 1809), pp. 40–59, he had asserted that plague arose from poor sanitation in towns. BACK

[6] The debate over whether Catholics should be allowed to hold all public offices in the United Kingdom. BACK

[7] The Test Act (1673) required all office-holders to be communicants of the Church of England. BACK

[8] William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806, created the Land Tax Redemption Office in 1798, allowing landowners to make their property exempt from future land tax payments if they paid a lump sum, equal to 15 years’ tax. BACK

[9] Pitt and Fox were not named among ‘The Worthies of the Georgian Age’, Canto 10 of A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[10] A Vision of Judgement (1821) was written in hexameters. BACK

[11] A Vision of Judgement (London, 1821), ‘Preface’, pp. xvii–xxii, where Southey denounced ‘the Satanic school’ of poetry without naming any one poet. This was a response to the first two cantos of Byron’s Don Juan (1819), which had been published by Murray. The coruscating and hilarious ‘Dedication’, which attacked Southey and others, had been suppressed (and was not published until 1833), but Southey knew of its existence. BACK

[12] Southey’s A Tale of Paraguay (1825). BACK

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

[14] 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. BACK

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