3702. Robert Southey to [Bernard Barton], 9 July 1821

3702. Robert Southey to [Bernard Barton], 9 July 1821⁠* 

My dear Sir

I had not leisure to reply to your former letter when it arrived; – a full reply to it, indeed, would require xxxx a dissertation rather than a letter. The Influence of the Holy Spirit is believed by all Christians, except the Ultra-Socinians, – the more pious Socinians would admit it, tho under a different name. [1]  But the question what is, & what is not, the effect of that Influence, is precisely asking where, in religious cases, reason ends, & insanity begins. In all communities of Christians there have been, & are persons, who mistake their own imaginations for inspiration; & that this was done in some cases by the early Quakers, the present members of that Society would not deny.

It is always my custom to have a work long in my thoughts before it is taken actually in hand: & to collect materials & let the plan digest while my main occupation is upon some other subject – which has undergone the same slow but necessary process. At present I am printing the History of the Peninsular War, [2]  – a great work, – & it is probable that this is not the only work which I shall bring out, before the Life of George Fox becomes my immediate business. [3]  One great advantage arising from this practise is, that much in the meantime is collected in the course of other pursuits which would not have been found by a direct search: – facts & observations of great importance frequently occurring where the most diligent investigator would never think of looking for them. The habit of noting & arranging such memoranda I did not acquire till is acquired gradually; & can hardly be learnt otherwise than by experience.

So Buonaparte is now as dead as Caesar & Alexander! [4]  I did not read the tidings of his death without a mournful feeling, – which I am sure you also must have experienced, & which I think you are likely as well as able to express in verse. It will is an event which will give birth to many poems, but I know no one so likely as yourself to touch the right strings. [5] 


& believe me yours very truly

Robert Southey.

Keswick 9 July. 1821.

I do not remember whether I told you that Thomas Wilkinson, who is a collector of autographs, [6]  shewed me a specimen of George Fox’s handwriting, & told me it bore a remarkable resemblance to Mirabeau’s, [7]  – than whom it would not be possible to find a man more unlike him in every thing else.


* Endorsement: To Bernard Barton
MS: Columbia University Library, Jeanne d’Arc Ms. Coll, J6 So823. ALS; 2p. (c).
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 262–264. BACK

[1] The Holy Spirit is the third entity in the Christian Trinity, and ‘Socinian’ was at this time another term for the Unitarian strand in Christianity. Unitarians did not accept the existence of the Trinity. Some were only willing to use the term ‘Holy Spirit’ to describe an aspect of God’s power, especially when directly inspiring or relating to human beings; while others regarded the ‘Holy Spirit’ as a subordinate divine being created by God. BACK

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

[3] Southey’s proposed, but unexecuted, life of George Fox (1624–1691; DNB), founder of the Society of Friends. BACK

[4] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815) had died in exile on the island of St Helena on 5 May 1821. News of his death took some time to reach Europe, and he did not receive an obituary in The Times until 5 July 1821. The comparison here is with the ancient conquerors, Alexander the Great (356–323 BC; King of Macedon 336–323 BC) and Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). BACK

[5] Barton published Napoleon, and Other Poems in 1822. BACK

[6] Wilkinson assembled a valuable collection of autographs, including those of his contemporaries; see Mary Carr, Thomas Wilkinson: A Friend of Wordsworth (London, 1905), pp. 99, 140. BACK

[7] Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau (1749–1791), French writer, orator and politician, noted for his erotic writings and dissolute lifestyle. BACK

People mentioned

Wilkinson, Thomas (1751–1836) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)