1631. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 19 May 1809

1631. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 19 May 1809 ⁠* 

Ah Grosvenor – Ahhhhhhhh –––! If Gifford had found the Butler-a-boo statute in Ben Jonson, he would have hunted about till he found out its meaning, – which does not lie very deep – for statutes are to be looked for in Statute Books. I being at Dublin Castle opened the first page of the Irish Statutes & there the first thing which appe struck caught my eye was The Butler-a-boo Statute against making Comparisons, this was the phrase, – its meaning that the quarrels between the Ormonds (I believe) & Butlers in which each party compared themselves with the other, & set up their cry & <so> made a riot were declared xxx <felony>. The cry of the Butlers was Butler-a-boo & thence the statute was so denominated. [1]  Now Mr Bedford bad comparisons being so often made both in prose & verse I was not a little tickled at finding the felony. And here have you & Gifford cut out a good thing, which they who did not understand would have believed to be good by faith, & they who did would have laughed at. [2]  Ahhh! ––– But I will put it in again some where else by St Patrick & the Holy Poker.

John Ballantyne, the quarter proprietor of the Quarterly, was here on Monday. He xxx expressed an earnest hope that the Review would ‘let the D of York alone’ [3]  thereby implying a fear that it meant to defend him. – & he told me with a prophetic sense of the mischief such a thing would do, that Ellis & others talked of ‘unmuzzling Gifford’ – that xxx is setting up the old cry of Anti-Jacobinism. I simply told him, in either of these cases I should withdraw from the journal, ‘being of any party rather than the Anti-Jacobine.’ I might have told him that I would rather be hanged without that Anti to my denomination, than perished with it. Under the rose, he complained of Gifford as a bad Editor, said that he wanted activity & method & that Murray, himself no man of business, was over anxious & teazed him.

Scotchmen never go out of their road for nothing. Ballantyne came from Penrith here to talk with me upon a hint which I had given him thro Walter Scott. [4]  He sent up a note to say he was at the Inn & could wait on me when it was convenient. I, nothing dreaming of business, enquired what was for dinner, – & finding it was a whole joint of meat, – asked him to come up & eat of it; – had it been only the fragments my invitation must have been to tea, – for nothing is to be got here when it is wanted. This was lucky, & exceedingly glad I was it had so happened when I found that immediately after tea he set off again for Penrith, xxx & that this whole had been a publisher-ing not a laking visit. – The business was to talk over the plan of a Review of all books except contemporary ones, – which I christened Rhadamanthus, [5]  – & which he & his booksellers wish me to manage. Whether it will take place or not I do not know, but rather think it will. He proposed 100 per year as editor & ten guineas per sheet, – quarterly numbers at 5/. In toto it would bring me in from 200, to 250 a year. & the temptation of getting the 100 merely for writing letters, arranging articles & correcting proof sheet, is the main inducement to listen to a proposal which must needs in some measure withdraw me from worthier occupations; – for all the assistance within my reach will not prevent the main weight of the work from resting upon my shoulders. But of this you shall hear more when things are more settled.

Wynn wrote to me about a week ago. I have nothing to say to him, & no time for saying nothing, – as I used to have in my days of epistolization. My children draw upon me for all my minutes intervals of idleness, & make them both longer & more frequent than I ought to afford. As you sent two books I consigned one to Edith, & the other to your godson , & had you seen them for half an hour afterwards, you would have been pleased to see how much happiness your money had purchased. – I did not think these pantomime books xxx had been in existence now, & well remembering with how wishful an eye I used to look at them in a booksellers window a few doors only from my fathers shop, I looked with a bibliographers curiosity for the date, – sure enough it proved to be as old as I expected – 1772. In what old fashioned shop could you have found them – There is one I think on going up to Charing Cross which seems xxx old enough for such an antiquated stock. I liked em the better for reminding me of old times.

Today & yesterday I have done nothing with Kehama, [6]  – then first tempted to transgress upon it after breakfast because the end is drawing near, for I am in the last section but one. Wildish travelling Mr Bedford when one gets to the end of the World!

I am reading Rabelais, [7]  & by the living Butler & the ghost of Martin, I do know somebody who could beat Rabelais out of remembrance, if I could beat but beat him with a due conceit of himself. Indeed indeed Grosvenor if there is one thing which frets me more than another, it is that you will not do what I have so often & so earnestly prest upon you. [8]  What you may be as a light horseman I do’nt know, – but upon the xxx trained pacers of common literature five hundred people will xxx you <do better equal you> – Mount your own Rhinoceros & you will astonish the world.

God bless you


May 19. 1809.


* Endorsement: 19 May 1809/ 19 May 1809
MS: Bodleian Library, Eng. Lett. c. 24. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 507–509. BACK

[1] Southey briefly served in Ireland as private secretary to Isaac Corry, Irish chancellor of the exchequer (1801–1802). He refers to a 1495 Act of Parliament (10 Hen. VII. C. 20) to prohibit the words Butler-a-boo. This was the war cry (‘abu’ meaning up in Irish Gaelic) of the Irish clan Butler, who were not enemies of the Ormonds but themselves Earls of Ormond. BACK

[2] Bedford and Gifford had cut this arcane literary joke from one of Southey’s reviews for the Quarterly Review. Gifford was editing The Works of Ben Jonson (1816); here Southey compares his editing of Jonson (1572–1637; DNB) favourably with that of the Quarterly. BACK

[3] Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany (1763–1827; DNB), Commander in Chief of the army. In 1809 parliament, sitting as a Court of Inquiry, found that York had known that his mistress, Mary Anne Clarke (c. 1776–1852; DNB), was enriching herself by accepting money from army officers, in return for which he granted them promotion. The ministry, fearful of incurring royal displeasure and so losing power, called in its payroll vote to ensure that the Duke of York was not condemned. Southey was afraid it would also pressurise the Quarterly into supporting the Duke. Despite minsterial pressure, sufficient MPs voted against him for his resignation to be necessary. He was reappointed in 1811. BACK

[4] For the letter to Scott, see Southey to Walter Scott, 11 March 1809, Letter 1597. BACK

[5] In Greek mythology Rhadamanthus was a wise king, who was one of the judges of the dead. Southey’s plans for this periodical were never fulfilled. BACK

[6] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[7] François Rabelais (c. 1494–1553), writer of fantasy, satire and the grotesque in his works Gargantua and Pantagruel. BACK

[8] Southey refers here to the comic inventions he often termed ‘Butlerisms’, originating in schoolboy stories at Westminster. They were never published by Bedford, but provided the hint for Southey’s comic novel/miscellany The Doctor (1834–1847). BACK

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