887. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 21 January 1804

887. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 21 January 1804 ⁠* 

This time ten years, Wynn – you & I were at Oxford together, & in those ten years I have had my full share of the contingencies of life. To live fast, is something more than a metaphor, we see it in the system of nature. the short life of the ephemera is all action & active joy – the toad in a stone [1]  lives perhaps from one world to another. I have lived fast, for the wear & tear of mind as well as body must be taken into account – & I am more than ten years older in constitution since you & I used to think talk over your Claret till midnight in Skeleton Corner. [2] 

And now that this sort of mood is come upon <me> I will tell you some of my speculations upon this world of mysteries in which we are placed. What the old Bards held of progressive transmigration appears to me a probable belief. There is in all of us a living power distinct from intellect, or connected with it (as it surely is) by some hypostatic union altogether unintelligible to our present capacities. I mean that wonderful wisdom which directs our bodily & involuntary actions, that makes & disposes the secretions – & fills the bosom with milk as the embryo ripens in the womb, this truly aweful life has perhaps past through a long series of ascending habitations, gradually acquiring those instincts, which are in it perfect wisdom. How well would such an opinion explain the original difference of human character, for the wolf & the sheep would be equally high in the scale, & the xxx Life which took one road would go on in it.

Of all living being which have locomotion fish seem the lowest – Even propagation is with them a single & wholly selfish act, the male not impregnating the spawn till it has been ejected by the female – & then both sexes without sense or feeling eat it indiscriminately. The Whale & Dolphin species are alone to be excepted. Animals have the οργη [3]  most powerfully, but birds are of a higher nature – for they have the cannibal affection, altogether distinct from the sexual appetite – & lust is in them actually refined with love, – that is the feeling which the appetite causes, exists after its cause is extinct. the greater length of life allotted to birds is remarkable, & at present inexplicable.

There are some valuable facts respecting instinct which rather strengthen a hypothesis of progressive life, for if a link of the chain be broken instinct is destroyed. hens hatched in the Egyptian ovens [4]  sell for half the price of those hat reared in the natural way, for they will very seldom sit. So again, the ducklings hatched under a hen take to the water – the Drakes attempt to tread the hens instead of their own females. how these things are who can tell? but so they are, & the more we know, the less shall we be disposed to disbelieve any thing because it is mysterious.


Did I ever tell you a very extraordinary fact which happened under my own eyes? I had promised to kill some of the horned beetles for Carlisle, – for the insect is common about the New Forest & rare, or unknown, in the other parts of England. he had directed me to pour oil upon them, which to all insects is certain death. I had killed a female thus, who might have struggled with the poison for about two minutes – certainly not longer. I placed a buck (as they are called for the love of their horns) in the same saucer, & in like manner pourd about a teaspoonful of oil over him, so as to touch every part. he also experienced the same suffocation, went thro the same struggles, & was apparently exhausted & in the very point of death when he discovered the dead female. a paroxysm of lust came upon him, & that insect lived a full half-hour, in vain attempts to copulate with the dead body, which he could never so place as to effect his purpose. I was as much shocked as astonished. perhaps a more extraordinary fact has been never been observed. Excitement will I believe always protract death. one whom I knew fell into the water & was taken out senseless – he had felt no pain – for the accident was sudden. a person who had attempted suicide by drowning & was restored, relates that the sufferings were long & painful, – the mind had been in the highest possible state of stimulation. – It is well known that in cases times of contagion they who fear the disease rarely escape or survive it, but how many are the instances wherein courageous affection or danger duty have braved & escaped the danger!

Now do I believe that among all the letters which in the course of thirteen years you have received from me – you had never had one of this complexion before. [5] 

God bless you –

R Southey.

Saturday 21. Jany. 1804.

Greta Hall. Keswick.


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M. P./ Wynnstay/ Wrexham Stone Buildings/ Lincoln’s Inn/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298; WREXHAM/ 202
Postmark: [partial] FREE/ Ja 26/ 180
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 348–349. BACK

[1] An example of anecdotal accounts of toads being found in stones is that of the Annual Register, or a View of the History, Politicks, and Literature, of the Year 1761, which includes the account of Ambroise Paré, the physician to Henry III of France, who reported that ‘Being at my seat near the village of Meudon, and overlooking a quarryman whom I had sent to break some very large and hard stones, in the middle of one we found a huge toad, full of life and without any visible aperture by which it could get there. The laborer told me it was not the first time he had met with a toad and the like creatures within huge blocks of stone.’ BACK

[2] The Anatomy School of Christ Church College, Oxford, where dead bodies were brought in for study. BACK

[3] ‘Anger’ or ‘passion’. BACK

[4] A contemporary of Southey’s, the horticultural writer, John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843; DNB) mentions that ‘hatching by artificial heat is an Egyptian practice’ in An Encyclopaedia of Agriculture: Comprising the Theory and Practice of the Valuation, Transfer, Laying Out, Improvement, and Management of Landed Property: and the Cultivation and Economy of the Animal and Vegetable Productions of Agriculture, Including all the Latest Improvements: A General History of Agriculture in all Countries: and a Statistical View of its Present State, with Suggestions for its Future Progress in the British Isles, 2 vols (London, 1825), II, p. 1039. BACK

[5] The subject-matter was unusual for Southey but close to that of Anthony Carlisle’s Croonian lectures (Royal Society lectures in the biological sciences) of 1804, on the motion and muscular form of fish. It is possible that in their now lost, correspondence, Carlisle and Southey were discussing such matters. BACK

People mentioned

Carlisle, Anthony (1768–1840) (mentioned 2 times)

Places mentioned

Greta Hall/ Greeta Hall (mentioned 1 time)