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November 16 1812: Southey's Laborious Idleness

On November 16 1812, Robert Southey writes to his friend Neville White. His letter reveals much about the contradictory aspects of Southey. These contradictions make him interesting from a historical perspective but probably limit his artistic achievement as a writer. Put it in another way,  his writing lacks a palpable tension though facts and ideas are expressed with great fluency. Still, when Bryon threatens to take over this blog as he invariably does, I find some comfort in reading stolid Southey. There is also much to admire about  Southey. He was a loving father, an incredibly industrious writer, and a very good stylist.
In his letter, Southey writes that he is teaching his son Greek, though he does not say he is teaching his daughters. He also writes nicely about a "species of falsehood which consists in telling nothing but truth, but, by telling only a part of the truth, produces all the effects of falsehood." In his discussion of Russia, one can tease out the concepts of the state of nature, corruption, civilization and the "English journeymen manufacturers." This shows that the connection between Rousseau's state of nature and reactionary politics is not as circuitous as one may think, but it also reveals interesting connections between social conditions, class, industrialization, culture and patriotic feeling. Southey writes:  
I know persons who have lived in Russia; they uniformly speak of the nobles as a corrupted and vicious class, but of the people as possessing those good qualities which in a certain stage of civilization are natural to humanity. In savage life they are like the seed which fell upon stones, and cannot shoot forth: in such a state as that of the Russian nobles, or the English journeymen manufacturers, they are stifled or poisoned; but neither the beard of the common Russian, nor the dust of his house, nor his creepers and crawlers, have any necessary effect upon the natural charities of life. One of his virtues has now been sufficiently proved; he loves his country, and will fight for it.
Southey's letter is reproduced below.
Robert Southey to Neville White, 16 November 1812⁠* 
Keswick, Nov. 16. 1812.

My Dear Neville,

Thank you for the Buenos Ayres “Gazettes.”  The fourth volume of the “Register,” when it appears, will show you that you have not procured these materials for me in vain. I expect to be enabled to draw up a very satisfactory chapter upon Spanish America. 

Since this packet of yours arrived my family have been increased by the birth of a daughter, who, with her mother, thank God, is doing well. My sum total now consists of five, – four daughters and one boy. The latter has begun Greek under my tuition, and to his great amusement. I am amusing myself occasionally with putting the Greek accidence into rhyme for his use. It lays such hold on his memory that I shall probably go through with this curious undertaking.

Has Longman sent you the “Omniana”? These volumes are the fruits of many hours of that laborious idleness which is to me the most delightful of all dissipation. I who methodise upon so many subjects, and upon so extensive a scale, may certainly be allowed to smile, if upon this occasion I should be censured for throwing crude materials together without any method at all. My only reply would be, that the person who can find nothing there but what he knew before, is entitled to abuse the book. I have materials, or rather memoranda, marked in the course of many years’ almost incessant reading, which are enough to fill half-a-dozen more such volumes; and if these should sell, I shall certainly put two more to the press. But the sale of books depends upon such adventitious circumstances, that I can form a better guess about to-morrow’s weather, than upon so uncertain a chance. The articles which are not my own, are Coleridge’s: they would not have been there (being so few) if I had not hoped to obtain from him enough to have doubled the extent of the collection; and for this I waited so long, as not to leave me time for doing it myself.

I am reading Dr. Clarke’s “Travels.” They give me a very poor opinion of the author’s judgment or powers of mind; but I am thankful for his facts, and find the book on that score exceedingly valuable. His prejudices against the Russians are both ridiculous and mischievous; and an Englishman travelling in Russia hereafter may feel their effects, as English travellers in Sicily have heretofore felt the effects of Brydone’s rascally exposure of private intercourse.  There is a species of falsehood which consists in telling nothing but truth, but, by telling only a part of the truth, produces all the effects of falsehood, and this is what Dr. Clarke has done. He tells you all the faults of the Russians, and keeps out of sight the good qualities which co-exist with those faults. I know persons who have lived in Russia; they uniformly speak of the nobles as a corrupted and vicious class, but of the people as possessing those good qualities which in a certain stage of civilisation are natural to humanity. In savage life they are like the seed which fell upon stones, and cannot shoot forth: in such a state as that of the Russian nobles, or the English journeymen manufacturers, they are stifled or poisoned; but neither the beard of the common Russian, nor the dust of his house, nor his creepers and crawlers, have any necessary effect upon the natural charities of life. One of his virtues has now been sufficiently proved; he loves his country, and will fight for it.

We may look for a battle in Spain, and expect a victory. I feared from the beginning that Lord Wellington was wasting precious time at Burgos: the evil will be counterbalanced if he brings Soult  to action, but there will always remain the expense of lives, and some loss of reputation. It is intolerable to see the obstinacy of the Spanish Government with regard to their enemies; their conduct must seem unpardonable and unaccountable to those who do not know that it proceeds from the national character. El remedio de Espana  is a Spanish proverb for the remedy that is taken too late. Have you commenced your Spanish studies? Remember me to your excellent mother,  whom I hope to see next summer, and believe me, my dear Neville,

Yours affectionately,

Robert Southey.

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