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May 14 1812: Weeping Southey


On May 14 1812, Robert Southey writes to his friend Grosvenor Charles Bedford. Southey was always excitable but he seems to have become somewhat unhinged with the murder of Spencer Perceval. He begins his letter by writing that he has been weeping. Southey also recounts, based on information from Coleridge, how the murder was applauded among the lower classes. Southey fears that Britain is falling into revolution. The example of the French Revolution is the dominating reference point from the past that he fears will be the British future. Southey's letter is reproduced below


Keswick, May 14. 1812.
Dear Grosvenor,

In spite of myself I have been weeping; this has relieved the throbbings of my head; but my mind is overcharged and must pour itself out. I am going to write something upon the state of popular feeling, which will probably appear in the Courier, where it will obtain the readiest and widest circulation. Enough to alarm the people I shall be able to say; but I would fain alarm the Government, and if this were done in public they would think it imprudent, and, indeed, it would be so.

I shall probably begin with what you say of the sensation occasioned by this most fatal event, and then give the reverse of your account as I have received it from Coleridge; what he heard in a pothouse into which he went on the night of the murder, not more to quench his thirst than for the purpose of hearing what the populace would say. Did I not speak to you with ominous truth upon this subject in one of my last hasty letters? This country is upon the brink of the most dreadful of all conceivable states—an insurrection of the poor against the rich; and if by some providential infatuation, the Burdettites had not continued to insult the soldiers, the existing government would not be worth a week’s purchase, nor any throat which could be supposed to be worth cutting, safe for a month longer.

You know, Grosvenor, I am no aguish politician, nor is this a sudden apprehension which has seized me. Look to what I have said of the effect of Mrs. Clarke’s business upon the public in the last year’s Register, and look to the remarks upon the tendency of manufactures to this state in Espriella, written five years ago. Things are in that state at this time that nothing but the army preserves us: it is the single plank between us and the red sea of an English Jacquerie,—a Bellum Servile; not provoked, as both those convulsions were, by grievous oppression, but prepared by the inevitable tendency of the manufacturing system, and hastened on by the folly of a besotted faction, and the wickedness of a few individuals. The end of these things is full of evil, even upon the happiest termination; for the loss of liberty is the penalty which has always been paid for the abuse of it. But we must not now employ our thoughts upon the danger of our own victory, there Is but too much yet to be done to render the victory certain.

The first step should be the immediate renewal of associations for the protection of our lives and properties, and of the British constitution; with the re-establishment to the utmost possible extent of the volunteers,—as effective a force against a mob of united Englishmen as they would be inefficient in the first shock of an invasion. This may be safely said and pressed upon the Government and the people; what I dare not say publicly, is that there is yet danger from the army,—that horrid flogging, for the abolition of which Burdett has been suffered to appear as the advocate! Oh that Perceval had prevented this popularity, by coming forward himself as the soldier’s friend! He has good works enough for his good name, as well as for his soul’s rest; but this would have remained for his colleagues and for the country.

This of course cannot be touched upon immediately, for it would be too obviously an act of fear; but if I knew the ministers, I would urgently press upon them the wisdom of granting some boon to the soldiers,—something which, at little cost to the nation, would yet come home to the feelings of every individual in the army. The mere institution of honorary rewards would do this,—fifty pounds in copper medals would go farther than as many thousands in bounties towards recruiting it hereafter. But I would couple it with something more; for instance, ten or twenty of the oldest men, or oldest soldiers, in every regiment which distinguished itself in the two late assaults, should have their discharge, with full pay for life, or an increase of pay if they chose to serve on. Do not think that these things are inefficacious or beneath the notice of statesmen. Why is it that poets move the heart of men, but because they understand the feelings of men, and it is by their feelings that they may be best governed. Look at the agitators; they address themselves to the passions of the mob, and who does not perceive with what tremendous effect!

I wish you would read this to Gifford or to Herries, because I am sure that these cheap and easy measures would go far toward winning the affections of the soldiers at these perilous times. Other topics I shall speak of elsewhere—the establishment of a system of parochial education, and the necessity of colonial schemes as opening an issue in the distempered body politic. This will be for the Quarterly. Vigorous measures, I trust in God, will be taken while the feelings of the sound class are in a state to favour them. This murder, though committed publicly by a madman, has been made the act and deed of the populace. Shocking as this appears, so it is and so it must be considered. With timely vigour, the innocent blood which has been shed may prove an acceptable sacrifice and save us; otherwise it is but the opening of the flood-gates.

I thought of poor Herries as soon as I could think of any thing. The loss which the country has sustained I can scarcely dare to contemplate. There seems nothing to look to but the Wellesleys, with Canning, Huskisson for Chancellor of the Exchequer, and in all likelihood Sir James Mackintosh, who is sure to take the strongest side, and his talents will make him a powerful support to any party. Yet in this train there seems to follow a long catalogue of dangers: Catholic concessions, and next, by aid of all the admitted enemies of the Church, the sale of tithes to supply the necessities of the Government; a measure which will be as certainly popular as it will be ultimately ruinous to the Church and most fatal to the country. There will be a glorious war to console us; but under such circumstances I shall look to that war with the painful thought that we may be repaid for our services to the Spaniards by finding an asylum in Spain when England will have lost all that our fathers purchased for us so dearly!

“God bless you!

R. Southey.

“Tell Gifford I shall be ready for him with the French Biography, which will be a sketch of the Revolution, introducing an examination of our own state as tending towards the same gulf. Would to God it were not so well timed! What has passed seems like a dream to me—a sort of nightmare that overlays and oppresses my thoughts and feelings.”

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