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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Early Life: X

Vol. I Contents
Early Life: I
Early Life: II
Early Life: III
Early Life: IV
Early Life: V
Early Life: VI
Early Life: VII
Early Life: VIII
Early Life: IX
‣ Early Life: X
Early Life: XI
Early Life: XII
Early Life: XIII
Early Life: XIV
Early Life: XV
Early Life: XVI
Early Life: XVII
Ch. I. 1791-93
Ch. II. 1794
Ch. III. 1794-95
Ch. IV. 1796
Ch. V. 1797
Vol. II Contents
Ch. VI. 1799-1800
Ch. VII. 1800-1801
Ch. VIII. 1801
Ch. IX. 1802-03
Ch. X. 1804
Ch. XI. 1804-1805
Vol. III Contents
Ch. XII. 1806
Ch. XIII. 1807
Ch. XIV. 1808
Ch. XV. 1809
Ch. XVI. 1810-1811
Ch. XVII. 1812
Vol. IV Contents
Ch. XVIII. 1813
Ch. XIX. 1814-1815
Ch. XX. 1815-1816
Ch. XXI. 1816
Ch. XXII. 1817
Ch. XXIII. 1818
Ch. XXIV. 1818-1819
Vol. IV Appendix
Vol. V Contents
Ch. XXV. 1820-1821
Ch. XXVI. 1821
Ch. XXVII. 1822-1823
Ch. XXVIII. 1824-1825
Ch. XXIX. 1825-1826
Ch. XXX. 1826-1827
Ch. XXXI. 1827-1828
Vol. V Appendix
Vol. VI Contents
Ch. XXXII. 1829
Ch. XXXIII. 1830
Ch. XXXIV. 1830-1831
Ch. XXXV. 1832-1834
Ch. XXXVI. 1834-1836
Ch. XXXVII. 1836-1837
Ch. XXXVIII. 1837-1843
Vol. VI Appendix
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Letter X.
January 10th, 1823.

I was now placed as a day-boarder at a school in that part of Bristol called the Fort, on the hill above St. Michael’s Church. William Williams, the master, was, as his name denotes, a Welshman. I find him satirized, or to use a more accurate word, slandered, in the Miscellanies of my uncle’s old master Emanuel Collins, as an impudent pretender. This he certainly was not; for he pretended to very little, and what he
professed to teach he taught well. The Latin he left wholly to an usher, Bevan by name, who was curate of the parish. The writing, cyphering, and merchant’s accounts he superintended himself, though there was a writing-master who made and mended the pens, ruled the copy-books, and examined the slates. Williams was an author of the very humblest class; he had composed a spelling-book solely for the consumption of his own school: it was never published and had not even a titlepage. For love of this spelling-book he exercised the boys in it so much, that the thumbing and dog-leaving turned to good account. But he was, I verily believe, conscientiously earnest in making them perfect in the Catechism; the examination in this was always dreaded as the most formidable duty of the school,—such was the accuracy which he exacted, and the severity of his manner on that occasion. The slightest inattention was treated as a crime.

My grandmother died in 1782, and either in the latter end of that year, or the ensuing January, I was placed at poor old Williams’s, whom, as that expression indicates, I remember with feelings of good will. I had commenced poet before this, at how early an age I cannot call to mind; but I very well recollect that my first composition, both in manner and sentiment, might have been deemed a very hopeful imitation of the Bellman’s verses. The discovery, however, that I could write rhymes gave me great pleasure, which was in no slight degree heightened when I perceived that my mother was not only pleased with what I had produced,
but proud of it.
Miss Tyler had intended, as far as she was concerned, to give me a systematic education, and for this purpose (as she afterwards told me) purchased a translation of Rousseau’s Emilius. That system being happily even more impracticable than Mr. Edgeworth’s, I was lucky enough to escape from any experiment of this kind, and there good fortune provided for me better than any method could have done. Nothing could be more propitious for me, considering my, aptitudes and tendency of mind, than Miss Tyler’s predilection, I might almost call it passion, for the theatre. Owing to this, Shakespere was in my hands as soon as I could read; and it was long before I had any other knowledge of the history of England than what I gathered from his plays. Indeed, when first I read the plain matter of fact, the difference which appeared then puzzled and did not please me; and for some time I preferred Shakespere’s authority to the historian’s.

It is curious that “Titus Andronicus” was at first my favourite play; partly, I suppose, because there was nothing in the characters above my comprehension; but the chief reason must have been that tales of horror make a deep impression upon children, as they do upon the vulgar, for whom, as their ballads prove, no tragedy can be too bloody—they excite astonishment rather than pity. I went through Beaumont and Fletcher also, before I was eight years old; circumstances enable me to recollect the time accurately. Beaumont and Fletcher were great theatrical names, and therefore there was no scruple about letting me peruse their works. What harm, indeed, could they do
me at that age? I read them merely for the interest which the stories afforded, and understood the worse parts as little as I did the better. But I acquired imperceptibly from such reading familiarity with the diction, and ear for the blank verse of our great masters. In general I gave myself no trouble with what I did not understand; the story was intelligible, and that was enough. But
the knight of the Burning Pestle perplexed me terribly; burlesque of this kind is the last thing that a child can comprehend. It set me longing, however, for Palmerin of England, and that longing was never gratified till I read it in the original Portuguese. My favourite play upon the stage was “Cymbeline,” and next to that, “As you like it.” They are both romantic dramas; and no one had ever a more decided turn for music or for numbers, than I had for romance.

You will wonder that this education should not have made me a dramatic writer. I had seen more plays before I was seven years old than I have ever since I was twenty, and heard more conversation about the theatre than any other subject. Miss Tyler had given up her house at Walcot before I went to Corston; and when I visited her from school, she was herself a guest with Miss Palmer and her sister Mrs. Bartlett, whose property was vested in the Bath and Bristol theatres. Their house was in Galloway’s Buildings, from whence a covered passage led to the playhouse, and they very rarely missed a night’s performance. I was too old to be put to bed before the performance began, and it was better that I should be taken than left with the servants; therefore I was always of the
party; and it is impossible to describe the thorough delight which I received from this habitual indulgence. No after enjoyment could equal or approach it; I was sensible of no defects either in the dramas or in the representation: better acting indeed could nowhere have been found;
Mrs. Siddons was the heroine, Dimond and Murray would have done credit to any stage, and among the comic actors were Edwin and Blanchard—and Blisset, who, though never known to a London audience, was, of all comic actors whom I have ever seen, the most perfect. But I was happily insensible to that difference between good and bad acting which, in riper years, takes off so much from the pleasure of dramatic representation; every thing answered the height of my expectations and desires. And I saw it in perfect comfort, in a small theatre, from the front row of a box, not too far from the centre. The Bath theatre was said to be the most comfortable in England; and no expense was spared in the scenery and decorations.

My aunt, who hoarded every thing, except money, preserved the play-bills, and had a collection of them which Dr. Burney might have envied. As she rarely or never suffered me to be out of doors, lest I should dirt my clothes, these play-bills were one of the substitutes devised for my amusement instead of healthy and natural sports. I was encouraged to prick them with a pin, letter by letter: and for want of any thing better, became as fond of this employment as women sometimes are of netting or any ornamental work. I learnt to do it with great precision, pricking the larger types by their outline, so
that when they were held up to the window they were bordered with spots of light. The object was to illuminate the whole bill in this manner. I have done it to hundreds; and yet I can well remember the sort of dissatisfied and damping feeling, which the sight of one of these bills would give me, a day or two after it had been finished and laid by. It was like an illumination when half the lamps are gone out. This amusement gave my writing-masters no little trouble; for, in spite of all their lessons, I held a pen as I had been used to hold the pin.

Miss Tyler was considered as an amateur and patroness of the stage. She was well acquainted with Henderson, but of him I have no recollection. He left Bath, I believe, just as my play-going days began. Edwin, I remember, gave me an ivory windmill, when I was about four years old; and there was no family with which she was more intimate than Dimond’s. She was thrown also into the company of dramatic writers at Mr. Palmer’s, who resided then about a mile from Bath, on the Upper Bristol Road, at a house called West Hall. Here she became acquainted with Coleman and Sheridan, and Cumberland and Holcroft: but I did not see any of them in those years; and the two former, indeed, never. Sophia Lee was Mrs. Palmer’s most intimate friend; she was then in high reputation for the first volume of the Recess, and for the Chapter of Accidents. You will not wonder, that hearing, as I continually did, of living authors, and seeing in what estimation they were held, I formed a great notion of the dignity attached to their profession. Perhaps in no other
circle could this effect so surely have been produced as in a dramatic one, where ephemeral productions excite an intense interest while they last. Superior as I thought actors to all other men, it was not long before I perceived that authors were still a higher class.

Though I have not become a dramatist, my earliest dreams of authorship were, as might be anticipated, from such circumstances, of a dramatic form, and the notion which I had formed of dramatic composition was not inaccurate. “It is the easiest thing in the world to write a play!” said I to Miss Palmer, as we were in a carriage on Redcliffe Hill one day, returning from Bristol to Bedminster. “Is it, my dear?” was her reply. “Yes,” I continued, “for you know you have only to think what you would say if you were in the place of the characters, and to make them say it.” This brings to mind some unlucky illustrations which I made use of about the same time to the same lady, with the view of enforcing what I conceived to be good and considerate advice. Miss Palmer was on a visit to my aunt at Bedminster; they had fallen out, as they sometimes would do; these bickerings produced a fit of sullenness in the former, which was not shaken off for some days; and while it lasted, she usually sat with her apron over her face. I really thought she would injure her eyes by this, and told her so in great kindness; “for you know, Miss Palmer,” said I, “that every thing gets out of order if it is not used. A book, if it is not opened, will become damp and mouldy; and a key, if it is never turned in the lock, gets rusty.” Just then my aunt entered the room.
Miss Tyler!” said the offended lady, “what do you think this child has been saying? He has been comparing my eyes to a rusty key and a mouldy book.” The speech, however, was not without some good effect, for it restored good humour. Miss Palmer was an odd woman with a kind heart; one of those persons who are not respected so much as they deserve, because their dispositions are better than their understanding. She had a most generous and devoted attachment to Miss Tyler, which was not always requited as it ought to have been. The earliest dream which I can remember, related to her; it was singular enough to impress itself indelibly upon my memory. I thought I was sitting with her in her drawing-room (chairs, carpet, and everything are now visibly present to my mind’s eye) when the devil was introduced as a morning visitor. Such an appearance, for he was in his full costume of horns, black bat-wings, tail, and cloven feet, put me in ghostly and bodily fear; but she received him with perfect politeness, called him dear Mr. Devil, desired the servant to put him a chair, and expressed her delight at being favoured with a call.

There was much more promise implied in my notion of how a play ought to be written, than would have been found in any of my attempts. The first subject which I tried was the continence of Scipio, suggested by a print in a pocket-book. Battles were introduced in abundance; because the battle in Cymbeline was one of my favourite scenes; and because Congreve’s hero in the Mourning Bride, finds the writing of his father in prison, I made my prince of Numantia find
pen, ink, and paper, that lie might write to his mistress. An act and a half of this nonsense exhausted my perseverance. Another story ran for a long time in my head, and I had planned the characters to suit the actors on the Bath stage. The fable was taken from a collection of tales, every circumstance of which has completely faded from my recollection, except that the scene of the story in question was laid in Italy, and the time, I think, about
Justinian’s reign. The book must have been at least thirty or forty years old then, and I should recognise it if it ever fell in my way. While this dramatic passion continued, I wished my friends to partake it; and soon after I went to Williams’s school, persuaded one of my school-fellows to write a tragedy. Ballard was his name, the son of a surgeon at Portbury, a good-natured fellow, with a round face which I have not seen for seven or eight-and-thirty years, and yet fancy that I could recognise it now, and should be right glad to see it. He liked the suggestion, and agreed to it very readily, but he could not tell what to write about. I gave him a story. But then another difficulty was discovered; he could not devise names for the personages of the drama. I gave him a most heroic assortment of propria quiæ maribus et fœminis. He had now got his Dramatis Personæ, but he could not tell what to make them say, and then I gave up the business. I made the same attempt with another schoolfellow, and with no better success. It seemed to me very odd, that they should not be able to write plays as well as to do their lessons. It is needless to say that both
these friends were of my own age; this is always the condition of school intimacies. The subject of the second experiment was a boy whose appearance prepossessed everybody. My mother was so taken with the gentleness of his manners, and the regularity and mildness of his features, that she was very desirous I should become intimate with him. He grew up to be a puppy, sported a tail when he was fifteen, and at five-and-twenty was an insignificant withered homunculus, with a white face shrivelled into an expression of effeminate peevishness. I have seen many instances wherein the promise of the boy has not been fulfilled by the man, but never so striking a case of blight as this.

The school was better than Flower’s, inasmuch as I had a Latin lesson every day, instead of thrice a week. But my lessons were solitary ones, so few boys were there in my station, and indeed in the station of life next above mine, who received a classical education in those days, compared with what is the case now. Writing and arithmetic, with at most a little French, were thought sufficient, at that time, for the sons of opulent Bristol merchants. I was in Phædrus when I went there; and preceded through Cornelius Nepos, Justin, and the Metamorphoses. One lesson in the morning was all. The rest of the time was given to what was deemed there of more importance. Writing was taught very differently at this school from what it was at Corston, and much less agreeably to my inclinations. We did copies of capital letters there, and were encouraged to aspire at the ornamental parts of penmanship. But Williams who wrote a slow strong hand himself, admirable of its kind, put
me back to the rudiments at once, and kept me at strokes, pothooks and hangers, us, ns, and ms, and such words as pupil and tulip, Heaven knows how long, with absurd and wearisome perseverance. Writing was the only thing in which any pains were ever taken, or any method observed, to ground me thoroughly, and I was universally pronounced a most unpromising pupil. No instruction ever could teach me to hold the pen properly; of course, therefore, I could make none of those full free strokes which were deemed essential to good writing, and this drew upon me a great deal of unavailing reproof, though not severity, for old Williams liked me on the whole; and
Mr. Foote was the only preceptor (except a dancing-master), who ever laid hands on me in anger. At home, too, my father and my uncle Thomas used to shake their heads at me, and pronounce that I should never write a decent hand. My cyphering-book, however, made some amends, in my master’s eyes. It was in this that his pains and the proficiency of his scholars were to be shewn. The books he used to sew himself, half a dozen sheets folded into the common quarto size; they were ruled with double red lines, and the lines which were required in the sums were also doubled ruled with red ink. When the book was filled, the pencil lines were carefully rubbed out; and Williams, tearing off the covers, deposited it in an envelope of fine cartridge paper, on which he had written, in his best hand, the boy’s name to whom it belonged. When there were enough of these to form a volume, they were consigned to a poor old man, the inhabitant of an almshouse, who obtained a few com-
forts beyond what the establishment allowed him, by binding them. Now, though I wrote what is called a stiff cramp hand, there was a neatness and regularity about my books, which were peculiar to them. I had as quick a sense of symmetry as of metre. My lines were always drawn according to some standard of proportion, so that the page had an appearance of order, at first sight. I found the advantage of this when I came to be concerned with proof sheets. The method which I used in my cyphering-book, led me to teach the printers how to print verses of irregular length upon a regular principle: and
Ballantyne told me I was the only person he ever met with, who knew how a page would look before it was set up. I may add that it was I who set the fashion for black letter in titlepages and half titles, and that this arose from my admiration of German-text at school.

I remained at this school between four and five years, which, if not profitably, were at least not unhappily spent. And here let me state the deliberate opinion upon the contested subject of public or private education, which I have formed from what I have experienced and heard and observed. A juster estimate of one’s self is acquired at school than can be formed in the course of domestic instruction, and what is of much more consequence, a better intuition into the characters of others than there is any chance of learning in after life. I have said that this is of more consequence than one’s self-estimate; because the error upon that score which domestic education tends to produce, is on the right
side—that of diffidence and humility. These advantages a day-scholar obtains, and he avoids great part of the evils which are to be set against them. He cannot, indeed, wholly escape pollution; but he is far less exposed to it than if he were a boarder. He suffers nothing from tyranny, which is carried to excess in schools; nor has he much opportunity of acquiring or indulging malicious and tyrannical propensities himself. Above all, his religious habits, which it is almost impossible to retain at school, are safe. I would gladly send a son to a good school by day; but rather than board him at the best, I would, at whatever inconvenience, educate him myself. What I have said applies to public schools as well as private; of the advantages which the former possess I shall have occasion to speak hereafter.