LORD  BYRON  and  his  TIMES
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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Early Life: XII

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 XII.
August 20th, 1823.

My memory strengthens as I proceed in this task of retrospection; and yet while some circumstances,—a look, a sound, a gesture, though utterly unimportant, recur to me more vividly than the transactions of yesterday, others, which I would fain call to mind, are irrevocably gone. I have sometimes fancied, when dreaming upon what may be our future state, that in the next world we may recover a perfect recollection of all that has occurred to us in this, and in the prior stages of progressive existence, through which it is not improbable that our living principle has ascended. And yet the best and happiest of us must have something or other, altâ mente repostum, for which a draught of Lethe would be desired.

The pleasantest of my school years were those which I past at Williams’s, especially after I took up my abode at Terril Street, for I then went home to dinner, and found much more satisfaction there in my own pursuits from twelve o’clock till two, than in his contracted play-ground. What I learnt there,
indeed, was worth little; it was just such a knowledge of Latin as a boy of quick parts and not without diligence will acquire under bad teaching. When I had gone through the
Metamorphoses, Williams declared his intention of taking me from the usher and instructing me in Virgil himself, no other of his pupils having proceeded so far. But the old man, I suppose, discovered that the little classical knowledge which he ever possessed had passed away as irrevocably as his youth, and I continued under the usher’s care, who kept me in the Eclogues so long, that I was heartily sick of them, and I believe have never looked in them from that time. Over and over again did that fellow make me read them; probably because he thought the book was to be gone through in order, and was afraid to expose himself in the Georgics. No attempt was made to ground me in prosody; and as this defect in my education was never remedied (for when I went to Westminster I was too forward in other things to be placed low enough in the school for regular training in this), I am at this day as liable to make a false quantity as any Scotchman. I was fond of arithmetic, and have no doubt that, at that time, I should have proceeded with pleasure through its higher branches, and might have been led on to mathematics, of which my mind afterwards became impatient, if not actually incapable.

Sometimes, when Williams was in good humour, he suspended the usual business of the school and exercised the boys in some uncommon manner. For example, he would bid them all take their slates, and write as he should dictate. This was to try their
spelling, and I remember he once began with this sentence: “As I walked out to take the air, I met a man with red hair, who was heir to a good estate, and was carrying a hare in his hand.” Another time he called upon all of a certain standing to write a letter, each upon any subject that he pleased. You will perhaps wonder to hear that no task ever perplexed me so woefully as this. I had never in my life written a letter, except a formal one at Corston before the holydays, every word of which was of the master’s dictation, and which used to begin “Honoured Parents.” Some of the boys produced compositions of this stamp; others, who were a little older and more ambitious, wrote in a tradesman-like style, soliciting orders, or acknowledging them, or sending in an account. For my part I actually cried for perplexity and vexation. Had I been a blockhead this would have provoked Williams; but he always looked upon me with a favourable eye, and, expressing surprise rather than anger, he endeavoured both to encourage and shame me to the attempt. To work I fell at last, and presently presented him with a description of Stonehenge, in the form of a letter, which completely filled the slate. I had laid hands not long before upon the Salisbury Guide, and Stonehenge had appeared to me one of the greatest wonders in the world. The old man was exceedingly surprised, and not less delighted, and I well remember how much his astonishment surprised me, and how much I was gratified by his praise. I was not conscious of having done anything odd or extraordinary, but the boys made me so; and to the sort of envy which it excited
among them, I was indebted for a wholesome mortification. One morning, upon entering the school a few minutes before the master made his appearance, some half-dozen of them beset me, and demanded whether I, with all my learning, could tell what the letters i.e, stood for. The question was proposed in the taunting tone of expected triumph, which I should well have liked to disappoint. But when I answered that I supposed it was for John the Evangelist, the unlucky guess taught me never again to be ashamed of acknowledging myself ignorant of what I really did not know. It was an useful lesson, especially as I was fortunate enough to perceive, early in life, that there were very many subjects of which I must of necessity be so.

Of all my schoolmasters Williams is the one whom I remember with the kindliest feelings. His Welsh blood was too easily roused; and his spirit was soured by the great decline of his school. His numbers in its best days had been from seventy to an hundred; now they did not reach forty, when the times were dearer by all the difference which the American War had occasioned, and his terms could not be raised in proportion to the increased price of everything, because schools had multiplied. When his ill circumstances pressed upon him, he gave way, perhaps more readily, to impulses of anger; because anger, like drunkenness, suspends the sense of care, and an irascible emotion is felt as a relief from painful thoughts. His old wig, like a bank of morning clouds in the east, used to indicate a stormy day. At better times both the wig and the countenance would have beseemed a higher
station; and his anger was the more frightful, because at those better times there was an expression of good humour and animation in his features which was singularly pleasing, and I believe denoted his genuine character. He would strike with a ruler sometimes when his patience was greatly provoked by that incorrigible stupidity, which of all things perhaps puts patience to the severest trial. There was a hulking fellow (a Creole with Negro features and a shade of African colour in him), who possessed this stupidity in the highest degree; and Williams, after flogging him one day, made him pay a halfpenny for the use of the rod, because he required it so much oftener than any other boy in the school. Whether G—— was most sensible of the mulct or the mockery, I know not, but he felt it as the severest part of the punishment. This was certainly a tyrannical act; but it was the only one of which I ever saw Williams guilty.

There were a good many Creoles at this school, as indeed at all the Bristol schools. Cassava bread was among the things which were frequently sent over to them by their parents, so that I well knew the taste of Mandioc long before I heard its name. These Creoles were neither better nor worse than so many other boys in any respect. Indeed, though they had a stronger national cast of countenance, they were, I think, less marked by any national features of mind or disposition than the Welsh, certainly much less than the Irish. One of them (evidently by his name of French extraction) was however the most thoroughly fiendish human being that I have ever known. There
is an image in
Kehama drawn from my recollection of the devilish malignity which used sometimes to glow in his dark eyes; though I could not there give the likeness in its whole force, for his countenance used to darken with the blackness of his passion. Happily for the slaves on the family estate, he, though a second brother, was wealthy enough to settle in England; and an anecdote which I heard of him when he was about thirty years of age, will show that I have not spoken of his character too strongly. When he was shooting one day, his dog committed some fault. He would have shot him for this upon the spot, if his companion had not turned the gun aside, and, as he supposed, succeeded in appeasing him: but when the sport was over, to the horror of that companion (who related the story to me), he took up a large stone and knocked out the dog’s brains. I have mentioned this wretch, who might otherwise have better been forgotten, for a charitable reason; because I verily believe that his wickedness was truly an original, innate, constitutional sin, and just as much a family disease as gout or scrofula. I think so, because he had a nephew who was placed as a pupil with King, the surgeon at Clifton, and in whom at first sight I recognised a physiognomy which I hope can belong to no other breed. His nephew answered in all respects to the relationship, and to the character which nature had written in every lineament of his face. He ran a short career of knavery, profligacy, and crimes, which led him into a prison, and there he died by his own hand.

Another of my then schoolfellows, who was also
a Creole, came to a like fate, but from very different circumstances. He was the natural son of a wealthy planter by a woman of colour; and went through the school with the character of an inoffensive, gentlemanly, quiet boy, who never quarrelled with anybody, nor ever did an ill-natured thing. When he became a young man, he was liberally supplied with money, and launched into expenses which such means tended to create and seemed to justify. The supplies suddenly ceased, I am not certain whether by an experiment of rigour, or owing to his father’s dying without providing for him in his will; the latter I think was the case. Poor H——, however, was arrested for debt, and put an end to his hopeless prospects in prison, by suicide.

Colonel Hugh Baillie, who made himself conspicuous some few months ago, by very properly resenting the unjust expulsion of his son from Christ Church (an act of the late dean’s miserable misgovernment), was one of my contemporaries at this school. My old Latin master, Duplanier, kept a French academy next door; and by an arrangement between the two masters, his boys came three mornings in the week to write and cypher with us. Among these intermitting schoolfellows was poor John Morgan, with whom Coleridge lived for several years; Gee, whom I have already mentioned; and a certain H—— O——, with whom I had an adventure in after-life, well worthy of preservation.

This youth was about three years older than I: of course, I had no acquaintance with him; nor did I ever exchange a word with him, unless it were when
the whole school were engaged in playing prison-base, in which he took the lead as the πόδας ώκύς of his side. His father was a merchant, concerned among other things in the Irish linen trade: my father had some dealings with him; and in his misfortunes found him, what I believe is not a common character, an unfeeling creditor. They were a proud family; and a few years after my father’s failure, failed themselves, and, as the phrase is, went to the dogs. This H—— O—— was bred to be an attorney, but wanted either brains or business to succeed in his calling—I dare say both. I had forgotten his person: and should never have thought of him again (except when the game of prison-base was brought to my mind), if, in the year 1798, I had not been surprised by hearing one day at
Cottle’s shop, that he had been there twice or thrice to inquire for me, and had left a message requesting that, if I came into Bristol that day (it was during the year of my abode at Westbury), I would call on him at an attorney’s office, at a certain hour. Accordingly, thither I went, rung at the bell, inquired for Mr. O——, gave my name, and was ushered into a private room. Nothing could be more gracious than his recognition of a person, whom he must have past twenty times in the street during the last three months: “we had been schoolfellows at such a place, at such a time,” &c. &c., all which I knew very well, but how we came to be acquaintances now was what I had to learn; and to explain this cost him a good deal of humming and hawing, plentifully intermixed with that figure of speech which the Irish call blarney, and which is a
much more usual as well as useful figure than any of those, with the hard names of which poor boys used to be tormented in the Latin grammar. From the use which he made of this figure he appeared to know that I was an author of some notoriety, and that one of my books was called
Joan of Arc. The compliments which he laid on, were intermingled with expressions of great regret for the deficiencies of his own education: he learnt a little Latin, a little French, but there it had stopt; in short, I knew what must be the extent of his acquirements—“for you and I, Mr. Southey, you know, were schoolfellows.” At last it came out that, from a consciousness of these deficiencies, he had been led to think that a glossary of the English language was a work very much wanted, and that no one could be more competent to supply such a desideratum, than the gentleman whom he had the honour of addressing. I was as little able to guess what his deficiencies had to do with a glossary as you can be; and not feeling any curiosity to get at a blockhead’s meaning, endeavoured to put an end to the interview, by declaring at once my utter inability to execute such a work, for the very sufficient reason that I was wholly ignorant of several languages, the thorough knowledge of which was indispensable in such researches. This produced more blarney, and an explanation that my answer did not exactly apply to what his proposal intended. What he meant was this,—there were a great many elegant words, which persons like himself, whose education had been neglected, would often like to use in conversation (he said this
feelingly, it had often been his own case, he felt it, indeed, every day of his life); they would be glad to use these words if they only knew their meaning; and what he wanted was a glossary or dictionary of such words, a little book which might be carried in the pocket. It would certainly command an extensive sale: I could make the book; he had a large acquaintance, and could procure subscribers for it; and we might make a thriving partnership concern in this literary undertaking. Before he arrived at this point, the scene had become far too comical to leave any room in my feelings for anger. I kept my countenance (which has often been put to much harder trials than my temper, and is moreover a much more difficult thing to keep), declined his proposal decidedly but civilly, took my leave in perfect good humour, and hastened back to Cottle’s, to relieve myself by telling him the adventure.