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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Early Life: VII

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 VII.
September 2d, 1821.

The Bath and Bristol theatres were then, and for many years afterwards, what in trade language is called one concern. The performers were stationed half the year in one city, half in the other. When they played on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at Bristol, they went to Bath on the Saturday, in two immense coaches, each as big as a caravan of wild beasts, and returned after the play. When the nights
of performance at Bath were Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, they played at Bristol on the Monday. Mondays and Saturdays were the fashionable nights. On Thursdays and Fridays they always played to thin, and very frequently to losing houses. The population of London is too large for a folly like this to show itself there.

Miss Tyler, through her intimacy with Miss ——, had the command of orders for free admission. She was exceedingly fond of theatrical representations, and there was no subject of which I heard so much from my earliest childhood. It even brought upon me once a most severe reprehension for innocently applying to the church a phrase which, I then learnt to my cost, belonged only to the playhouse, and saying one Sunday, on our return from morning service, that it had been a very full house. When I was taken to the theatre for the first time, I can perfectly well remember my surprise at not finding the pit literally a deep hole, into which I had often puzzled myself to think how or why any persons could possibly go. You may judge by this how very young I must have been. I recollect nothing more of the first visit, except that the play was the Fathers, a comedy of Fielding’s, which was acted not more than one season, and the farce was Coxheath Camp. This recollection, however, by the help of that useful book the Biographia Dramatica, fixes the date to 1778, when I was four years old.

A half sheet of reminiscences, written one-and-twenty years ago at Lisbon, has recalled to my recollection this and a few other circumstances, which
might otherwise, perhaps, have been quite obliterated. Yet it surprises me to perceive how many things come to mind which had been for years and years forgotten! It is said that when earth is flung to the surface in digging a well, plants will spring up which are not found in the surrounding country, seeds having quickened in light and air, which had lain buried during unknown ages:—no unapt illustration for the way in which forgotten things are thus brought up from the bottom of one’s memory.

I was introduced to the theatre before it was possible for me to comprehend the nature of the drama, so as to derive any pleasure from it, except as a mere show. What was going on upon the stage, as far as I understood it, appeared real to me; and I have been told that one night, when the Critic was represented, and I heard that Sir Walter Raleigh’s head was to be cut off, I hid mine in Miss Mary Delamere’s lap, and could not be persuaded to look up, till I was assured the dreaded scene was over. It was not long before I acquired a keen relish for the stage; but at this time my greatest pleasure was a walk in the fields; and the pleasure was heightened beyond measure if we crossed the river in the ferry boat at Walcot, or at the South Parade; short as the passage was, I have not yet forgotten the delight which it used to give me. There were three points beyond all others which I was desirous of reaching, the sham castle on Claverton Hill, a summer-house on Beechen Cliffs, and the grave of a young man, whom a practised gambler, by name (I think) Count Rice, had killed in a duel. The two former objects were
neither of them two miles distant; but they were up hill, and my aunt regarded it as an impossibility to walk so far. I did not reach them, therefore, till I was old enough to be in some degree master of my own movements. The tomb of the unfortunate duellist was at Bath Weston, and we got there once, which was an extraordinary exertion; but the usual extent of our walks into the country (which were very rare) was to a cottage in an orchard about half way to that village. It was always a great joy to me when I was sent for home, though my father’s house was in one of the busiest streets in a crowded city; I had more liberty then, and was under no capricious restrictions, and I had more walks into the fields, though still too few. My mother sometimes, and sometimes my aunt Mary, would walk with me to Kingsdown, to Brandon Hill, Clifton, or that bank of the river which is called the Sea-Banks, and we often went to my grandmother’s, where I liked best to be, because I had there a thorough enjoyment of the country.

Miss Tyler, whose ascendency over my mother was always that of an imperious elder sister, would not suffer me to be breeched till I was six years old, though I was tall of my age. I had a fantastic costume of nankeen for highdays and holydays, trimmed with green fringe; it was called a vest and tunic, or a jam, When at last I changed my dress, it was for coat, waistcoat, and breeches of foresters’ green; at that time there was no intermediate form of apparel in use. I was then sent as a day scholar to a school on the top of St. Michael’s or Mile Hill, which was
then esteemed the best in Bristol, kept by
Mr. Foot*, a dissenting minister of that community who are called General Baptists, in contradistinction to the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. Like most of his denomination, he had passed into a sort of low Arianism, if indeed he were not a Socinian. With this, however, I had no concern, nor did my parents regard it. To a child, indeed, it could be of no consequence; but a youth might easily and imperceptibly have acquired from it an injurious bias, if his good conduct and disposition had made him a favourite with him. He was an old man, and if the school had ever been a good one, it had woefully deteriorated. I was one of the least boys there, I believe the very least, and certainly both as willing and as apt to learn as any teacher could have desired; yet it was the only school where I was ever treated with severity. Lessons in the grammar, which I did not comprehend, and yet could have learned well enough by rote under gentle discipline and a good-natured teacher, were frightened out of my head, and then I was shut up during playtime in a closet at the top of the stairs, where there was just light enough through some bars to see my lesson by. Once he caned me cruelly,—the only time that any master ever laid his hand upon me,—and I am sure he deserved a beating much more than I did. There was a great deal of tyranny in the school, from the worst of which I was exempted, because I went home in the evening; but I stood in great fear of the big boys, and saw much more of the evil side of

* He published some letters to Bishop Hoadley. This I learn from Gregonne’s Sectes Religieuses.

human nature than I should ever have learnt in the course of domestic education.

I had not been there more than twelve months when the master died. He was succeeded by John Prior Estlin, a Socinian minister, with whom in after years I was well acquainted, a good scholar, and an excellent man. Had I continued at the school, he would have grounded me well, for he was just the kind of man to have singled me out and taken pleasure in bestowing careful culture where it would not have been lost. Unfortunately, my father (I know not for what reason) thought proper to remove me upon Mr. Foot’s death, and placed me at a school nine miles from Bristol, in a village called Corston, about a mile from the Globe at Newton, a well-known public house on the road between Bath and Bristol. The stage was to drop me at that public house, and my father to accompany it on horseback, and consign me to the master’s care. When the time for our departure drew nigh, I found my mother weeping in her chamber; it was the first time I had ever seen her shed tears. The room (that wherein I was born) with all its furniture, and her position and look at that moment, are as distinct in my memory as if the scene had occurred but yesterday; and I can call to mind with how strong and painful an effort it was that I subdued my own emotions. I allude to this in the Hymn to the Penates, as
The first grief I felt,
And the first painful smile that clothed my front
With feelings not its own.
What follows also is from the life:
Sadly at night
I sat me down beside a stranger’s hearth,
And when the lingering hour of rest was come,
First wet with tears my pillow.

One of my earliest extant poems (the Retrospect) describes this school, and a visit which I made to it, after it had ceased to be one, in the year 1793. You have it, as it was originally written at that time, in the volume which I published with Robert Lovell, and as corrected for preservation, in the collection of my Minor Poems. The house had been the mansion of some decayed family, whose history I should like to trace if Collinson’s Somersetshire were to fall in my way. There were vestiges of former respectability and comfort about it, which, young as I was, impressed me in the same manner that such things would do now—walled gardens, summer-houses, gate-pillars, surmounted with huge stone balls, a paddock, a large orchard, walnut trees, yards, outhouses upon an opulent scale. I felt how mournful all this was in its fallen state, when the great walled garden was converted into a playground for the boys, the gateways broken, the summer-houses falling to ruin, and grass growing in the interstices of the lozenged pavement of the fore-court. The features within I do not so distinctly remember, not being so well able to understand their symbols of better days; only I recollect a black oaken staircase from the hall, and that the school-room was hung with faded tapestry, behind which we used to have our hoards of crabs.


Here one year of my life was past with little profit, and with a good deal of suffering. There could not be a worse school in all respects. Thomas Flower, the master, was a remarkable man, worthy of a better station in life, but utterly unfit for that in which he was placed. His whole delight was in mathematics and astronomy, and he had constructed an orrery upon so large a scale that it filled a room. What a misery it must have been for such a man to teach a set of stupid boys, year after year, the rudiments of arithmetic. And a misery he seemed to feel it. When he came into his desk, even there he was thinking of the stars, and looked as if he were out of humour, not from ill-nature, but because his calculations were interrupted. But for the most part he left the school to the care of his son Charley, a person who was always called by that familiar diminutive, and whose consequence you may appreciate accordingly. Writing and arithmetic were all they professed to teach; but twice in the week a Frenchman came from Bristol to instruct in Latin the small number of boys who learnt it, of whom I was one. Duplanier was his name. He returned to France at the commencement of the Revolution, and a report obtained credit at Bristol, and got into the newspapers, that, having resumed his proper name, which for some reason or other he had thought fit to conceal in England, he went into the army, and became no less a personage than General Menou, of Egyptian notoriety. For Duplanier’s sake, who was a very good-natured man, I am glad the story was disproved.

That sort of ornamental penmanship which now I
fear has wholly gone out of use, was taught there. The father, as well as Charley, excelled in it. They could adorn the heading of a rule in arithmetic in a cyphering-book, or the bottom of a page, not merely with common flourishing, but with an angel, a serpent, a fish, or a pen, formed with an ease and freedom of hand which was to me a great object of admiration; but, unluckily, I was too young to acquire the art. I have seen, in the course of my life, two historical pieces produced in this manner; worthy of remembrance they are, as notable specimens of whimsical dexterity. One was David killing Goliah; it was in a broker’s shop at Bristol, and I would have bought it if I could have afforded at that time to expend some ten shillings upon it. The other was a portrait of king
Joam V on horseback, in the bishop’s palace at Beja. They taught the beautiful Italian, or lady’s hand, used in the age of our parents; engrossing (which, I suppose, was devised to insure distinctness and legibility)’ and some varieties of German text, worthy for their square, massy, antique forms to have figured in an antiquarian’s titlepage.

Twice during the twelve months of my stay great interest was excited throughout the commonwealth by a grand spelling-match, for which poor Flower deserves some credit, if it was a device of his own to save himself trouble and amuse the boys. Two of the biggest boys chose their party, boy by boy alternately till the whole school was divided between them. They then hunted the dictionary for words unusual enough in their orthography to puzzle ill-taught lads; and having compared lists, that the same
word might not be chosen by both, two words were delivered to every boy, and kept by him profoundly secret from all on the other side till the time of trial. On a day appointed we were drawn up in battle array, quite as anxious on the occasion as the members of a cricket-club for the result of a grand match against all England. Ambition, that “last infirmity of noble minds,” had its full share in producing this anxiety; and to increase the excitement, each person had wagered a halfpenny upon the event. The words were given out in due succession on each side, from the biggest to the least; and for every one which was spelt rightly in its progress down the enemy’s ranks, the enemy scored one; or one was scored on the other side, if the word ran the gauntlet safely. The party in which I was engaged lost one of these matches and won the other. I remember that my words for one of them were Chrystalization and Coterie, and that I was one of the most effective persons in the contest, which might easily be.

Charley and his father frequently saved themselves some trouble, by putting me to teach bigger boys than myself. I got on with Latin here more by assisting others in their lessons than by my own, when the master came so seldom. This assistance was not voluntary on my part; it was a tax levied upon me by the law of the strongest, a law which prevails as much in schools as it did in the cabinets of Louis XIV. and the emperor Napoleon, and does in that of the United States of America; but the effect was, that I made as much progress as if my lessons had been daily. At Mr. Foote’s I read Cordery
Erasmus, each with a translation in a parallel column, which was doubled down at lesson time. Here I got into Phaedrus without a translation, but with the help of an ordo verborum, indicated by figures in the margin. But I am at the end of my paper and the slip beside me has items enough concerning Corston for another letter.