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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Robert Southey, “Memoir: School at Bristol,” 27 May 1824

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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Produced by CATH
May 27th, 1824.

Nearly four years have elapsed since I began this series of reminiscences, and I have only written twelve letters, which bring me only into the twelfth year of my age. Alas! this is not the only case in which I feel that the remaining portion of my life,
were it even to be protracted longer than there is reason to expect upon the most favourable calculation of chances, must be too short for the undertakings which I have sometimes dreamt of completing. It is, however, the case in which I can with least inconvenience quicken my speed; and frail as by humiliating experience I know my own resolutions to be, I will nevertheless endeavour to send off a letter from this time forth, at the end of every month. Matter for one more will be afforded before I take leave of poor old William Williams; and that part of it which has no connection with myself, will not be the least worth relation.

It was a good feature in his character that he had a number of poor retainers, who used to drop in at school hours, and seldom went away empty handed. There was one poor fellow, familiarly called Dr. Jones, who always set the school in a roar of laughter. What his real history was I know not; the story was, that some mischievous boys had practised upon him the dreadfully dangerous prank of giving him a dose of cantharides, and that he had lost his wits in consequence. I am not aware that it could have produced this effect, though it might very probably have cost him his life. Crazy, however, he was, or rather half-crazed, and it was such a merry craziness that it would have been wishing him ill to have wished him otherwise. The bliss of ignorance is merely negative; there was a positive happiness in his insanity; it was like a perpetual drunkenness, sustained just at that degree of pleasurable excitement, which, in the sense of present enjoyment, is equally re-
gardless of the future and of the past. He fancied himself a poet, because he could produce, upon demand, a rhyme in the sorryest doggrel; and the most celebrated improvisatore was never half so vain of his talent as this queer creature, whose little figure of some five feet two I can perfectly call to mind, with his suit of rusty black, his more rusty wig, and his old cocked hat. Whenever he entered the schoolroom, he was greeted with a shout of welcome; all business was suspended; he was called upon from all sides to give us a rhyme; and when the master’s countenance offered any encouragement, he was entreated also to ask for half a holyday, which, at the price of some doggrel, was sometimes obtained. You will readily believe he was a popular poet.

The talent of composing imitative verses has become so common in our days, that it will require some evidence to make the next generation believe what sort of verses were received as poetry fifty years ago, when any thing in rhyme passed current. The magazines, however, contain proof of this; the very best of them abounding in such trash as would be rejected now by the provincial newspapers. Whether the progress of society, which so greatly favours the growth and development of imitative talent, is equally favourable to the true poetical spirit, is a question which I may be led to consider hereafter. But as I had the good fortune to grow up in an age when poets, according to the old opinion, were born and not made, and as at the time to which this part of my reminiscences relates, the bent of my nature had decidedly shown itself, I may here make some
observations upon the grounds and consequences of that opinion.

In the earliest ages certain it is, that they who possessed that gift of speech which enabled them to clothe ready thoughts in measured or elevated diction, were held to be inspired. False oracles were uttered in verse, and true prophecies delivered in poetry. There was, therefore, some reason for the opinion. A belief akin to it, and not improbably derived from it, prevails, even now, among the ignorant; and was much more prevalent in my childhood, when very few of the lower classes could write or read, and when in the classes above them, those who really were ignorant, knew that they were so. Slight of hand passed for magic in the dark ages, slight of tongue for inspiration; and the ignorant, when they were no longer thus to be deluded, still looked upon both as something extraordinary and wonderful. Especially the power of arranging words in a manner altogether different from the common manner of speech, and of disposing syllables so as to produce a harmony which is felt by the dullest ear (a power which has now become an easy, and therefore is every day becoming more and more a common acquirement), appeared to them what it originally was in all poets, and always will be in those who are truly such; and even now, though there are none who regard its possessor with superstitious reverence, there are many who look upon him as one who, in the constitution of his mind, is different from themselves. As no madman ever pretended to a religious call, without finding some open-eared listeners ready to
believe in him and become his disciples; so, perhaps, no one ever composed verses with facility, who had not some to admire and applaud him in his own little circle. This was the case even with so poor a creature as Dr. Jones. And to the intoxication of conceit, which the honest admiration of the ignorant has produced in half-crazed rhymers like him, it is owing that some marvellous productions have found their way to the press. Dr. Jones, by whom I have been led into this digression, was a doggrelist of the very lowest kind. One other such I once met with, when I was young enough to be heartily amused at an exhibition which, farcical as it was, would now make me mournful. He was a poor engraver, by name
Coyte; very simple, very industrious, very poor, and completely crazed with vanity, because he could compose off-hand, upon any subject, such rhymes as the bellman’s used to be. Bedford’s father used occasionally to relieve him, for he was married and could earn but a miserable livelihood for his family. I saw him on one of his visits to Brixton, in the year 1793, when he was between forty and fifty years of age. His countenance and manner might have supplied Wilkie with a worthy subject. Mr. Bedford (there never lived a kinder-hearted man) loved merriment, and played him off, in which Grosvenor and Horace joined, and I was not backward. We gave him subjects upon which he presently wrote three or four sorry couplets. No creature was ever more elated with triumph than he was at the hyperbolical commendations which he received; and this, mingled with the genuine humility which the sense of his
condition occasioned, produced a truly comic mixture in his feelings and gesticulations. What with pleasure, inspiration, exertion, and warm weather (for it was in the dog-days), he perspired as profusely, though I dare say not as fragrantly, as an elephant in love; and literally overflowed at eyes and mouth, frothing and weeping in a salivation of happiness. I think this poor creature published “
A Cockney’s Rambles in the Country,” some twelve or fourteen years ago, for such a pamphlet I saw advertised, by Joseph William Coyte; and I sent for it at the time, but it was too obscure to be found.

These are examples of the very humblest and meanest rhymesters, who nevertheless felt themselves raised above their companions, because they could rhyme. I have been acquainted with poets in every intermediate degree between Jones and Wordsworth; and their conceit has almost uniformly been precisely in an inverse proportion to their capacity. When this conceit acts upon low and vulgar ignorance, it produces direct craziness, as in the instances of which I have been speaking. In the lower ranks of middle life I have seen it, without amounting to insanity, assume a form of such extravagant vanity that the examples which have occurred within my own observation, would be deemed incredible if brought forward in a farce.—Of these in due time. There is another more curious manifestation of the same folly, which I do not remember ever to have seen noticed; but which is well worthy of critical observation, because it shows in its full extent, and therefore in puris naturalibus, a fault which is found
in by much the greater part of modern poetry—the use of words which have no signification where they are used, or which, if they mean any thing, mean nonsense—the substitution of sound for sense. I could show you passage after passage in contemporary writers—the most popular writers, and some of them the most popular passages in their works, which when critically, that is to say, strictly but justly, examined, are as absolutely nonsensical as the description of a moonlight night in
Pope’s Homer. Pope himself intended that for a fine description, and did not perceive that it was as absurd as his own “Song by a Person of Quality.” Now, there have been writers who have possessed the talent of stringing together couplet after couplet in sonorous verse, without any connection, and without any meaning, or any thing like a meaning; and yet they have had all the enjoyment of writing poetry, have supposed that this actually was poetry, and published it as such. I know a man who has done this, who made me a present of his poem; yet he is very far from being a fool; on the contrary, he is a lively pleasant companion, and his talents in conversation are considerably above par. The most perfect specimen I ever saw of such verses was a poem called “The Shepherd’s Farewell,” printed in quarto, some five-and-thirty years ago. Coleridge once had an imperfect copy of it. I forget the author’s name; but when I was first at Lisbon, I found out that he was a schoolmaster, and that poor Paul Berthon had been one of his pupils. Men of very inferior power may imitate the manner of good
writers with great success; as, for example, the two Smiths have done; but I do not believe that any imitative talent could produce genuine nonsense verses, like those of “The Shepherd’s Farewell.” The intention of writing nonsensically would appear, and betray the purport of the writer. Pure, involuntary, unconscious nonsense is inimitable by any effort of sense.

Such writers as these, if they were cross-examined, would be found to imagine that they composed under the real influence of poetical inspiration; and were Taylor the pagan to set about heathenizing one of them, I am persuaded that he would not find it difficult to make him believe in the Muses. In fact, when this soul of conceit is in action, the man is fairly beside himself. An innate self-produced inebriety possesses him; he abandons himself to it, and while the fit lasts is as mad as a March hare. The madness is not permanent; because such inspiration, according to received opinion, only comes on when the rhymester is engaged in his vocation. And well it is when it shows itself in rhyme; for the case is very different with him who has the gift of uttering prose with the same fluency, and the same contempt of reason. He in good earnest sets up for an inspired messenger; he has received a call; and there are not only sects, but societies, in this country ready to accredit him, and take him into employ, and send him forth with a roving commission, through towns and villages, to infect others with the most infectious of all forms of madness, disturb the peace of families, and prepare the way for another attempt to over-
throw the Established Church—another struggle, which will shake these kingdoms to their centre.

Dr. Jones has led me into a long digression, upon which I should not have entered if I had foreseen that it would have extended so far. Another of Williams’s visitors, and an equally popular one, was a glorious fellow, Pullen by name, who during the age of buckskin made a fortune as a breeches-maker, in Thomas Street. If I could paint a portrait from memory, you should have his likeness. Alas, that I can only give it in words! and that that perfect figure should at this hour be preserved only in my recollections! Sic transit gloria mundi! His countenance expressed all that could be expressed by human features, of thorough-bred vulgarity, prosperity, pride of purse, good living, coarse humour, and boisterous good nature. He wore a white tie-wig. His eyes were of the hue and lustre of scalded gooseberries, or oysters in sauce. His complexion was the deepest extract of the grape; he owed it to the Methuen treaty; my uncle, no doubt, had seen it growing in his rides from Porto; and Heaven knows how many pipes must have been filtered through the Pullenian system, before that fine permanent purple could have been fixed in his cheeks. He appeared always in buckskins of his own making, and in boots. He would laugh at his own jests with a voice like Stentor, supposing Stentor to have been hoarse; and then he would clap old Williams on the back with a hand like a shoulder of mutton for breadth and weight. You may imagine how great a man we thought him. They had probably been boon com-
panions in their youth, and his visits seldom failed to make the old man lay aside the schoolmaster. He was an excellent hand at demanding half a holyday; and when he succeeded, always demanded three cheers for his success, in which he joined with all his might and main. If I were a believer in the Romish purgatory, I should make no doubt that every visit that he made to that schoolroom, was carried to the account of his good works. Some such set off he needed; for he behaved with brutal want of feeling to a son who had offended him, and who, I believe, would have perished for want, if it had not been for the charity of
John Morgan’s mother; an eccentric but thoroughly good woman, and one of those people whom I shall rejoice to meet in the next world. This I learnt from her several years afterwards. At this time Pullen was a widower between fifty and sixty; a hale strong-bodied man, upon whom his wine-merchant might reckon for a considerable annuity, during many years to come. He had purchased some lands adjacent to the Leppincott property near Bristol, in the pleasantest part of that fine neighbourhood. Sir Henry Leppincott was elected member for the city, at that election in which Burke was turned out. He died soon afterwards; his son was a mere child; and Pullen, the glorious Pullen, in the plenitude of his pride, and no doubt in a new pair of buckskins, called on the widow; introduced himself as the owner of the adjacent estate; and upon that score, without farther ceremony, proposed marriage as an arrangement of mutual fitness. Lady Leppincott, of course, rang the bell,
and ordered the servants to turn him out of the house. This is a story which would be deemed too extravagant in a novel; and yet you would believe it without the slightest hesitation, if you had ever seen the incomparable breeches-maker.

Mrs. Estan the actress, whom you must remember, was at that time preparing to make her first appearance on the stage, at the Bristol Theatre. The part she had chosen was Letitia Hardy in “The Belle’s Stratagem,” and in that part she had to dance a minuet de le cour, to perfect herself in which, and perhaps for the sake of accustoming herself to figure away before an audience, she came to our school on two or three dancing-days, and took lessons there,—a circumstance too remarkable to be forgotten in a schoolboy’s life. Walters, the dancing-master, was not a little proud of his pupil. That poor man was, for three years the plague of my life, and I was the plague of his. In some unhappy mood he prevailed on my mother to let me learn to dance, persuading himself as well as her, that I should do credit to his teaching. It must have been for my sins that he formed this opinion: in an evil hour for himself and for me was it formed; he would have had much less trouble in teaching a bear, and far better success. I do not remember that I set out with any dislike or contempt of dancing; but the unconquerable incapacity which it was soon evident that I possessed, produced both, and the more he laboured to correct an incorrigible awkwardness, the more awkwardly of course I performed. I verily believe the fiddlestick was applied as much to my head as to the fiddle-
strings, when I was called out. But the rascal had a worse way than that of punishing me. He would take my hands in his, and lead me down a dance; and then the villain would apply his thumb-nail against the flat-surface of mine, in the middle, and press it till he left the mark there; this species of torture I suppose to have been his own invention, and so intolerable it was that at last, whenever he had recourse to it, I kicked his shins. Luckily for me he got into a scrape by beating a boy unmercifully at another school, so that he was afraid to carry on this sort of contest; and giving up at last all hope of ever making me a votary of the graces or of the dancing Muse, he contented himself with shaking his head and turning up his eyes in hopelessness, whenever he noticed my performance. I had always Tom Madge for my partner; a poor fellow long since dead, whom I remember with much kindness. He was as active as a squirrel, but every limb seemed to be out of joint when he began to dance. We were always placed as the last couple, and went through the work with the dogged determination of never dancing more when we should once be delivered from the dancing-master—a resolution which I have piously kept, even unto this day.

Williams, who read well himself and prided himself upon it, was one day very much offended with my reading, and asked me scornfully who taught me to read. I answered my aunt. “Then,” said he “give my compliments to your aunt; and tell her that my old horse, that has been dead these twenty years, could have taught you as well.” I delivered the
message faithfully, to her great indignation. It was never forgotten or forgiven, and perhaps it accelerated the very proper resolution of removing me. My
uncle made known his intention of placing me at Westminster. His connection with Christ Church naturally led him to prefer that to any other school, in the hope that I should get into college, and so be elected off to a studentship. But as I was in feeble health, and, moreover, had been hitherto very ill taught, it was deemed advisable that I should be placed for twelve months under a clergyman competent to prepare me for a public school.

Before I take leave of Williams, two or three memoranda upon the slip of paper before me, must be scored off. There was a washing-tub in the playground, with a long towel on a reel beside it; this tub was filled every morning for the boarders to perform their ablutions, all in the same water, and whoever wished to wash hands or face in the course of the day, had no other. I was the only boy who had any repugnance to dip his hands in this pig-trough. There was a large cask near, which received the rain-water; but there was no getting at the water, for the top was covered, and to have taken out the spiggot would have been a punishable offence. I, however, made a little hollow under the spiggot, to receive the drippings, just deep enough to wet the hands, and there I used to wash my hands with clean water when they required it. But I do not remember that any one ever followed my example. I had acquired the sense of cleanliness and the love of it, and they had not.


A time was remembered when there were wars of school against school, and a great battle which had taken place in the adjoining park between Williams’s boys and Foot’s, my first master. At both schools I heard of this, and the victory was claimed by both: for it was an old affair, a matter of tradition, (not having been noticed in history,) long before my generation, or any who were in the then school, but remembered as an event second only in importance, if second, to the war of Troy.

It was fully believed in both these schools, and at Corston, that no bastard could span his own wrist. And I have no doubt this superstition prevailed throughout that part of England.