June 5 1816: Lonely Childhood


On June 5 1816,  Robert Southey writes to Chauncey Hare Townshend

Thank you for both your letters. The history of your school-boy days reminds me of my own childhood and youth. I had a lonely childhood, and suffered much from tyranny at school, till I outgrew it, and came to have authority myself. In one respect, my fortune seems to have been better than yours, or my nature more accommodating. Where intellectual sympathy was not to be found, it was sufficient for me if moral sympathy existed. A kind heart and a gentle disposition won my friendship more readily than brighter talents, where these were wanting. . . . .

I left Westminster in a perilous state,—a heart full of feeling and poetry, a head full of Rousseau and Werter, and my religious principles shaken by Gibbon: many circumstances tended to give me a wrong bias, none to lead me right, except adversity, the wholesomest of all discipline. An instinctive modesty, rather than any purer cause, preserved me for a time from all vice. A severe system of stoical morality then came to its aid. I made Epictetus, for many months, literally my manual. The French revolution was then in its full career. I went to Oxford in January, 1793, a Stoic and a Republican. I had no acquaintance at the college, which was in a flagitious state of morals. I refused to wear powder, when every other man in the university wore it, because I thought the custom foolish and filthy; and I refused even to drink more wine than suited my inclination and my principles. Before I had been a week in the college, a little party had got round me, glad to form a sober society, of which I was the centre. Here I became intimate with Edmund Seward, whose death was the first of those privations which have, in great measure, weaned my heart from the world. He confirmed in me all that was good. Time and reflection, the blessings and the sorrows of life, and I hope I may add, with unfeigned humility, the grace of God, have done the rest. Large draughts have been administered to me from both urns. No man has suffered keener sorrows, no man has been more profusely blest. Four months ago no human being could possibly be happier than I was, or richer in all that a wise heart could desire. The difference now is, that what was then my chief treasure is now laid up in Heaven.

“Your manuscript goes by the next coach. I shall be glad to see the conclusion, and any other of your verses, Latin or English. Is any portion of your time given to modern languages? If not, half an hour a day might be borrowed for German, the want of which I have cause to regret. I was learning it with my son; and shall never have heart to resume that as a solitary study which in his fellowship was made so delightful. The most ambitious founder of a family never built such hopes upon a child as I did on mine; and entirely resembling me as he did, if it had been God’s will that he should have grown up on earth, he would have shared my pursuits, partaken all my thoughts and feelings, and have in this manner succeeded to my plans and papers as to an intellectual inheritance. God bless you!

Robert Southey.”

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