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The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey
Early Life: XV

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 XV.
July 17th, 1824.

Few boys were ever less qualified for the discipline of a public school than I was, when it was determined to place me at Westminster; for if my school education had been ill-conducted, the life which I led with Miss Tyler tended in every respect still more to un-
fit me for the new scenes, the new world almost it might be called, on which I was about to enter.

When my aunt settled at Bristol, she brought with her a proud contempt for Bristol society. In fact, she had scarcely any acquaintance there, and seldom saw any company, except when some of her Bath friends came to Clifton for the summer; or when the players took up their abode in the city, for then Mr. Dimond used to visit her. He was a most gentlemanly and respectable man, as well as a good actor. Great is the delight which I have had in seeing him perform, and hardly less was that which I have felt in listening to his conversation. The days when he dined with us were almost our only gala days. At such times, and when she went out, Miss Tyler’s appearance and manners were those of a woman who had been bred in the best society and was equal to it; but if any stranger or visitor had caught her in her ordinary apparel, she would have been as much confused as Diana when Actæon came upon her bathing-place, and almost with as much reason, for she was always in a bed-gown and in rags. Most people, I suspect, have a weakness for old shoes; ease and comfort and one’s own fireside are connected with them; in fact, we never feel any regard for shoes till they attain to the privileges of age, and then they become almost as much a part of the wearer as his corns. This sort of feeling my aunt extended to old clothes of every kind; the older and the raggeder they grew, the more unwilling she was to cast them off. But she was scrupulously clean in them; indeed, the principle upon which her whole household economy
was directed was that of keeping the house clean, and taking more precautions against dust than would have been needful against the plague in an infected city. She laboured under a perpetual dusto-phobia, and a comical disease it was; but whether I have been most amused~or annoyed by it, it would be difficult to say. I had, however, in its consequences an early lesson how fearfully the mind may be enslaved by indulging its own peculiarities and whimsies, innocent as they may appear at first.

The discomfort which Miss Tyler’s passion for cleanliness produced to herself, as well as to her little household, was truly curious: to herself, indeed, it was a perpetual torment; to the two servants a perpetual vexation, and so it would have been to me if nature had not blest me with an innate hilarity of spirit which nothing but real affliction can overcome. That the better rooms might be kept clean, she took possession of the kitchen, sending the servants to one which was underground; and in this little, dark, confined place, with a rough stone floor, and a skylight (for it must not be supposed that it was a best kitchen, which was always, as it was intended to be, a comfortable sitting-room; this was more like a scullery), we always took our meals, and generally lived. The best room was never opened but for company; except now and then on a fine day to be aired and dusted, if dust could be detected there. In the other parlour, I was allowed sometimes to read, and she wrote her letters, for she had many correspondents; and we sat there sometimes in summer, when a fire was not needed, for fire produced
ashes, and ashes occasioned dust, and dust, visible or invisible, was the plague of her life. I have seen her order the teakettle to be emptied and refilled, because some one had passed across the hearth while it was on the fire preparing for her breakfast. She had indulged these humours till she had formed for herself notions of uncleanness almost as irrational and inconvenient as those of the Hindoos. She had a cup once buried for six weeks, to purify it from the lips of one whom she accounted unclean; all who were not her favourites were included in that class. A chair in which an unclean person had sat was put out in the garden to be aired; and I never saw her more annoyed than on one occasion when a man, who called upon business, seated himself in her own chair: how the cushion was ever again to be rendered fit for her use, she knew not! On such occasions, her fine features assumed a character either fierce or tragic; her expressions were vehement even to irreverence; and her gesticulations those of the deepest and wildest distress,—hands and eyes uplifted, as if she was in hopeless misery, or in a paroxysm of mental anguish.

As there are none who like to be upon ill terms with themselves, most people find out some device whereby they may be reconciled to their own faults; and in this propensity it is that much of the irreligion in the world, and much of its false philosophy, have originated. My aunt used frequently to say that all good-natured people were fools. Hers was a violent temper, rather than an ill one; there was a great deal of kindness in it, though it was under no
restraint. She was at once tyrannical and indulgent to her servants, and they usually remained a long while in her service, partly I believe from fear, and partly from liking: from liking, because she sent them often to the play (which is probably to persons in that condition, as it is to children, the most delightful of all amusements), and because she conversed with them much more than is usual for any one in her rank of life. Her habits were so peculiar, that the servants became in a certain degree her confidants; she therefore was afraid to change them and they even, when they wished to leave her, were afraid to express the wish, knowing that she would regard it as a grievous offence, and dreading the storm of anger which it would bring down. Two servants in my remembrance left her for the sake of marrying; and, although they had both lived with her many years, she never forgave either, nor ever spoke of them without some expression of bitterness. I believe no daughter was ever more afraid of disclosing a clandestine marriage to a severe parent, than both these women were of making their intention known to their mistress, such was the ascendancy that she possessed over them. She had reconciled herself to the indulgence of her ungoverned anger, by supposing that a bad temper was naturally connected with a good understanding and a commanding mind.

Besides her servants, there were two persons over whom she had acquired the most absolute control. Miss Palmer was the one: a more complete example cannot be imagined of that magic which a strong
mind exercises over a weak one. The influence which she possessed over my mother was equally unbounded and more continual, but otherwise to be explained: it was the ascendancy of a determined and violent spirit over a gentle and yielding one. There was a difference of twelve years between their ages, and the authority which
Miss Tyler had first exerted as an elder sister she never relaxed. My mother was one of those few persons (for a few such there are) who think too humbly of themselves. Her only fault (I verily believe she had no other), was that of yielding submissively to this imperious sister, to the sacrifice of her own inclination and judgment and sense of what was right. She had grown up in awe and admiration of her, as one who moved in a superior rank, and who, with the advantage of a fine form and beautiful person, possessed that also of a superior and cultivated understanding: withal, she loved her with a true sisterly affection which nothing could diminish, clearly as she saw her faults, and severely as at last she suffered by them. But never did I know one person so entirely subjected by another, and never have I regretted anything more deeply than that subjection, which most certainly in its consequences shortened her life. If my mother had not been disfigured by the smallpox, the two sisters would have strikingly resembled each other, except in complexion, my mother being remarkably fair. The expression, however, of the two countenances, was as opposite as the features were alike, and the difference in disposition was not less marked. Take her for all in all, I do not
believe that any human being ever brought into the world, and carried through it, a larger portion of original goodness than my dear mother. Every one who knew her loved her, for she seemed made to be happy herself, and to make every one happy within her little sphere. Her understanding was as good as her heart: it is from her I have inherited that alertness of mind, and quickness of apprehension, without which it would have been impossible for me to have undertaken half of what I have performed. God never blessed a human creature with a more cheerful disposition, a more generous spirit, a sweeter temper, or a tenderer heart. I remember that when first I understood what death was, and began to think of it, the most fearful thought it induced was that of losing my mother; it seemed to me more than I could bear, and I used to hope that I might die before her. Nature is merciful to us. We learn gradually that we are to die,—a knowledge which, if it came suddenly upon us in riper age, would be more than the mind could endure. We are gradually prepared for our departure by seeing the objects of our earliest and deepest affections go before us; and even if no keener afflictions are dispensed to wean us from this world, and remove our tenderest thoughts and dearest hopes to another, mere age brings with it a weariness of life, and death becomes to the old as natural and desirable as sleep to a tired child.

My father’s house being within ten minutes’ walk of Terril Street (or rather run, for I usually galloped along the bye-ways), few days passed on which I did not look in there. Miss Tyler never entered the
door, because there was an enmity between her and
Thomas Southey. She had given just occasion to it. They hated each other cordially now, and took no pains to conceal it. My visits at home, therefore, were short, and I was seldom allowed to dine or pass the evening there. My brother Tom was at school; the difference of age between us made us at that time not very suitable companions when we were together. There was not a single boy of my own age, or near it, in any of the few families with whom either my mother or aunt were acquainted; and my only friend and companion was my aunt’s servant boy, Shadrach Weeks, her maid’s brother. Shad, as we called him, was just my own age, and had been taken into her service soon after she settled in Bristol. He was a good-natured, active, handy lad, and became very much attached to me, and I to him. At this hour, if he be living, and were to meet me, I am sure he would greet me with a hearty shake by the hand; and, be it where it might, I should return the salutation. We used to work together in the garden, play trap in the fields, make kites and fly them, try our hands at carpentry, and, which was the greatest of all indulgences, go into the country to bring home primrose, violet, and cowslip roots; and sometimes to St. Vincent’s Rocks, or rather the heights about a mile and a half farther down the river, to search for the bee and fly orchis. Some book had taught me that these rare flowers were to be found there; and I sought for them year after year with such persevering industry, for the unworthy purpose of keeping them in pots at home,
(where they uniformly pined and died,) that I am afraid botanists who came after me may have looked for them there in vain. Perhaps I have never had a keener enjoyment of natural scenery than when roaming about the rocks and woods on the side of the won with Shad and our poor spaniel Phillis. Indeed, there are few scenes in the island finer of their kind; and no other where merchant vessels of the largest size may be seen sailing between such rocks and woods—the shores being upon a scale of sufficient magnitude to supply all that the picturesque requires, and not upon so large a one as to make the ships appear comparatively insignificant.

Had it not been for this companion, there would have been nothing to counteract the effeminating and debilitating tendency of the habits to which my aunt’s peculiarities subjected me. Pricking playbills had been the pastime which she encouraged as long as I could be prevailed on to pursue it; and afterwards she encouraged me to cut paper into fantastic patterns. But I learnt a better use of my hands in Shad’s company; and we became such proficients in carpentry, that, before I went to Westminster, we set about the enterprise of making and fitting up a theatre for puppets. This was an arduous and elaborate work, of which I shall have more to say hereafter, as our design extended with our progress. At this time, little more had been done than to finish the body of the theatre, where there were pit, boxes, and gallery, and an ornamented ceiling, which, when it was put on, made the whole look on the outside like a box of unaccountable form. The spec-
tator was to look through a glass behind the gallery, which was intended to have been a magnifier, till, to our great disappointment, we were assured at the optician’s that no single magnifier could produce any effect at the distance which this was required to act. The scenery and stage contrivances I shall speak of in due time; for this was an undertaking which called forth all our ingenuity, and continued for several years to occupy me during the holydays.

Before I went to Westminster, my brother Henry had been taken into Miss Tyler’s household, when he was about five years old. In 1787 a daughter was born, and christened Margaretta. I remember her as well as it is possible to remember an infant; that is, without any fixed and discriminating remembrance. She was a beautiful creature, and I was old enough to feel the greatest solicitude for her recovery, when I set off for London early in the spring of 1788. A thoughtless nursemaid had taken her out one day to the most exposed situation within reach, what is called the Sea Banks, and kept her there unusually long while a severe east wind was blowing. From that hour she drooped; cough and consumption came on. I left her miserably and hopelessly ill, and never saw her more. This was the first death that I had ever apprehended and dreaded, and it affected me deeply.