Robert Southey: Two Letters, Monthly Magazine

On July 8, 2013 by admin


Robert Southey

Letter I:

Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 2 September 1796  


In your Magazine for June, a Correspondent, who signs himself M.H. [1]  has defended the system of Helvetius, [2]  and asserted that “nothing can be more monstrous and hypothetical, than the notion of a child (whose mind having received no impression, is a total blank, without a single idea) being born with a power of discrimination, a correct judgment, &c.” [3]


The philosophy of Helvetius has become very fashionable in England. I, however, believe, that all arguments deduced from experience and analogy, are directly in opposition to it. Two individuals — say the advocates of this system, would be precisely similar, if they received precisely the same education; that is, if they should be precisely in the same situations, and the same circumstances; now this can never take place. Thus, they assert what they themselves acknowledge never can be proved.

Materialists and Immaterialists are agreed, that the brain is the organ of thought; we have no business now with the enquiry what it is that thinks — a point which never can be proved, and of which the proof, if possible, would be useless. The brain, however, is the organ of thought, as the eye is the organ of vision; the point, then on which this system rests, is, that the organization of the brain is in all men equally perfect, excepting in absolute idiots and madmen. But is there no gradation from the man of strong and sound intellect, down to the idiot? Has your correspondent never known persons, who, though not in a state of absolute idiotism, are yet little removed from it? Who shall draw the line where theseremoves end? As there are gradations below the standard of common sense, may we not reasonably infer that there are gradations ascending above it?

The opponents of Helvetius believe in innate aptitudes — not innate ideas. In the same manner as the organ of sight is formed with different degrees of strength in different persons, they assert a difference of perfection in the organ of thought. I have known a child catch a tune before he could articulate a sentence, though his brother never discovered the least inclination for music. Now the education of their ears, had been precisely the same; for their mother had sung the same songs to both in their infancy.

The instance of the Jesuits, which Helvetius adduces, may be applied against his system: it is a well known fact, that their preceptors watched with the utmost attention the disposition of their pupils. One of them was believed incapable of attaining any kind of knowledge, till his tutor tried him in geometry, and he became a celebrated mathematician.

Is the brain always exactly of the same size and shape? Are the ventricles always exactly of the same size? Is the medullary substance always exactly of the same consistence — so that the vibrations may always be propagated with equal swiftness? These questions must all be decided in the affirmative, before it can be proved that all men are equally possessed of intellectual powers.

S. R.

September 2, 1796.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), 629 [from where the text is taken] under pseudonym ‘S.R.’. For attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215.

[1] Mary Hays (1759–1843; DNB).

[2] Claude Adrien Helvétius (1715–1771), French materialist philosopher and encyclopaedist. His De L’Esprit (1758) asserted that the human mind was a blank at birth.

[3] Monthly Magazine, 1 (June 1796), 385–387.


Letter 2:

Editor of the Monthly Magazine, 3 September 1796  


If Mr. Coleridge had ever made a pilgrimage to the birth-place of Chatterton, [1]  he would never have inserted these lines in his beautiful Monody [2]  — the only one that has yet done honour to the subject:

“Thy native cot she flash’d upon thy view,

“Thy native cot, where still at close of day

“PEACE smiling sat — and listened to thy lay.”

The street is as close and filthy as any in St. Giles’s: there is a charity-school there, and Mrs. Chatterton herself taught children to read and sew. When such is the place and such the inhabitants, we cannot easily conceive PEACE sitting in Pile-street.


In his dress, Chatterton had none of the carelessness by which genius is so often so dirtily distinguished. At that period laced cloaths were worn, and he was fond of appearing in a showy suit. It is strange that men of genius should so frequently wish to render themselves singular by their appearance, either by becoming slovens, or, like Chatterton and Gray, [3]  by affecting the opposite extreme.

The field has been so often and so completely gleaned, that no new anecdotes of this strange young man can now be expected. A complete edition of whatever he left, either under his own name or that of Rowley, is still to be desired. His unpublished pieces are in the hands of Mr. CATCOTT, [4]  of Bristol, on whom Chatterton has reflected a celebrity which he would otherwise have sought in vain, either* [5] under ground or on the top of a church-steeple. Some of these should be preserved. To publish them without submitting them to the pruning knife would be to injure the reputation of the author and to insult the decency of the reader. Some beautiful poems, (not contained in the editions of Rowley,) are in Mr. BARRET’S History of Bristol; [6]  and they appear amid that dull compilation, like a few stars in a dark night. These pieces, with the published poems of Chatterton, and his contributions to the magazine of the day, if collected into a volume with his life, would form an acceptable present to the public. [7] Subscriptions have been proposed for erecting him a monument; surely this would be the noblest?


Bristol, Sept. 3.


* MS: MS has not survived
Previously published: Monthly Magazine, 2 (September 1796), 614 [from where the text is taken] under the pseudonym ‘B.’. For conjectural attribution to Southey, see Kenneth Curry, ‘Southey’s contributions to The Monthly Magazine and The Athenaeum’, The Wordsworth Circle, 11 (1980), 215.

[1] Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770; DNB).

[2] Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Monody on the Death of Chatterton’ appeared in his Poems on Various Subjects (Bristol and London, 1796), pp. [1]–11.

[3] Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB).

[4] George Catcott (dates unknown), Bristol pewterer and antiquarian.

[5] Southey adds a footnote: ‘Alluding to his descent into Penpark-hole, and his ascent up to the steeple of St. Nicholas Church: facts well known at Bristol.’

[6] William Barrett (1727?–1789; DNB), The History and Antiquities of the City of Bristol (1789).

[7] Southey and Joseph Cottle published a three-volume edition of Chatterton’s works in 1803.


Robert Southey, 1774-1843, poet, letter writer, literary scholar, essay writer, historian and biographer, was also a well-known Portuguese and Spanish scholar, translating a number of works of those two countries into English and writing both a History of Brazil and a History of the Peninsular War. Southey is the author of the children’s classic The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks  story.

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