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Robert Southey writing on nitrous oxide

Robert Southey (1774-1843), a long standing friend of Davy, was Poet Laureate (1813-43), a journalist, biographer and historian. The two men met in early 1799, in Bristol, and Southey, immediately impressed, trialled nitrous oxide at the Pneumatic Institution. In 1800 he published Davy’s poems in the collection he edited, the Annual Anthology; in 1801 he entrusted Davy with the task of seeing his epic poem Thalaba the Destroyer through the press. After Davy’s move to London and Southey’s to Keswick, the friendship cooled.

Here is a letter from the years of their early acquaintance, in Bristol. In this letter, Robert Southey writes to his brother about the experience of breathing nitrous oxide.

Read Robert Southey’s letter to his brother Thomas Southey, dated 12 July 1799 on the nitrous oxide trials.

  • What does reading Robert Southey’s letter tell us about the aspirations people had for nitrous oxide at this time?
  • What do you think about Southey’s description of the gas?
  • Are you shocked that Davy tested this gas on himself when it was thought to be fatal?
  • What was the importance of Davy’s discovery that nitrous oxide could be inhaled?

Please share your thoughts by posting a comment.

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This article is from the free online course:

Humphry Davy: Laughing Gas, Literature, and the Lamp

Lancaster University