2892. Robert Southey to John May, 1-3 January [1817]

2892. Robert Southey to John May, 1–3 January [1817] ⁠* 

Keswick 1 Jany. 1817.

My dear friend

Your last letter gave me great & most unexpected concern [1]  – I had indeed <believed> you were sailing in a quiet sea, in no danger of shoals or tempests. – By what principle, – or what strange want of principle is it, that mercantile men so often for the sake of the shortest reprieve from bankruptcy involve their nearest friends & connections with them! – I write to you in a frame of mind which you will easily conceive, looking back upon the year which has just closed, & reflecting on the trials with which we have both been visited during its course. Your loss I would fain hope may not prove so xx altogether so great as you apprehend, – & I would hope also that some prize in the lottery of life, full of chances as it is, may one day or other replace it. Even at the worst, it leaves you heart-whole: – it will be long before I shall find myself so, [2]  – & if life had no duties, I should be very far from desiring its continuance for the sake of any enjoyments which it can possibly have in store. I have the same sort of feeling that a man who is fondly attached to his family has when absent from them, – as if I were on a journey, – & yearn perhaps more than I ought to do to be at home & at rest. – Yet what abundant cause have I for thankfulness; possessing as I do so many blessings that I should think no man could possibly be happier, – if I had not been so much happier myself! – Do not think that I give way to such feelings – far less that I encourage them, – or am indeed weak enough to repine: – what is lost in possession is given me in hope.

I am now in my forty third year: – both my parents [3]  died in their fiftieth. Should my lease be continued to that term there is a fair prospect of leaving my family well provided for, – & let it fall when it may, a decent provision is secured. Before this object was attained, great natural chearfulness saved me from any anxiety on this score, & there happily exists no cause for anxiety when I have no longer the same preservative. My house is in order, & whenever the summons may come I am ready to depart. Dearly as I love these children, [4]  my presence is by no means so necessary to them as it was to him who is gone. He drew in his intellectual life from me, – & a large portion of mine is departed with him. It is best as it is, – for he is gone in the perfection of his nature, – & mine will not be the worse for the chastening which it has undergone.

Hitherto the lapse of time only makes me feel the depth of the wound. It will not be always thus. A few years (if they are in store for me) will alter the nature of my regret, – I shall then be sensible how different a being Herbert were he living would be from the Herbert whom I have lost: – & the voices & circumstances which now so forcibly recall him will have lost their power. – Too much of this. – But holydays are mournful days to persons in our situation, – & the strong forefeeling which I have always experienced of such possibilities has always made me dislike the observance of particular days. Your God-daughter is the only child whose birthday I have not contrived to forget, – & hers has been remembered from the accident of its being May day.

She – God be thanked, is in high health, growing fat as well as fast, – & with such xx a countenance of intelligence & innocent chearfulness – that I might truly call her the delight of my eyes. When Mr Nash returns to town you must go with the Doctor one morning & see the picture which he has made of her & her cousin Sara Coleridge. [5]  The others also are well, & as happy as skylarks in a fine day. Edith does not recover her spirits, – we take care not to depress each other, – but I can read thoughts which are not permitted to find utterance. Towards the end of the month we purpose paying a weeks visit at Netherhall – a house twenty miles from hence near the town of Maryport: – your God-daughter goes with us. The change of air & the exercise will do her mother some good I trust, – & for myself a little shaking of the solids is very needful, – for I have been but once out of the house since the first of November, – except to Church. The weather has been xx xx a fair pretext, if not a just cause for this seclusion. Never was there such a succession of storms, sometimes with snow, sometimes with rain. The floods have been higher than I ever before saw them, – tho this is the fourteenth year of my residence at Keswick!

I expect my brother Tom, whose wife is in the straw, – so he comes to pass his state of batchelorship with me. His present home is about forty miles from hence. [6]  Whether I shall ever have sufficient interest to get him promoted is very doubtful, – however what I have shall be exerted. [7]  Civil things are said of me by men in power, & as no man has ever stood forward more conscienciously in behalf of their measures, – upon the great scale, – they could in no way so properly acknowledge their sense of what I have done, as by giving him that rank to which his old services most fully & honourably entitle him.

What you tell me of my Uncle & his parishioners does not surprize me. [8]  They behaved exceedingly ill when first he went among them, & he was not accustomed to be treated thus, – living as you had know he had done among his Lisbon flock. It is moreover a parish in which it would be very difficult to feel as a Clergyman would wish to do, – the [MS torn] is of so fluctuating a kind, – & that kind also – far from being a pleasant one. A man fancies himself rich enough to have his country house, – he betters it, fits it up expensively, gets into the gazette in a year or two, – & is followed by another person xx running the same career, & xx hastening to the same end. There is a great deal of this in the immediate vicinity of London. Moreover my Uncles habits, which were always quiet & not inclined to much activity, are become more so, from years, & from matrimony, – which has very probably accelerated the work of time upon his constitution. I hope to see him early in the spring, – at which time it is my full purpose to visit London.

Pray let me hear your affairs: – in which you know how deep an interest I must needs take. – Ere long I hope to send a portion of my Paraguay Tale. [9]  Remember me most kindly to Mrs May & your daughters. [10]  Johnny [11]  should have been at Westminster instead of Eton, & you might then have had him for a companion during your evenings in town. I have always thought the best possible education that of a Westminster home-boarder.

Remember me to John Coleridge, whom I xxxxx xxx xxx <shall always be> glad to see here, – or any where else. – Hartley will soon be returning to Oxford. Of the father we know nothing.

God bless you my dear friend

yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey

Jany. 3.

Should the Correspondent fall in your way, you will find it in it a life of Wesley of my writing. [12] 


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ 6 JA 6/ 1817; 10 o’Clock/ JA. 6/ 1817 F.N.n
Watermark: 1813
Endorsement: No. 192 1817/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 1st January/ recd. 7th do./ ansd. 28th do
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 153–155. BACK

[1] John May’s financial position had been precarious since he had suffered heavy losses in the Brazil trade. His letters to Southey may have referred to continued conflicts with his partner and younger brother William Henry May (1785–1849). BACK

[2] Southey’s son, Herbert, had died on 17 April 1816. BACK

[4] Southey’s daughters, Edith May, Bertha, Kate and Isabel. BACK

[5] Nash’s sketch of the two girls, made at Keswick in 1816. BACK

[6] Thomas Southey’s third daughter and fifth child, Eleanor Thomasina Southey (1816–1835) was born on 24 December 1816, at Warcop Hall, where he rented a farm. BACK

[7] Tom Southey was promoted to Captain in the Royal Navy in 1811, but was never given command of a ship. BACK

[8] Herbert Hill was Rector of Streatham. BACK

[9] Southey’s poem A Tale of Paraguay was not published until 1825. BACK

[10] Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

[11] May’s son John (1802–1879) had entered Eton School in September 1815 and his conduct was causing some concern. He was expelled following his part in ‘Palk’s Rebellion’ of 3–4 November 1818. BACK

[12] In advance of the full-scale biography of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) that he published in 1820, Southey contributed ‘On the Life of John Wesley, Founder of the English Methodists’ to Longmans’ new venture, The Correspondent, 1–2 (1817), 26–48, 157–176. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)
Netherhall (mentioned 1 time)