2649. Robert Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 23 August 1815

2649. Robert Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 23 August 1815 ⁠* 

Keswick. 23 Aug. 1815.

My dear Harry

According to all forms I ought to write you a letter of congratulation, [1]  – but some unlucky ingredient in my moral, physical & intellectual composition has all my life long operated upon me with respect to forms like that antipathy which some persons feels toward cats, or other objects equally inoffensive. I get thro them so badly at all times, that x whenever I am obliged to the performance my chief concern is how to slink out of it as expeditiously as possible. I have moreover a propensity which may seem at first not very well to accord with that constitutional hilarity xxxxxx which is my best inheritance. Occasions of joy & festivity serve rather to depress the xxxx barometer of my spirits than to raise it: birthdays & wedding days therefore pass uncelebrated by me, & with the strongest conviction of the good effect of national holydays, & a feeling toward them which men who are incapable of understanding what is meant by the imaginative faculty might call superstition, I xx yet wish if it were possible that Xmas & New Years Day xx could be blotted from my kalendar. It might not be difficult to explain why this is, – but it would be somewhat metaphysical which is bad, – & somewhat sentimental, – which is worse.

Monday the 21st of August was not a more remarkable day in your life than it was in that of my neighbour Skiddaw, who is a much older personage. The weather served for our bonfire, & never I believe was such an assemblage upon such a spot. To my utter astonishment Lord Sunderlin rode up & Lady S. who had endeavoured to dissuade me from going, as a thing too dangerous, joined the walking party. Wordsworth with his wife, sister & eldest boy came over on purpose. James Boswell [2]  arrived that morning at the Sunderlins. Edith, the Senhora, Shedaw & Lunus were my convoy, with our three maid servants, – some of our neighbours, some adventurous Lakers, & Messrs Rag Tag & Bobtail, [3]  made up the rest of the assembly. We roasted beef & boiled plum puddings there, sung God save the King round the most furious body of flaming tar barrels that I ever saw before, drank a huge wooden bowl of punch, xx fired cannon at every health with three times three, & rolled large <blazing> balls of tow & turpentine down the steep side of the mountain. The effect was grand beyond imagination, we formd a huge circle round the most intense light, & behind us was an immeasurable circle of the most intense darkness – for our bonfire fairly put out the moon.

The only mishap which occurred will make a famous anecdote in the life of a great poet if James Boswell after the example of his father [4]  keepeth a Diary of the sayings of remarkable men. When we were craving for the punch, a cry went forth that the kettle had been kicked over with all the boiling water! Colonel Barker as Bozzy named the Senhora from her having had the command on this occasion, immediately instituted a strict enquiry to discover the culprit, from a suspicion that it might have been done in mischief, – water as you know being a commodity not easily replaced on the summit of Skiddaw. The persons about the fire declared it was one of the Gentlemen, – they did not know his name, – but he had a red cloak on: & they pointed him out in the circle. The red cloak which (a maroon one of Ediths) ascertained him – Wordsworth had got hold if it, & was equipped like a Spanish Don, – by no means the worst figure in the company. He had committed the fatal faux pas, & thought to slink off undiscovered. But as soon as in my inquiries concerning the punch I learnt his guilt from the Senhora, I went round to all our party, & communicated the discovery, & getting them about him, I punished him by setting up singing a parody in which they all joined in – Twas you that kicked the kettle down! twas you Sir you! –  [5] 

The consequences were that we took all the cold water upon the summit to supply our loss. Our Myrmidons [6]  & Messrs Rag & Co had therefore none for their grog: they necessarily drank the rum pure, & you who are Physician to the Middlesex Hospital [7]  are doubtless acquainted with the manner in which alcohol acts upon the nervous system. All our torches were lit at once by this mad company, & our way down the hill was marked by a track of fire from flambeaux dropping their pitch, tarred ropes &c. One fellow was so drunk that his companions placed him upon a horse with his face to the tail, – to bring him down, – themselves being just sober enough to guide & hold him on. Down however we all got safely by midnight, & nobody from the old Lord of 77 to my son Lunus is the worse for the toil of the day, – tho we had were eight hours from the time we set out till we reached home.

I am working as hard as eternal interruptions will let me, – for the sake of getting to you as soon as possible, – but my coming must be two or three days later than I intended. This however can be of no inconvenience to you, farther than from your wish to get Mrs Gonne in motion as soon as possible. Be assured I will not stay a day longer than I can possibly help. – You must enquire about passports – Bedford will be able perhaps to assist us – I shall <make> some memoranda respecting the places on our route, which may serve as a book of the roads for us.

Give my love to Louisa & tell her I am glad to have another sister, & still more glad that she should be the person who xxxx stands in that relation to me. Edith also sends her love. My young ones have asked questions by the score concerning their new aunt.

God bless you


I heard of your election from your good & trusty ally Neville White. If that <mans> means were equal to his spirit he would be as rich as Croesus. [8] 


* Address: To/ Dr Southey/ Queen Anne Street/ Cavendish Square/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 26 AU 26/ 1815
MS: Bodleian Library, Don. d. 3. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.) Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 120–123 [in part]. BACK

[1] Henry Herbert Southey had married Louisa Gonne on 21 August 1815. BACK

[2] The barrister and literary scholar James Boswell (1778–1822; DNB). BACK

[3] A disparaging term for the common people – synonymous with a ‘rabble’. BACK

[4] His father was James Boswell (1740–1795; DNB), lawyer, diarist and biographer of Samuel Johnson (1709–1784; DNB). BACK

[5] A parody of the popular catch ‘‘Twas You, Sir’, which begins: ‘‘Twas you, sir, ‘twas you, sir,/I tell you nothing new, sir,/’Twas you that kissed the pretty girl,/’Twas you, sir, you;’. BACK

[6] i.e. Loyal followers; after the brave warriors commanded by Achilles in Greek myth. BACK

[7] Henry Herbert Southey had been elected Senior Physician at the Middlesex Hospital on 17 August 1815. BACK

[8] The fabulously rich Croesus (595–547 BC; King of Lydia 560–547 BC). BACK

Places mentioned

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