232. Robert Southey to John May, 11 July 1797

232. Robert Southey to John May, 11 July 1797 ⁠* 

Burton. July 11th. 1797. Tuesday.

I thank you for Chapelain. [1]  I read his poem with the hope of finding something <good> & would gladly have reversed the sentence of condemnation, which I must in common honesty confirm. it is very bad indeed, & <can> please only by its extreme absurdity. I have analyzed it, & the analysis will amuse you.

I thank you also for your good opinion of me. I would fain be thought well of by the “ten righteous men”, [2]  & communicate frequently with you as one of them. I too pity the mob of mankind, the oppressors as well as the oppressed, but my pity is strongly tinctured with hatred for the one & contempt for the other. mental anguish can punish but a very small part of the wicked, because that acuteness of feeling which is the best preservative of virtue, is blunted in them, & because “they know not what they do.” [3]  look at the plunderers of Hindostan, & the Sugar merchants of our West India islands; these men have no consciences; one memorable exception should never be forgot, the death of the infamous Lord Clive. [4]  but what is one exception from such a herd of murderers? The lower classes have indeed the terrors of religion, & that man is indeed devoutly to be pitied to whom religion has terrors! but the annals of Tyburn rarely record contrition. in general they either astonish us at the obdurate wickedness of the criminal, or the dreadful effects of our laws. do you remember the case of Mary Jones [5]  which was mentioned in the H. of Commons in 1777? every circumstance in that most horrible business was enough to have made every honest man sick of <a> society to whose abuses she fell a victim. but had her guilt exceeded that of the most detestable murderer, what must the executioner have been who could tear her infant from her breast, whilst he fitted the rope round her neck? that such a man can exist is would be incredible to you & I if experience did it not prove such ferocity frequent, but the most dreadful reflection is that this man was doing his duty! what the world call — his duty!

It is for the sake of society that I would secede from it. it must be many years before this can be practicable, & I look with a very feeble hope to a period so distant. a thousand obstacles may prevent me. the course of nature or the tempest of revolution may sweep me away, or the few individuals who would commit themselves with me to that little Ark. I suffer no gloomy presages to disturb the tranquil happiness with which God has blest me now, & which I know how to value because I have felt what it is to want every thing except the pride of a well satisfied conscience.

the Sister & niece of Chatterton [6]  are now wholly destitute. on this occasion I appear as editor of all his works for their relief. this is a heinous sin against the worlds opinion for a young lawyer! but it would have <been> a real crime to have refused it. We have a black scene of iniquity to lay before the public. these poor women have been left in want while a set of scoundrels have been reaping hundreds from the writings of Chatterton. Herbert Croft [7]  is the great criminal. I hope now to make the catastrophe to the history of the poor boy of Bristol. you shall see the proposals as soon as they are printed. Cottle has been with me a few days, & we have arranged every thing relative to this business. he is the publisher & means to get the paper at prime cost, & receive not the usual profit from what he sells. the accounts will be published, & we hope & expect to place Mrs Newton in comfort during the last years of her life.

Cottle brought with him the new edition of Coleridges poems, [8]  they are dedicated to his brothe[MS torn] George, in one of the most beautiful poems I ever read. [MS torn] know S T Coleridge better than any existing being, & yet great part of his conduct is utterly inexplicable to me. last night I wrote to him, requesting some thing for insertion in Chattertons works that his name might appear in the proposals. I then told him that his brother had not known where he was till he learnt it from you. You will be delighted with his new edition, it contains all the poems of Lloyd & Lamb, & I know no volume that can be compared to it.

You know not how infinitely my happiness is increased by residing in the country. I have not a wish beyond the quietness I enjoy. every thing is tranquil & beautiful — but sometimes I look forward with regret to the time when I must return to a city which I so heartily dislike. Edith is much better here than in town. I must not forget again to remember her to you.

If your brother will send the drawing by Joy, [9]  he passes this door — or to the White Hart Ringwood, the Mail will bring it. I am much obliged to him.

The Captain [10]  who behaved so kindly to my brother is now a prisoner himself. I am very anxious to get <him> exchanged the earliest opportunity or to procure his parole. — I have a heavy complaint against my brothers own captain — Barlow [11]  of the Phœbe. he wrote to my mother & said there was no danger of Tom’s being lost as the ship was new & sound. now he knew that the men were obliged to keep every pump at work & had sprung their mast, when for the sake of his prize money he sent my brother to conduct her into port. they were expecting to founder when the privateer took them. Tom tho could not refuse to go on board tho he knew his danger — & this they call discipline. but there are no Court-Martials in the next world, & perhaps not a Captains enough to compose one, in that to which my brother will go, if every good quality can carry a young man there.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey. [12] 


* Address: For/ John May Esqr/4. Bedford Square/ London/ Single
Postmark: AJY/ 12/ 97
Endorsement: 1797 No. 3/ Robert Southey/ Burton 11 July/ recd: 12 do/ ansd: 18 do
MS: Beinecke Library, Chauncey Brewster Tinker MS Collection, GEN MSS 310, Box 13, folder 552. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Lynda Pratt, ‘Interaction, Reorientation, and Discontent in the Coleridge Southey Circle, 1797: Two New Letters by Robert Southey’, Notes and Queries, 47.3 (2000), 314–321. BACK

[1] Southey included an account of Jean Chapelain’s (1595–1674) epic poem La Pucelle ou la France Délivrée (1656) in the second edition of Joan of Arc, published in 1798. BACK

[2] A paraphrase of Genesis 18: 32. BACK

[3] Luke 23: 34. BACK

[4] Robert Clive, 1st Baron Clive of Plassey (1725–1774; DNB), Governor of Bengal, was found guilty of maladministration by a parliamentary inquiry in 1773. His death, which Southey attributed to a guilty conscience, was almost certainly suicide. BACK

[5] Mary Jones’s case had been cited in parliamentary debates in late 1777 as an example of the injustices of the penal code: ‘It was at the time when press-warrants were issued on the alarm about Falkland’s Islands. The woman’s husband was pressed, their goods seized for some debts of his, and she, with two small children, turned into the streets a-begging. ’Tis a circumstance not to be forgotten, that she was very young (under nineteen) and most remarkably handsome. She went to a linen-draper’s shop, took some coarse linen off the counter, and slipped it under her cloak; the shopman saw her, and she laid it down: for this she was hanged … When brought to receive sentence she behaved in such a frantic manner, as proved her mind to be in a distracted and desponding state; and the child was sucking at her breast when she set out for Tyburn’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 47 (Supplement, 1777), 616. BACK

[6] Thomas Chatterton’s (1752–1770; DNB) sister, Mary Newton (1749–1804; DNB), and her daughter. BACK

[7] In 1778, Croft had acquired Chatterton’s letters from the poet’s family. He included some of the correspondence in his novel Love and Madness (1780), keeping any profits for himself. Southey attacked Croft in a letter to the Monthly Magazine, November 1799. For an account of the resulting feud see Brian Goldberg, ‘Romantic Professionalism in 1800: Robert Southey, Herbert Croft, and the Letters and Legacy of Thomas Chatterton’, English Literary History, 63 (1996), 681–706. Southey and Joseph Cottle’s edition of Chatterton was published in 1803. BACK

[8] Poems, by S. T. Coleridge, Second Edition. To Which are Now Added Poems by Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd (1797). BACK

[9] A local carrier, his first name and dates are unknown. BACK

[10] The French naval captain Boutet (first name and dates unknown). BACK

[11] Sir Robert Barlow (1757–1843; DNB). BACK

[12] could not refuse Southey: Written on fol. 1 r. BACK

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)