3300. Robert Southey to John May, 22 May 1819

3300. Robert Southey to John May, 22 May 1819⁠* 

My dear friend

You have probably heard from Henry of my procrastinated purposes of moving, & the long series of anxieties which have embittered, & in part occasioned the delay. Those anxieties are materially relieved, but by no means removed. Edith is about once more; – the danger of an abscess is over, – but she has still a pain troublesome affection of in one breast, & it is very evident that there is something wrong in the general system, which I hope air, gentle exercise, & cooling fruits, when we can get them, will correct. The Child has recovered from a severe illness, & seems to be doing well.

Loath as I am to leave this place in summer, a summer journey has many advantages over a winter one. Short nights for travelling, – no inconvenience from cold in the mail coach, – fewer acquaintance in town, & therefore more leisure for my work & my friends. I hope to see you in the course of June. Having brought down the Hist. of Brazil to the time of the Emigration, [1]  I thought a full account of the state of the country, as it then was, was not only a fitting, but a necessary conclusion to the work, – but it has been a huge addition to my labour, – for it will extend to full 150 pages. [2]  About two thirds are done, & so far much to my satisfaction, for I have brought together <collected> from various sources a clear & comprehensive general view, – province by province as far as I have yet proceeded. The volume however will be so large (above 800 pages [3] ) that I believe I must defer the Biblioteca Brazilica which it was my intention to have added, – & leave it for a separate publication, – rather than incur a longer delay, & curtail it for the sake of room. [4] 

I never worked so continuously upon any one thing as this concluding <volume> for the last six months.

One consequence of this delay will be that I shall see Richmond in full beauty, – which even to one from the Land of Lakes, is a sight worth seeing, & worth going to see, – for in its kind it is perfect, & there is nothing like it elsewhere. I expect to be about six weeks between London & Streatham – or a week out of the time at Worting if my Uncle should be there. Prepare the way for me to Mr Walpoles papers in the foreign office, – & I will work at them diligently, till I have got from them every thing concerning the Memoir, & concerning the history of those years. [5] His extracts from the correspondence of his predecessors have been of great use to me, – you will see them frequently referred to in this third volume; [6]  & I have drawn from them largely for the European history, [7]  – to which I am now looking on with hope, & eagerness, – as immediately to follow the Peninsular War, – which said War goes to Press immediately on my return [8] 

Hartley Coleridges success at Oriel is a joyful event for all his family. [9]  His provision is now secure, & every thing open to him. It remains to be seen what use he will make of his great talents. I am afraid he has too much of his fathers subtlety of mind, & too little of its compass; – too little love of knowledge for its own sake, – a virtue which Coleridge certainly possesses, but which is not possessed by either of his sons. [10]  In this & in many other respects their sister is greatly superior to them, – & without the slightest affectation or love of display.

You will have seen Wordsworths poem, [11]  – had I seen it before it was published, I should have objected to a very few lines, as vapid, – to one or two forced rhymes, & to the tone of the narration in one part, as not in keeping, – not serious enough for the subject. [12]  These blemishes might easily have been removed, – but taking it as it is, it is a highly original poem; every where picturesque & striking, & in some parts very pathetic, – a branch of the poets art in which Wordsworth is not surpassed by any other ancient or modern. He has another poem in the press at this time, – about the same length [13] 

The world is going on Our home politics are now of such a nature that scarcely any political question is worth a wish one way or the other; & one looks at the petty warfare between the Ins & the Outs, (the main & almost only difference between them now being that the one are out & the others in) as at the struggle in a puppet-show (if you ever saw one) – when it is pull Devil, pull Baker, & none of the spectators care a farthing which pulls the strongest. [14]  If I had not long since learnt by how little wisdom mankind is governed, it would have surprized me to see both parties still blundering about Bullion, & gratuitously creating difficulties in the commercial world. [15]  Of all schemes this of making the Bank pay in ingots should seem the most palpably absurd, – for its only possible consequence can be to supply [MS missing] who deal in gold with the article, as largely as they may chuse to demand it. A few fortunes will be then made at the expense of the Bank (which can afford the loss) & then I suppose the gross folly will stare every man in the face. – The news from Brazil is of the best kind, – posts established (for letter), towns chartered, – communications opened by land & by water, – savages reduced, – & soldiers employed as they were by the Romans, in colonizing & civilizing barbarous regions. [16]  – They are likely soon to have a press at Pernambuco, [17]  – which they would have had two years ago had it not been for the miserable insurrection; – & if that miserable insurrection had not taken place Joam Ribeiro instead of dying by his own hand, with the guilt of blood upon his head [18]  would have had the chief management of that press, & might at this day have been employed in promoting the views of the Government by communicating instruction to the people. – Joam Ribeiro is the third person of whom I have had some knowledge, who has come to destruction in this manner; – the others were young Emmett [19]  & Mina. [20] 

I hope John Coleridge will not be keeping holyday out of town when I arrive there. Remember me to him, – & to Mrs May & Mary & Susan, – & tell Charlotte [21]  that I shall soon come to look at the Lambs & the Larks.

God bless you my dear friend

Yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey

Keswick. 22 May. 1819.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: [2 illegible]
Watermark: F Stans/ 1815
Endorsement: No. 206. 1810/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 22d May/ recd. 28th do.
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4pp.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 174–176. BACK

[1] The flight of the Portuguese court to Brazil in 1807–1808, an event covered in the History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), III, pp. 694–695. BACK

[2] Southey was being a little over-optimistic – the final chapter occupied more space than he anticipated; see History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), III, pp. 696–879. It was not finished until ‘June 23d, 1819’ (p. 879). BACK

[3] Notes and index ensured that the final volume of the History of Brazil ran to 950 pages. BACK

[4] Southey’s idea of publishing a bibliography of books on Brazil did not materialise. BACK

[5] Southey’s proposed, but unexecuted, memoir of Robert Walpole (1736–1810), the British envoy to Portugal 1771–1800. BACK

[6] History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), III, p. 254 n. 3; p. 292 n. 12; pp. 294–29 n. 14; p. 889 n. 14. BACK

[7] Southey’s proposed ‘History of Portugal’. It was never completed. BACK

[8] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). BACK

[9] Hartley Coleridge had been elected to a Probationary Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, on 16 April 1819. He lost it at the end of the probationary year on the grounds of intemperance. BACK

[10] Hartley and his brother, Derwent Coleridge. BACK

[11] Wordsworth’s Peter Bell, A Tale in Verse (London, 1819). It was dedicated to Southey ‘as a public testimony of affectionate admiration’ (p. v). BACK

[12] Peter Bell, A Tale in Verse (London, 1819), pp. 38–40. BACK

[13] Wordsworth’s The Waggoner. A Poem. To Which are Added Sonnets (1819). BACK

[14] A common puppet-show in the eighteenth century featuring a tug of war between the Devil and a cheating baker over the baker’s ill-gotten gains. BACK

[15] The House of Commons was debating legislation to recommence the convertibility of paper currency to gold, which had been suspended since 1797. The legislation passed on 2 July 1819 and convertibility was restored on 1 May 1821, but the period 1819–1821 witnessed a fall in commodity prices and rising unemployment. BACK

[16] This glowing report may have been contained in a letter from Henry Koster. BACK

[17] A printing press had been imported into Pernambuco in 1815, but a royal licence to publish material had only just been issued before a revolutionary government took over Recife, the provincial capital, in March–May 1817. The new regime made extensive use of the press in producing proclamations, but on its defeat the press was closed and its type sent to Rio de Janeiro. A new printing press was built at the local arsenal in 1821 to produce official pamphlets and a pro-government newspaper. BACK

[18] Joam Ribeiro Pessoa de Melo Montenegro (1766–1817), a priest who was a member of the provisional government set up by the revolutionaries in Pernambuco, 8 March–18 May 1817. He committed suicide in the town of Paulista after the defeat of the revolutionary forces and the fall of Recife, the provincial capital. BACK

[19] Robert Emmet (1778–1803; DNB), executed on 20 September 1803, following his abortive attempt at a revolution in Dublin on the night of 23 July 1803. He was the subject of Southey’s poem ‘A Lamentation’, published in The Iris on 12 November 1803. BACK

[20] Martin Javier Mina y Larrea (1789–1817), Spanish guerrilla leader, exiled after an unsuccessful rising in 1814 against royal absolutism. He joined the Mexican independence movement in 1816 and was executed by royalist forces on 11 November 1817. BACK

[21] May’s daughters, Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). The ‘Lambs and the Larks’ may refer to a children’s book, possibly Lindley Murray (1745–1826; DNB), Introduction to the English Reader: or, A Selection of Pieces, in Prose and Poetry; calculated to Improve the Younger Classes of Learners in Reading; and to Imbue their Minds with the Love of Virtue (1811). BACK

Places mentioned

Streatham (mentioned 1 time)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)