3556. Robert Southey to John May, 15 November 1820

3556. Robert Southey to John May, 15 November 1820⁠* 

Keswick. 15 Nov. 1820

My dear friend

The bells are ringing. Keswick is illuminated in honour of our immaculate Queen, [1]  & whether I may get thro this letter without having my windows saluted by a few stones, is by no means certain. Let that pass. Happy will <would> it be for us if nothing worse were to be expected from the Mobocracy which is now established in England.

A half finished letter of autobiography [2]  in my desk, which day after day I have intended to finish & as often have been prevented from finishing either by the necessity or the inclination for doing something else, – has been the real cause of my long silence, – a silence indeed longer than I had supposed it to be, till you have brought the date of my last epistle before my eyes. – Another cause has been that I expected to have had 100£ paid into your hands ere this, part of a sum which I am earning by composing a piece of private biography, or rather panegyric, – the history of which you shall have hereafter. [3]  But a most unlucky & vexatious mistake has been made respecting this payment (not on my part, & without any blame attaching anywhere) which has disappointed me for a while, & given me no little chagrin. [4]  – You have given me a spur now, & the third letter shall be sent off in the course of the week.

The strong beer, the very thought of which puts my palate in tune for a glass, may be directed to Mr Cookson, Kendal, [5]  – nothing more, – without my name. Being directed to him it will come safer & at less cost.

I do not apprehend any immediate change in Brazil [6]  which would be likely to affect you; but your brother [7]  will do well to extricate himself as soon as possible from all dependence upon that Government. Jupiter seems to have besotted the Governments of all other countries, & the people of this. [8]  I am like you of a hopeful disposition, & like you I have a firm belief that Providence will everywhere educe good out of evil. But I am not without my fears for what we may have to endure in the process, & very much apprehend that if you & I should reach the allotted age of man we shall outlive the liberties of England. They will either be lost (inevitably) as the consequence of a radical revolution, – or to prevent that evil, we must part with more of them than can safely be spared, & so perish by a chronic instead of an acute disease.

My good little friend is just returned to town, & whenever you chuse to call upon him you may see his portfolio, & chuse between two portraits [9]  of your god-daughter, both very good, but concerning the comparative merits of which opinions are divided. The one has more of the character, the other more of the features, Nash will tell you which I like best. He will show you also a delightful picture of Cuthbert, & a drawing of such a mountain party as we will have whenever you & Mrs May will pay us a visit at Keswick, & accept such hospitality as we can offer.

Edith May is at this time with Miss Hutchinson (Mrs Wordsworths sister) at Rydale. When she returns she shall copy for you Latrobes two letters. I did not reply to the second, because I had nothing more to say, & neither leisure nor inclination for controversy, even in so friendly spirit as this. [10]  I made no transcript of my own letter, for want of time. – You will not be sorry to hear that I have begun a Life of George Fox [11]  upon the same plan as that of Wesley. The intention has got wind sooner than I meant, & it has put all Quakerdom in commotion.

We are all in tolerable health. My good Aunt I trust will winter with us. Remember me to Mrs May, & me also to the rest of your family & to John Coleridge.

God bless you my dear friend

Yrs most affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre-/ Richmond/ Surrey
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ 18 NO 18/ 1820; 10 o’Clock/ NO.18/ 1820 F.N.n
Endorsement: No. 215 1820/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 15th November/ recd. 18th do./ ansd. 23d December
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. 188–189. BACK

[1] Under extreme pressure from George IV, the Cabinet had reluctantly agreed to introduce a Bill of Pains and Penalties into the House of Lords to deprive the King’s wife, Caroline of Brunswick (1768–1821; DNB), of the title of Queen and to dissolve her marriage to the King. On the Third Reading of the Bill on 10 November 1820, the government majority was only nine votes and it seemed very unlikely the Bill could pass the House of Commons. Lord Liverpool, the Prime Minister, therefore had announced the Bill would be withdrawn. Parts of Keswick were, to Southey’s disgust, celebrating this news. BACK

[2] The third of the autobiographical letters Southey was writing for May; see Southey to John May, 16 August–18 November 1820, Letter 3526. BACK

[3] Southey had been paid for writing a ‘private biography’ of David Pike Watts (1754–1816), a fabulously rich wine merchant and philanthropist, who had been an important supporter of Andrew Bell’s educational schemes and owned the Storrs Hall estate on Windermere. He was also the uncle of the painter John Constable (1776–1837; DNB). The work had been commissioned by Watts’s daughter and heiress, Mary Watts-Russell (1792–1840), who had married, in 1811, another heir to a business fortune, Jesse Watts-Russell (1786–1875), MP for Gatton 1820–1826. They lived at Ilam Hall in Staffordshire and had eight children. BACK

[4] Southey had mistakenly entered the wrong sum on the bill of exchange he had arranged to present in order to receive payment, and Pole & Co., the bankers of Mary Watts-Russell, had refused to pay the bill; see Southey to Andrew Bell, 14 November 1820, Letter 3555. BACK

[5] Thomas Cookson (1771–1833), Kendal wool merchant and friend of Wordsworth. BACK

[6] An army revolt in Porto, Portugal, on 24 August 1820 had established a junta to run the country; it declared its intention of organising elections to a Cortes, which were held in December 1820, and demanded John VI (1767–1826; King of Portugal 1816–1826) return from Brazil, where the court had fled in 1807–1808. These events led to the separation of Brazil and Portugal in 1822. BACK

[7] William Henry May (1785–1849), May’s younger brother and business partner in Brazil. BACK

[8] As in the phrase ‘whom Jupiter wishes to destroy, he first makes mad’. BACK

[9] The identity of the portraits is unclear, but they are probably those depicting Edith May in three different dresses, lilac, red and uncoloured, described in Southey to John May, 8 April 1821, Letter 3667. The location of the ‘lilac’ portrait is unknown; the ‘redder’ one is probably the pencil and watercolour sketch now in the collections of the Wordsworth Trust, Grasmere; and the ‘uncoloured’ one is in Keswick Museum and Art Gallery. BACK

[10] Latrobe had written to Southey earlier in 1820 complaining about the portrayal of the Moravians in the Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). For Southey’s reply, noting that no offence had been intended, see Southey to Christian Ignatius Latrobe, 3 June 1820, Letter 3491. Latrobe had clearly not been pacified, and wrote again. BACK

[11] Southey did not write his proposed life of George Fox (1624–1691; DNB), founder of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 3 times)
Rydal Mount (mentioned 1 time)