3662. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 3 April 1821

3662. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 3 April 1821⁠* 

My dear G.

The King has desired Sir Wm Knighton to let me know that “he has read the V. of Judgement twice, & that he is much gratified by the Dedication & pleased with the Poem.”  [1]  – Could you get a copy sent with the dispatches to our Minister at Florence, [2]  – for Landor – who is at Pisa? I know not in what other manner to xxx transmit it to him, – & this is one of the uses of th an Ambassador. I once received at one time three folios thro the Spanish Ambassador from Cadiz. [3] Landor has only seen the first paragraph which I sent him in a letter, [4]  & it has made him a convert to the metre; which <this> is no slight conquest, for except Wynn I had looked upon him as the person among all my friends least likely to be reconciled to it. But the verdict of my peers is most decidedly in its favour.

Now to a more important subject. You were duly apprized towards the end of the year of Othello’s death. Since that lamented event this house was cat-less, till on Saturday March 24th Mrs Calvert, [5]  knowing how grievously we were annoyed by rats afforded me what she described as a fine full <grown> black cat, who was moreover a Tom. She gave him an excellent character in all points but one, which was that he was a most expert pigeon catcher; & as they had a pigeon house, this propensity rendered it necessary to pass sentence upon him either of transportation or of death. Moved by compassion (his colour & his Tomship also being taken into consideration) I consented to give him an asylum, & on the evening of that day, here he came – in a sack.

You Grosvenor who are a philogatist & therefore understand more of cat-nature than has been ever attained by the most profound naturalists, know how difficult it is to reconcile a cat to a xxxx new domicile. When the sack was opened, the kitchen door which leads into the passage was open also, – & the cat disappeared; not indeed like a flash of lightning, but as fast as one, – that is to say, for all purposes of a simily. There was no chance of his making his way back to the Pigeon House; he might have done this had he been carried thrice the distance in any other direction, – but in this, there was either a river to cross, or a part of the town to pass, both of which were such obstacles to his travels that we were quite sure all on this side of them was to him terra incognita. Food therefore was placed where he would be likely to find it in the night, & at the unanimous desire of the children I took upon myself the charge of providing him with a name, for it is not proper that a Cat should remain without one. Taking into consideration his complection as well as his sex, I my first thought was to call him Henrique Diaz, [6]  a name which poor Koster would have approved had he been living to have heard it: – but it presently occurred to me that The Zombi [7]  would be an appellation equally appropriate & more dignified. The Zombi therefore he was named.

It was soon ascertained that the Zombi had taken possession of poor Wilseys cellar, which being filled with pea-sticks afforded him a secure hiding place, – the kitchen also of that part of the house being forsaken, he was in perfect quiet. Food was laid for him every day, & the children waited impatiently for the time when the Zombi would become acquainted with the house, & suffer them to bec<ome> acquainted with him. Once or twice in the evening he was seen out of doors, & it was known that he reconnoitred the house <premises> in the night, but in obstinate retirement he continued from Saturday till Saturday, seven days & nights, notwithstanding all kind words were used to bring him out, – as if he had been resolved obstinately determined to live & die a hermit.

But before between four & five o clock on the Sunday morning, all who had ears to hear were awakened by such screams as if the Zombi had been caught in a rat-trap, or had met with some other excruciating accident. You Mr Bedford understand cats, & know very well that a Cat-solo is a very different thing from a duet: & that no person versed in their own tongue can mistake their expression of pain for any thing else. The creature seemed to be in agonies – a light was procured, that it might be relieved if that were possible, – upon searching the house the Zombi was seen at the top of Wilseys stairs; from whence he disappeared retreating to his strong hold in the cellar nor could any traces be discovered of any hurt that could have befallen him; nor has it since appeared that he had received any, so that the cause of this nocturnal disturbance remains an impenetrable mystery.

Various have been our attempts to explain it. Some of the women who measure the power of Rats by their own fears, would have it that he was bitten by a Rat, or by an Association of Rats, but to this I indignantly replied that in that case the ground would have been strewn with their bodies, – & that it would have been the Rats cry, not the Zombi’s that would have been heard. Dismissing therefore that impossible supposition I submit to your consideration in the form of queries the various possibilities which have occurred to me, – all unsatisfactory I confess, – requesting you to assist me in my endeavours to find out the mystery of this wonderful history, as it may truly be called. You will be pleased to bear in mind that the Zombi was the only Cat concerned in the transaction; – of that I am perfectly certain.

Now then Grosvenor, –

1. Had he seen the Devil?

2. Was he making love to himself?

3. Was he engaged in single combat with himself?

4. Was he attempting to raise the Devil by invocation?

5. Had he heard me sing, & was he attempting (vainly) to imitate it?

These queries, you will perceive all proceed upon the supposition that it was the Zombi who made the noise. – But I have farther to ask

6. Was it the Devil?

7. Was it Jeffery? [8] 

8. Were either of these personages tormenting the Zombi?

I have also to add that from that time to this he continues in the same obstinate retirement. & to assure you that

I remain

Mr Bedford

with the highest consideration

Yours as ever

Robert Southey.

T.O. [9] 

One farther query occurs while I am writing. Sunday having been the first of the month

9. Was he making April fools of us?

Keswick. 3 April. 1821


* Address: To/ G. C. Bedford Esqre/ Exchequer
Endorsements: 3d April 1821/ The zombi; The Zombi; 3d April 1821; 3d April 1821
MS: Bodleian Library, MS Eng. Lett. c. 26. ALS; 6p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 240–243. BACK

[1] Knighton had presented A Vision of Judgement (1821) to George IV and reported the king’s reactions back to Southey; see Southey to William Knighton, 30 March 1821, Letter 3661. BACK

[2] John Fane, Lord Burghersh (1784–1859; DNB), Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Grand Duchy of Tuscany 1814–1830. He was also a soldier in the Peninsular War, MP for Lyme Regis 1806–1816, a composer, and the Ambassador to Prussia 1841–1851 and to Austria 1851–1855. In 1841 he succeeded as 11th Earl of Westmorland. BACK

[3] Probably José Maria de la Cueva, 14th Duke of Albuquerque (1775–1811), Spanish Ambassador to Britain 1810–1811. Southey received a great deal of information, newspapers and books concerning the situation in Spain during the Peninsular War from his correspondent Manual Abella, who was based in Cadiz; see Southey to Herbert Hill, 23 March 1811, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 1888. BACK

[4] Southey to Walter Savage Landor, 8 February 1821, Letter 3629. BACK

[5] Mary Calvert, née Mitchinson (dates unknown), wife of William Calvert. BACK

[6] Henrique Dias (1605–1662), who led a Portuguese force composed of freed men and slaves against the Dutch in the two countries’ war in Brazil 1621–1654. BACK

[7] Zumbi (1655–1695) was the last leader of the Quilombo dos Palmares, a community of fugitive slaves in Brazil. BACK

[8] ‘Jeffrey’ was the name given to the apparition in an account of a ghost by Emilia Wesley (1692–1771), sister of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB); see The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, pp. 441–443. She attributed the apparitions she experienced to witchcraft. BACK

[9] T.O.: In the MS this marks the end of the page, and instructs Bedford to turn over to read the final section of the letter, where the joke is revealed. BACK

People mentioned

Wilson, Molly (?–1820) (mentioned 2 times)
Knighton, William (1776–1836) (mentioned 1 time)
Koster, Henry (1793–1820) (mentioned 1 time)
George IV (1762–1830) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)