3724. Robert Southey to John May, 2 September-13 November 1821

3724. Robert Southey to John May, 2 September–13 November 1821⁠* 

Sept. 2. 1821.

The Bath & Bristol Theatres were then & for many years afterwards what in trade language is called ‘one concern.” [1]  The performers were stationed half the year in one city, half in the other. When they played on Mondays, Wednesdays & Fridays at Bristol, they went to Bath on the Saturday in two immense coaches big as a caravan of wild beasts, & returned after the play! When the nights of performance at Bath were Tuesdays Thursdays & Saturdays they went to Bristol on the Monday. Miss Tyler, thro her intimacy with Miss Palmer had the commands of orders for free admission; she was exceedingly fond of theatrical representations, & there was no subject of which I heard so much, from my earliest childhood. <It xxxx <<brought upon>> me once a most severe reprehension for innocently applying to the Church, a phrase which I then learnt to my cost belonged only to the Playhouse, – & saying one Sunday on our return from morning-service, that it had been a very full House.> When I was taken to the theatre for the first time I perfectly well remember my surprize at not finding the Pit literally a deep hole, into which I had often puzzled myself to think how, or why, any people could possibly go. You may judge by this how very young I must have been. I recollect nothing more of that first visit, except that the play was the Fathers, a comedy of Fieldings, which was acted not more than one season, & the farce was Coxheath Camp: – this recollection however, by the help of that useful book the Biographia Dramatica, fixes the date to 1778, – when I was four years old. [2] 

A half sheet of reminiscences written one & twenty years ago at Lisbon, has recallen this & a few other circumstances to my recollection, which might otherwise have been quite obliterated. Yet it surprizes me to perceive how many things come to mind which had been for years & years forgotten! It is said that when earth is flung to the surface in digging a pit well plants will generally spring up then which are not found in the surrounding country, seeds having quickened which had been buried there during unknown ages: – no unapt illustration for the way in which forgotten things are thus brought up from the bottom of ones memory.

I was then introduced to the Theatre before it was possible for me to comprehend the nature of the drama so as to derive any pleasure from it, except from the mere spectacle. What was going on upon the stage, as far as I understood it, appeared real to me & I have been told that upon one night when the Critic [3]  was represented, & I heard that Sir W Raleghs head was to be cut off, I hid mine in Miss Mary Delameres [4]  lap, & could not be persuaded to look up, till I was assured this dreaded scene was over. <It was not long before I acquired a keen relish for the drama, but at this time> My greatest pleasure was a walk in the fields, especially if we crost the xxxx river in the ferry boat at Walcot, or at the South Parade. Short as the passage was I have not yet forgotten the delight which it used to give me. There were three points beyond all others which I was desirous of reaching, the sham-Castle on Claverton Hill, & a summer-house on Beechen clift, xxxx & the grave of a young man, whom <a gambler by name> Count Rice (I think) had killed in a duel. [5]  The two former objects were neither of them two miles distant: xxxx only xxxxxx thxx xxxx; – but they were up-hill, & my Aunt regarded it as an impossibility to walk so far. I did not reach them therefore till I was old enough to be in some degree master of my own movements. The grave was at Bath Weston, & we reached it once: but the usual extent of our walks into the country (which were very rare) was to a cottage in an orchard about half way. It was always a great joy <to me> when I was sent for home, tho my fathers house stood <was> in then <one of the busiest> streets of a crowded city. I had more liberty, & was under no capricious restrictions; – & I had more walks into the fields, tho still too few. My Mother sometimes, & sometimes my Aunt Mary, would walk with me to Kingsdown, – to Brandon Hill, – Clifton, or that <bank of the river which> is called the Sea Banks, I know nobody. And we often went to my grandmothers, [6]  where I liked best to be, because I had there a thorough enjoyment of the country.

Miss Tyler whose ascendency over my Mother was always that of an imperious elder sister, would not suffer me to be breeched till I was six years old, tho I was tall of my age. I had a fantastic dress <costume> of nankeen, for highdays & holydays, trimmed with green fringe, – it was called a vest & tunic, – or a jam. When at last I changed my dress it was for coat waistcoat & breeches, – for there was no intermediate form of dress <apparel> in use. I was then sent as a day scholar to a school on the top of S Michaels hill, which was then esteemed the best in Bristol, kept by Mr Foot, a dissenting minister. [7]  He was a General Baptist of that community who are called General Baptists, in contradistinction to the Particular Baptists, & like most of his denomination had passed into a sort of Low Arianism, if indeed he were not a Socinian. With this however I had nothing to do, nor did my parents regard it. He was an very old man, & if the school had ever been a good one, it had woefully deteriorated. I was one of the least boys there, – I believe the very least, & certainly both as willing & as apt to learn, as any teacher could have desired: yet it was the only school where I was ever treated with severity. The Lessons in the grammar which I did not comprehend, & yet would have learned well enough by rote under gentle discipline, were frightened out of my head, & then I was shut up in a closet at the top of the stairs, with just light enough thro some bars to see my lesson by. Once he caned me cruelly, – the only time that any master ever laid his hand upon me: – & I am sure he deserved a beating much more than I did. There was a great deal of tyranny in the school, from the worst of which I was exempted because I went home at in the evening: but I stood in great fear of the big boys, & saw much more of the evil side of human nature than I should ever have learnt in the course of domestic education.

I had been there not more than twelve months when the master died. He was succeeded by Mr Estlin, a Socinian Minister, with whom I in after years I was well acquainted, – a good scholar, & an excellent man. Had I continued at the school, he would have grounded me well. Unfortunately my father (I know not for what reason) thought proper to remove me upon Mr Foots death, & placed me at a school nine miles from Bristol, in a village called Corston, about a mile from the Globe at Newton, a well known public house on the road between Bath & Bristol. The stage was to drop me at that public house, & my father to accompany it on horseback, & consign me to the masters care. When the time for our departure drew nigh, I found my Mother weeping in her chamber. It was the first time I had ever seen her shed tears; – the room (that wherein I was born) with all its furniture, & her attitude <position> & look at that moment, are as distinct in my memory as if the scene had occurred but yesterday; – & I can call to mind with how strong & painful an effort it was that I subdued my own feelings. I allude to it in the Hymn to the Penates. [8] 

One of my earliest extant poems (the Retrospect) describes <this school, &> a visit which I made to this school at the dozen years <it>, in the year 1794 <after it had ceased to be one>. [9]  The House had been the mansion of some decayed family, whose history I should like to trace if Collinsons Somersetshire were to fall in my way. [10]  There were vestiges of former respectability & comfort about it, which young as I was, impressed me in the same manner as such things would do now: walled gardens, summer houses, gatex <pillars> surmounted with huge balls of stone, a paddock, a large orchard, walnut trees, <yards &> outhouses upon an opulent scale. I felt how mournful all this was in its fallen state, when the great walled garden was converted into a playground for the boys, the gateways xxxxx broken, the summer houses falling to ruin, & grass growing in the interstices of the Lozenged pavement of the fore court. The features within I do not so distinctly remember, not being so well able to understand their <symbols of better days>, only I recollect a black oaken staircase <from the hall,> & that the school room was hung with faded tapestry, behind which we used to hoard crabs.

Here one year of my life was past xxx unprofitably, & with a good deal of suffering. There could not be a worse school in all respects. Xxxxxxx <Thomas xxxx> Flower [11]  the Master was a remarkable man, worthy I believe of a better station of <in> life, but utterly unfit for that in which he was placed. His whole delight was in mathematics & astronomy; & he had constructed an orrery upon so large a scale, that it filled a room. What a misery it must have been for such a man to teach a set of stupid boys, year after year, the rudiments of arithmetic! And a misery he seemed to feel it; when he came into his desk, even there he was thinking of the stars, & seemed always <looked as if he were> out of humour <not from ill-nature, but> because his calculations were interrupted. But for the most part he left the school to the care of his son Charley, [12]  a person who was always called by that familiar diminutive, & whose consequence you may appreciate accordingly. Writing & arithmetic were all they professed to teach; but twice a week a Frenchman came from Bristol to instruct in Latin the few small part of the boys who learnt it, – of whom I was one. Duplanier [13]  was his name, – a very good natured man. He returned to France at the commencement of the Revolution, & a report obtained credit at one time that xx resuming his own name there, he went into the army, & became no less a personage than General Menou, of Egyptian notoriety. [14]  For Duplaniers sake, who was a very good-natured man, I am glad the story was disproved.

That sort of ornamental penmanship which now, I fear, is wholly gone out of use, was taught there. The father as well as Charley excelled in it. They could adorn the heading of a rule in arithmetic in a cyphering book, not merely with common flourishing, but with an angel, a serpent, a fish or a pen, formed with an ease & freedom of hand which was to me a great object of admiration; but unluckily I was too young to acquire the art. In the course of my life I have seen two historical subjects <pieces> produced in this manner by the pen <with worthy of remembrance as notable specimens of whimsical dexterity>; one was David killing Goliah, - [15]  it was in a Brokers shop at Bristol <I would have bought it if I could have afforded at that time to expend some ten shillings on the xxxxxxx upon it>; – the other was a portrait of Joam 5 [16]  on horseback, in the bishops palace at Beja. They taught the beautiful Italian <or Ladies’> hand used by Ladies in the age of our parents, – & engrossing [17]  (which may be called a Rascally hand for <considering> the use to which it is appropriated, but which I suppose was devised to insure distinctness & legibility) & some varieties of German text, worthy for their square, massy, antique forms to have figured in an Antiquarians title page.

Twice during the twelve months of my stay, much great interest was excited throughout the school <commonwealth> by a grand spelling match, for which poor Flower deserves some credit, if it was a device of his own, to save himself trouble & amuse the boys. Two of the biggest boys chose for their party, boy by boy alternately, till the whole number <school> was divided between them: they then hunted the Dictionary for words unusual enough in their orthography to puzzle ill-taught lads, & having compared lists, that the same word might not be chosen by both, two words were delivered to every boy, & kept by him profoundly secret from all on the other side till the time of trial. On a day appointed we all were xxxx drawn up in battle array, quite as anxious for <on> the moment <occasion> as the members of a Cricket Club for the xxxxx <xxxxxx result> of a grand match against all England, – ambition – that “last infirmity of noble minds” [18]  had something to do with this anxiety, & to increase the excitement – each person had waged a halfpenny upon the victory <event>. The words were given out in due succession on each side from the biggest to the least, & for every one which was spelt <rightly> in its progress down the enemys ranks, the enemy scored one. The party in which I was engaged won <lost> one of these matches & won the other. I can still remember that my words for one of them were Chrystallization & coterie, & that I was one of the most effective persons in the contest, which might very easily be.

Charley & his father frequently saved themselves some trouble by putting me to teach bigger boys than myself. I got on with Latin here more by assisting others in their lessons than by <my> own, for Duplanier only <when the master> came twice a week <so seldom>; this assistance was not voluntary on my part, it was a tax levied upon me by the law of the strongest <a law which prevails as much in schools as it did in the cabinets of the Emperor Napoleon & of Louis 14, [19]  & does in that of the United States of America>; but the effect was that I xx made as much progress myself as if my lessons had been daily. At Mr Foots I read Cordery & Erasmus, [20]  each with a translation in <a> parallel column which was doubled down at lesson time. Here I got into Phædrus, [21]  without a translation, but with the help of an Ordo verborum, [22] designated indicated by figures in the margin. But I am at the end of my paper, & the slip beside me has items enough concerning Corston for another letter.

Nov. 13.


* MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. AL; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 41–51. BACK

[1] The Old Orchard Street Theatre in Bath was built in 1750 and owned by John Palmer (1703–1788), who also acquired the Theatre Royal in Bristol. He was the father of Miss Palmer. The same repertory company performed at both theatres. BACK

[2] Henry Fielding (1707–1754; DNB), The Fathers; or, The Good-Natur’d Man (1779) and Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816; DNB), The Camp (1778); David Erskine Baker (1739–1767?; DNB), Biographia Dramatica. A New Edition, 2 vols (London, 1782), I, p. 163 (Fielding); and II, p. 41 (Sheridan). BACK

[3] Sheridan’s The Critic; or, A Tragedy Rehearsed (1779), a satire on the contemporary theatre. Central to the action is a rehearsal of a play on the Spanish Armada (1588), one of the main characters in this is based on the courtier, explorer and author Sir Walter Ralegh (1554–1618; DNB). BACK

[4] Mary Delamare (1740–1820) was one of the sisters of Elizabeth Dolignon, and a friend of Elizabeth Tyler, Southey’s aunt. BACK

[5] On 18 November 1778, two visitors to Bath, a Captain Rice (dates unknown) and Vicomte Jean Baptiste Du Barre (1749–1778), fought a duel over a gambling dispute. Although Rice killed his opponent, at the subsequent trial at Taunton Assizes in 1779 he was acquitted of murder. BACK

[6] Margaret Bradford (1710–1782), who lived at Bedminster. BACK

[7] William Foot (d. 1781), Bristol Baptist minister, schoolmaster and author of A Plain Account of the Ordinance of Baptism (1756–1758). He ran a school at the top of St Michael’s Hill, Bristol. General Baptists differed from Particular Baptists in believing that all people possessed the free will to be saved, with God’s grace, and none were predestined to damnation. At this time many General Baptists held unorthodox views of the Trinity, and Southey suggests Foot was at least a follower of Arius (250–336 AD) in believing that Jesus was a divine being created by, and subordinate to, God. ‘Socinian’ (after Fausto Sozzini 1539–1604) was a means of describing Unitarianism, and some Unitarians believed Jesus was merely a divinely inspired man. BACK

[8] ‘Hymn to the Penates’ (1796), lines 42–45: ‘When first/ A little one, I left my father’s home, I can remember the first grief I felt,/ And the first painful smile that cloathed my front/ With feelings not its own’. BACK

[9] ‘The Retrospect’ (1794), published in Southey’s and Robert Lovell’s Poems (Bath, 1795), pp. [1]–15. BACK

[10] Southey added a prefatory note from John Collinson (1757–1793; DNB), The History and Antiquities of the County of Somerset, 3 vols (Bath, 1791), III, pp. 341–347, to the revised version of ‘The Retrospect’ published in his Poetical Works, 10 vols (London 1837–1838), II, pp. 263–264, and added that the house (now Manor Farm) was, by 1837, a farmhouse. BACK

[11] Thomas Flower (d. 1799); he also gave public lectures on astronomy and took private pupils. BACK

[12] Charles Flower (dates unknown), son of Thomas Flower. BACK

[13] Du Planier (dates unknown) ran a private school in Bristol, next door to the one that Southey attended in 1782–1786. BACK

[14] The French General Jacques-François de Menou, Baron de Boussay (1750–1810), commander of French forces in Egypt 1800–1801. The story that he was actually Du Planier, (who had returned to France in 1790) was widely reported, for example, Albion and Evening Advertiser, 13 September 1800. BACK

[15] 1 Samuel 17. BACK

[16] John V (1689–1750; King of Portugal 1706–1750), nicknamed ‘the Magnificent’. Southey saw the portrait when he visited Manuel de Cenáculo, Bishop of Beja in April 1801. BACK

[17] The writing out of the final form of a legal document after successive drafts. BACK

[18] A paraphrase of John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), ‘Lycidas’ (1637), line 71. BACK

[19] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; Emperor of the French 1804–1814, 1815); and Louis XIV (1638–1715; King of France 1643–1715). BACK

[20] Editions of Mathurin Cordier (1479–1564), Colloquium Scholasticorum Libri Quator, and Desiderius Erasmus (1466–1536), Adages (1500) or Colloquies (1516). BACK

[21] Phaedrus (fl. 1st century), Fabulae Aesopiae, a Latin collection of fables. BACK

[22] ‘Order of words’; an aid designed to help with the translation of Latin. BACK

People mentioned

Tyler, Elizabeth (1739–1821) (mentioned 4 times)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 3 times)
Palmer, Miss (mentioned 1 time)
Dolignon, Elizabeth (d. 1802) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Mary (1750–1838) (mentioned 1 time)