1078. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [c. 5 July 1805]

1078. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [c. 5 July 1805] ⁠* 

Dear Wynn,

Fox has written me a very civil letter of thanks, saying however that he has not yet had time to read the poem, [1]  – so his praise can only of course have been of detached parts.

They tell me the duty upon foreign books is not worth collecting, & that it might be repealed if any member thought it worth while to take up the matter. If this be the case – I pray you to take into consideration the case of your petitioner. There is now a room full of books lying for me at Lisbon. – all of use to me, yet literally & truly such the major part, that were they to be sold in England they would not yield the expence of the duty. I cannot smuggle them all in to my sorrow, being obliged to get over only a box at a time of such smuggleable size that a man can easily carry it, & this I cannot do at London where I wish to have them. What my Uncle has sent over & fairly paid for have cost above 100 £ freight & duty, the freight xxxx far the smaller part. – Now if this barbarous tax can be repealed, whoever effects its repeal certainly deserves to be esteemed a benefactor to literature & it may also be taken into the account that you would save me from the sin of smuggling, which also assuredly I have not virtue enough to resist. Seriously if the thing could be done it would be some pride to me as well as some profit that you should be the man to do it. – I think Rickman would willingly supply you with any details you might want or wish upon the subject.

Am I to congratulate you upon the honour of being one of the Committee, [2]  or to condole with you on the confinement & the trouble? An honour it certainly is & so I shall venture to offer my congratulations.

I have just received a good & valuable book from Lisbon, the Barbarorum Leges Antiquae well & laboriously edited by Canciani a Monk at Venice in five folios, the last published in 1792. [3]  An excellent work it appears upon the slight inspection which I have just given it, one that by its painful & patient labour reminds one of old times, – such a book as Monasteries do sometimes produce, but Universities never. – My books here are few, but weighty & every day I meet with something or other so interesting to me, that to a wish arises for some friend to drop in, to whom x xxx & with whom I could talk over the facts which have appeared & the speculations growing out of them. What profit this History may ultimately produce Heaven knows, – but I would not for any thing that rank or fortune could give forego the pleasure of the pursuit. [4] 

The story of Pelayo the restorer of the Gothic, or founder of the Spanish monarchy has been for some time in my thoughts as good for a poem. [5]  I would rather it were a Portuguese than a Spanish story – that however cannot be helped. The historical facts are few & striking – just what they should be, & I could firstly give to the main character the strong feelings & passions which give life & soul to poetry, & in which I feel that Madoc is deficient. There is yet half an hours day light – enough to show you what my present ideas are upon the subject in their crude state. – Pelayo revolted because his sister was made by force the concubine of a Moorish governor – or by consent: & because his own life was attempted by that governor, in fear of his resentment he retreated to the mountains, where a cavern was his strong hold, & from that cavern miraculously defeated an army of the Unbelievers. The end is that he won the City or Castle of Gijon [6]  & was chosen King. – Here are for characters Pelayo himself, the young Alphonso who married his daughter & succeeded to his throne. Oppas the renegade Archbishop – killed in the battle of the cave. Count Julian. his daughter Florinda the innocent cause of all the evil, who killed herself in consequence, & lastly King Rodrigo himself, who certainly escaped from the battle & lived as a hermit the remainder of his days. [7]  If I venture upon machinery of all subjects there is the most tempting one, – what a scene would the famous cave of Toledo furnish! [8]  & what might not be done with the ruined monasteries, with the relics & images which the fugitives were hiding in the woods & mountains! – I had forgot to mention among the historical characters the wife of Rodrigo who married one of the Moorish governors. Monks & Nuns (the latter not yet cloistered in communities) persecuted Arians & Jews, & Slaves would furnish fictitious & incidental characters in abundance. – You see the raw materials. If English history could supply me as good a subject it would on every account be better, but I can find none. That of Edmund Ironside [9]  is the best which Wm Taylor threw out as a lure to me in the Annual Review, [10]  – but where an historical xx story is taken the fact <source> ought to be of permanent importance. I have thought so long at one time about Pelayo as while thus talking to you about him. But Madoc does not fully satisfy me, & I should like to produce something better – something pitched in a higher key. A Spanish subject has one advantage – that it will cost me no additional labour of research. Only indeed were I to chuse Pelayo I would see his cave, which is fitted up as a chapel, has a stream gushing from it, & must be one of the finest xxxxxxxxx things in Spain.

God bless you –



* Address: C W Williams Wynn Esqr M. P./ Lincolns Inn/ London
Postmark: FREE/ JUL 5/ 1805
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 332–335 [in part]. BACK

[1] In his letter dated 19 February 1805 to Wynn (Letter 1039), Southey had expressed his intention of sending Madoc (1805) to Fox, the leader of the Whigs in parliament who was also a patron of pastoral poets. See also Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [22 June 1805], Letter 1075. BACK

[2] Southey is referring to the parliamentary investigation into the actions of Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville (1742–1811; DNB), Secretary of State for War 1794–1801 and First Lord of the Admiralty from 1804. During 1802–1805, Melville’s use of public funds while Treasurer of the Admiralty (1782–1800), was scrutinised by a Royal Commission. After its report, on 9 April 1805, Melville was censured in the House of Commons for allowing Alexander Trotter (dates unknown), the naval paymaster, to misuse public funds. Melville resigned and impeachment proceedings were commenced against him. The articles of impeachment were delivered to the House of Lords on 9 July 1805. BACK

[3] Paolo Canciani (1725–1810), Barbarorum Leges Antiquæ, cum Notis et Glossariis, acccendunt Formulari Fasciculi et Selectæ Constitutiones, 5 vols (1781–1792), no. 483 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[4] Southey’s ‘History of Portugal’, which he never completed. BACK

[5] The ‘story of Pelayo’ would become the subject-matter of Southey’s poem Roderick, The Last of the Goths published by Longman in 1814. BACK

[6] A city in the principality of Asturias on the northern coast of Spain. BACK

[7] On the characters of Roderick, The Last of the Goths, see the editor’s introduction to Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1811–1838, gen. eds Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt, 4 vols (London, 2012), II. BACK

[8] In Roderick, The Last of the Goths, Book 10, line 262, Southey cites sources concerning the cave, supposedly made by Hercules, and occupied by a dragon, below an enchanted tower in the centre of Toledo: Florian de Ocampo, (1499?–1555?), Las Quatro Partes Enteras de la Cronica de España que Mando Componer el Serenissimo Rey Don Alonso Llamado el Sabio Donde se Contienen los Acontecimientos y Hazañas Mayores y mas Señalades que Sucedieron en España (Zamora, 1541), ff. viii(v)-ix(r). In Juan Yagüe de Salas (1561–1621), Los Amantes de Teruel: Epopeya Tragica (Valencia, 1616), p. 29, voices from the cave predict King Roderick’s downfall. Southey also cites a similar story of prophesied doom from Lorenzo de Sepulveda (fl. 1551), Romances Nuevamente Sacados de Historias Antiguas dela Cronica de España (Antwerp, 1551), ff. 94r-5r and Pedro de Corral (b. 1385?), Crónica del Rey Don Rodrigo, I, pp. 172–81. Walter Scott used the same legend in The Vision of Don Roderick; a Poem (Edinburgh, London, 1811), pp. 76–84. BACK

[9] Edmund Ironside or Edmund II (d. 1016, King of England 1016; DNB). BACK

[10] In Taylor’s review of the third volume of Sharon Turner’s History of the Anglo-Saxons (1799–1805), he suggests subjects for an English epic, stating that ‘the frank, the daring, the generous virtues of Edmund Ironside; the nationality and importance of his cause, fit him for a favourite hero’. See Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 220–223, 222. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 1 time)
Taylor, William (1765–1836) (mentioned 1 time)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 1 time)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)