1474. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham, 2 July 1808

1474. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham, 2 July 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick. July 2. 1808

Your letter, my dear Madam, has just prevented some arrangements which I was making for the conveyance of the picture to Cumberland, & <also> for what, I perceive, must not now be mentioned. [1]  Edith desires me to express her thanks at present, & hopes you will one day give her an opportunity of expressing them herself at Keswick. We have heard of the miniature from a friend who saw it unexpectedly in the Exhibition, & was much struck with the likeness. – I thank you likewise for your intentions with respect to Coleridge. You would have found him the most wonderful man living in conversation, – but the most impracticable one for a painter, & had you begun the picture, it is ten thousand to one that you must have finished it from memory. His countenance is the most variable that I have ever seen; sometimes it is kindled with the brightest expression, & sometimes all its light goes out & is utterly extinguished. Nothing can convey stronger indications of power than his eye, eye brow & fore head, – nothing can be more imbecil than all the rest of the face; – look at them seperately you would hardly think it possible that they could belong to one head, – look at them together you wonder how they came so, & are puzzled what to expect from a character whose outward & visible signs are so contradictory.

I am sorry I should have expressed my sense of Lady Bedingfields [2]  kindness so lamely that you were not certain I was gratified, & that in a very high degree. It has been my lot, Miss Betham, to meet with much injustice in the world – both as an individual & an author, & the effect it has had upon me has been to make me more sensible of any act of kindness. I have taken up a comfortable opinion that evil tongues speak only for themselves, but that favourable ones may be considered as speaking for posterity; & this opinion is likely to be true, because they who abuse me do it in their vocation & have therefore an obvious motive for so doing, whereas on the other hand no person can have any other motive for praising me – than the belief x that I deserve praise. We who write poetry have a double object in view, to please ourselves, & to please others; it is very gratifying to succeed in either. –Besides the general reason why I am greatly gratified in this particular instance, it will given me particular pleasure to see my own conceptions embodied, & set before me in a visible & permanent form. It has been always my wish to have my long p long poems accompanied with xxx prints, because so many pictures are lost to those readers who are not familiar with the costume: I particularly desired this for Madoc, [3]  but the difficulty of getting designs was such that it was better to give up the attempt, – & what little was done had better have been left undone. – I got a ship copied from the Bayeux tapestry, [4]  & sent to Pococke [5]  to make a drawing from it, – he, hearing that the subject of the poem was the discovery of America by Madoc, chose to think of Columbus, – & accordingly laid the right ship aside & put in its place one of Columbus’s age, – that is, three hundred years more modern than it ought to have been.

It gives me much pleasure to hear that you are able to set foot to the ground; – I should like also to hear that you were taking wing, – & that you do not let painting xxxxxx take up so much of your time as to prevent you from [MS ends]


* MS: Washington University in St Louis Library, tipped into Daniel M. Tredwell, A Monograph on Privately Illustrated Books [fragment; only one sheet on two sides survives]. AL; 2p. (c).
Previously published: Matilda Betham-Edwards, ‘Letters of Coleridge, Southey, and Lamb to Matilda Betham’, Fraser’s Magazine, 18 (1878), 73–84; Ernest Betham, ed., A House of Letters: Being Excerpts from the Correspondence of Miss Charlotte Jerningham (the Honble. Lady Bedingfield), Lady Jerningham, Coleridge, Lamb, Southey, Bernard and Lucy Barton, and others, with Matilda Betham; and from Diaries and Various Sources; and a Chapter upon Landor’s Quarrel with Charles Betham at Llanthony (London, 1905), pp. 110–113.
Note: after the first paragraph, the version published in Betham, House of Letters, is actually a section of a 3 June 1809 letter. BACK

[1] Southey had sat to Betham for his portrait in March; it seems that she had now waived her fee. BACK

[2] Charlotte Jerningham, Lady Bedingfield (1771–1854; DNB), Betham’s friend since the 1790s, was proposing to illustrate one of Southey’s poems. BACK

[3] Madoc (1805). BACK

[4] The Bayeux tapestry, commissioned by Bishop Odo (d. 1097), the half-brother of William I, the Conqueror (1027/8–1087; reigned 1066–1087; DNB), completed c. 1077. BACK

[5] Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821): marine painter, formerly a merchant seaman. Pocock exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1782–1815 and was a founder member of the Old Watercolour Society in 1804. Southey felt that Pocock spoilt the image of Madoc’s ship that he had been commissioned to make for the 1805 edition of the poem, by drawing an anachronistic vessel. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)