1499. Robert Southey to Anna Seward [late August/early September 1808]

1499. Robert Southey to Anna Seward [late August/early September 1808] ⁠* 

Landor is gone to Spain, to fight as a private soldier in the Spanish army. One such Englishman we lost in such a course as this when Sidney [1]  fell, – & in spite of the half-envy which his letter excited, a shuddering comes over me when I think of the passions & feelings, & noble qualities, & mighty genius, of which a chewed-bullet, & a half-pennyworth of powder may & a rusty musquet in the hands of a rascally Frenchman, may in one moment deprive the world. Such a man cannot fail to distinguish himself – if he be not speedily cut off, – he has a body answerable to his mind, & will learn how to command, sooner than an ordinary man could be taught the routine of loading & firing. Till he went I had no other emotions in beholding this great struggle, than joy, & eager expectation, – being in full faith that the good cause will triumph. – He has two companions with him to whom he preached this crusade, – God be with them! It is many a long day since the heart of England has beat with so generous a warmth as at this time animates it! Old honour, old generosity, old heroism are appearing again afr among us – England is herself again, the cause of liberty, disgraced & almost destroyed as it has been by that cursed monkey nation, is once more to be fought for, once more to be triumphant.

The story of the 8000 Frenchmen put to the sword, tho officially announced here, does not appear to be authenticated; – is in fact disproved by subsequent transactions in that quarter, with which it is utterly inconsistent. – What I blamed in ministry was their tardy aid. Wellesley lingered in Dublin weeks after he ought to have been in Lisbon. [2]  Not an hour should have been lost, – Lord Chatham [3]  would have secured the Pyrenees at the first outset, shut all succour out, & shut th Murat [4]  & his ruffians in, so that not a man could have escaped. There are scenes of tremendous horror which I could ‘behold & smile by Mercys side’. [5]  – an insurrection which should make the Negroes masters of the Sugar Islands is one. To hear that not a Frenchman returned into his own country would be another. It is not in my nature to justify such a system of warfare. my heart belies my understanding, conviction & Christian faith, when it rejoices even in defensive war, – for the I acknowledge the principles of Quakerism upon this point <but> I have not yet subdued my instincts to them: – but if this utter extermination were to take place, certainly my feeling would be that an aweful judgement had been dispensed, the most aweful since the Deluge, & one whose wholesome effect would remain as long as the memory of the event should be preserved. It is curious to see how <differently> history affects us with the same events, when the causes are different. We read of the massacre of the Danes [6]  in this country with deep & painful humiliation, – I would give half my limbs that it could be blotted out from remembrance – would that it had never been perpetrated. The Sicilian papers excite no such horror, there we do not sympathize with the sufferers: the patience of humanity had been outraged beyond all endurance, & dreadful as the vengeance was we acknowledge that it was just. [7] 

Your estimate of the value of my copyrights moved me to a doleful smile. I sold the copyright of J of Arc [8]  for 50 guineas & 50 copies. I sold the edition of Thalaba [9]  for 115 £, – & the edition hangs on hand. the fate of Madoc you know. No bookseller would give me 500 £ – nor half the sum, for the best poem which it is <in> my power to produce. Constable would not even make me an offer for Kehama, when, in return to his overture (which proved to relate to his rascally review) I asked him thro Scott what he would give for it.  [10]  It is only Scott who can get his thousands. [11]  He has got the Goose. My Swan’s eggs are not golden ones. Now that looks like a sarcasm, & it belies me in looking so. Poor I was born, & poor I shall die, 40,000 £ having been left from me only, & three the three fourths of it, <of> of which in the common order of things I am should still be expected, will be left from me again, without the slightest provocation, plea, or pretext in either case. But as soon as I am dead, then it will be like the man in the spectator, I shall be made with gold. <I shall then be> be-wept, be-rhymed, be-biographized, be-monumented, – whereas I may now be-starved – & be d___d if I please. Which I do not please. It is not in the power of the world to depress me. My spirits are unconquerably good, – my heart has been upon the anvil, & there is no breaking it, – I am a happy man, & the Devil himself shall never tell <make> me otherwise. If he takes me by the beard I will take him by the horns.

Joanna Baillie [12]  drank tea with us – she has a quick eye, frank & winning manners, & that kindly nature, that because there were children in the room, she could not help playing with them, & half her conversation was in familiar sport. She left upon us a very very favourable impression, & when next I see her I shall it will be as natural for me to go & shake her <by the> hand, – as it for me to make an iron bend of the back on coming within the atmosphere of Mrs Barbauld.

There will be human sufferings in Kehama. [13]  human passions, & human virtue tried in the burning fiery furnace. I have perceived that no person adm equally admires Madoc & Thalaba, [14] I mean & that whoever admires the one speaks with a sort of respectful dislike of the other. Now I who could write both, do not understand why other persons should find it a thirst taste for the one incompatible with a taste for the other, – yet assuredly so it is. Certainly they are, as they were meant to be, essentially different. To me it seems that I should have judged the author of Thalaba capable of writing Madoc but could not have deduced the opposite inference, – I should have seen the power over human feelings indicated in the one, I should not have suspected the creative magic of fancy in the other. that the one is the best poem, the other exhibits the greater power of poetry. The public agree with me that they are alike in merit, – buy neither, & leave them to keep one another company in Mr Longmans cellars.

All strangers judge as you have done from my lean & treasonable appearance. I am however a strong man, & no person ever managed himself better. – I look daily for your poem in the Courier, [15]  & am surprised at not seeing one day the paper missed, – yet if it had there been inserted – it would ere this have found its way into other prints.

R Southey


* Address: To/ Miss Seward/ Lichfield/ [inserted in another hand] 6 Buxton Crescent
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [illegible]
MS: University of Rochester, Rare Books Library, A.S727. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Peter Mann , ‘Two Unpublished Letters of Robert Southey’, N&Q, NS 22 (September 1975), 397–399. BACK

[1] Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586; DNB), poet, courtier and soldier, took a shot to the thigh while fighting in support of the Protestant Dutch against Spain in the Netherlands; he died of his wound three weeks later. BACK

[2] Arthur Wellesley, later to become Field Marshall and 1st Duke of Wellington, sailed in July with an expeditionary force to Portugal. He would spend the next six years fighting Napoleon’s armies in Iberia. BACK

[3] General John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1756–1835; DNB). Chatham had been passed over as the commander of British forces in the Peninsula in favour of Wellesley. Southey’s assessment was not borne out when, in 1809, Chatham proved an ineffectual commander during the Walcheren expedition. BACK

[4] Joachim-Napoléon Murat (1767–1815), the brother-in-law of Napoleon and a cavalryman. Murat was in charge of the French army occupying Madrid when the popular uprising that so inspired Southey and Landor began, on 2 May 1808. Napoleon made him Marshal of France and Admiral of France, 1st Prince Murat, and King of Naples from 1808 to 1815. BACK

[5] From Southey’s poem ‘To Horror’, published in Poems 1797. BACK

[6] In September 1807, British forces had bombarded Copenhagen, then neutral, to prevent Napoleon gaining possession of the Danish fleet. Over 2000 Danes, mostly civilians, were killed. BACK

[7] Killings by the royalist peasants and the Crown in the kingdom of Naples and Sicily of the nobles who, in the hope of reform, had allied themselves to the French. BACK

[8] Joan of Arc (1796). BACK

[9] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[10] Archibald Constable (1774–1827; DNB), publisher of the Edinburgh Review and of Scott’s Marmion (1808). For the letter to Scott mentioned here, see Southey to Walter Scott, 4 October 1807, Letter 1369. BACK

[11] Scott sold the copyrights of his first two poems to Longman for £500 each; for Marmion Constable paid him 1000 guineas. BACK

[12] (1762–1851; DNB), the Scottish dramatist, friend of the Aikins and of Scott. BACK

[13] Southey’s The Curse of Kehama, published in 1810. BACK

[14] Southey’s two previous poems, Madoc (1805) and Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[15] The editors have not traced the appearance of Seward’s poem in The Courier; it is likely that Coleridge, Southey’s contact at the Courier in 1808, did not cause it to be published there. However,’Verses Written in the Blank Leaves of Southey’s Madoc’ appeared in The Poetical Register, and Repository of Fugitive Poetry for 1808–9, 7 (1812), p. 235. BACK

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