1507. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 13 September 1808

1507. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 13 September 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick Sept. 13. 1808.

My dear Rickman

The book concerning which the Captain enquires proves to be thoroughly & entirely worthless I believe it to be fabulous altogether, & am quite sure that tho there should happen to be any truth in it, it is good for nothing. When you convey this information to him, let him know that Longman has been instructed to send him a copy of my Cid the Campeador, [1]  to the end that he make enquiry for it in case of its non appearance in due time. Your copy I hope will have reached you before then.

The Portugueze have a better story to make out than you have made for them. The conscription certainly had been enforced, but it was before any stir began in Spain, & consequently before there was any probability of resisting to good purpose. The business at Porto may not have been upon a great scale, but perhaps you are not aware that there is in the large towns a French party in opposition to an English one, & therefore the true Portugueze have had more to contend with than the Spaniards. Besides they certainly lost no time in stirring: long before Duponts surrender [2]  the whole of Algarve had risen, & you may see what Alentejo has suffered for rising, exposed as it was to troops from Lisbon on the one side & from Elvas on the other. The French had more troops there in proportion than in Spain, & better distributed. There is also this remarkable difference between the two countries. In the one the higher you ascend in rank the better the people are, – that is till you come to royalty which is necessarily worthless everywhere. But in Portugal the reverse holds good, & nothing can be worse than the nobility & the fidalgos. This is only to be accounted for physically. The kingdom is very small, & as these casts intermarry only among themselves the breed has degenerated, – syphilis too has probably in many or most instances left a taint in the blood & helped on the process of kakkerlakkenism. [3]  Spain has been preserved from this by its greater size. You are not to receive this as a mere speculation of mine, invented by my own fire side, – I find it so represented by some of the Portugueze themselves, – & the fact is certainly so.

Your estimate of Spain is right. the difference between our age & that of Elizabeth is that the bulk of the people are better in no respect, & worse in some: that the middle classes are fineered instead of being heart of oak, – & the higher ones are better classics & worse in every other possible point of view. Ours is a degrading & dwarfing system of society I believe as you do that the Spaniards have displayed more spirit than we should have done, & that the peacemongers were ready to have sacrificed the honour of England for their looms & brew-houses, [4]  – in what light I regard it you will see by the Introduction to the Cid, written six years ago, & only remodelled now, & that before these late events took place. But much has also been done by that awakening recollection of the deeds of their forefathers, which every Spaniard felt & delighted to feel. The very ballads of the Cid must have had their effect.

You have seen my old Letters advertised – 2 weeks close work has thoroughly expurgated them, & by the addition of such pertinent matter [MS torn] & local history as my later knowledge enabled me to bring forward they have been recast into a respectable book, – as you will in due time behold. [5] 

I am very idle, – boating & walking about & laying in health & exercise from for the next xx season of hybernation. Right glad shall I be when you come & help me in this laudable & needful part of my years work. – The last odd thing which has turned up in my reading is – that the Merino sheep were originally English & transported from hence into Spain, – ergo, the quality of wool depends upon the climate or pasture, &c. few generations may be expected to bring it back to what it originally was. [6] 

Your mode of sending MS news is not a very safe one. I paid for a gazette one day in consequence: there had been old scrawling on the cover which was visible thro & probably induced an examination.

You know how the Eastern jugglers [7]  & the Psylli of old [8]  are proof against animal poisons. The discovery of their secret would be worth more than all the European atchievements in the East xxx xxxxxx have produced. It is not probable that they have xxxxxxed xxx discovered something which renders the system unsusceptible of each poison, in the manner that the vaccine prevents variolous infection? – I am writing to an infidel I know. but that matters not. The thing is worth enquiry. Are these men equally proof against hydrophobia? – here is another thing thing which deserves investigation also. – Ira furor brevis est [9]  is true in a wider sense than perhaps Seneca himself suspected. [10]  Do you know that Hydrophobia, or a species of it, has been occasioned by the peck of a furious game cock & by the bite of a man, in a paroxysm of anger?

I am now going to hurry thro a letter to Biddlecombe concerning the lost books. [11]  > – It goes by the same post, & I have made out a list of the desiderata, give him a helping hint. the old books are of value, & so are the sketches>

God bless you —



* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr./ Christ Church/ Hampshire
Endorsement: RS./ 13 Sept. 1808
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ SEP 16/ 1808
MS: Huntington Library, RS 132. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 169–170 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey’s edition of the Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[2] Pierre-Antoine, Comte Dupont de l’Étang (1765–1840), the general who led the Napoleonic army to its first major defeat, at the Battle of Bailén, in July 1808. BACK

[3] Literally, ‘cockroachism’. BACK

[4] A hit at Samuel Whitbread (1764–1815; DNB), brewer, Whig politician and advocate of a negotiated peace with Napoleon. BACK

[5] Southey’s Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797) were being reprinted in an expanded form as Letters written during a Journey in Spain, and a Short Residence in Portugal. BACK

[6] Britain had first obtained the merino sheep, long jealously guarded by the Spanish because their fine wool commanded high prices, at the end of the eighteenth century. Now, in 1808, with the two countries allies against France, a further 2000 Paula merinos were obtained. Southey’s notion that the merino originated in Britain is supported by historians only to the extent that in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Arab-descended sheep of Spain were improved by the import of British bloodstock. BACK

[7] A troop of Indian jugglers including Kia (or Khia) Khan Khruse and Ramo Samee performed in Britain in the early decades of the nineteenth century. BACK

[8] The Psylli were a North African tribe reputed by Roman writers to be immune to snake bites. BACK

[9] ‘Anger is a brief madness’. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC–8 BC)), Epistles, 1.2.62 BACK

[10] Anger was the subject of ‘To Novatus on Anger’, by Lucius Annaeus Seneca (c. 4 BC–AD 65). BACK

[11] This letter has not been traced. BACK

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