1533. Robert Southey to John May, 11 November 1808

1533. Robert Southey to John May, 11 November 1808 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Your letter had nearly brought me the first intelligence of my Uncles marriage, – for his which announced it arrived only by the same post. [1]  Some eight or nine weeks ago word to this effect had been written me by Colonel Peachy, my summer neighbour here, – but as he knows nothing of my Uncle, & there are so many Hills in the world, I rather wished his information to be true, than believed it; – & indeed so totally discredited the rumour as not to think it worthy of mention. I perceive what opinion you are inclined to upon the subject; – mine, as far as it can be formed in utter ignorance of the age & character of her whom he has chosen, is more favourable. Perhaps selfish considerations contribute to render it so, – I was not satisfied to feel myself settled so far from my Uncle, xxxx considering the lonely situation in which he was placed; & the thought that his evening of life would be passed in solitariness often came across me, & lay heavy at my heart. But setting that consideration aside, – one of the main objections to a late marriage, is not applicable to him; – he has <now> no fixed habits of life which it would be difficult to change or modify, – they have all been torn up by the roots, & new ones were necessarily to be acquired. One weighty drawback undoubtedly remains, – should he have children he cannot hope to see them grow up. I trust he feels convinced that in this case, should I survive them <him>, I shall be to them, to the utmost of my power, what they have he has been to me.

Surprized however certainly I am, & so surprized as hardly to have thought of any thing else since. To have a new graft upon a family stock is always an important event, & it is especially strange to hear unexpectedly of one who stands in so near a relation, & to know no more of her or her family than of the woman in the moon & hers, – a woman you know there must be there because the man in the moon has horns. My Uncle tells me her former name, & that she is of the race of old George Wither the poet, [2]  – who in spite of his long fits of desperate dullness – is a dear old friend of mine, a right poet in his best moods, & a right honest upright downright Englishman in all his moods. It is curious enough, that I should long have thought of publishing a selection from his works. – As you may well suppose there are many questions which I should like to have answered, – & perhaps you can answer some of them. Did he become acquainted with her at Lisbon? What age may she be? [3]  What part of Hampshire does her father live in? [4]  has she any brothers, [5]  & What is become of three elder sisters, for my Uncle calls her the fourth daughter? [6] 

You ask me my opinion of Mr Foxs history. [7]  I have only hastily seen & run it thro. The importance of the subject upon which he treats every body must feel [MS obscured] I know not whether others feel the thoroughxx & degrading meanness of all the circumstances recorded, & of all the characters brought forward, with the single exception of Sidney [8]  (for Russel [9]  was nothing but a martyr) & xxxxxx <probably> of that republican maltster, if we knew more of him, [10] let there is however enough known to xxxx him in my political Kalendar. In recording the events of that age, which no <true> Englishman can remember without <feeling> shame for his country, & almost for human nature, no feel sentiment can be excited except of hatred & disgust which approaches to loathsomeness. England is so sunk so degenerate, so vile & abject, that one can have no national feelings on perusing these annals, – & the party-spirit which is every where an apparent ill supplies their place. In fact Whig & Tory were alike base, the difference between them was not more than the shade between black & raven-gray, & if this <book> had reached the xxxx time of the Revolution we should have found & felt that even that event went to the tune of Tantararara, or rogues all. [11]  It was the Bishops who saved us & to be saved by such Bishops reminds me of Beelzebub casting out Devils. All this relates to the matter of the history. The manner it were unfair to judge of otherwise than favourably. It appears that Mr Fox had right notions concerning the nature of narration, & would have made it plain straight-forward narration without any discussion of disputed points & jarring authorities. The text is now full of these discussions, but it cannot be doubted, that he would have placed them in the notes or appendix. We lose much by the unfinished state of the work, – yet not so much as if the writer had been a man who stood aloof from parties, & was <not> continually thinking of the situation in which he himself stood. In spite of all Mr Fox can say Whigs & Tories have never meant much more than Ins & Outs or Outs & Ins; a fact <upon> which the last year of his own xxxx life set the great seal. – I am of the school of Sidney & Hutchinson [12]  & Milton, – public morality has never been produced in any other, & never will be produced where there is a false standard of greatness.

Bourgoings is the best statistic account of Spain; [13]  faithful & full but dull. Fischers the best supplement, giving what lies on the surface of things. [14]  But Fischer is xx there one of the worst principled men who ever lent his aid to debase demoralize & debilitate human nature. His Picture of Madrid is now on my table, & contains ample proof that he sets all religious & all moral restraint equally at defiance. [15]  Spain is totally changed since the Countess D’Anois & Labat described it, – her account is half a novel; [16]  his authentic & curious as far as it goes. But there is no country concerning which we have so few tolerable books. Non traveller seems to have known any thing about the country before he went there, – consequently none have been prepared for the journey.

God bless you


Nov. 11. 1808. Keswick.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Hale/ Downton/ Wiltshire/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: [illegible]
Endorsement: No. 137. 1808/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 11th Nover/ recd. 15th do/ ansd. 11th Decr
MS: Ms Hyde 10 (653), Houghton Library, Harvard University. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 102–106. BACK

[1] Southey’s uncle Herbert Hill had recently married Catherine, daughter of Loveless Bigg-Wither (1741–1813), a Hampshire landowner. BACK

[2] George Wither (1588–1667; DNB), the poet, a favourite of Southey’s. BACK

[3] Catherine was thirty-three. BACK

[4] Manydown is near Basingstoke in Hampshire. BACK

[5] Catherine had one surviving brother, Harris (1781–1833). He inherited the estate at Manydown and in 1802 proposed marriage to Jane Austen. BACK

[6] Catherine was the fourth of five surviving daughters, of whom the three elder than she had all married in the 1790s. BACK

[7] Charles James Fox (1749–1806; DNB), A History of the Early Part of the Reign of James II (1808). BACK

[8] Algernon Sidney (1623–1683; DNB). Republican executed for involvement in the Rye House plot to assassinate the monarch. BACK

[9] William Russell, Lord Russell (1639–1683; DNB). Republican executed for involvement in the Rye House plot to assassinate the monarch. BACK

[10] Richard Rumbold (1622–1685; DNB): a former soldier, Rumbold was a maltster of Rye House, near Hoddesdon, Hertfordshire. Rumbold escaped arrest after the discovery of the Rye House plot but was wounded, captured and executed while participating in the Duke of Argyll’s rebellion in 1685. His last words from the scaffold account for Southey’s enthusiasm: ‘I am sure there was no man born marked of God above another; for none comes into the world with a saddle upon his back, neither any booted and spurred to ride him’ (State trials, 9.873–81; DNB). BACK

[11] The tantara-raras were, in Southey’s parlance, the noisy, blaring MPs. Tantara-rara, Rogues All was the title of a 1786 play by John O’Keeffe (1747–1833; DNB); see The Dramatic Works of John O’Keeffe Esq., 4 vols (London, 1798), III, pp. 349–90. ‘Tantara-rara, Fools All Fools All’ was also a popular song from Henry Fielding’s (1707–1754; DNB) play The Lottery (1732). BACK

[12] In the Annual Review for 1806, 5 (1807), 361–378, Southey extolled the conduct and morality of Colonel John Hutchinson (1615–1664; DNB), a Puritan commander in the English civil war and a signatory of the death warrant of King Charles I, as revealed in a posthumously published memoir by his widow, Lucy Hutchinson (1620–1681; DNB): Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson (1806). BACK

[13] Jean-Francois Bourgoing (1748–1811), Travels in Spain: Containing a New, Accurate, and Comprehensive View of the Present State of that Country (1789; new edition 1808). BACK

[14] Frederick Augustus Fischer (dates unknown), Travels in Spain in 1797 and 1798. With an appendix on the method of travelling in that country (1802). BACK

[15] A Picture of Madrid Taken on the Spot (1808). This work was reviewed by Southey in the Annual Review for 1808, 7 (1809), 57–60. BACK

[16] Marie-Catherine Le Jumel de Barneville, Baroness d’Aulnoy (1650/1651–1705), Memoires de la Cour d’Espagne, Relation du Voyage d’Espagne (1690/1691). These travel accounts were collected and translated as The diverting works of the Countess d’Anois: author of the Ladies travel to Spain: containing: I. The memoirs of her own life: II. All her Spanish novels and histories: III. Her letters: IV. Tales of the fairies in three parts compleat (1707). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)