1567. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham [fragment], 17 January 1809

1567. Robert Southey to Mary Matilda Betham [fragment], 17 January 1809 ⁠* 

Keswick. Jany. 17. 1809.

You make a right distinction, my dear Miss Betham, between the egotism of words & of actions. The egotism of the heart seldom reaches to the lips, – none are so intensely selfish as the race of fawners & flatterers, who always talk about you for the sake of making themselves appear amiable. Those letters are always the most interesting which are most about the writer. Am I wrong in supposing that generous minds express themselves more fully by the pen than by word of mouth, whereas a knave never lays himself open except he is thrown off his guard in conversation? – I have myself not so much a principle, as an instinct of unreservedness, – nor do I know whether I can help it or no, for I never have tr tried the experiment. My very reserve resembles the rolling itself up of a hedgehog, & is a manifestation too plain to be mistaken that I do not like my company. Yet I am sensible that I express myself more fully & more freely when writing by my own fire side, than ever I do xxxx at an after-dinner table, or in the most confidential <personal> intercourse.

In June then we hope & look to see you here. What the picture wants can easily be given it, – or rather what it has too much of can easily be taken away. [1]  Myne <face> has had none of that bloom for about seventeen years – There must be a strong Southey character about it, for every body recognizes me, but thinks more of my brother Henry. But Henry’s face has got him into so many love-scrapes that I have told him he ought not to go about without a muzzle, a precaution of which I never felt the slightest occasion myself. My skin thickened just as I ceased to be a boy, I was always lean, & at that age when men in general think of nothing but their pleasure I had so much occasion both for thought & feeling which have left their indelible stamp behind upon my strong features.

By the time you arrive my Hindoo Poem will probably be finished. [2]  Should it be compleated to my own satisfaction, I have a wish about it which I will not explain till you have seen the story, & then I think you will guess it. I promise to myself many pleasures in seeing you here, – in showing you the mountains from these windows, – in rowing you to the spot where we boil our kettle by the lake side, – in seeing you, tempted by emulation at the example of my boatwomen, take the oars in your hand instead of the pencil, – in guiding you over the mountains & into the glens, – in talking to you about your poems & telling you what you could do, – & in showing you how very happy a man may be upon very scanty means, who cares nothing for the pomps & vanities of the world, & preserves a boys heart when the grey hairs are beginning to show themselves. And in pointing out to you the house where your father lodged, & the school in which he taught, [3]  when your spirit was just ripe for this human stage of existence <being>, – for preexistence is a part of my creed.

I hope & trust one day to have an opportunity of personally thanking Lady Bedingfield. [4]  In the work which I have at present in the press there is one part which will I think equally please & displease her. It is that which relates to the Jesuits, – main actors in the history of that portion of South America which falls within my limits. [5]  Ample – most ample justice is rendered to their love of God & of man, – & I hope the sincerity & even zeal with which I have done this may atone to her for the manner in which I cannot but speak of the Catholick mythology.

My hope & faith in the Spaniards remains unshaken amid by their reverses, or f even by the far more lamentable panics & pusillanimity of our Government. The papers in the Courier signed G. upon the Cintra Convention are by Wordsworth, & will be separately published, – they express our opinions here. [6]  Were I a single man I would hasten to Spain as to a crusade, & if possible get to Zaragoza in time for the siege. [7]  Oh doubt not that that country will redeem, is redeeming itself! Even if Bonaparte bears down all opposition for a time, & conquers the country, he will not have conquered the people, – wherever the pressure of his armies is withdrawn they will rise against him, – his whole force will be required to keep them down, (even if he gets them down) & ultimately the will vengeance of God & Man will strike him there, when his work is done.

[MS torn]

me to express her thanks for the picture, & to say how glad she shall be to express them herself.

believe me

yours very truly

Robert Southey.


* Address: [in another hand] Wrexham Jany. twenty five 1809/ Miss Betham/ Stoneham/ Suffolk/ W Williams Wynn
Stamped: WREXHAM/ 202
Postmark: FREE/ 24 JA 24/ 1809
MS: Bunce Collection, Birmingham University Library, BU4. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: 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.119–121 [in part]. BACK

[1] Betham had painted a portrait of Southey in March 1808. BACK

[2] The Curse of Kehama was published in 1810. BACK

[3] Betham’s father, William Betham (1749–1839; DNB), clergyman, antiquary, schoolmaster, was born at Little Strickland, near Morland, Westmorland, twenty-five miles east of Keswick, and schooled in Keswick. BACK

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

[5] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil was published in 1810. BACK

[6] At the Convention of Cintra (signed 30 August 1808), British generals allowed a defeated French army to evacuate Portugal. On 27 December 1808 and 13 January 1809 Wordsworth published, in The Courier, an article condemning the Convention. In May 1809 Longmans published the article as a pamphlet, entitled Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain, and Portugal, to Each Other, and to the Common Enemy, at this Crisis; and Specifically as Affected by the Convention of Cintra. BACK

[7] Two sieges of Zaragoza took place, in 1808–1809. For Southey’s accounts, see Edinburgh Annual Register for 1808, 1.1 (1810), 306–321, and Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 508–527. BACK

People mentioned

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)