1687. Robert Southey to Walter Savage Landor, [started before and continued on] 30 September 1809

1687. Robert Southey to Walter Savage Landor, [started before and continued on] 30 September 1809 ⁠* 

Freres defence has been performed by Ellis, with what success or ability I do not yet know, for the number has not reached me. Had I undertaken it I should have shown that the Ambassador had the spirit & feeling of an Englishman both of which were wanting in the General, who was cowed by the reputation of the French Generals & ran away from them. I should think that it would have been better for an English army to have been cut to pieces than so to have effected its escape, – that either with Blake in Biscay or at Somosierra, [1]  or under the walls of Madrid, such an army might have turned the whole current of fortune, have saved Spain, & delivered Europe.

There is a want of talent in the Junta, [2]  but no want of patriotism in the people. It angers me when people who take their politics from the Scotch Review [3]  or the Morning Chronicle, [4]  or Cobbett, depreciate the Spaniards, – it grieves me that you should do so, after the proofs afforded by Zaragoza & Gerona [5]  & the spirits displayed in Galicia from the moment in which their routed allies left them to carry on the war in their own way. [6]  – I expect to see last winters tragedy again represented, except that Ld Wellington will preserve his credit & that of the English name. Bonaparte will probably again over run the country but he will never keep it. A nation that has carried on a war of seven centuries against one invader will never rest till it has thrown off this yoke also. Doubtless they have much to endure, – no nation owes so heavy a debt to divine vengeance. There is retribution to be exacted for the Jews, for the American Indians, for the Dutch. [7]  It is in the righteous & natural order of things that the sins of the father should <thus> be visited upon the children. Their punishment is the fruit of their crimes – by the enormities which they precipitated under Hernando el Catholico [8]  & the Felipe 2. [9]  they established a thorough tyranny over body & soul in their own country, & this degradation has been the consequence. They are now paying thro this Purgatory, – but it will purify them, & the Spaniards will come out like gold from the furnace.

I shall soon have to write <upon> this subject at full length, – for I have undertaken the historical part of an Edinburgh Annual Register which the Ballantynes are about to start, under advice probably of Scott who is their Magnus Apollo. [10]  It begins with the year 1808. They have but just applied to me (being disappointed in the sample which some other brother of the grey-goose-quill supplied) [11]  – & I am have not yet received the materials which their London bookseller is to procure for me, so that they take me wholly unprepared for the task, & will hurry me thro with it. I like it, – or their terms would not have tempted me. It enables me so to speak <deliver> my own opinion as that many thousand persons shall hear them, & they will be heard more willingly, & received with fairer minds than if the author were well known. You will like the bitterness with which I speak of the last Coalition ministry, [12]  – & the undissembled courtesy with which all parties are treated in their turn.

A petty difficulty in Kehama [13]  has stopt me short, – yet it cannot or shall not stop me much longer, & then I shall speedily reach the end

The first volume of my Brazilian history is far advanced in the press, [14]  there is but one chapter more to transcribe, – the additional notes to arrange, & the Bibliographical Appendix which it is my intention to annex to every volume of my historical labours. This volume has cost me very great labour – the next will be far less laborious, & in some respects more interesting, – but this is worth the pains which it has cost.

Sept 30.

Kehama will be compleated in two more sections. Canticles they might be called if it were not for King Solomon. [15]  I wanted to be advised about the metre of my next poem, which is certainly to be upon Pelayo: [16]  it appears to me that what is excellent in itself is best in blank verse, but every thing below excellence borrows some thing from rhyme. The question therefore resolves itself into this, – is it shall the best parts be weakened for the sake of ornamenting the what must of necessity constitute the bulk of the poem. I think not, – but this opinion wants to be fortified by that of other persons competent to the question. Is it practicable to write the narrative generally in rhyme, & throw it aside when the passion rises & the subject will bear it out.

About two months ago some offers of service were made to me by Canning thro Ellis & Scott. They do him credit, because my opinions are pretty well known & if they do me no good, that is not his fault as he has no longer the power of realizing them. I asked to be made Historiographer, refusing to enter upon a diplomatic line of life, – & declining Professorships because they are fenced about with Tests, [17]  & it is a maxim with me never to swear except when an oath is good for the bile. To his surprize as well as mine, it was discovered that there was a Historiographer already, & of all men upon earth whom think you? – Dutens a Frenchman! – Had it pleased Monsieur Dutens just to have gone to Heaven to oblige me (the least thing a Frenchman could have done on such an occasion) – while Canning was in power, I believe I should have succeeded him. [18] 

How wretchedly this game of war is played, – when if it were played well we should so certainly win every thing! What can be more wretchedly constituted than such a Cabinet as ours! a government so managed is like an army whose whole movements are to be directed by Councils of war instead of the General! – As for these Puss-catch-corner [19]  ins & outs among the same miserable sets of men who have all in their turn have been tried & found wanting, they make one almost hopeless, were it not for a faith in God & in human nature.


Keswick. 1809.


* Address: To/ Walter Savage Landor Esqr./ South Parade/ Bath/ Hotwells/ Bristol/ Paid at Bath/ at Mitchell Bounden/ Rugeley/ Staffordshire/ Warwick [re-addressed by various hands]
[in another hand] Walter Savage Lander/ Rugeley/ Staffordshire/ Warwick
Stamped: [partial] BATH
MS: Victoria and Albert Museum, National Art Library Manuscripts, MS Forster 48 D.32 MS 7. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 164–167. BACK

[1] Lieutenant General Joaquín Blake y Joyes (1759–1827), a Spanish army officer in command of the army of Galicia and renowned for his determined resistance to superior French numbers. Somosierra is a mountain pass near Madrid which the Spanish army had unsuccessfully defended against Napoleon in 1808. Until the end of that year, Madrid itself was holding out against the French, after a popular rebellion had expelled them from the city, when Moore decided to retreat through the mountains rather than fight there. BACK

[2] The Spanish Supreme Central Junta, whose unwillingness to organise supplies for the British Army while urging a policy of attack, led Wellesley (and Southey) to suspect some of the Junta of co-operating with the French. BACK

[3] The Quarterly’s political and literary rival, the Edinburgh Review. BACK

[4] A newspaper founded in 1769, which under its current owner and editor, James Perry (1756–1821; DNB) had established a Whig political standing, with contributions from radical authors who were critical of the government. BACK

[5] The Spanish city of Zaragoza had been besieged in 1808 and 1809, when it fell to the French after a heroic defence was broken by an outbreak of disease. For Southey’s accounts of the sieges, see Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1808, 1.1 (1810), 306–321; and Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1809, 2.1 (1811), 508–527. The Spanish city of Gerona had been under siege by the French since 6 May 1809. After nearly seven months it finally fell on 11 December 1809. BACK

[6] The dispersed army of Galicia was effective as guerrilla forces harassing French supply lines. BACK

[7] Referring to Spain’s bloody history: its expulsion of the Jews of 1492, slaughter of South American Indians over a three hundred year period, and sixteenth-century wars on the Netherlands. BACK

[8] Fernando II de Aragón, el Católico (1452–1516), King of Aragon and Castille, who expelled the Jews and Moors. BACK

[9] Philip II (in Spanish Felipe II; 1527–1598) was King of Spain, Portugal, Naples, Sicily, and during his marriage to Mary I (1516–1558; DNB), King of England and Ireland. Philip, as Holy Roman Emperor, prosecuted the wars in the Netherlands as these territories formed part of his empire. BACK

[10] Meaning his mentor or luminary. BACK

[11] Either the poet and translator William Steward Rose (1775–1843; DNB) or his brother the diplomatist George Henry Rose (1770–1855; DNB). Their father was the Pittite loyalist MP George Rose (1744–1818; DNB). BACK

[12] Known as The Ministry of All the Talents, 1806–1807. BACK

[13] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

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

[15] The Song of Solomon, a book in the Old Testament which was attributed to King Solomon (10th century BC) was also known as the Song of Songs, or Canticle of Canticles. BACK

[16] An early name for Southey’s poem Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[17] That is, the requirement to swear oaths declaring one’s subscription to the articles of the established church. BACK

[18] Louis Dutens (1730–1812; DNB), a French Protestant, held the post of Historiographer Royal until his death on 23 May 1812. Southey’s campaign for the post proved unsuccessful and it went to one of his particular bêtes noires, James Stanier Clarke (c. 1765–1834; DNB). BACK

[19] A child’s game in which a room, or other square area with four corners, is inhabited by a player in each corner. A player in the centre is nominated ‘Puss’ and while the corner players attempt to change places with each other in any direction, ‘Puss’ tries to gain a corner during the exchange. If the central player succeeds in gaining a corner, the player without a corner becomes ‘Puss’ so that the game can begin again. BACK

People mentioned

Scott, Walter (1771–1832) (mentioned 2 times)
Ellis, George (1753–1815) (mentioned 2 times)
Wellesley, Arthur (1769–1852) (mentioned 2 times)
Cobbett, William (1763–1835) (mentioned 1 time)
Ballantyne, James (1772–1833) (mentioned 1 time)
Canning, George (1770–1827) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)