303. Robert Southey to John May, 6 April 1798

303. Robert Southey to John May, 6 April 1798 ⁠* 

Good Friday. April 6. 98

My dear friend

I was on Monday last summoned to Bath in consequence of an alarming increase in my Mothers illness. She had taken fresh cold, & tho I found her somewhat amended by bleeding still her state of health appears both to myself & the Physician who attends her, [1]  to require a speedy removal to a better climate. I wrote immediately to my Uncle, trusting that he is safely arrived but almost I fear that this may be too late. the hopes I yet entertain of her recovery are only founded upon the sudden amendment which change of scene & of surrounding circumstances has heretofore effected in her.

Edith also is very unwell. she has now good advice, & air as good as this country can furnish. these are unpleasant subjects, & I have said enough.

Wynn tells me he has seen you, & that you agree with him in thinking a house fit for the purpose may be found ready built. I doubt whether you can find one with land enough annexed, & well situated for our purpose. it is however worth trying. Mr Martin has opened a wide field for enquiry by proposing to appropriate the useless funds of charity to new institutions. [2]  the Authority of Parliament would be necessary for this, but the Society [3]  of which he is a member, have influence enough to effect it; & were a general enquiry set on foot into the application of the funds left for charitable purposes, much iniquity would be brought to light, & a fund would be discovered of very great value to relieve the lower classes. Of late I have been making some enquiries into one charity at Bath, where an estate left to support 13 poor persons has increased to the value of 100,000 pounds; the paupers receive little more than they ever did, & the remainder of the 5000£ per annum, goes to nobody knows who. The minister who has their Chapel is said to share 2000 annually, & a rascally Lawyer picks 500 a year out of the spoils. [4]  In enquiring into this iniquity, other peculations as enormous have been pointed out to me. The state of the poor requires some effectual relief, & the nation would find funds that would go far towards relieving them, by merely correcting such abuses as these.

There is no reason why the House of Commons should not do this. but I have the example of the Slave Trade before my eyes, & have ceased to expect any thing good from that quarter. [5]  It may however be suggested to Wynn – & I will write upon the subject to him.

Rousseau’s Confessions are like his Heloise: [6]  as the mind that receives it is healthy or diseased it becomes medicinal or poisonous. the most exceptionable passages in the book, are wholly <almost> useless; or develope such parts of his character as need not be known. they show us the cravings of a heart that wanted & deserved an equal companion, & which when plunging into sensuality felt its own degradation & the emptiness of sensual enjoyment. There seemd a perpetual struggle between his soul & body. I do not look upon Rousseau with blind admiration, he was a miserable man & I think of him with feelings of regret & compassion that make him the more interesting. Read his Levite of Ephraim, with the exception of two similes, it is in my judgement a perfect poem. [7]  & read his letter to Voltaire, the most beautiful defense of Optimism that has ever yet appeared. [8] 

Lloyds novel is finished, & will be published early in the next week. [9]  the story is hasty & crude. but the many of the Letters equal the eloquence of Rousseau. I have taken some steps in the affair between him & Sophia, & am now satisfied that if it be not renewed, the fault will be wholly his, & in my eyes, an inexcuseable one. I hope & believe it will be well settled.

My book [10]  comes on. the second volume is half finished, & may be compleated in a fortnight. I then proceed to the ninth book. I am glad of these employments. they fix my attention to the present. & anticipation is useless.

I should like to send Osterveld [11]  my books if it were probable that they would reach him.

My brother goes on well at Yarmouth, & tho he knew not the Greek Alphabet when he went there, now toils successfully thro Xenophon. [12] 

God bless you.

Yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

Remember me to Carlisle.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ 4. Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: [partial] BRIS
Postmark: B/ AP/ 27/ 98
Endorsement: 1798 No. 15./ Robert Southey/ Good Friday 6 April/ recd. 7 do/ ansd. 11 do
MS: University of Sheffield Library MS 25 (5). ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 52–54 [in part]. BACK

[1] Unidentified. BACK

[2] Matthew Martin (1748–1838; DNB), secretary to the Society for Bettering the Condition and Improving the Comforts of the Poor. The Society had been founded in December 1796. BACK

[3] ‘Society for bettering the Condition of the Poor’ inserted in another hand, probably Warter’s. BACK

[4] Southey had earlier in the year written to Richard Locke (1737-1806; DNB), enquiring about the financial mismanagement of the Blue Alms Charity, Bath; see Robert Southey to James Losh, 28 March [1798], Letter 299. In 1792, the master of the Blue Alms Charity was Rev. Dr Chapman (dates unknown), a Canon of Bristol Cathedral, The New Bath Directory, for the Year, 1792 (Bath, 1792), p. 9. He possibly also acted as its minister. The lawyer is unidentified. BACK

[5] The momentum against the slave trade that had built up in the late 1780s had been dissipated by the outbreak of war with revolutionary France in 1793 and on 3 April 1798 the House of Commons had rejected by 87 votes to 83 a motion to give William Wilberforce (1759–1833; DNB) leave to introduce a bill abolishing the slave trade. BACK

[6] Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), Julie, ou la Nouvelle Héloïse (1761) and Confessions (1782). BACK

[7] Rousseau, Le Levite d’Ephraim (1781). BACK

[8] Rousseau’s letter to Voltaire, 18 August 1756 ‘Regarding the Poem on the Lisbon Earthquake’. BACK

[9] Charles Lloyd’s epistolary novel Edmund Oliver (1798). BACK

[10] The second edition of Joan of Arc, published later in 1798. BACK

[11] Ostervald’s identity is uncertain. One possibility is that he was Jean Frederic Ostervald (1773–1850), later a surveyor, cartographer and publisher in Paris. BACK

[12] Xenophon (430–354 BC), Greek writer whose Anabasis was a standard school text. BACK

Places mentioned

Yarmouth (mentioned 1 time)