349. Robert Southey to John May, 26 September 1798

349. Robert Southey to John May, 26 September 1798 ⁠* 

My dear friend

I send you the following ballad, which is just finished, because it contains the simple relation of a very extraordinary circumstance. A dissenting minister here, [1]  a man of unquestioned veracity, discovered the sailor as you will find related: only last week, & Cottles mother took down the account from his mouth. I have versified it as the best means of circulating a story which ought to be widely known. you will not I think object to the frequent ejaculations when you recollect the effect which the whole is intended to produce.

He stopt. – it surely was a groan
That from the hovel came,
He stopt & listened anxiously,
Again it sounds the same.

It surely from the hovel comes –
And now he hastens there,
And thence he hears the name of Christ
Amidst a broken prayer.

He enters in the hovel now,
A sailor there he sees,
His hands were lifted up to Heaven,
And he was on his knees.

Nor did the sailor so intent
His entering footsteps heed,
But now the Lords prayer said, & now
His half-forgotten creed.

And often on his saviour calld
With many a bitter groan,
In such heart-anguish as could spring
From deepest guilt alone.

He askd the miserable man
Why he was kneeling there,
And what the crime had been that causd
The anguish of his prayer.

Oh I have done a wicked thing –
It haunts me night & day,
And I have sought this lonely place
Here undisturbd to pray.

I have no place to pray on board,
So I came here alone,
That I might freely kneel & pray
And call on Christ & groan.

If to the main mast head I go
The Wicked One is there –
From place to place, from rope to rope,
He follows every where.

I shut my eyes, it matters not,
Still still the same I see, –
And when I lie me down at night
Tis always day with me.

He follows follows every where,
And every place is hell, –
O God – & I must go with him
In endless fire to dwell!

He follows follows every where –
He still above, below, –
Oh tell me where to fly from him
Oh tell me where to go!

But tell me, quoth the Stranger then
What this thy crime hath been,
So haply I may comfort give
To one that grieves for sin.

Oh I have done a cursed deed,
The wretched man replies –
And night & day & every where
Tis still before my eyes.

I saild on board a Guinea man
And to the slave coast went –
Would that the sea had swallowed me
When I was innocent!

And we took in our cargo there
Three hundred negro slaves,
And we saild homeward merrily
Over the ocean waves.

But some were sulky of the slaves
And would not touch their meat,
So therefore we were forced by threats
And blows to make them eat.

One woman sulkier than the rest
Would still refuse her food, –
O Jesus God! I hear her cries,
I see her in her blood.

The Captain made me tie her up
And flog while he stood by,
And then he cursd me if I staid
My hand to hear her cry.

She groand, she shriekd, – I could not spare
For the Captain he stood by –
Dear God! that I might rest one night
From that poor womans cry!

She twisted from the blows, her blood
Her mangled flesh I see, –
And still the Captain would not spare –
Oh he was worse than me!

She could not be more glad than I
When she was taken down, –
A blessed minute! twas the last
That I have ever known!

I did not close my eyes all night
Thinking what I had done –
I heard her groans, & they grew faint
About the rising sun

She groand & groand, but her groans grew
Fainter at morning tide,
Fainter & fainter still they came
Till at the noon she died.

They flung her overboard, – poor wretch –
She rested from her pain, –
But when O Christ – o blessed God –
Shall I have rest again.

I saw the sea close over her
Yet she was still in sight,
I see her twisting every where,
I see her day & night.

Go where I will, do what I can
The Wicked One I see –
Dear Christ have mercy on my soul –
O Lord deliver me!

Tomorrow I set sail again,
Not to the Negro shore,
Wretch that I am, I will at least
Commit that sin no more!

Oh give me comfort if you can,
Oh tell me where to fly,
And bid me hope, if there be hope
For one so lost as I.

Poor wretch, the stranger he replied,
Put thou thy trust in Heaven,
And call on him for whose dear sake
All sins shall be forgiven. [2] 

This night at least is thine, go thou
And seek the house of prayer.
There shalt thou hear the word of God,
And he will help thee there. [3] 


I have made some progress in your book of poems, [4]  & expect to bring it with me to London with all those pieces in it that will not be contained in my new volume. this story struck me as so very remarkable that I thought half an hour well employed in sending it to you. the poor fellow went to the Methodist meeting that evening. I do not love Methodism, but in his wretched state of mind he could hardly have gone to a better place. I have conscientiously preserved the story without adding a single circumstance.

The packet from my Uncle consisted wholly of corrections for my letters. many of them merely of such erratas as had not escaped my own notice. there is one curious paper of respecting Sebastian. [5]  on the whole I am very glad at having received them, tho some of the circumstances are arrived too late.

I am going from home tomorrow for a week or ten days. the object of my journey is to see Maber respecting Edward. it is now more than two years since he mentioned his name to Dr Roberts, [6]  & it is likely to have been forgotten during that interval. he lives about fifty miles from hence, I walk – a friend walks with me, we sling our net bags over our shoulders, we shall see a little of South Wales, come home along the banks of the Wye, & not be absent above ten days. for my ale house evenings I have employment enough, & for more idle minutes I take Claudian [7]  with me, an author of whom I know but little, & whom as I should not sit down to read him at home is therefore a good companion on a journey.

Coleridge & Wordsworth have publishd an anonymous volume of poems under the title of Lyrical Ballads. [8]  they are of very unequal merit. I do not think there has <been> a single copy of my Letters [9]  left for these last six or ten months. if there be one here I will bring it up for you. my other edition [10]  will be out before Xmas, & you will find it in every respect better.

I hardly think you could have been more useful in my other line of life than in your present one. this is not exactly the case with me, still however I shall have it in my power to be of some use. a good deal may be done by looking into the abuses of charitable foundations, & I should like very much to frighten trustees, churchwardens & overseers.

God bless you. I will write to you from some alehouse on my way. should you not like to spend a day with me in wandering among the Black Mountains?

Ediths love. she is tolerably well, but still not so well as I could wish her. I am afraid of London air & London confinement for her.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey

Wednesday. Sept. 26. 98.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Hale/ near Downton/ Wiltshire/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Endorsement: 1798 No 24/ Robert Southey/ September 26 no place/ recd: 30 do/ ansd: 2 Novr:
MS: Houghton Library, bMS Eng 265.1 (24). ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Possibly William Pine (d. 1803), leading Bristol Methodist and printer of the Bristol Gazette, or his son William Pine (1769–1837). BACK

[2] He stopt ... forgiven: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[3] ‘The Sailor who had Served in the Slave Trade’, Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. [103]–114. BACK

[4] Unidentified; possibly a manuscript book of poems and/or other writings Southey was compiling for John May. BACK

[5] Sebastian I (1554–1578; King of Portugal 1557–1578). Killed in battle in Morocco, rumours of his survival persisted; see Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal, 2nd edn (Bristol, 1799), pp. 183–184. BACK

[6] Revd Dr Richard Roberts (fl. 1769–1814), High Master of St Pauls School, 1769–1814. BACK

[7] Claudian (d. AD 404?), late Roman poet, whose works included the unfinished epic De Raptu Proserpinae (AD 395–397). BACK

[8] Lyrical Ballads, With a Few Other Poems (1798). BACK

[9] Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797). BACK

[10] Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1799). BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 1 time)
Maber, George Martin (d. 1844) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Edward (1788–1847) (mentioned 1 time)
Cottle family (mentioned 1 time)