362. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 27 December 1798

362. Robert Southey to William Taylor, 27 December 1798 ⁠* 

I was very glad to see your hand writing again. Burnett did not rightly, it appears, understand my leaving Bristol; it was merely to keep a term, that is to eat three indifferent dinners in bad company.

I know not how to say any thing about settling Henry under Maurice, except by stating to you how I am circumstanced respecting him. it is not easy to take care of a ready-made family without a ready-made fortune, John May is no ways connected with me except by friendship, he knew that it would greatly embarrass me to support Henry, & offered to dis xxx discharge his school bills. his intent was to place him under his own tutor, a brother of Coleridge; but the school was full, & Henrys age would otherwise have been an objection. John May then requested me to look out any school or situation which I thought proper. Under these circumstances you will see the impropriety of my placing him at all expensively, & were Maurice to lower his terms to the thermometer of my feelings, that would be burthening me with another obligation. I cannot educate him myself, I have no time, my family is already quite as large as my means, & the utter retirement in which we live would be unfavourable for an age when he ought to be forming friendships. I should like him to be with Maurice because he himself wishes it, & because there would be less danger of his contracting any vices there than in a large & promiscuous school, & this is what is most to be feared. the danger you mention I fear he would be likely to incur in most situations. what do you think the lowest sum which it would not be improper to propose to Maurice?

I have been much indisposed & my recovery I am afraid will be slow. my heart is affected, & this at first alarmed me because I could not understand it. however I am scientifically satisfied that it is only a nervous affection. sedentary habits have injured my health, x this prescription of exercise prevents me from proceeding with the works that interest me, & only allows time for the task labour which is neither pleasant to look on to or to remember. my leisure is quite destroyed. had it not been for this I should ere now have sent you the remainder of my Eclogues, it is now almost too late for the volume is half-printed. [1]  However I have reserved them to conclude it with, that I may receive your corrections. The Old Mansion House is altered as you suggested & materially improved by it. I like the spirit of what follows & have read it aloud with some effect.

The Sailors Mother.

Woman.             Sir for the love of God some small relief
To a poor woman!
Traveller. Whither are you bound?
Tis a late hour to travel oer these downs,
No house for miles around us, & the way
Dreary & wild. the evening wind already
Makes ones teeth chatter, & the very Sun
Setting so pale behind those thin white clouds
Looks cold. twill be a bitter night!
Woman – Aye Sir
Tis cutting keen! I smart at every breath –
Heaven knows how I shall reach my journeys end
For the way is long before me, & my feet
God help me! sore with travelling. I would gladly
If it pleasd God lie down at once & die.
Nay – nay – cheer up. a little food & rest
Will comfort you, & then your journeys end
Will make amends for all. you shake your head –
And weep – is it some evil business then
That led you from your home?
Sir I am going
To see my son at Plymouth, sadly hurt
In the late action, & in the hospital
Dying, I fear me, now.
Perhaps your fears
Make evil worse. even if a limb be lost
There may be still enough for comfort left.
An arm or leg shot off, theres yet the heart
To keep life warm, & he may live to talk
With pleasure of the glorious fight that maimd him,
Proud of his loss. old Englands gratitude
Makes the maimd sailor happy.
Tis not that –
An arm or leg – I could have borne with that –
Twas not a ball – it was some cursed thing
That bursts & [2]  burns that hurt him. something Sir
They do not use on board our English ships
It is so wicked!
Rascals! a mean art
Of cruel cowardice – yet all in vain!
Yes Sir! & they should shew no mercy to them
For making use of such unchristian arms.
I had a letter from the hospital, −
He got a friend to write it – & he tells me
That my poor boy has lost his precious eyes –
Burnt [3]  out. alas! that I should ever live
To see this wretched day. they tell me Sir
There is no cure for wounds like his! ah me –
Tis a hard journey that I go upon
To such a dismal end!
He yet may live.
But if the worst should chance – why you must bear,
The will of heaven with patience. Is it not
Some comfort to reflect your son has fallen
Fighting for his countrys cause? & for yourself
You will not in unpitied poverty
Be left to mourn his loss. your grateful country
Amid the triumphs of her victory,
Remembers those who paid its price of blood
And with a noble charity relieves
The widow & the orphan.
God reward them!
God bless them! it will help me in my age –
But Sir! it will not pay me for my child.
Was he your only child?
My only one –
The stay & comfort of my widowhood –
A dear good boy. – when first he went to sea
I felt what it would come to – something told me
I should be childless soon. but tell me Sir
If it be true that for such hurts as his
There is no cure? please God to spare his life
Tho he be blind – yet I should be so thankful!
I can remember there was a blind man
Lived in our village, one from his youth up
Quite dark – & yet he was a merry man –
And he had none to tend on him so well
As I would tend my boy!
Of this be sure
His hurts are lookd to well, & the best help
The place affords, as rightly is his due,
Ever at hand. how happened it he left you?
Was a seafaring life his early choice?
No Sir! poor fellow – he was wise enough
To be content at home, & twas a home
As comfortable Sir, even tho I say it,
As any in the country. he was left
A little boy when his poor father died,
Just old enough to totter by himself
And call his mothers <name.> we two were all,
And as we were not left quite destitute
We bore up well. in the summer time I workd
Sometimes a-field. then I was famd for knitting
And in long winter nights my spinning wheel
Seldom stood still. we had kind neighbours too
And never felt distress. so he grew up
A comely lad, & wondrous well disposed;
I taught him well. there was not in the parish
A child who said his prayers more regular,
Or answered readier thro his catechism.
If I had foreseen this! but tis a comfort
We do’nt know what we’re born to.
But how came it
He chose to be a Sailor.
You shall hear Sir.
As he grew up he used to watch the birds
In the corn – childs work you know, & easily done
Tis an idle sort of task, so he built up
A little hut of wicker work & clay
Under the hedge to shelter him in the rain.
And then he took – for very idleness
To making traps to catch the plunderers,
All sorts of cunning traps that boys can make.
Propping a stone to fall & shut them in
Or crush them with its weight, or else a springe
Swung on a bough. he made them cleverly –
And I – poor foolish woman, I was pleasd
To see the boy so handy. you may guess
What followed Sir from this unlucky skill.
He did what he should not when he grew older –
I warnd him oft enough, but he was caught
In wiring hares at last, & had his choice
The prison or the ship.
The choice at least
Was kindly left him, & for broken laws
This was methinks no heavy punishment.
So I was told Sir, & I tried to think so –
But twas a sad blow to me. I was usd
To sleep a nights soundly & undisturbd –
Now if the wind blew rough it made me start
And think of my poor boy tossing about
Upon the roaring seas! & then I seemd
To feel – that it was hard to take him for me
For such a little fault! – but he was wrong
Oh very wrong – a murrain on his traps
See what theyve brought him to!
Well well take comfort
He will be taken care of if he lives –
And should you lose your child, this is a cou[MS torn]
Where the brave seaman never leaves a pa[MS torn]
To weep for him in want.
Sir I shall want
No succour long. in the common course of years
I soon must be at rest, & tis a comfort
When grief is hard upon me to reflect
It only leads me to that rest the s[MS torn] [4] 


I hope you will not be tired of my Travellers. there are no more – & the first is turned into a Stranger [5]  – because he happens to be at home. I print as one of these Eclogues the story which you may remember in the Monthly Magazine with my name, & which the Printer thought proper to call plaintive because plain did not please him. [6]  the other two [7]  I will send you as soon as I can copy them – they will be printed within a fortnight & if you have leisure I shall be thankful for your correction.

I recognized you in “Climb climb Aboukirs tower!” [8]  but it was not in the spirit of the ode. the first of August is one of my dies nefandæ. [9]  A good orthodox clergyman seriously exclaimd on hearing of Buonapartes [10]  Italian victories “I cannot for my life conceive what God Almighty can be thinking of all this while!” & if I had not somewhat of Pangloss [11]  about me I should be tempted to say the same upon that victory. I like the aggrandizing spirit of the French as little as you do – but I see worse effects from their defeat than from their success. & their success in Egypt can only produce good.

I am curious to see how you & Dr Sayers dressd the Old Woman. [12]  not knowing the story when you mentioned his ballad I thought the subject a mine of my own discovery. commotion must stay for the rhyme. trepidation I had altered – perhaps not much for the better the line too <now> stands “Grew a quaver of consternation.”

God bless you.

yrs truly

Robert Southey

Thursday. Dec. 27. 1798.


* Address: To/ Mr William Taylor Junr/ Surrey Street/ Norwich./ Norfolk./ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: B/ DE/ 28/ 98
Watermarks: GR in a circle/ 1794; Britannia in an oval underneath a crown
Endorsement: Ansd 4 Jan
MS: Berg Collection, New York Public Library. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, pp. 237–239 [in part; verses not reproduced]; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, p. 352 [in part; one paragraph]. BACK

[1] Southey’s ‘English Eclogues’, six of which were published, accompanied by a brief preface, in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. [181]–232. BACK

[2] That bursts &: Southey’s note: ‘x The stink-pots: used by the French.’ BACK

[3] must bear: Southey’s note: ‘x This happened to a sailor in the Mars.’ [Editor’s Note: Southey’s brother, Tom, had served on the Mars in its famous battle against L’Hercule on 21 April 1798.] BACK

[4] Woman ... rest the s[MS torn]: Verse in double columns. Published in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. 206–215. BACK

[5] In ‘The Old Mansion House’, the ‘Traveller’ in the version sent to Taylor on 24 July [1798] (Letter 338) was transformed into a ‘Stranger’ in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. pp. 185–193. BACK

[6] ‘The Funeral’ in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. 202–205 was a revised version of ‘Hannah. A Plaintive Tale’, Monthly Magazine, 4 (October 1797), 287. BACK

[7] ‘The Last of the Family’ and ‘The Ruined Cottage’ were sent to Taylor on 30 December 1798 (Letter 364). BACK

[8] William Taylor, ‘The Ode on the Battle of Aboukir’, Monthly Magazine, 6 (November 1798), 366. BACK

[9] The Latin translates as ‘days not to be mentioned’. On 1–2 August 1798, the British Fleet had destroyed the Fleet that was supporting the French invasion of Egypt at the Battle of the Nile (or Aboukir Bay). BACK

[10] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), First Consul 1799–1804, Emperor of the French 1804–1814. He won a great series of victories against the Austrian forces in Northern Italy in 1797 and conquered Egypt in 1798. France remained in control of Egypt until 1801. BACK

[11] An eternally optimistic character in Voltaire’s (1694–1778), Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759). BACK

[12] In his letter to Southey of 23 December 1798, Taylor had revealed that both he and Frank Sayers (1763–1817; DNB) had also written poems on the theme of the ‘Old Woman of Berkeley’(J.W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich, 2 vols (London, 1843), I, p. 235). BACK

People mentioned

Maurice, Michael (1766–1855) (mentioned 4 times)
May, John (1775–1856) (mentioned 2 times)
Coleridge, George (1764–1828) (mentioned 1 time)