371. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 15 January 1799

371. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 15 January 1799 ⁠* 

The days of Queen Mary [1]  appear to suit me well. my characters are these. Sir Walter a young man of strong affections & high & quick feelings a convert to the reformed religion. A man somewhat elder, inflexibly honest − but like Cranmer [2]  one that would burn an Anabaptist, − & suffer at the stake himself. A cousin of Sir Walters, his next heir, a bigotted Catholic, so bigotted as not to confess to himself that one motive for accusing his cousin is to get at his estate. Mary (I use any name) one who has from childhood been betrothed to Walter, a Catholic, perfectly good − & the Confessor of Walter & Mary, a good & pious man, loving them both as his children. my sketch thus divides itself into the five acts.

1. The discovery of Walters principles to Mary & the Confessor.
2. The arrest of Gilbert his friend, & Walters danger when he has betrayed his opinions to his cousin.
3. The burning of Gilbert.
4. Walters consent to temporize & marry Mary.
5. His arrest − trial − condemnation. & the Queens death.

The progress of Walters mind gives a fine opportunity for dramatic effect. he is at first uneasy, made more enthusiastic by Gilberts danger & heroism, yet half wishing he could be contented with ignorance. worked up by Gilberts death to almost the desire of martyrdom. yielding to affection − & in the hour of danger set discovering the patient courage of a Christian. I feel as tho I could develope this character well.

For stage effect I see one fine place. Gilbert is burnt opposite Marys house. she sees the procession from her window − & Walter attending his friend. the Te Deum is heard. the light of the stake seen thro the window − & Mary & the Confessor pray together for the soul of the heretic. − Some effect may be produced by Marys singing the evening hymn.

I expect a good dungeon scene between Gilbert & the Confessor. the Confessor intreating him not to drive Walter to the stake – & Gilbert inflexible in braving death & thinking it the duty of all who believe in the reformation to profess it & suffer, rather than temporize.

There is a something markd in every character. the Confessor was of Glastonbury & had seen the Abbot [3]  executed. he had felt persecution − & he abhors it. strip Popery of its tricks & it is a fine religion − it seems made for human feelings − to supply all their cravings. in Mary it should be very interesting.

Now are these feelings <is the story> such as a modern audience would sympathize with? this is my doubt. the catastrophe is faulty. Q. Marys death is an accident, & it is clumsy to let chance decide it. Would a Lord Chamberlain [4]  construe the story into a libel upon state severity? I have no inclination to fling away my time, & these doubts occur to me. On the other hand the story suits me, I feel equal to it, & hardly expect to make another so new to the stage & capable of such powerful parts.

I wish I had Froissart. [5]  it is laborious to read the French, the type is so difficult that one cannot pass the eye down a page to see at once what it contains. & it is endless to go thro old folios in any other manner.

Captain Bells vision is in Aubreys Miscellanies also. [6]  it looks like a lie I am not a disbeliever in these things, but that story is not among the credible ones. it is a curious subject the existence <truth> of supernatural warnings & appearances, I mean some day to state the pro & con in the M Magazine & invite controversy, for it is has never been fairly & reasonably examined. I lean to belief myself.

The Ballads are printed as far as the beginning of the Old Lady. [7]  in small poems, I am not fond of correcting − upon a great work like Joan of Arc or Madoc I have even Dutch industry. I have an odd thought for a ballad. a grotesque being − a little man who can extend his limbs to any length − put up his hand to count the eagles eggs − crane up his neck to the top-tower window − open his mouth & swallow any body, which is to be the conclusion. [8]  pray buy me the ghost book. I shall hardly be satisfied till I have got a ballad as good as Lenora. [9]  I have two or three stories of secondary merit to work upon.

Let me hear from you – & if you should meet with a ghost, a witch of a devil − pray send them to me. for these last few days I have been well enough to leave off my ether.

yrs affectionately

R Southey.

Tuesday 15 Jany. 1799.


* Address: To/ C. W. Williams Wynn Esqr/ Wynnstay/ Wrexham/ Denbighshire
Stamped: BRISTOL
Endorsement: Jan. 15/ 99
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 62–65. BACK

[1] Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–1558; DNB). Her reign saw a determined attempt to return England to Catholicism and persecute Protestants. For the plan of Southey’s ‘The Days of Queen Mary’, see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192. BACK

[2] Thomas Cranmer (1489–1556; DNB), Archbishop of Canterbury (1533–1555). BACK

[3] Richard Whiting (d. 1539; DNB), the last Abbot of Glastonbury Abbey in Somerset. He was executed on a charge of treason. BACK

[4] A chief official of the Royal Household who also held the post of licenser of plays in the City of London and Westminster. BACK

[5] Jean Froissart (c. 1337–c. 1410), author of Chronicles (1373–1400). BACK

[6] John Aubrey (1626–1697; DNB), Miscellanies upon Various Subjects (London, 1696), pp. 78–82 relates Henry Bell’s (fl. 1640s–1650s) account of how he was visited in his sleep by an apparition, a white-haired old man who commanded him to translate Martin Luther’s (1483–1546) Dris Martini Lutheri Colloquia Mensalia: or … Divine Discourses at his Table. Bell’s translation was published in 1652. BACK

[7] Poems (1799) was at press and was printed up to the beginning of ‘A Ballad Shewing How an Old Woman Rode Double and Who Rode Before Her’, i.e. Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, p. [143]. BACK

[8] Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 193. Southey did not write a poem on this subject. BACK

[9] Gottfried August Bürger’s (1748–1794) ballad ‘Lenore’ (1773). Its numerous translators included William Taylor; see Monthly Magazine, 1 (March 1796), 135–137. BACK