374. Robert Southey to John May, 22 January 1799

374. Robert Southey to John May, 22 January 1799 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Your letter gave me much pleasure in all its parts, except where it took away the hope of seeing you here. that Count Rumford [1]  was likely to promote our scheme, [2]  & that you had assisted the young man [3]  I was very glad to learn. be good enough to direct the great coat to Cottle – Wine Street. Bristol.

Since my last, my dramatic ideas have been fermenting, & have now perhaps settled. at least among my various thoughts & outlines there is one which pleases me, & with which Wynn seems well satisfied. I am not willing to labour in vain, & before I begin would consult well with him & you, the only friends who know my intention.

The time chosen is the latter part of Queen Marys [4]  reign. the characters, Sir Walter, a young convert to the reformation, Gilbert the man who has converted him. Stephen the cousin of Sir Walter & his heir in default of issue, a bigotted Catholic. Mary the betrothed of Walter, an amiable Catholic & her Confessor, a pious excellent man. Gilbert is burnt, & Walter by his own enthusiasm & the bigotry & interested hopes of his cousin condemned, but saved by the Queens death. the story thus divides itself. 1. to the discovery of Walters principles to Mary & the Confessor. 2. the danger he incurs by his attentions to the accused Gilbert. 3 Gilberts death. 4. Walters arrest – 5 the death of the Queen.

In Mary & her Confessor I design Catholics of the most enlarged minds. sincere, but tolerating, & earnest to save Walter. even to hastening his marriage, that the union with a woman of such known sentiments might divert suspicion. Gilbert is a sincere – but bigotted man: one of the old reformers ready to suffer death for his opinions, or to inflict it. Stephen so violent in his hate of heresy, as half to be ignorant of his own interested motives in seeking Walters death. but it is from delineating the progress of Walters mind that I expect success.

At first he is restless & unhappy, dreading the sacrifices which his principles require. the danger of his friend & his death excite an increasing enthusiasm. the kindness of the Priest & Marys love overcome him – he consents to temporize – & is arrested. then he settles into the suffering & steady courage of a Xtian. to this I feel equal & long to be about it. I expect a good effect from the evening hymn to be sung by Mary. & from the death of Gilbert. from the great window Mary & the Confessor see the procession to the stake & hear the Te Deum. they turn away when the fire is kindled & kneel together to pray for his soul. the light of the fire appears thro the window – & Walter is describing as performing the last offices of kindness to is martyred friend.

You will perceive that such a story can only excite good feelings. its main tendency will be to occasion charity towards each others opinions. the story has the advantage of novelty. the only martyrdom plays I know are mixed with much nonsense. the best is Corneilles Polyeucte. [5]  in English we have the bad ones from Massinger & Dryden. [6] 

When I see you I will tell you more – the little thoughts for minuter parts – which are almost two minute to relate formally in a letter. I come to town the week after next again. the thought of [MS torn] journey is more tolerable as I expect relief from the exercise, for very great exercise is necessary. I have <do> not & will not neglect my health tho it requires a very inconvenient attention. my medical guide [7]  tells me that with my habit, the disorder must be flung off now, or it will adhere to me thro life.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

R Southey.

Tuesday night. Jany. 22. 1799.

<Ediths love, she has been unwell.> I daily expect to send the Letters. [8]  the Poems [9]  await some corrections.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ 4. Bedford Square/ London./ Single
Postmark: B/JA/24/99
Endorsement: 1799 No 31/ Robert Southey/ No place 22 Jan/ recd: 26 do/ ansd: 24 February
MS: Boston Public Library, MS C.1.22.2. ALS; 4p. (c).
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 10–12 [in part]. BACK

[1] The natural philosopher and philanthropist Benjamin Thompson, Count Rumford (1753–1814; DNB). BACK

[2] Probably either Southey and May’s ‘garden scheme’, a convalescent home to assist the poor after their discharge from hospital (see Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [25 March] 1798, Letter 298); or a second project to assist the indigent (see Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 3 August 1798, Letter 340). BACK

[3] Presumably the young man who Charles Lamb and Southey had asked May to assist; see Southey to May, [28 December 1798], Letter 363. BACK

[4] Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–1558; DNB). For Southey’s plan for the play see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192. BACK

[5] Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), Polyeucte (1643), centred on the martyrdom of St Polyeuctus (d. AD 259). BACK

[6] The Virgin Martyr (1622), now attributed to Philip Massinger (1583–1640; DNB) and Thomas Dekker (c. 1572–1632; DNB), deals with the martyrdom of St Dorothea of Caesarea (d. c. 311). It influenced John Dryden (1631–1700; DNB), Tyrannick Love, or The Royal Martyr (1670), which dealt with the martyrdom of St Catherine of Alexandria (d. c. 305). BACK

[7] Possibly Thomas Beddoes, whom Southey is known to have consulted at this time. BACK

[8] The second edition of Southey’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal, published in 1799. BACK

[9] The expanded, two-volume edition of Southey’s Poems, published in 1799. BACK

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