612. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 10 October 1801

612. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 10 October 1801 ⁠* 

October 10. 1801.

Miss Barker – I would say Mary Barker if my neglect had not forfeited what little claim I might have once possessed so friendlily to address you. – yet I have not ceased to think of you, as one whose society gave me much pleasure in a land of strangers, & we have talked of you, Edith & I have often talked of you, & looked on to an after meeting in the ways of life. There is now a half written letter to you lying in my writing desk – begun at Lisbon – continued on my passage home, & still unfinished. [1]  I have been so much the shuttlecock of fortune – so jolted from one spot to another, that it would be almost a valid excuse to alledge that for six months I have scarcely found a resting place wherefrom to write. At this moment I am beguiling some of the heaviest hours in existence, at a distance from my wife – in an inn room where a stranger is at his dinner – the packet in sight which is to convey me to Dublin – tomorrow if the Captain pleases to sail – & if it please God to send me there in safety. I am lured there by hope – under the guidance of one whom you may remember to have read of in the Pilgrim’s Progress – one with whom I have long been at variance, & you will perhaps wonder that any thing like acquaintance should have taken place between us. It is Mr. Worldly Wisdom. [2]  My residence there will not now be long – it cannot be many weeks or I would not have stript myself of all comfort by coming alone – perhaps it will not exceed a fortnight, but I will write you again from thence – if only to give you a direction that you may send me my signed & sealed pardon. At Xmas we shall certainly be in London. – When you are married I trust you will feel what comfort there is in the use of that plural pronoun. Shall we have a chance of seeing you?

In my way thro Chester I saw your name to a book in a circulating Library catalogue. Unhappily I had no time to see more. Here at Parkgate [3]  I have been asking for A Welsh Story [4]  – & can get nothing but the news that your sisters [5]  had been here this summer. – As this proves you love writing – shall I tell how I would wish you to write? in what manner you might honorably distinguish yourself? – It is by becoming the historian of manners: fixing the tale of your story in what distant period best pleases you, & making it characteristic of the manners, & what is more difficult, the habits of feeling & thought, prevalent at that time & in that scene. there exists no tale of romance that does not betray ignorance – gross & unpardonable ignorance. Horace Walpole’s indeed is an exception – but even he discovers no knowledge. [6]  Such a work would do your own mind good by the necessary reading, & the train of thoughts that would inevitably follow. It would be useful, because it would impart knowledge, tho the book itself should want any other merit, which I will not suspect, because I remember my companion at Cintra. England is the best scene, not only because the information is contained in your own language, but because the scenery is before you, & Nature never can be painted from books. – I was well off with one companion – even when he had done his dinner, he could not talk without my assistance; – but now – enter three Irishmen, fresh from shipboard – & I am at their mercy.

Coleridge remembered you – not merely as one with whom he had been pleased, but also as a Snuff-taker. As I have written a reasoning defence of Snuff-taking [7]  you will not look upon this as censure. – but for the annoyance of these men I would gossip thro the rest of the paper. – these lonely situations are what women never endure. to be utterly alone – no human being within a hundred miles who knows or cares for you – a savage receives you in his hut with kindness – but kindness is not a purchaseable commodity – I ring the bell & what I want is brought me – & put in the bill. But I am accustomed to the hourly company of those who look at me – to prevent a wish.

God bless you Miss Barker. my next will I trust be written among better externals, & in a more pleasurable state of mind. – Edith is not in good health – & what more vexes me is that my absence will at least prevent amendment by affecting her spirits. It is not often that a man practices self denial in pursuing his worldly achievement.


& believe me yours with respect & truth

R. Southey.


* Address: To/ Miss Barker/ Congreve/ near Stafford.
MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 11-15
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 172–174. BACK

[1] Letter 585, begun in Lisbon in mid June and finished in Dublin, 21 October 1801. BACK

[2] John Bunyan (1628-1688; DNB), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-84). Mr. Worldly Wiseman from the City of Carnal Policy, meets Christian as he emerges from the Slough of Despond and directs him to the house of Legality. BACK

[3] The port of Parkgate on the River Dee. Southey had not followed the intention he expressed to Wynn, 3 October 1801 (Letter 610), to embark for Ireland from Whitehaven. BACK

[4] Mary Barker’s three-volume novel, A Welsh Story (1798). BACK

[5] Mary Barker had at least two sisters; their names and dates are unrecorded. BACK

[6] Horace Walpole (1717-1797; DNB), The Castle of Otranto (1765), which is set in the 12th or 13th century. BACK

[7] Southey’s poem ‘Snuff’ appeared in the Morning Post, 28 May 1799 and was reprinted in Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 115–116. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 1 time)
Dublin (mentioned 1 time)