2853. Robert Southey to John May, 18 October 1816

2853. Robert Southey to John May, 18 October 1816⁠* 

My dear friend

Herewith I send you a draft upon Longman for 100£ at three days sight. [1]  The last twelvemonths have proved highly advantageous to my monied concerns, & for the first time in x have made the balance of his account in my favour. There is good reason for hoping that it will continue so, & that it will not be long before I shall be able to clear off my debt with you. Roderick [2]  has produced for me above five hundred pounds, by three editions, – & the fourth will by this time have paid its expences. Of the Pilgrimage [3]  2000 were printed; – they were all sold in the course of two months, leaving me a profit of 215£. My account only comes up to Midsummer, & therefore does not include the Carmen Nuptiale, with of the fate of which I know nothing, – nor indeed what number was printed. [4] 

The prospect before me is very good. The produce of my current publications may be reckond at 200£ a year certainly, – not improbably at twice the sum. And Murray pays me so well for the Quarterly that I hope there will be no occasion to draw much upon this other fund for my household expences. For some subjects he offers me 100£ per article, – such was that upon the poor in the last number, [5]  & one upon foreign travellers in England which is designed for this, & which I am busy in compleating. [6]  I have no debt but the one to you, & this I have great hopes of liquidating in the course of another year. For the next year is likely to be a productive one. The preface to Mort Arthur [7]  (for which I am reading much black letter, at some cost of eye sight, & no little expence of time) will give me 200£, – & the second vol. of Brazil [8]  about half as much, – so preposterously an a preposterous instance of the caprice upon which a man of letters depends for his remuneration! Perhaps the average may be fair at last, – but it is injurious as well as ridiculous to <that I should> derive my main support from what other persons might do as well, & what might as well not be done at all, – while for works of permanent value, & great labour, for which peculiar knowledge, peculiar talents & peculiar industry are required the profit which I derive <obtain> would scarcely exceed, & perhaps not amount to, the price cost expences of the documents. This volume will certainly be published at Christmas, & tho it will be less interesting than the concluding volume I think you will not be disappointed in its contents. There will be no delay with the conclusion, [9]  – I shall never lay it aside till it is compleated, – & the printing will be pursued without interruption. – I have written no verses till this week when I resumed the Tale of Paraguay which I may perhaps finish for publication in the spring. [10]  There is another subject nearer my heart, but I must refrain from it a while longer. [11]  It has pleased God to support me mercifully under the severest of all privations, & it would be sinful as well as in the last degree unwise, were I by any means to foster feelings which it is my duty, as far as possible to overcome.

The summer (if summer it may be called) has brought with it more interruptions than usual, & unavoidably robbed me of precious time which I could ill afford. I am in consequence behind hand with many things, – of which my long silence towards you is one proof. Mr Walpoles memoir I shall resume upon the first interval; – it is upon my conscience, as the heaviest of all my sins of omission. [12]  – The History of the war would go to press if the introductory chapter were finished, [13]  – yet for this, which is less than an article for the Review I have not found time. When I have reviewed Kosters book [14]  I will abstain from minor articles, & dispose of the time thus gained to better purposes. – Here is a letter full of my own concerns, – but I will not apologize to you.

I can enter fully into the feelings which your present xx aweful occupation must excite. [15]  Wholesome they are, however painful. – We must not envy those who are on the threshold of Our Fathers house, – but we may be thankful that every day brings us nearer to it ourselves. Meantime I labour diligently to acquire knowledge which I may leave behind, & to treasure up affection which I may bear with me.

Nash has made beautiful drawings of my four girls. [16] Your god-daughter is well & comes on in all things as I could wish her, – the others thank God are well also in & their Mother are well also, – & my own heart perhaps is better for the exercise which I have taken with my various visitors.

We have gloomy prospects of which it is easier to see the causes than the consequences. I very much fear that the efforts which are making to inflame the discontents of a distressed people will produce dreadful effects. This is a wide subject, & I have no room to enter upon it. – Whether I shall see during the dark season is what I cannot tell. – Possibly I may be called to town, – but it will be with much unwillingness on my part. [17]  The winter is my working time, – in the summer I follow the example of the grasshopper more than of the ant. [18] 

Remember me most kindly to Mrs May & your daughters. [19]  Remember me also to John Coleridge, – whom I should be truly glad to see at Keswick

God bless you

R Southey.

18 Oct. 1816 Keswick


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ 4. Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 21 OC 21/ 1816
Endorsement: 191 1816/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 18th October/ recd. 21st O./ ansd. 5th December/ Memoir of Mr Walpole
MS: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), III, pp. 46–49. BACK

[1] Having received much financial assistance from May over many years, Southey was now in a position to begin repaying his debts. BACK

[2] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814) was Southey’s most popular epic poem and went through three editions in 1814–1815; a fourth edition appeared in 1816. BACK

[3] The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). BACK

[4] The Lay of the Laureate. Carmen Nuptiale (1816) sold slowly by comparison with The Poet’s Pilgrimage of the same year. Longman charged four shillings for it and had 141 copies still unsold in 1821. BACK

[5] Southey’s review article ‘On the Poor’ appeared in the Quarterly Review, 15 (April 1816), 187–235. BACK

[6] Southey’s review article ‘Works on England’ appeared in the Quarterly Review, 15 (October 1816), 537–574. BACK

[7] The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur was published in two volumes by Longman in 1817. BACK

[8] Southey’s History of Brazil (1810–1819); 750 copies of the second volume were published in 1817. However, the 750 copies of the first volume, published in 1810, had still not sold out and Southey had made less than £100 from the book. BACK

[9] Chapter 30, History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), II, pp. 632–692. BACK

[10] A Tale of Paraguay (1825). BACK

[11] Southey began, but did not finish, such a poem, entitled ‘Consolation’, prompted by the death of his son, Herbert Southey, on 17 April 1816. Sections were published after his death as ‘Fragmentary Thoughts Occasioned by his Son’s Death’ in Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished): With Other Poetical Remains (London, 1845), pp. 93–95, and ‘Additional Fragment, Occasioned by the Death of his Son’, Poetical Works of Robert Southey. Complete in One Volume (London, 1850), p. 815. BACK

[12] A proposed memoir of Robert Walpole (1736–1810), the British envoy to Portugal 1771–1800; Southey had been sent Walpole’s papers by John May. BACK

[13] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War, 3 vols (London, 1823–1832), I, pp. 3–62. BACK

[14] Koster’s Travels in Brazil (1816); reviewed by Southey in the Quarterly Review, 16 (January 1817), 344–387. BACK

[15] John May’s aunt Margaret May (c. 1741–1816) was very ill. Indeed, she had died on 17 October 1816, the day before this letter was written; though Southey did not know this until her death was announced in the Courier, 24 October 1816. She was John May’s favourite aunt and left him the residue of her estate, including her house at 4 Tavistock Street in London. BACK

[17] It had been suggested that Southey should edit a pro-government journal. BACK

[18] In Aesop’s (c. 620–c. 560 BC) Fables the story of the ‘Ant and the Grasshopper’ is used to illustrate the virtues of hard work – the grasshopper sings all summer, while the ant stores up food for the winter. BACK

[19] Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)


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