2657. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 1 October 1815

2657. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 1 October 1815 ⁠* 

Brussels. 1 Oct. 1815.

Dear Senhora,

We have been wishing for you every hour of every day since we set foot in this country, – a country which art seems to have endeavoured to render picturesque in proportion as it has been made otherwise by nature. Bruges is beyond all comparison the most interesting place I have ever seen. It seems as if there had not been one house built within the last century or two centuries, & yet nothing has been suffered to go to decay; the decay of the city has been relative & not actual; other towns have flourished & increased in size; – Bruges has stood still, & its state is the more gracious. It is like a city of Elizabeth’s age, [1]  – you expect to see a head with a ruff looking from the windows. And what is most remarkable is that there appears to be no poverty there, at least no squalid poverty, – no absolute want. The poorest person is well lodged, & decently clothed. We met there at the Table d’hote Mr. Locker & his wife, whom Miss Alne [2]  sent to you, – they were on their return to England, – & my route has been much influenced by the information which he gave me.

We left Bruges on Monday morning by the barge for Ghent, – this barge is said to be the best public conveyance in the world, & I should not dissent from this opinion, if the people had not taken two beggars on board & suffered them to go round asking charity. The barge was full of people of all nations, – a large proportion English. A Baronet’s chariot was on board, the two persons who belonged to it kept aloof from the other passengers, sitting sometimes on the box, sometimes in the carriage; & they would not dine with us. This called forth a good many sarcastic remarks, – but it was soon whispered that they were Mr. Peele & Sir Ch. Saxton, [3]  – the latter I did not remember & he probably if he had recollected would not at this time have chosen to recognise me. It is about 8 hours passage to Ghent, when, as in our case there was no wind to assist the horse. For the first part of the way the country like that between Ostend & Bruges was cultivated like a garden & highly beautiful in its way, the general hue of the landscape being grey, from the predominance of the willow & aspen, – but there are elm & ash & oak & acacia & walnut. It was a Kermis or fair-day, & we past by a village where all the humours of a Flemish fair were displayed, – houses full of drinkers & smokers, & old women at cards al fresco before their doors. Our passage cost five francs each (4/2) for which we were provided with really an excellent dinner, paying extra for wine.

At Ghent we remained till Thursday Morning finding enough to occupy us in the churches, & the Beguinage, [4]  & faring sumptuously. What we saw I shall describe in my next letter to Herbert , being desirous more of letting you know where we are & what are our plans. Of Harry we have entirely lost sight, he landed a week before us. I wrote to him at Brussels from Ostend, & can find no other clue to his movements than that my letter is not lying at the post office there. I conclude that he arrived during the hurry of the inauguration, [5]  & finding no room here, hurried on toward Spa. We have joined company with the Vardons, friends of Mr. Knox, [6]  – they have an artist with them whom we are all very fond of, – a little & deformed man, but who bears his deformity so well that it is impossible not to like him the better for it, from a feeling in which respect has at least as large a share as pity. Mrs. V. is a sweet woman about 35 with a daughter half as old as herself. On Thursday we came to Brussels, the Emperor Alexander [7]  thought proper to come after us, & for want of carriages we are still detained here, but we hope to get away on Tuesday. Our route is by Waterloo to Namur, Liege, Spa, Aix-la-Chapelle, & back by Louvain & Mechlin to Antwerp, then to Calais, – which will just exhaust our money & our appointed time. & then we shall see the greater & best part of the kingdom of the Netherlands, a kingdom which being divided in itself cannot stand. [8] 

Tell Glover [9]  that I have been to the hospital, where they informed me that Richard Cartmell [10]  died on the 14th of August. – Long as the time is which has now elapsed since the battle, I have seen dreadful marks of war. We past some waggon loads of wounded & convalescent soldiers who had been sent out to take the air, some of them lying upon straw in the waggon. One load of Frenchmen I observed nearly. a painter might have made a fine & instructive picture, – the pale languor emaciation & helplessness of some, contrasting with the unfeeling merriment of those who were more advanced in recovery, & seemed ready for the work of destruction again. – I sent a few books home from Ghent, & have bought 120 volumes here, besides agreeing for the Acta Sanctorum, [11]  which the bookseller is to send after me as soon as he can complete the set. Sing & be joyful I entreat you.

There is an illumination to night in the Allee Vert, or Green Walk which is to be Vauxhallified [12]  in honour of the Emperor. Koster is gone with the Ladies, – except Edith who not being well at this time remains at home & is writing to one of her sisters. [13]  Mr V & Nash & I are, like true Englishmen, sitting at home, while all Brussels is in commotion. But in truth I could not otherwise have found time to write even this hasty letter, – nor can I keep pace in my journal [14]  with the multiplicity of objects which I am seeing & the facts which I learn from conversation. I have now been eight days on the continent, & the time seems longer than as many months. Bruges is far more interesting than Ghent Ghent far more so than Brussels, which is the Paris of Belgium, & wants a little fire & brimstone, – yet if it should ever be caught in such a shower I hope the great square & the Town House may be spared. [15]  You must certainly come to this country, & practice a little architectural drawing before you come. The good pictures are almost all gone, the bad ones very numerous, & worse than you could possibly suppose. The churches by no means equal to our Cathedrals, but they are still very fine; & they have the feature which was new to me, pulpits carved in wood in the finest style imaginable.

I have planned a poem upon Waterloo [16]  & am likely to obtain much information respecting the battle &c – indeed I have learned more of it from a German by name Werth [17]  than all our English publications, including a certain paper in the Quarterly Review, [18]  have as yet imparted. We shall give a day to the ground at Waterloo & sleep at Genappe, & on the following day survey the ground at Les Quatre Bras & Ligny & proceed to Namur. We shall then get into a beautiful country – So now God bless you. I shall continue my history to Lunus whenever I can. Remember me to Mrs. Crothers, – & kiss the children in my name.

Yrs affectionately



* Address: To/ Miss Barker/ Keswick/ Cumberland/ England
Postmark: OC 6 1815 FOREIGN P94P BRUXELLES
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. 432–437
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 426–430. BACK

[1] Elizabeth I (1533–1603; Queen of England 1558–1603; DNB). BACK

[2] Miss Alne (dates unknown) was a friend of Sophia Lloyd. BACK

[3] Sir Charles Saxton, 2nd Baronet (1773–1838), MP for Cashel 1812–1818 and Under-Secretary for the Civil Department in Ireland. Southey was introduced to him by Wynn in 1804. BACK

[4] Rickman was still interested in the 13th-century Order of Beguines, for his plan for communities of poor single women who would live and work together. BACK

[5] William I (1772–1843; King of the Netherlands, 1815–1840), had taken his oath to uphold the new State’s constitution in Brussels on 21 September 1815. BACK

[6] John William Knox (1784–1862), an usher at Westminster School 1806–1821, clergyman and Latin scholar. BACK

[7] Alexander I (1777–1825; Emperor of Russia 1801–1825). BACK

[8] Matthew, 12: 25. The Kingdom of the Netherlands had been created by the Congress of Vienna in 1815 out of the old Dutch Republic, the Austrian Netherlands and the Prince-Bishopric of Liege. It was beset by regional tensions and the southern half broke away in 1830 to become Belgium. BACK

[9] Joseph Glover (dates unknown), carpenter and joiner at Keswick. BACK

[10] Richard Cartmell (d. 1815) was a Keswick butcher. He might have died from wounds received at the battle of Waterloo (18 June 1815). BACK

[11] Southey hoped he had bought the complete set of the rare, 53 volume Acta Sanctorum (Brussels, 1643–1794), no. 207 in the sale catalogue of his library. In fact he received a 6 volume edition of 1783–1794, no. 152 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[12] Made to resemble Vauxhall Gardens, the famous south London pleasure gardens. BACK

[14] The Journal was finally published as Journal of a Tour in the Netherlands in the Autumn of 1815 (1902). BACK

[15] The Grande Place in Brussels and its 15th-century City Hall. BACK

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

[17] Engelbert Werth (dates unknown), a German-born merchant and acquaintance of Vardon. Werth drew a plan of the battle of Waterloo for Southey. BACK

[18] Probably an ironic reference by Southey to his own article in the Quarterly Review, 13 (July 1815), 448–526. BACK

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