239. Robert Southey to John May, 25 July 1797

239. Robert Southey to John May, 25 July 1797 ⁠* 

Tuesday. July 25. 97. Burton

My dear friend

with regard to my mothers affairs my Uncle has no reason to think me inattentive or neglectful. I could indeed have advised her to quit her present situation, but of what avail would that advice have availed, barren of assistance as it must have been? — it would have been like advising a debtor sick prisoner to change the air. as to my reserve towards him — here indeed he is justly displeased. I do not wish to excuse or palliate what I know to have <been> wrong. yet there <were> many powerful motives that occasioned this. a young man easily opens his heart to those of his own age who are endeared to him by a real or imagined similarity of sentiment; but the same feelings that in that case induce a hasty & credulous confidence, occasion a reserve towards those of whose approbation he is doubtful. I had informed my Uncle by letter, before he thought of taking me abroad with him, of all my future expectations. I could not enter upon this subject in conversing with him, because I had frustrated all his plans for me. I feard he would disapprove my plan of making a book, when my knowledge must necessarily be so little of the subject — but that I should make a book was absolutely necessary to my support. I would have sent him the manuscript, & wished to do it; but I had a Counsellor more importunate than wisdom, “malesuada Fames”, [1]  & it went to the press sheet by sheet as it was written: indeed it is not strange that I have written incorrectly. I could develope to you the motives for every part of my conduct, but this were useless. I have written to my Uncle without reserve; henceforth he shall have no cause for displeasure

Of your friendly offer of assistance I have fortunately now no need. my mothers affairs will now I hope be settled. I am very anxious to have her live with me, it would increase her happiness & very much lessen my Uncles expences. I thank you likewise for what you tell me respecting my Uncle; I was never with him a fortnight, till my journey to Lisbon; by letter I had always been unreserved towards him, but there is were a thousand causes to prevent the confidence of unembarrassed conversation. all this I hope is over, I have followed your advice in my letter as closely as was possible, & said every thing for the past as well as for the present. I can write to him with pleasure now that I have a subsistence, & am embarked in a profession which promises independance.

I am sorry Burn [2]  thought ill of me. he was very kind to me at Lisbon, but it was a house in which I never felt wholly at ease. I fancied Mrs Burn [3]  was satirical & was half afraid of her, if there were few persons there; & where there were many I was always uncomfortable. I can mingle in a common mob & look over their heads, but a crowd of company is to me a very sad solitude.

My last letter was so engrossed by one subject that I forgot to thank you for your offer of serving the good Frenchman. [4]  you will rejoice to hear that I have procured his release by the first cartel. we hear a very high account of him from the gentleman who interested himself for us at Plymouth in this business. I have a letter from him to thank me & he gives me his address at Nantes. one day I hope to see France, & I would go a long way there to see this man.

My brothers Captain [5]  is a worthless wicked man & behaves very unkindly & insolently to Tom because he thinks him friendless. my brother has that proud spirit which every man who knows his own conduct to be irreproachable ought to have. I respect him as much as I love him — he received ten pounds prize money only a few weeks ago, & sent half of it to his mother. how little my friend are acts of private virtue known or rewarded in this world! the Jews ought to have been a very good people because their rewards were temporal. I feel very angry at reflecting that such a life as my brothers should be at the mercy of a sea captain. it is not many months since he was sent to board a prize vessel in such weather that the boat must inevitably have sunk in attempting to reach her — & yet he could not refuse or remonstrance, & would have perished if a Lieutenant with him had not ordered them to give over the attempt. this is called discipline. there was no man on board his vessel would have risqued his life in the leaky prize for the prize money they <he> might share. if my brother had brought her into port his share would not have exceeded five guineas, but the Captains would have been considerable, & his loss nothing if those he sent on board had been drowned. I have made application to have my brother removed to another ship. tis a horrible life. I had rather associate with the Botany Bay colonists than with the crew of a man of war. Some of the Swedenbourgians have believe that every man will meet the kind of heaven he imagined in the next world, & that the enjoyment of this <it> will be their <his> hell till they are <he is> fully sensible of their <his> error & hase learnt to form the wish of wisdom. I wonder what strange place they allot for sailours! they have every thing good to learn, & what is the more difficult task, a great deal to forget. the ancients had a comfortable fiction in their waters of Lethe [6]  — I have a more comfortable belief that the remembrance of error will be wisdom.

God bless you my dear friend. you may judge with what fixed habits of reserve I came to Lisbon by recollecting how little you knew of me there. “I was a stricken deer” [7] 

Yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: For/ John May Esqr/ 4. Bedford Square/ London
Postmark: AJY/ 27/ 97
Watermark: J Jellyman
Endorsement: 1797 No. 5./ Robert Southey/ Burton 25 July/ recd: 27 do/ ansd: 10 Aug
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797—1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 27–29. BACK

[1] Virgil (70–19 BC), Aeneid, Book 6, line 276. The Latin translates as ‘crime-provoking Hunger’. BACK

[2] William Burn (dates unknown) was attached to the British Factory, Lisbon. BACK

[3] Jane (dates unknown), wife of William Burn. BACK

[4] Captain Boutet (first name and dates unknown), who had previously been kind to Thomas Southey. BACK

[5] Sir Robert Barlow (1757–1843; DNB). BACK

[6] In classical mythology, a river in the underworld bringing forgetfulness to anyone who drank there. BACK

[7] William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB), The Task, A Poem, in Six Books (London, 1785), p. 98. BACK

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