3560. Robert Southey to Peter Elmsley, 17 November 1820

3560. Robert Southey to Peter Elmsley, 17 November 1820⁠* 

Keswick. 17 Nov. 1820

My dear Elmsley

It is a long while since I have seen you, – & you once expressed an unwillingness to write to me, lest some Curle or Sir Richard, or some (more innocent) John Nichols in after times should get hold of such letters as I might have neglected to destroy. [1]  Perhaps I understood this more seriously than it was meant. – Be that as it may, I wish you would let me know what books of mine you have not received from Longmans, – if there be any besides the third vol: of Brazil, & the Life of Wesley, [2]  – that I may direct them to be sent to you. It is not in my nature to be unmindful of old acts of kindness, or ungrateful for them; – & I hope yet to add many volumes to your shelves, which may not be unworthy of a place there, but which at any rate may serve sometimes to recall me to your remembrance.

I heard of you at the Ambrosian Library, [3]  & from some Englishmen with whom I fell in in Switzerland, – Oakley I think was the name of one, Hendrick of another, a third was a younger man whose name I did not learn, but who wore notable mustachos, & was in Hendricks company. [4]  It would have been a great pleasure to me to have met you, & I did count upon the possibility, because you were then upon your way from Italy. – Last year I was in Scotland, for the only time since our journey to Edinburgh. [5]  During the short time that I was in that city (only three days) I called upon Laing, [6]  whom I found as evergreen as a Scotch fir, – apparently not an hour older than he had been fourteen years before. Scott was not in town. I was with Rickman, & Telford the Engineer, with whom I went to look at the Highland Roads & the Caledonian Canal; – a six weeks tour. Of course I saw nothing of Gog in Edinburgh.

Fourt Fifteen years have gone by since you were at Keswick, & the little child who used to call you Emly is now taller than her mother. Since that time I have had six children born, & have buried two of them, – one upon whom I had bestowed five years of tuition, & who was in all respects the most promising creature that ever my eyes beheld. [7]  This was a tremendous stroke, which cut me to the core; & if it had not been for the firm belief that Death would restore all that it had taken, I am sure that I should have sunk under it. – But I have lived long enough to know that we outlive our griefs. – I have now another son, born after an interval of seven years, & consequently (our time of life considered) after all expectation of another had ceased. He is at present 20 months old, & I would tell you how fine a creature he is, if the thought did not come across me that I had once written to you in terms of exultation concerning my first child; – & that the letter could scarcely have reached you before she was stricken with her mortal disease.

Few men however have cause to be more grateful for their lot. Rich indeed I shall never be. Since you were here I have twice been disinherited of an ample property, [8]  & one chance more has been frustrated by Lord Somervilles having willed away the Southey estates to which I was heir at law, & which were intended to descend to me if he died without issue. [9]  But as in the two first cases the caprice of a testator deprived me of what the law would have awarded; so in this the law interfered to cut me off from what a testator designed to give. It is well that I had never reckoned upon such chances. My castles in the air have been of a different kind. – I have rubbed on up the hill, & made my way in spite of many impediments & encumbrances. My means have kept pace with a growing expenditure. It is true that this depends upon the continuance of health & faculties, & that the stroke which disables me will also cut off my <main> resources. But I live in hope. What with my books, copyrights & papers, & a life insurance for 4000£ (which is now worth 5) if I died tomorrow, there would be ten thousand pounds for my family. And if it please God that I live ten years & continue to do well, I have plans & engagements which will enable me to lay by not less than 5000£.

I would not have gone into this strain if I had not thought you <it> would take be some satisfaction to you to hear of me thus fully, from myself. How glad should I be if you would revisit this place some summer when you have no better movement in contemplation, & occupy your old quarters. The quarters you would find much improved, & myself, I think; externally the worse for wear, but I trust somewhat the better within. I am not a young man of my years, – & one unequivocal proof of the effect of years is, that I neither write verses now with willingly, nor with ease. If my own inclination were all that I had to consult I should never write another. But as fifteen years ago when I had the will in perfection & no lack of power, non homines non concessere columnæ, [10]  so now when the public & the Patres Nostri would be willing enough, the Gods are averse, the will is gone, & perhaps more of the power has departed with it than I have yet acknowledged to myself. – However the same motive which makes the mare to go, ought to put Pegasus in motion. [11] Our Fathers offer 1500£ for a long poem which has been long in hand. [12]  They gave Moore 3000. [13]  I demand 2500, allowing his to be worth 500 more for the number of purchasers who will expect<ed> to find something lignorish. [14]  They proposed two 500s more contingent upon a much greater sale than ought to be expected, – so we broke off, & when the poem is finished I shall go to market with it. – I know not whether Gog has done me more injury or good in my worldly fortunes, – he certainly blasted the sale of my poems for full ten years, but he has helped me mainly by making Reviews what they are, & I have been well paid for beating him on his own ground. [15] 

God bless you.

Yrs very truly

Robert Southey. [16] 


* MS: Westminster School. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Nicholas Horsfall, ‘Four Unpublished Letters of Robert Southey’, Notes and Queries, 22.9 (September 1975), 399–401. BACK

[1] Edmund Curle (d. 1747; DNB), bookseller and controversial publisher. He had attracted notoriety for publishing private letters by Alexander Pope (1688–1744; DNB), though it is now acknowledged that he was tricked by the latter into so doing. John Nichols was an inveterate collector, editor and publisher of literary manuscripts. They, along with Richard Phillips, are, for Southey and Elmsley, examples of members of the literary trade who catered to the public appetite for knowledge of authors and in so doing profited from the writings of others. BACK

[2] The third volume of the History of Brazil (1810–1819) and The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[3] Biblioteca Ambrosiana, a library in Milan (opened 1609), containing a huge number of medieval manuscripts. Southey had visited on 14 June 1817. Elmsley was a frequent visitor to Italy, especially to work on classical manuscripts. BACK

[4] Unidentified beyond the information given here. Southey met these travellers on 5 July 1817 near Berne, Switzerland. BACK

[5] Southey had visited Scotland from 17 August to 1 October 1819; see Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819 (1929), ed. Charles Harold Herford. He had previously visited Edinburgh with Elmsley in October 1805; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 20 October 1805, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Three, Letter 1113. BACK

[6] The bookseller William Laing (1764–1832), father of David Laing. BACK

[7] The six children were: Herbert, Emma, Bertha, Isabel, Kate and Cuthbert. Emma had died in 1809, and Herbert in 1816. BACK

[8] Southey and his brothers had inherited nothing from their wealthy paternal uncles John and Thomas Southey on their deaths. BACK

[9] John Southey Somerville, 15th Lord Somerville (1765–1819; DNB), agricultural reformer and third cousin of Southey, had died on 5 October 1819. This produced a further round of legal tangles over the Fitzhead estate in Somerset that Somerville had inherited from his great uncle John Cannon Southey (d. 1768). On his death, John Cannon Southey had left a complex, ill-advised will which named Somerville his primary heir, and should he die without heirs, Southey’s father and two uncles as the residuary legatees, their rights passing, in turn, to their children. Of the three Southey brothers only Southey’s father married, leading the poet (encouraged by his Aunt Mary) to believe (after the death of his father and paternal uncles) that he and his brothers were the rightful heirs to the Fitzhead estate. After taking legal advice, though, Southey decided not to pursue the matter. BACK

[10] ‘No man nor bookseller will accept’, an adaptation of Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65–8 BC), Ars Poetica, line 373; i.e. there had been no ready market for Southey’s poetry. BACK

[11] As the proverb suggests that ‘money makes the mare go’, Southey is saying here that he should continue to write poetry for financial reasons. Pegasus was a winged horse in Greek mythology. The spring Hippocrene was created from his hoof-print, and all who drank of it received poetic inspiration. BACK

[12] Southey’s unfinished epic, set in New England. The completed sections were published after Southey’s death in Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished): With Other Poetical Remains (London, 1845), pp. 1–90. BACK

[13] Thomas Moore, Lalla Rookh (1817), for which Longman and his partners had paid the author £3,000 before it was even completed. BACK

[14] Like ‘lignor’, i.e. firewood. BACK

[15] Southey felt that Jeffrey’s negative reviews of his poems, beginning with that of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) in Edinburgh Review, 1 (October 1802), 63–83, had seriously harmed their sales for the next ten years, i.e. Thalaba (1801), Madoc (1805) and The Curse of Kehama (1810). It was not until Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814) that Southey produced a poem from which he made considerable profits. However, the success of the Edinburgh Review had led to the foundation of its conservative rival, the Quarterly Review, in 1809 and thus allowed Southey a regular income from writing for it and a platform from which to criticise Whigs like Jeffrey. BACK

[16] go to market … Southey: written at the top of fol. 1r. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)


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