3656. Robert Southey to John May, 20 March 1821

3656. Robert Southey to John May, 20 March 1821⁠* 

March 20. 1821

The popular Saint of the Democratic Cantons in Switzerland, St Nicholas de Flue, [1]  remembered his own birth, knew his mother & the midwife as soon as he was born, & never forgot the way by which he was taken to be christened, nor the faces of the persons who were present at that ceremony. But he was an extraordinary child, who tho he neither danced, nor sung, nor preached before he was born (which certain other Saints are said to have done) had revelations in that state, & saw the light of heaven, before he came into the light of day. It has pleased <the metaphysico-critico-xxxxxxxx-politico-patriotico-phoolo-philosopher,> Jeremy Bentham to designate me <in one of his opaque works> by the title of St Southey, for which I humbly thank his Jeremy-Benthamship, & have in part requited him. [2]  It would be very convenient if I had the same claim to this honour on the score of miraculous memory as the said Nicholas, to whom I paid my respects in his own church at Saxeln. [3]  But the twilight of my recollections does not begin till the third year of my age.

However tho I did not, like him, know the Midwife at the time when she had most to do with me, I knew her afterwards, for she brought all my brothers & sisters into the world. She was the wife of a superannuated Baptist Preacher, who made her a wretched husband as was formerly common with Baptist Preachers kept a shop, dealing in medicines & quackery among other things. [4]  <Preachers of this grade have probably entirely disappeared, for even the Methodists will not allow their ministers to engage in any kind of business. They were stiff Oliverians [5]  in their politics.> He was always at his studies, which were probably old puritanical divinity, & I well remember hearing him spoken of as a miserable morose tyrant. The only son of this poor woman lost his life by a singularly dismal accident, after he was grown up, & doing well in the world. [6]  Hastening one day to see his mother upon the alarm of a sudden & dangerous illness which had seized her, he came to the draw-bridge just as they were beginning to raise it for the passage of a vessel; in his eagerness he attempted to spring across, but not calculating upon the rise, he fell in, & the vessel past over him; I used to cross this bridge <almost> every day for many years of my life, & the knowledge of his fate warned me from incurring the same danger, as otherwise in all likelihood I should very often have done.

The blow which my Mother had received on the breast was attended with serious consequences, she underwent several operations, & the functions of that breast were destroyed. She was able to nurse her younger children with the other, but it was my lot to be consigned to a wet foster mother whom my Uncle William had qualified for the office. [7]  This girl had been from her childhood employed at my grandmothers, first in the garden, then in household affairs; – a poor thoughtless simple creature, somewhat amorously inclined: her child died as soon as it was born, just at the time when I stood in need of her care. Her “misfortune” did not diminish the sort of compassionate attachment with which she was regarded by my Mother, so she was taken into the house, & certainly no one could have proved a more affectionate nurse than poor Pat as she was called, proved to me. The first day that I was taken to school to learn to read she was almost heart broken at the scene between me & the school mistress, which no doubt appeared to me <also> sufficiently tragical at the time. Having ushered me into the room & delivered me into custody, she made a hasty retreat, but stood at the door on the outside, looking thro a window which gave light into the passage, & listening to what ensued. Young as I was Upon this occasion I gave the first <good> proof of that <a> sense of physiognomy which never misled me yet, & of fearlessness <honesty> in speaking my opinion, & of a temerity in doing it by which my after life has often been characterized. Ma’am Powell [8]  had as forbidding a face (I well remember it) as can easily be imagined, & it was rendered worse by the total remarkable for having no eye lashes, – a peculiarity which I instantly perceived. When the poor old woman therefore led me to a seat on the form, I rebelled as manfully as a boy of three years could do, crying out lustily, – “take me to Pat, – I don’t like ye, – you have got ugly eyes, – take me to Pat, I say. Poor Pat went home with the story, & cried as bitterly in relating it as I had done during the contest, & th at the utter discomfiture to which I was fain to submit, when might as it appeared to me overpowered right.

My sister Eliza was born in 1776. & died of the measles in . [9] My recollections of her are more imperfect than it might otherwise have been, because much of my early childhood was spent with Miss Tyler, – still I remember her as <my earliest> playmate in certain situations by help of some local circumstances, & sometimes fancy that I will can call to mind a faint resemblance of her face. My brother Thomas came into the world in Dec. 1777. Louisa next in 1779. [10]  This was a beautiful creature, – the admiration of all who beheld her. My Aunt Mary was walking with her one day down Union Street, as Wesley [11]  was coming up. The old man xx was so struck with the little girls beauty, that he stopt & exclaimed Oh sweet creature! & took her by the hand & gave her a blessing. That which in affliction we are prone to think a blessing, & which perhaps in sober reflection xx may <be> justly thought so, befell her soon afterwards, — an early removal to a better world. She died of hydrocephalus,* [12]  a disease to which the most promising children are the most liable. [13]  John the next child was born in 1782 & died in infancy. [14] 

My recollections of Eliza & Louisa are more imperfect than they might otherwise have been, because during those years I was very much from home, being sometimes at school & sometimes with Miss Tyler, of whose situation & previous history I must now speak, because they had so material an influence upon <the course of> my future life.

Miss Tyler who was born in the year 1739 passed the greater <earlier> part of her youth <life> with her maternal uncle at Shobdon, a little village in Herefordshire, where he resided upon a Curacy. Mr Bradford [15]  had been educated at Trinity College, Oxford, & was in much better circumstances than country curates in general. He had an estate in Radnorshire of respectable value, & married the only sister of Mr Greenly of Titley in Herefordshire. [16]  In the first years of their marriage she narrowly escaped death in childbed, having been delivered by instruments; from the nature of the case it was understood that the same dreadful issue would be inevitable if she were again pregnant <parturient> & of course they never afterwards cohabited as man & wife, tho they continued to live together. He appears to have possessed some taste for letters & his library was well provided with the professional literature of his age. Shobdon tho a remote place gave him great opportunities of society: Lord Bateman [17] having <had> his residence there, in one of the finest midland situations that England affords & A clergyman of companionable means talents & manners was of course a welcome guest there <at his table>. Miss Tyler also became a favourite with Lady Bateman [18] so that she <&> spent a great deal of her time there; – enough to acquire the manners of high life, & too many of its habits & notions. Mrs Bradford died some years before her husband, not however till he was too far advanced in life or too confirmed in celibate habits to think of marrying again. By that time he had become a victim to the gout. In xxxxxxxx to hxx xxxxxx of An odd accident which happened to him during one of his severe fits <at a time> when no persuasion would have induced him to put his foot to the ground, or to fancy it possible for him to walk. He was sitting with his legs up in the full costume of that respectable & orthodox disease; when the cieling being somewhat out of repair, a xxxxx part of it fell <gave way, & down fell> a fine nest of rats old & young together, – plump upon him. He had what is called an antipathy to these creatures, & forgetting the gout in the horror of <which> their visitation <excited> sprung from his easy chair, & fairly ran down stairs.

Miss Tyler had the management of his house after his wifes death, & had also in no small degree the management of the parish. She had influence enough to introduce inoculation there, & I believe great merit in the exertions which she used in that occasion, & the personal attention which she bestowed. It occurs to my recollection now also that she effected a wholesome innovation in the poor house, by persuading them to use beds stuffed with beech leaves, according to the practice in the south of France, which she had heard or read of. It was Mr Bradford who placed my Uncle at Oxford, first at St Mary x Hall, afterwards at Christ Church, where he obtained a studentship, which must have been by means of some Shobdon connections. When Mr Bradford died which was about the year 1772, he left the whole of his property to Miss Tyler, except 100£ to my mother, & a small provision charged upon his estates to my poor Uncle William, [19]  as one utterly incapable of providing for himself. My Grandmother [20]  was wholly overlooked in his will & the xxxx pain which she felt at this unkindness was not mitigated by the use which her daughter made of her accession of fortune. The use which she ought to have made of it was obvious. She should have made Bedminster her home, as long as she might remain single, her presence there would have kept the worst of her brothers [21]  at a distance, & the others [22]  in order, & her mother would have past the remainder of her days without any the anxieties concerning her xxxxxx of <of> a structured income, & Miss Tyler during those years would have had so much to spare, that with common prudence she might ever afterwards have been had money at command.

Instead of this finding herself mistress of 1500£ in money <from his effects> besides the estate <& 600£ of her own> she began to visit watering places, & at one of them falling in with Dr Armstrong well known for his poem on Health, & infamously known for another of his compositions, [23]  was recommended by him for to try the climate of Lisbon, I believe not so much for any real or apprehended complaint, as because he perceived that the advice would be agreable. – In this manner did Armstrong before you & I were born, prepare the way for our friendship, & for the great literary labours of my life. [24]  To xx Lisbon accordingly she went, taking with her my Uncle who had lately been o entered into orders, & <a distant relation> Mrs Prankard, the widow of a decayed merchant, as a sort of Ama. [25] Miss Palmer one of her friends, joined the party. They remained about a year abroad. Some of your friends no doubt remember them there – it was in th 1774 the year of my birth. Miss Tyler was then in her 34. She was remarkably beautiful, if that face can be called beautiful <in> which the indications of a bad temper are apparent. She had looked too high for marriage when in her prime, I have heard that there was an attachment between her & Lord Robert Spencer, [26]  which Lady Bateman had some difficulty to break off. my Mother also told me that while she was at Lisbon Mr Walpole [27]  admired her (I believe it was while he was a widower -) but that she gave more encouragement than was prudent to an American Adventurer who followed her to England. His name was Digges. If perhaps <I am not mistaken> he wrote a sort of novel called the adventures of Automathes, in which there is a story of a man endeavouring to smuggle diamonds from the Forbidden District in Brazil, – & I know that he was a mere adventurer, who afterwards acquired some dishonourable notoriety by his <political> intrigues during the American war. [28] 


* MS: Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation, River Campus Libraries, University of Rochester, Robert Southey Papers A.S727. AL; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 24–31 [in part]. BACK

[1] Nicholas of Flue (1417–1487). In middle age he left his wife and children and became a hermit and ascetic. He was beatified in 1669, but not canonised until 1947. He was a native of Unterwalden, one of the original ‘forest cantons’ of the Swiss Confederation, with a tradition of direct democracy. BACK

[2] Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832; DNB), Church-of-Englandism and its Catechism Examined (London, 1818), p. 26. Southey had responded in his review of The Works of the Reverend William Huntington, S. S. Minister of the Gospel, at Providence Chapel, Gray’s Inn Lane, Completed to the Close of the Year 1806 (1811) in Quarterly Review, 24 (January 1821), 462–510, published 6 April 1821, by bracketing Bentham with a number of others as an example of a famous contemporary ‘quack’ (510). BACK

[3] Southey had visited the church dedicated to St Nicholas at Saxeln (Sachseln) on 10 July 1817 during his continental tour. BACK

[4] Unidentified. BACK

[5] Admirers of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; Lord Protector 1653–1658; DNB). BACK

[6] Possibly George Armstrong (d. 1799). The drawbridge crossed St Augustine’s Reach in the centre of Bristol. BACK

[7] i.e. Southey’s uncle, William Tyler (1742–1789), had impregnated the foster mother. BACK

[8] Mrs Powell (dates unknown) ran a Dame School in Bristol, which Southey attended between the ages of three to six years old. BACK

[9] Southey leaves a space for the date after ‘measles in’: the date was 1779. BACK

[10] Louisa Southey (1779–1782). BACK

[11] John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB); the subject of Southey’s controversial The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[12] * Induced I believe by the cursed custom of dipping her every morning in a tub of <the> coldest water. [Southey’s note.] BACK

[13] Southey’s first child, Margaret Edith, had died of hydrocephalus in 1803. BACK

[14] John Southey (b. 1782). BACK

[15] Herbert Bradford (1701–1768), Herefordshire clergyman, Curate of Shobdon 1728–1768, Rector of Cefyn-Llys 1748–1768, Vicar of Aymestry 1762–1768. BACK

[16] Bradford’s wife was Frances (d. 1763), the half-sister of William Greenly (1741–1834) of Titley Court, Herefordshire. BACK

[17] Either William Bateman, 1st Viscount Bateman (1695–1744), of Shobdon Court, or his son, John Bateman, 2nd Viscount Bateman (1721–1802). BACK

[18] Probably Anne, née Spencer (1702–1769), second daughter of John Churchill, 1st Duke of Marlborough (1650–1722; DNB) and wife of William Bateman, 1st Viscount Bateman. BACK

[19] William Tyler (1742–1789), Southey’s uncle. BACK

[20] Margaret Bradford (1710–1782). BACK

[21] John Tyler (dates unknown). BACK

[22] William Tyler and Edward Tyler (1744–1786). BACK

[23] The physician and poet John Armstrong (1708/9–1779; DNB). His works included the georgic Art of Preserving Health (1744) and the blank-verse sex manual the Oeconomy of Love (1736). BACK

[24] Armstrong had not inspired Southey to write either blank-verse georgics or a sex manual. Rather, by initiating the connection between Southey’s family and Portugal, he had put Southey in the way both of John May, whose family were members of the expatriate merchant community, and of Portuguese society and culture, which were key to his planned magnum opus the ‘History of Portugal’ and to many of his other works. BACK

[25] This distant relative had possibly married Richard Prankard (or Pranchard) (dates unknown), a Bristol merchant in the West India trade. BACK

[26] Lord Robert Spencer (1747–1831), third son of Charles Spencer, 3rd Duke of Marlborough (1706–1758), Whig politician and gambler. Lady Bateman was his aunt. BACK

[27] Robert Walpole (1736–1810), Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal, 1771–1800. His first wife, Diana, née Grosset, died in July 1784, and he married, for the second time, Sophia Stert (d. 1829), in May 1785. BACK

[28] Thomas Atwood Digges (1742–1822) of Maryland, expatriate and embezzler. His book was the Adventures of Alonso: Containing Some Striking Anecdotes of the Present Prime Minister of Portugal (1775), possibly the first American novel. Southey had confused the title with that of John Kirkby (1705–1754), Life of Automathes (1745). BACK

People mentioned

Tyler, Elizabeth (1739–1821) (mentioned 7 times)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 4 times)
Southey, Eliza (1776–1779) (mentioned 2 times)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)
Palmer, Miss (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Mary (1750–1838) (mentioned 1 time)


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