331. Robert Southey to John May, 8 July 1798

331. Robert Southey to John May, 8 July 1798 ⁠* 

Sunday. July 8th. 1798

My dear friend

I have been for some time in expectation of hearing from you, but you probably have been waiting for a new direction, & many employments have kept me silent. It was not till the Thursday evening preceding quarter day that a house was found at all suitable for us, & you can hardly conceive in what perpetual occupation I have been since we took possession. pulling down & putting up; - upholsterer – carpenter – mason – painter – paperer in succession, till of a filthy old barn looking house we have made a clean & comfortable dwelling. It is at Westbury, a village two miles from Bristol, in the pleasantest part of this country. there is a tolerable garden behind the house, in which excepting some half dozen rose bushes, every thing is calculated for use. the view over the garden is very beautiful, a fertile & woody vale, bounded on each side by hills, & terminated by a range of hills ten miles distant. the most interesting parts of the country are near at hand, & ten minutes walk would convey me to one of the most beautiful glens I ever saw.

here I begin to feel myself at home, & am already enough acquainted with the house to go about in the dark; this is the criterion I think of intimacy with a dwelling place. to day my books are to arrive; two windows that have been blocked up on account of the tax, [1]  form two convenient recesses for them, I have knockd up some shelves there, & when my box arrives from Cottles I shall need no other society. The Chinese have a good proverb “To read an excellent book the first time is to gain a new friend: to read over one we have perused before, is like meeting with an old friend.” [2] 

Do you remember my picking up <a> Portugueze sermon the day we went to Wapping?  [3]  I have found matter for a curious note in it, chiefly from the Spanish reply to the Sermon. the Spanish Jew has replied with learning & moderation, & I strongly suspect that the most remarkable passage in that mischievous work the Systême de la Nature [4]  was suggested by this book: I allude to the supposed defence of an Atheist who finds his mistake in another world. I have never read the Systeme de la Nature & speak of it at secondhand.

You are I believe in the habit of borrowing books from Cadell & Davies [5]  – I can recommend you to read A Series of Plays [6]  attempting to trace the effects of the stronger passions, lately published by them. three plays only are yet published but they are so excellent, that I could prophesy the Author, if he proceeds, will do honour to English literature.

I have bespoke your books of Cottle. they will cost 5s each – apply the purchase money for me in your next little subscription. – & let me have your plan for examining the poor as soon as it is arranged. I will exert myself in promoting it here. I am inclined to send you some lines which I wrote lately called The Complaints of the Poor. [7]  you may perhaps like them.

And wherefore do the Poor complain?
The rich man askd of me, –
Come walk abroad with me, I said
And I will answer thee.

Twas evening & the frozen streets
Were chearless to behold,
And we were wrapt & coated well
And yet we were acold.

We met an old bare-headed man,
His locks were few & white,
I askd him what he did abroad
In that cold winters night;

Twas bitter keen indeed! he said,
But at home no fire had he,
And therefore he had come abroad
To ask for charity.

We met a young bare footed child,
And she beggd loud & bold,
I askd her what she did abroad
When the wind it blew so cold;

She said her father was at home
And he lay sick a-bed,
And therefore was it she was sent
Abroad to beg for bread.

We saw a woman sitting down
Upon a stone to rest,
She had a baby at her back
And another at her breast;

I askd her why she loiterd there
When the wind it was so chill; –
She turnd her head & bade the child
That screamd behind be still –

She told us that her husband servd,
A soldier, far away
And therefore to her parish she
Was begging back her way

We met a girl, her dress was loose
And sunken was her eye,
Who with the wantons hollow voice
Addressd the passers by;

I askd her what there was in guilt
That could be heart allure
To shame, disease & late remorse?
She answered – she was poor.

I turnd me to the rich man then
For silently stood he,
‘You askd me why the Poor complain
And these have answerd thee! [8] 


Coleridge I hear is going to Germany: a wilder or more ridiculous scheme was never undertaken than this – to go with a wife & two infants merely to learn a language which may be learnt by his own fireside! [9] Cottle has entered into partnership with my printer, I am glad of it on many accounts; you should know Cottle, for there does not live a man of simpler & purer heart, or of more real benevolence. I am now going to Bristol to superintend the wagg shipping my goods – or rather waggoning them, as they come by a returning-waggon here. direct to Cottles. & let me soon hear of you. <My Mother & Edith are both greatly recovered. Edith desires to be remembered.>

God bless you –

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ 4. Bedford Square/ London –/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: B/ JY/ 10/ 98
Endorsement: 1798 No. 21/ Robert Southey/ July 8./ recd: 10 do/ ansd: 14 do
MS: Brotherton Library, University of Leeds. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 169–170 [in part; verse not reproduced]. BACK

[1] Since 1696 all houses in England had been liable to pay a tax of 2 shillings per annum. However, if they had more than 10 windows (7 from 1766) the occupier paid double this rate. In consequence, many householders had blocked up windows to avoid paying the higher duty. BACK

[2] Oliver Goldsmith (1728?–1774; DNB), The Citizen of the World: or, Letters from a Chinese Philosopher, Residing in London, to His Friends in the East, 2 vols (London, 1776), II, p. 87. BACK

[3] The volume is unidentified. Southey described his visit to Wapping in a letter to John May, 12 January 1798 (Letter 283). BACK

[4] Paul Henri, Baron d’Holbach (1723–1789), La Systême de la Nature (1770). BACK

[5] The London publishing and bookselling firm, at this time run by Thomas Cadell (1773–1836; DNB) and William Davies (d. 1820; DNB). BACK

[6] Joanna Baillie (1762–1851; DNB), A Series of Plays In Which it is Attempted to Delineate the Stronger Passions (1798). BACK

[7] Published anonymously in the Morning Post, 29 June 1798. BACK

[8] And wherefore ... thee!: Verse written in double columns. BACK

[9] Southey was mistaken: Coleridge’s wife and children did not accompany him on his visit to Germany in September 1798 to July 1799. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Cottles (mentioned 2 times)
Westbury (mentioned 1 time)