360. Robert Southey to John May, 14 December 1798

360. Robert Southey to John May, 14 December 1798 ⁠* 

Dec. 14. 98.

My dear friend

I am about to send off a great coat to your house for Harrys journey. he will have Burnetts to town & from thence must send it back. I should think we may expect him here in the course of three or four days. from Lightfoot I have received no answer yet, which somewhat surprizes me, but he may have left his situation, or been absent from it & so the letter may have followed him or been waiting his return.

We are enduring something like a Kamtschatkan winter here, I am obliged to take my daily walk, & tho I go wrapped up in my great coat almost like a dancing bear in hirsute appearance still the wind pierces me. we are very deficient in having no face dress for such weather as this.

I am busy upon the Grecian history, or rather it is the employment of all my leisure. the escape of my Pythoness [1]  mxxx was in the early ages, & they I believe will suit me best. I must have the Pythian games [2]  celebrated. for the story I have only invention to trust to. the costume of Greece will be new to the English drama, owing to the defects of our theatre. but I had rather get to some country & some people less known. among the many thoughts that have passed over my mind upon this subject, I have had the idea of grounding stories upon the oppressions exercised at different periods of time upon particular classes of people. the Helots [3]  for instance, the Albigenses, [4]  or the Jews. the idea of a tragedy upon one of the early martyrs has for some years been among my crude plans but it would not suit the stage because it would not suit the times. there is something more noble in such a character than I can conceive in any other, firm to the defiance of death in avowing the truth, & patient under all oppression, without enthusiasm, supported by the calm conviction that this is his duty.

Among the Helots something may be made of the infernal Crypteia, [5]  but I am afraid to meddle with a Spartan, there is neither feeling thinking or speaking like one who has been educated according to the laws of Lycurgus. [6]  Knowledge of human nature is not knowledge of Lacedæmonian nature. the state of slavery among our own countrymen in an early period is better, – the grievances of wardship & the situation of a neif or villain. [7]  dramatists & novelists have ransackd early history, & we have as many crusaders on the stage & in the circulating library as ever saild to Palestine – but they only pay attention to the chronology & not to the manners or mind of the period.

When do you leave London? & how is your brother Arthur? [8]  my letters are very nearly finished. [9]  they will be out a fortnight earlier than my Poems [10]  – shall I send them to you, or keep them till you I see you here on your way to town again?

Edith desires to be remembered. I am myself not well, towards night my indisposition affects me & induces a very uncomfortable state.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ 4 Bedford Square/ London/ Single
Stamped: BRISTOL
Postmark: DE/15/98
Watermark: [illegible]
Endorsement: 1798 No. 28/ Robert Southey/ No place 14 Decr/ recd. 15 do/ ansd. 5 Jany 1799
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849-1850), I, pp. 350–352 [in part]; Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 40–41. BACK

[1] The Pythia was the title given to the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who was famous for her prophecies, uttered under the influence of vapours rising from the earth. The priestess was originally always a young virgin, but Echecrates the Thessalian kidnapped and raped the incumbent. After this event, the priestess was always chosen from among old women. BACK

[2] Held every four years at Delphi in honour of Apollo. BACK

[3] An unfree population tied to the land in parts of Sparta. BACK

[4] A dualist religious movement in southern France in the 12th and 13th centuries. Suppressed by Catholic crusades. BACK

[5] Spartan boys who had shown great promise in their training were given the opportunity to prove their fighting skills by being sent into the countryside unarmed with instructions to kill any helot they met at night and to take any food they needed. BACK

[6] Lycurgus was the legendary law-giver of Sparta. Among the practices he implemented was the military training of all Spartan boys from the age of seven. BACK

[7] Wardship was the medieval system under which feudal lords had rights over their vassals, for example control of minors or the ability to decide who widows or heiresses might marry. ‘Neif’ and ‘villain’ are terms for female and male serfs who were bound to the soil, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 18, 215. BACK

[8] Arthur May, John May’s brother. BACK

[9] A second, revised edition of Southey’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal was published in 1799. BACK

[10] Southey’s two volume collection Poems appeared in 1799: volume one was a third edition of the collection first published in 1797; volume two consisted of poems published previously (though not under Southey’s own name) in the Morning Post and the Monthly Magazine or published for the first time. BACK

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