426. Robert Southey to Humphry Davy [fragment], 3 August 1799

426. Robert Southey to Humphry Davy [fragment], 3 August 1799 ⁠* 

Saturday, August 3, 1799.

My dear Davy – We have been at Minehead this last week; and I am still apprehensive that it will be the boundary of our journey.           .          .           .

This is a fine country; it wants only an open sea, but the sight of the opposite shore flattens the prospects, and deprives them of that impressiveness which only immensity can occasion. As we advance, we are promised a very Paradise – woods, rocks, and a boundless sea – a country little known, and where no post-chaise can pass. What with carts and double horses, we shall get on if Edith be but better. Let me talk with you about Mango Capac. [1]  I wish I could interest you enough in the subject to induce you to undertake it, to look upon it as the business of your leisure hours – a relaxation from more important studies. Hitherto heroic poetry has been confined almost wholly to the triumph of animal courage – this would be the victory of intellect, the ascendency of a strong mind over ignorance; a difficult subject, but which may be made very striking. I have no maps to see the situation of the lake where Mango first appeared, [2]  with regard to its vicinity or distance from the sea; of the lake itself I have found a description since my arrival here. It is very large, surrounding many islands; more than ten rivers of some magnitude flow into it; its waters discharge themselves through one channel, narrow and fathomless, unbridgeable from its depth, unpassable from its whirlpools: the Indians therefore floated a bridge over it, a net-work of twigs and reeds, fastened at either shore and buoyant upon the water. The people who inhabit the islands are a singular race – they say themselves they are not men, but something different from men, and I suppose superior, but this Acosta [3]  does not assert. Some of their tribes live wholly in their canoes, and shift about the lake at pleasure. On the shores of the lake, Mango and his sister first appeared. I have given you a description, at length, of the place; it is very favourable for landscape poetry: if you admit the agency of higher beings than man into the poem, the legislators of Peru may as well be born there as anywhere else; if you do not, they must come from some country advanced in the intellectual progress. China is the nearest. I should, however, prefer Persia and make them the children of one who adhered to the religion of Zoroaster when Mahometan intolerance had nearly extirpated it. [4]  There is a fine ground-work of poetry in the circumstance of a brother and sister marrying in the intimate union of feelings, opinions, and plans, which rendered them the only possible partners of each other. If you should think of this seriously, and undertake it, I will send you such circumstances respecting the country and its inhabitants as have fallen in my way in the course of my necessary reading; some things there are which would graft into the story.

If we were near enough to admit of daily intercourse, I should like to undertake the poem with you, because two people, if my opinion be not ill-founded, would necessarily write a better poem than one, their powers of poetry being granted and their similarity of opinion; the story should be the work of both, each take separate parts, each correct the other’s and add to it whatever ideas occurred to him. When their styles had amalgamated, the work would have double the merit of the single production of either. It is singular that this should only have been done by Beaumont and Fletcher. [5]  Envy and vanity have probably prevented others from following it.

We shall remain here till Friday next. If you feel inclined to gratify me with a letter, there is time for its arrival; my direction is at Mrs Alloway’s, Minehead. [6]  I have seen nothing of Dr. Roget, [7]  and can hear nothing of him: you still, I suppose, go on working with your gaseous oxide, [8]  which according to my notions of celestial enjoyment, must certainly constitute the atmosphere of the highest of all possible heavens. I wish I was at the Pneumatic Institution, [9]  something to gratify my appetite for that delectable air, and something for the sake of seeing you. The Anthology [10]  must be nearly finished; the book will interest me much as the memento of many friends. You will receive a copy from Cottle, and it may serve to remind you sometimes of me, who would not willingly be forgotten by you.

Yours truly,



* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Davy (ed.), Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (London, 1858)
Previously published: John Davy (ed.), Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (London, 1858), pp. 37–39 [in part]. BACK

[1] Manco Capac was the legendary first ruler of the Inca people in the 12th or 13th centuries. BACK

[2] Lake Titicaca; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 4. BACK

[3] Jose de Acosta (1539–1600), Historia Natural y Moral de las Indias (Seville, 1590), Book 6, chapter 20. BACK

[4] Zoroastrianism was the state religion of Persia until the Arab conquest of the 7th century. BACK

[5] Francis Beaumont (1584–1616; DNB) and John Fletcher (1579–1625; DNB), who wrote plays together and separately and whose styles cannot easily be differentiated. BACK

[6] Southey was staying at the home of Samuel Allaway (dates unknown), a staymaker, and his family. BACK

[7] Peter Mark Roget (1779–1869; DNB), doctor and lexicogropher. BACK

[8] Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. BACK

[9] The Pneumatic Institute, Dowry Square, Bristol, had opened in March 1799. BACK

[10] Annual Anthology (1799). BACK

People mentioned

Cottle, Joseph (1770–1853) (mentioned 1 time)
Davy, Humphry (1778–1829) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)