730. Robert Southey to John May, 26 October [1802]

730. Robert Southey to John May, 26 October [1802] ⁠* 

My dear friend

So long a time has elapsed that I know not when I wrote last to you, or whether I am about to tell you what has been before communicated.

My design of residing at Keswick has proved abortive. the quantity of room required could not be spared, tho I had reason to expect otherwise. I had then to look about again – for some residence to suit me – & hope I am in a fair way of finding one, being in treaty at present for a house in Glamorganshire, eight miles from Neath – in a good climate, & most beautiful country, where food is cheap, fuel at a very low price, & a canal near the house for regular conveyance – even from Bristol if I need it. the house is furnished – a great convenience as it leaves me more at liberty. in a fortnight I am to hear farther about it – our negociation is about certain alterations – there is a kitchen to be added & I want a room above it – somewhat larger than the others, to be my study.

This I know has not been communicated to you before – but am not quite so sure that what follows will not be a twice told tale. I went to John Southey – that Uncle whom for 26 years I had not seen. he received me with great civility. the wig that is only powdered for Sunday, was powdered in the middle of the week – the Sunday coat put on – a barrel of strong beer broached, & a fire lit in the best parlour. good symptoms you will say but I have opened an intercourse which I know not how to keep up. his talents were by nature of no common stamp – they have been exclusively directed to the law, which he has now for years abandoned. his books are such books as a man buys who thinks he must fill a bookcase, because a bookcase is a common piece of furniture. Smollets History [1]  – an unread set of Pope [2]  – Guardians – Spectators [3]  &c. his whole reading the European Magazine [4]  – till Dr Mavor [5]  published his abridged travels – & they have supplanted all the rest the magazine. but he now has it in contemplation to take in Newtons Principia in numbers, having heard of Sir Isaac Newton. [6]  his house is a good house that strikes ones spirits with an ague. no comfort. for it is the house of an old man with no wife & no friends – & every where some thing about it to show opulence – & the rest all mean & miserly. one of your sattin-wood urns for spoons upon the side board – & a book case & drawers of painted deal – such a mixture as Nebuchadnezzar saw in his dream. [7]  lean greyhounds & spaniels about him – that he keeps & pays tax for only because he loves them, for he never sports, & tho he does love them better than any earthly things beside – still he starves them. Nature too had given him his share of feelings but they also have been blasted. one only passion has actuated him thro life. that of accumulating money – he learnt to dislike his relations because he was afraid their poverty would make claims upon his riches – & now at the age of something more than sixty he is without one friend in the world. his manners have grown boorish in solitude he pronounces speaks like a man who has never heard conversation above that of his hinds. when I left him he shook me by the hand & wished me a pleasant tower, for I was going into Glamorganshire in quest of this house. before he saw me he had said I was “a damnd shrewd fellow” – & now this precious commendation is exchanged for pity – my voice, he says, is gone already – & doubtless he thinks that I had better be thinking of my own death, than gaping for his. poor miserable man. I sate smoking with him till midnight & thinking how miserable he was, & what he must think of Tom & myself, then in the room with him – who had grown up with no feeling of family love – & who could only be regarded by him as vultures following an army. I talked with an effort – not of my own concerns – not of my family – those were subjects not to be touched upon – we had no common feelings, no common interests – no common recollections. time hung heavy – the mouldering of a wood fire became a perceptible sound – & I never ceased to hear the click of the house <clock.> there was no after invitation at parting – nothing like – I shall be glad to see you – or hear of you – a low bow & a shake by the hand – & I know as little as ever how to act with him. pride & resentment for the neglect of a common duty would have justified me in never noticing him – but what intercourse can I keep up – or how? – I can only call at his house if ever my road lies near it – or if any thing of importance befalls me let him know by letter – that is of important good – for other news would only provoke a curse at impertinence. his occupation now is farming – he has no longer strength for it & means to give it up – what will become of him in utter illness – without any resource, without any companion – for already he has quarrelled with all his old companions from a trick of thinking over words by himself till he extracts from them some uncivil sense as food for resentment.

Your God-daughter Margaret goes on well – a quiet little child, who has given me a set of new feelings for which I am the better & the happier. She lives wholly upon her mother as Nature designed. Edith is in tolerable health. I am well & shall try to keep so thro the winter as far as all precautions mental as well as bodily can avail. I am very hard at work. till twelve every morning I give to a booksellers job [8]  which will take me twelve weeks longer to compleat. my history [9]  is forward so much that by Xmas I expect to have as much as the first volume fairly transcribed – that is as fully as can be done from my present documents. two parts of four about the Moorish period are fairly written, the others nearly arranged. I have thought over the chapter upon religion – the which whenever it be written I shall send you for discussion. John the first [10]  life is advanced some way. my heart is in the work & I sometimes work at it too hard. When the child wakes me in the night – the associations crowd upon me – & I am harrassed by vague confused recollections of the events that occupied my last evenings thoughts.

My Uncle & myself have both been studying with equal delight & equal wonder the character & writings of Vieyra. [11]  his Sermons are still at Lisbon – so that I have yet that pleasure in store. I do not wholly understand him – but I do underst[MS torn] to think him almost the greatest & the best man of whom I have gained any knowledge in all my readings.

Edith desires to be remembered. my own remembrance also to Mrs May. [12]  you will I hope send me good tidings of her & your little boy [13] Wynn is in Paris – Drummond [14]  I suppose does not chuse to remember me. paciencia! [15]  – & if I cannot be a great man in the say of the world this generation – why I will be a very great one after my own in the next, & those <all> that are to come in secula seculorum [16] 

God bless you

yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.

October 26. Wednesday.

Kingsdown – Bristol.

here I of course remain till I move definitively


* Address: To/ John May Esqr./ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: [partial] BRISTOL
Postmarks: B/ OCT 23/ 1802; 10 o’Clock/ OC 23/1802 FN.n
Watermark: [illegible]
Endorsements: No. 69 1802/ Robert Southey/ Kingsdown 26th Oct./ recd. 28th do/ ansd. 8th Novr
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 68-70. BACK

[1] Tobias Smollett (1721-1771; DNB), A Complete History of England (1757-1758). BACK

[2] Alexander Pope (1688-1744; DNB). BACK

[3] Famous eighteenth-century periodicals edited by Joseph Addison (1672-1719; DNB) and Richard Steele (1672-1729; DNB); The Spectator (1711-1712) and the Guardian (1713). BACK

[4] European Magazine, and London Review (1782-1826), run by the literary scholar Isaac Reed (1742-1807; DNB), between 1782 and 1807. BACK

[5] William Fordyce Mavor (1758-1837; DNB), Historical Account of the Most Celebrated Voyages, Travels, and Discoveries, from the Time of Columbus to the Present Period (1796-1797). BACK

[6] Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727; DNB), Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687). BACK

[7] The Book Of Daniel 2, recounts the dream of Nebuchadnezzar (c. 634-562 BC, King of Babylon c. 605-562 BC). He saw a statue made of a mixture of gold, silver, brass, iron and clay. BACK

[8] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

[9] Southey’s uncompleted ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[10] John I (1357-1433, King of Portugal 1385-1433). BACK

[11] Antonio Vieira (1608-1697), Jesuit preacher and organiser of the Jesuit missions in Brazil. His Sermões (1679-1748) are a famous example of Portuguese prose. BACK

[12] John May’s wife Susanna Frances Livius (1767-1830). BACK

[13] John May (1802-1879). BACK

[14] William Drummond (c. 1770-1828; DNB), classical scholar and diplomat; Charge d’Affaires in Denmark 1800-1801; Minister-Plenipotentiary to Naples 1801-1803 and 1807-1808; Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire 1803. Southey had hoped to be employed by him in 1801. BACK

[15] The Spanish translates as ‘patience’. BACK

[16] The Latin translates as ‘for ever and ever’. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)