3005. Robert Southey to John May, 1 August 1817

3005. Robert Southey to John May, 1 August 1817⁠* 

Brussels. 1 Aug. 1817

My dear friend

I wrote to you a long letter from Geneva [1]  on our way to Italy & since that time have written twice to London so that I conclude you would hear by roundabout means that I had reached Milan; & afterwards that we had safely returned into Switzerland. From Geneva we made for Mount Cenis [2]  & turned aside from Chamberry to visit the Grand Chartreuse, [3]  which after all that we have since seen, remains impressed upon our minds as one of the finest imaginable scenes. The hot weather did not begin till the first of June when we left Lausanne, – we had too much of it in going up the Maurienne, [4]  & suffered severely from the dust & the sun. Senhouse in consequence had a smart bilious attack at Turin which detained us there two days instead of one: this has been the only unpleasant circumstance during the whole journey, – & this lasted so short a time & was so little serious while it lasted that it can scarcely be called such. At Milan I purchased some books but xx <but> this was not the place for executing your commission. Thence to Como where I found Landor & we remained three days. Bellaggio, twenty miles from Como upon the fork of the Lake, is the finest single spot that I have ever seen, commanding three distant lake views, each of the grandest character. Lugano was our next stage, & somewhere here it is that if climate & scenery alone were to be consulted I should like to pitch my tent, – perhaps at Laveno upon the Lago Maggiore. The Isola Bella upon that Lake is of all extravagant follies the most absurd. [5]  Having crost the Lake we entered upon the Simplon road, [6]  which on the whole I do not think so fine as the passage of Mount Cenis; – but it is foolish to compare things which are in so many respects essentially different. In the Maurienne & indeed when you begin to descend into Piedmont the world seems tumbling to pieces about your ears, of such perishable materials are the mountains made. In the Simplon you have generally rocks of granite. A glorious Alpine descent brought us into the Valais, – which even more than the Maurienne is the land of goitres & cretins, – both more numerous & more shocking to behold than I could have believed possible. At Martigny we halted & crost to Chamounix by the Tete Noir. [7]  In the Album at the M. Auvert [8]  I found John Coleridges adventures in going to the Garden [9]  as it is called, – unluckily the ink with which he wrote has made them almost <in part> illegible. I found also a more curious record. You may have heard me speak of Shelley, [10]  who left his wife (to drown herself) & lived with two of Godwins daughters in Switzerland. [11]  – Many persons who visit the Mer de Glace have expressed some religious feeling in the Album: – this party had written their names & designation thus

Mr Percy Bysshe Shelley >
Madame son epouse [12]  > εκαςοί αθεοί [13] 
Pheoffteigyne la sœur [14]  >

after their Greek words, another hand had added, και ει τουτο αληθες εστιν, εκαστοι μωροι εισι, και δυστυχοι, δοξαζοντες εν τῃ αφροσυνῃ αυτων. ει δε τουτο ουκ εστιν αληθες, εκαστοι ψ ευσται. [15]  This was probably written by Copplestone. [16] 

We returned by the Tete Noir as we came. the Col de Baume [17]  being still covered in great part with snow & proceeding by Vevay & Lausanne: returned to Mr Audrys at Echichens, [18]  where we rested three days. Just four weeks had elapsed since we left that place, & it was a high enjoyment to find ourselves again among friends – I found one letter from home & by that learnt the news of Harrys household, for which I must else have waited till this time. [19] 

Proceeding to Berne, we sent our carriage to Zurich & struck into the Oberland where we travelled ten days by land & by water on horseback, or on foot, sometimes in cars & sometimes in carts. The snows rendered it impossible to cross the Grimsale [20]  without more risque than it would have been justifiable to incur. We slept on the Righi [21]  & had a scene there which was not a little curious in such a place. At Zurich a days halt was necessary for the love of the washerwoman, we then set off homeward in good earnest, thro the Black forest. I was unfortunate enough to miss Osterwald, [22]  whom I found when I got to Manheim was gone to Heidelberg – a place which we had left in the afternoon. He lives with a sister [23]  & frequently comes to the Hotel at which we lodged, to talk English with the Landlord. I wrote a letter to him communicating all the news I could recollect concerning his old friends & requested to hear from him at Brussels. We then made for Frankfort & Mentz, & down the left bank of the Rhine to Cologne, where we saw the Three Kings & a very considerable number of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, – certainly some thousands of them, – a sight more curious than any <of its kind> in Portugal or Spain. [24]  Here we arrived last night, – & here to my bitter disappointment I find no letter from home. I know that Edith has written – & that she would never be weak enough to conceal ill tidings from me, therefore I am not unnecessarily anxious, – but anxious I needs must be having no intelligence later than the tenth of June. A few lines from Harry was all that I found here.

Very unwillingly my return is protracted one day that we may escort Mrs Vardon across the channel. We hope to reach Calais on Wednesday, – perhaps to arrive in England that night.

I have found three of the Books here of which you gave me the memorandum, & they are the most important. Helyot Durand & Martens & the anonymous book upon the Monastic Orders. [25]  You have them exceedingly cheap – as they will escape duty in my great package. Helyot 50 franks, & the other two, if I recollect rightly, only 23. – I have made large purchases which with the Acta Sanctorum, now at last compleated, will fill three chests. Verbiest has promised to dispatch them immediately. [26] 

You may well imagine how anxious I am to hear from home, & how desirous to get there. As for news we have lived so long without it, that the appetite seems almost extinguished. In Italy we had now and then the Lugano Gazette, [27]  at Echichens Galignanis English Paris paper, [28]  – & in Germany I picked out London news from the Rastadt Carlsruhe & Frankfort papers. By mere chance I got at Zurich a German account of Massenas campaign in Portugal written by a Physician of his army, [29]  – my knowledge of the subject assisted me greatly in making out the meaning & I have found in it some curious matter. As far as I can learn this is the only original document concerning the war, which has yet been published in Germany.

I have been perfectly well during the whole journey, & the knowledge which it has given me amply repays the expence both of money & of time. It has been with great difficulty that I could keep up my journal so fully has every day & every hour been occupied, from five & frequently four in the morning – I have however kept it up. My spirits have been equal to any demand which outside circumstances might make upon them: – but to live always out of oneself is not possible, & in those intervals which frequently occur amid the excitement & exhilaration of such a journey, my thoughts <lonely feelings> have perhaps been more poignant [MS torn] would have been amid the even tenour of domestic life. [30]  But I have learnt to give them their proper direction. Xxxx When I am once more at home I shall feel the benefit of having travelled.

God bless you my dear friend. Perhaps I shall be in England as soon as this letter. On Friday I hope to reach Queen Anne Street. ten days must be the utmost of my stay in London. Remember me to Mrs May & believe me

most truly & affectionately yours

Robert Southey.


* Address: England/ To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surry
Postmarks: [partial] FPO/ AU11/ 1817; 4o’Clock/ AU.11/ 1817 EV
Watermark: H Renoz
Endorsement: No. 194 1817/ Robert Southey/ Brussels 1st August/
recd. 12th do./ ansd. personally
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 156–159; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 271–276 [in part]. BACK

[1] The letter appears not to have survived. BACK

[2] A mountain pass between France and Italy, the traversal of which had been eased by a road constructed by the French government (1803–1810). BACK

[3] Head monastery of the Carthusian order, founded in 1084. It is located high in an Alpine valley north of Grenoble. BACK

[4] The Alpine valley near Mont Cenis. BACK

[5] The island of Isola Bella on Lake Maggiore. It is entirely occupied by the enormous seventeenth-century Palazzo Borromeo and its gardens. The palace was built by various members of the Borromeo family, whose coronet and family motto, ‘Humilitas’ (humility), is much in evidence. BACK

[6] The Simplon pass, in the Swiss Alps, between Brig in Switzerland and Domodossola in Italy. Southey was able to cross using the carriage road constructed by the French government (1801–1805). BACK

[7] A peak in the Valais region of Switzerland. BACK

[8] Montanvert was a common name in the eighteenth century for a summit near the glacier known as the Mer de Glace. The spectacular views it afforded of the Vale of Chamonix and the surrounding mountains made it a popular tourist destination. At its top was a small building for travellers to take shelter, known as the hospice. It contained an album in which visitors could write their names and comments. BACK

[9] Travellers based in Chamonix could undertake a hazardous expedition to the Glacier du Talèfre, where they could see ‘the Garden’, a raised, flattened rock that was covered with grass in summer. The recommended route included an overnight stay in the hospice on Montanvert before tackling the Glacier du Talèfre. John Taylor Coleridge visited in 1814 on his European tour paid for by John May. BACK

[10] The two men had met in Keswick in 1811–1812. BACK

[11] Mary Godwin Shelley (1797–1851; DNB), Godwin’s daughter with Mary Wollstonecraft; Clara Mary Jane Clairmont (1798–1879; DNB), daughter of Godwin’s second wife Mary Jane Clairmont Godwin (1766–1841) and Sir John Lethbridge (1746–1815). Shelley had left his wife in 1814 for Mary Godwin and travelled to Switzerland with her and her step-sister (who could speak French). The three of them returned in the summer of 1816 and visited Montanvert in July. BACK

[12] ‘His wife’; i.e. Mary Godwin Shelley. BACK

[13] ’Atheists one and all’. BACK

[14] Possibly a French version of the Greek for ‘hater of God’; followed by ‘her sister’, i.e. Clara Clairmont. BACK

[15] The addendum translates as: ‘if that is true they are all fools and unfortunates, believing it in their stupidity. But if it is not true, they are all liars’. BACK

[16] In 1811 Copleston, having received a copy of The Necessity of Atheism, which Shelley wrote while an Oxford undergraduate, reported Shelley to the Master and Fellows of his college, resulting in his expulsion from the university. He visited Switzerland in August-September 1816, shortly after Shelley’s party. BACK

[17] A mountain pass near Chamonix. BACK

[18] John Awdry (1766–1844), solicitor in Reybridge and husband of Jane, née Bigg-Wither (1770–1845), sister of Herbert Hill’s wife, Catherine. BACK

[19] Henry Herbert Southey’s first child, Robert Southey, was born on 1 June 1817. BACK

[20] The Grimsel pass connects the valley of the Rhone in the canton of Valais and the upper valley of the Aar river. BACK

[21] A massif in central Switzerland. BACK

[22] Possibly Jean Frederic Ostervald (1773–1850), a Swiss surveyor, cartographer and publisher, whom Southey had met in Portugal in 1796. BACK

[23] Unidentified. BACK

[24] A reliquary in Cologne cathedral supposedly contains the bones of the Three Wise Men who visited the infant Christ in Bethlehem, described in Matthew 2: 1–12. The church of St Ursula in Cologne contains an enormous reliquary in which supposedly lie the bones of this fourth-century British saint who, according to legend, was killed, with her eleven thousand virginal handmaids, on a pilgrimage to Cologne, by the Huns besieging the city. The reliquary is extraordinary because, in addition to its size, it displays the bones arranged in patterns and so as to form letters and words. BACK

[25] Possibly Hippolyte Helyot (1660–1716), Histoire des Ordres Religieux et Militaires (1792); Edmond Martène (1654–1739) and Ursin Durand (1682–1771), Voyage Litteraire de Deux Religieux Benedictins de la Congregation de Saint Maur (1717); and an unidentified work. Uncut copies of the first two of these works were advertised in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library (nos 1183 and 1701) after his death, so it is possible that the purchases never reached May. BACK

[26] Southey had bought the massive compendium of hagiographies entitled Acta Sanctorum, 53 vols (1643–1794), no. 207 in the sale catalogue of his library. Jean-Baptiste Ver Beyst (1770–1849) was a famous bookseller in Brussels. BACK

[27] Gazzetta di Lugano (1814–1822), a weekly Swiss paper of liberal views. BACK

[28] Galignani’s Messenger, a daily newspaper in English, printed in Paris from 1814 by Giovanni Antonio Galignani (1757–1821). BACK

[29] Der Feldzug von Portugall, in den Jahren 1811 and 1812, in Historischer und Medizinischer-Hinsicht Beschrieben, von einem Arzte der Franzosischen Armee von Portugall (1816). This work does not appear in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library, but it is listed among the sources used for History of the Peninsular War, 3 vols (London, 1823–1832), III, p. 936. BACK

[30] Southey was still grieving for his son Herbert, who had died on 17 April 1816. BACK

Places mentioned