3131. Robert Southey to John May, 8 May 1818

3131. Robert Southey to John May, 8 May 1818⁠* 

Keswick. 8 May. 1818.

My dear friend

I hope very shortly to give you some good tidings of your books from Brussels, having ascertained that they were shipt at Antwerp on the 14th April. In all likelihood they are at this time in the Custom House, but the enquiry there & the removal from thence depend upon the convenience & leisure of no less a personage than Rothschild, [1]  with whom I have no acquaintance whatsoever, & who if he were not one of the best-natured of all possible Jews, would certainly not bestow a minutes thought or trouble upon such an affair, from his weighty concerns in the three & a halfs &c. [2]  For unless report wrongs him greatly he is one of those sweet like Mosaic Cherubs who sit up aloft, & sway the scales of finance as Jupiter [3]  is represented holding the scales of fate. – As soon as the cases are safely lodged in the Row, I will take care that your books shall be looked out & sent to Tavistock Street.

For myself I hardly expect to see this cargo for three months. Some little repairs from the bookbinders will be desirable while they are in London, & they will then have to wait for one of Mr Vardons ships to Newcastle whither he gives them a passage. They fill three cases, the Acta Sanctorum being fifty two volumes of large & full folios. [4]  Of this book without which it is not possible to write the early history of any part of Christendom as it ought to be written, there was no copy in England, till the British Museum sent for one, upon Gibbon’s [5]  applying for it there, xx xxx. So at least I have heard, tho I cannot call to mind upon what authority. I shall find it of indispensable use in the History of Portugal, [6]  – to the publication of which I now begin to look on with more impatience, as the time draws nearer.

The Quarterly Review by its long delay, [7]  & by the exertions which I made not to be the cause of delaying it three months ago, has given me a good holyday, & I have made good use of it in getting on with Brazil. [8]  Two & twenty sheets are printed & I am two chapters ahead of the press, – speaking of what is fairly transcribed, & in the printers hands, or ready to send off. The most laborious part – that which related to the Mines, & for which the materials were wholly manuscript & of the most disjointed nature, – is compleated; [9]  indeed the operose part of the work is accomplished. If I judge rightly this last volume will rather exceed the preceding ones in interest than fall short of them. – The first proof of the Life of Wesley reached me on Monday last; – this will extend to two full sized octavos. [10] 

Your God daughter has found a curious piece of antiquity, a copper spear-head, perfectly enamelled with verdigrease. It was lying among the crags of one of our mountains on the surface of the ground, & there it must have lain from the time when spears were used in this part of the country, & copper supplied the place of iron. There are copper mines near us. It is very well made, well shaped & just a span in length.

An electioneering fever is raging in the neighbouring county with the utmost virulence, [11]  – we are luckily not in the sphere of its influence. Whatever may be the issue of the contest, it will leave a great deal of ill-blood behind it, more I believe than ever was known in these parts. I myself rather incline to think that Parliament will not be dissolved this year, [12]  – the chance of the Kings death in the course of the next twelve months [13]  is surely to be xxx placed among probable contingencies, & General Elections are not such public blessings that any Ministry should desire to have one upon the heels of another. Now that there is nothing of importance at stake, one may look upon politics as upon a game in which we have no interest. Both parties go blundering on, – a great stir is made about things of little consequence, & some good is done, tho very seldom in the way it ought to be. – Meantime the longer peace endures on the continent, the longer it is likely to endure. – Sovereigns are sick of war, & every day is lessening the number of those persons who can live in no other element.

I think Spain will recover her colonies if America does not take part in the war, [14]  the Americans are likely enough to do so, for I do not believe that a more thoroughly ambitious & unprincipled government has existed, since the time of the Roman Republic. But even in that case the event would be very doubtful; – for even the Americans would feel little appetite for such warfare as is there carried on when once they had tasted it, & the Spaniards are a people whom who in no instance, have ever given up any one object {in} which they had heartily engaged. I was more sorry for Mina when I heard of his departure for Mexico, than I was for his death, [15]  – for death is better than to find {himself} engaged in such a war, not by any dreadful necessity, but by his own act & deed, fatally deceived as to its nature & its possibility of success.

We are at present God be thanked, all well. Remember us most kindly to Mrs May. Remember me also to your two eldest daughters & tell Charlotte that I hope she continues to look at the Lamb & the Lark. [16] 

God bless you

Yrs most affectionately

R Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: [partial] E; 10 o’Clock/ MY.11/ 1818 F.N.n
Watermark: B. E. & S. Bath 1814
Endorsement: No. 199 1818/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 8th May/ recd. 11th do./ ansd. 11th July
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. 166–168. BACK

[1] Nathan Mayer von Rothschild (1777–1836; DNB), Jewish banker and founder in 1811 of N. M. Rothschild and Sons, a leading firm in the City of London and central to the world-wide trade in gold bullion and government bonds. Southey may have been put in touch with Rothschild by John Charles Herries, the former Commissary-in-Chief, who worked closely with Rothschild to ensure the transfer of funds to pay British troops during the Peninsular War. Rothschild’s key role in the financial aspect of the British war effort no doubt made Southey well-disposed towards him; and Rothschild’s network of agents, shippers and couriers made him ideally-placed to expedite the books Southey had bought in Brussels in 1817 through British customs. Southey had also bought some books for John May. BACK

[2] The government’s new issue of 3½ per cent stock was not selling well and was declining in value; among the major subscribers was Rothschild’s firm, which had reportedly invested £2 million; see the Morning Chronicle, 20 April 1818. BACK

[3] The Biblical prophet Moses was commanded by God to construct two golden cherubs to place on top of the gold slab covering the Ark of the Covenant, Exodus 25: 18–20; Southey compares this image to Jupiter, the supreme Roman god, who was sometimes portrayed as holding the scales of fate. BACK

[4] Southey had bought in Brussels the massive, 53–volume, compendium of hagiographies entitled Acta Sanctorum (1643–1794), no. 207 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[5] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB), author of a History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). BACK

[6] Southey’s unfinished ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[7] The Quarterly Review was running considerably in arrears: volume 18 (January 1818) did not appear until 9 June 1818. It contained Southey and Rickman’s article, ‘On the Poor Laws’, Quarterly Review, 18 (January 1818), 259–308; Southey placed the remaining material in his ‘On the Means of Improving the People’, Quarterly Review, 19 (April 1818), 79–118. BACK

[8] The History of Brazil (1810–1819). BACK

[9] Chapters 32–33, History of Brazil, 3 vols (London, 1810–1819), III, pp. 40–161, on the development of mining in inland Brazil. BACK

[10] The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[11] A general election was imminent, though the House of Commons was not dissolved until 10 June 1818. It was already clear, though, that there would be a contest in Westmorland, which was dominated by the Lowther family, who were supporters of the government – the two sitting MPs were the brothers Henry Lowther (1790–1867), MP for Westmorland 1812–1867 and William, Viscount Lowther (1787–1872), later 2nd Earl of Lonsdale and MP for Cockermouth 1808–1813, MP for Westmorland 1813–1831 and 1832–1841. So complete was the Lowthers’ dominance that the last contested election in Westmorland was in 1774. However, in January 1818, a committee of Whigs and smaller landowners had brought forward Henry Brougham to challenge the Lowthers – Brougham’s family home was Brougham Hall near Penrith and he could plausibly be presented as a local candidate. BACK

[12] A general election was called on 10 June 1818. BACK

[13] George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain and Ireland 1760–1820; DNB) died on 29 January 1820; this event automatically triggered the dissolution of parliament on 29 February 1820. BACK

[14] Spain sent an expeditionary force of 10,500 men to South America in 1815 to bolster local royalist forces and enjoyed considerable success in New Granada and Chile. The United States did not intervene directly in the conflict. BACK

[15] Martin Javier Mina y Larrea (1789–1817), Spanish guerilla leader, exiled after an unsuccessful rising in 1814 against royal absolutism. He joined the Mexican independence movement in 1816 and was executed by royalist forces on 11 November 1817. BACK

[16] May’s daughters, Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). The ‘Lamb and the Lark’ may refer to a children’s book, possibly Lindley Murray (1745–1826; DNB), Introduction to the English Reader: or, A Selection of Pieces, in Prose and Poetry; Calculated to Improve the Younger Classes of Learners in Reading; and to Imbue their Minds with the Love of Virtue (1811). BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Paternoster Row, London (mentioned 1 time)
Tavistock St, London (mentioned 1 time)