1988. Robert Southey to John May, 24 November 1811

1988. Robert Southey to John May, 24 November 1811 ⁠* 

Keswick, Nov. 24. 1811.

My Dear Friend,

You know that I would write anything for you as readily and with as much pleasure, and with as great a desire to do it, as for any person living. [1]  You will therefore give due weight to my reasons for not attempting what you now desire of me. First, the inscription ought to be – in Latin, decidedly; – so it appears to me. Now I have not written a Latin sentence these seventeen years, [2]  and, moreover, have read so much of the middle-age Latin, that classical Latinity is one of those things which I have forgotten. This I am by no means ashamed of confessing: on the contrary, it is to my credit that I can afford to forget it.

But you will say it may be in English verse – which alone I could do, – having never attempted the lapidary style of composition. This I could do had there been time for it. It is true, little time is required for composing ten or fifteen lines, when the matter is once ready; but it might be weeks or months before I could conceive in what form it ought to be cast. There is no sitting down to these things doggedly. Fifteen years ago [3]  I could have answered any of these calls on demand, because I was more easily satisfied with myself. Two instances of later occurrence will show you the state of my ability now. I was requested to write two epitaphs by different persons, and very desirous in both cases of doing it: in the one because I knew and loved the dead almost as if she had been my sister; [4]  in the other, because the letter containing the request was written in a manner that very much impressed and affected me. [5]  Both were fine subjects for monumental inscriptions, and this I immediately felt, and neither of them employed me an hour, but I was six weeks before I could perceive in what manner to shape the one inscription, and three months on the other; and I can safely affirm that no day passed without the subject recurring to my mind, and in some degree harassing me. Heaven knows how long it might be before I could do anything, and when it were done it might very probably be worth very little! You see, therefore, that I have no chance of having verse of mine engraved on silver. If I could do it to my own satisfaction I would most cheerfully, though there are two poets in the family, by either of whom an inscription might be supplied. [6]  I certainly think, considering the relation in which the donors stand to G. Coleridge, that the inscription should be in Latin. The thing should be classical.

I have not the “Privilegios Ingleses,” [7]  and shall be much obliged to you to send me the book. Longman will convey it to me.

The “Treaties” I have in the “Correio Braziliense.” [8]  Do you see that work? The editor’s parallel between the English and Portuguese constitutions is exceedingly able, and I would wish nothing better for Portugal or Brazil than to see its ministers acting upon such principles as this writer holds out. But they go on ill in Brazil. If things can be kept quiet there, the tendency of society now is to mend itself. The English will act upon the people there as they did at Lisbon and Porto, – soften down their intolerance, and teach them commercial industry. What is to be feared is, that the abuses of the Government will increase the disaffection of the subjects, and that the principles of their neighbours on the Plata will spread among them. The provocations which the Spanish Americans have received are very great, I fully admit, but not such as to justify them. I have a good many B. Ayres “Gazettes” of late date, [9]  and the feeling with which the affairs of the mother country are mentioned is precisely like that which the Caraccas deputies [10]  make no attempt to conceal, – sorrow at any event which seems likely to retard the total subjugation of the Peninsula, because that subjugation would seem to justify them, and would remove all obstacles to a free commerce with Great Britain. The more I think of Spanish America, the worse the prospect appears. For the mother country I do not regard the separation as eventually an evil, except that, as in our case with North America, the cause of the separation will always remain a blot upon her history.

The best edition of Shakespeare is Isaac Reid’s, in twenty-one volumes. [11] 

I am very anxious that Coleridge should complete this course of lectures, [12]  because whatever comes from him now will not be lost as it was at the Royal Institution. [13]  I have taken care that they shall be taken down in shorthand. [14]  Remember us to Mrs. May.

God bless you.

Yours very affectionately,

R. Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 245–247. BACK

[1] May had asked Southey to write an inscription to be engraved on a gift for George Coleridge, to be presented on the latter’s retirement from his school at Ottery St Mary in December 1811. Southey attempted the task, but soon admitted his failure; see Southey to John May, 8 December 1811, Letter 1996. BACK

[2] i.e. since Southey left Balliol College, Oxford in 1794. BACK

[3] In 1796 Southey had composed a prose epitaph, which May thought fit to put on the tomb of his father, Joseph May (1730–1796), in St Marys Church, Hale. BACK

[4] The inscription to Emma Peachy; published as ‘Inscription XVIII’ in Minor Poems, 3 vols (London, 1815), II, pp. 131–132; see Southey to William Peachy, 27 February 1810, Letter 1751. BACK

[5] An inscription for the mother of Southey’s Lake District neighbour Major-General John Peché (d. 1823), of the East India Company’s army. The epitaph was first published in Minor Poems, 3 vols (London, 1815), II, pp. 129–130, as ‘Inscription XVII. Epitaph’. BACK

[6] i.e. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Taylor Coleridge. A Latin inscription by the latter was engraved on the gift for George Coleridge. BACK

[7] Possibly a copy of the Cartas dos Privilegios de Nacam Britannica em Portugal (1746). In 1808 Britain had been extended similar trading privileges in Brazil. BACK

[8] The Correio Braziliense (also known as the ‘Literary Warehouse’) was a journal in Portuguese. Edited by Hipolito Jose da Costa (1774–1823), it was printed in London and ran from 1808–1822. It was critical of the Portuguese monarchy and advocated liberal ideas. Southey possessed a complete set, no. 3203 in the sale catalogue of his library. The ‘treaties’ were probably the agreements between Britain and Portugal in 1807–1808 for the Portuguese Court to flee to Brazil under British protection and to open Brazil to trade with ‘friendly’ nations i.e. primarily Britain; and a formal Treaty of Friendship (1810). BACK

[9] Gazeta de Buenos Ayres, which ran from 7 June 1810 to 12 September 1821. BACK

[10] A Congress at Caraccas had declared the independence of Venezeula on 5 July 1811. BACK

[11] The variorum edition of Shakespeare edited by Isaac Reed (1742–1807; DNB). It was published in 1803. Southey’s praise for Reed could be due not just to his scholarship. In 1792 Reed had tried, and failed, to prevent the printer of The Flagellant from revealing Southey’s name to the authorities at Westminster School; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [c. 16 April 1792], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 5. BACK

[12] Coleridge’s lecture series on Shakespeare, Milton and the English poets, begun at Scot’s Corporation Hall, Fleet St, London, on 18 November 1811 and finished on 27 January 1812. BACK

[13] The lecture series on poetry and principles of taste, given at the Royal Institution, London, in 1808. BACK

[14] See Southey to John James Morgan, 13 November 1811, Letter 1983. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)