2662. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1815

2662. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1815 ⁠* 

Brussels. Friday 20 Oct. 1815.

My dear friend

I wrote to you from Lige Liege, up to which time all had gone on well with us. Thank God it is well with us at present, but your god-daughter has been so unwell, that we were detained six days at Aix la Chapelle, in a state of anxiety which you may well imagine, & at an Hotel where the Devil himself seemed to possess the mistress & the greater part of the domestics. Happily I found a physician who had graduated at Edinburgh, [1]  who spoke English, & pursued a rational system, – & happily also by this painful & expensive delay I was thrown into such society, that now the evil is over, I am fully sensible of the good to which it has conduced.

The day after my letter was written we reached Spa, & remained there Sunday & Monday, a pleasant & necessary pause, – tho the pleasure was somewhat interrupted by the state of my own health, which was somewhat disordered there, – perhaps the effect of the thin Rhenish wines & the grapes. Tuesday we would have slept at Verviers (the great clothing town) if we could have found beds, – an English party had preoccupied them, & we proceeded to Herve, a little town half-way between Liege & Aix la Chapelle, in the old principality of Limbourg. There, for the only time during our journey Edith-May was put to sleep in a different from mine, for it was not possible to arrange things otherwise. She slept with the servant of the Vardons, – a young woman whom they have bred up. [2]  When we rose in the morning we found that she had not slept xxxxx any part of the night owing to a sore throat: – she had gone to bed apparently in high health & spirits. Being accustomed to see her tonsils swoln to a degree which might have alarmed a person not used to such see it, I was not uneasy; & having bought some hartshorn to rub it with, we proceeded to Aix la Chapelle – about 16 miles. – there was indeed no alternative, for any medical advice which could have been found in Herve, would have been worse than nothing. But the journey over a paved road, was the worst thing which could have been befallen a patient in an incipient fever, & when we arrived the child was so ill, that after seeing her laid to bed (about one o clock & in the afternoon) I thought it necessary to go to the Bankers & request them to recommend me to a physician. You may imagine how painful a time we past. It was necessary for her to gargle every hour, even if we waked her for it, – but she never slept an hour continuously for the three first nights. Thank God however she seems thoroughly recovered now, we are at Brussels, & can estimate the good with calmness.

While I was acting as nurse & cook (for we were obliged to do every thing ourselves) our party dined at the Table d’Hote, & there as the child grew better I found myself in the company of some highly-distinguished Prussian officers. One of them a Major Dresky, [3]  is the very man who was with Blucher at Ligny when he was ridden over by the French: [4]  the other Major Petry [5]  is said by his brother officer to have won the battle of Donowitz for Blucher. [6]  Two more extraordinary men I never met with. You would have been delighted to hear how they spoke of the English, & how to see how they treated us as representatives of our country. Among the toasts which were given, I put this into French – the Belle Alliance between Prussia & England, – may it endure as long as the memory of the battle: I cannot describe to you the huzzaing – & hob-nobbing & handshaking with which it was received: But the chief benefit which I have derived was from meeting with a certain Henry de Forster, a Major in our German Legion, [7]  a Pole by birth whose father held one of the highest offices in Poland. [8]  Forster, one of the most interesting men I ever met with, has been marked for misfortune from his birth. Since the age of 13 he has supported himself, & now supports a poor brother of 18, a youth of high principles & genius, who has for two years suffered with an abscess of the spleen. Forster entered the Prussian service when a boy; was taken prisoner, & cruelly used in France, & escaped almost miraculously on foot into Poland. In 1809 he joined the D of Brunswick, [9]  & was one of those men who proved true to him thro all danger, & embarked with him – The Duke was a true German in patriotism, but without conduct, without principles & without gratitude. Forster entered our German Legion, & was in all the hot work in the peninsula from the lines of T Vedras [10]  till the end of the war. The severe duty of an infantry officer proved too much for his constitution, & a fall of some 80 feet down a precipice in the Pyrenees brought on a hemorrhage of the liver, for which he obtained unlimited leave of absence & came to Aix la Chapelle, I grieve to say that he had a relapse on the very day that we left him. I never saw a man whose feelings & opinions seemed to coincide more with my own. When we had become a little acquainted he shook hands with me in a manner so unlike an ordinary greeting, that I immediately understood it to be (as really it was) a trial whether I were a free mason. This gave occasion to the following sonnet, which I put into his hands at parting.

The ties of secret brotherhood made known
By secret signs, & pressure of linkd hand
Significant, I neither understand
Nor censure. There are countries where the throne
And altar, singly or with force combined,
Against the welfare of poor humankind
Direct their power perverse: in such a land
Such leagues may have their purpose: in my own,
Being needless, they are needs but mockery
But to the wise & good there doth belong,
Ordained by God himself, a surer tie;
A sacred & unerring sympathy,
Which bindeth them in bonds of union strong
As time, & lasting as eternity.


He has promised me to employ this winter in writing his Memoirs – a task which he had once performed, but the papers were lost in a shipwreck off Santora; he has promised also to come with the MSS (if he lives) to England next summer – where I hope & expect that the publication will be as beneficial to his immediate interests, as it will be honourable to his memory. – We left Aix on Tuesday for Maestricht, slept the next night at St Trond, Thursday at Louvaine, & arrived here to day. Tomorrow I go again with Nash to Waterloo, for the purpose of procuring drawings of Hougoumont. [11]  On Sunday we go for Antwerp, rejoin the Vardons on Monday night at Ghent, & then make the best of our way to Calais & London. – The delay at Aix with its added expences has cost me a good deal, – I draw on you therefore without scruple for 30 £ for this place, & Englebert Werth [12]  (a merchant here) will cash the bill. I have bought a good many books, & seen & heard enough to leave a little volume behind me, if I should not think proper to publish it now. In ten or eleven days I hope to see you. It is as much as I can do, to keep pace in my journal with the business of the day. – On the whole I believe that I have never passed a month of my life to greater advantage.

God bless you my dear friend

your most affectionate

R South RS.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr./ 4. Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London
Stamped: P.94P/BRUXELLES
Postmark: [partial] FORE[ILLEGIBLE]GN/ OC/ 27/ 1815
Endorsement: No. 183 1815/ Robert Southey/ Brussels 20th October/ recd. 30th do/ ansd. personally
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. 148–150; Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 137–140 [in part]. BACK

[1] Gerhard Reumont (1765–1828), eminent Belgian doctor, who had studied at Edinburgh University in 1792–1793. Reumont visited Edward Jenner (1749–1823; DNB), the pioneer of vaccination against smallpox, in 1800 and introduced Jenner’s discoveries to the Continent. He also enjoyed literary pursuits, and when Southey visited Aix-La-Chapelle in 1817, he took with him, at Reumont’s request, a copy of Thomas Percy’s (1729–1811; DNB), Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765); see Southey to Edith Southey, 1 August 1817. BACK

[2] Mary (surname and dates unknown). BACK

[3] Ferdinand Augustus Leopold Francis von Dresky (dates unknown), led the 2nd Regiment of Silesian infantry at the Battle of Ligny on 16 June 1815. BACK

[4] Gebhard von Blucher (1742–1819), commander of the defeated Prussian forces at the battle of Ligny, 16 June 1815. His horse was shot from underneath him. He was carried from the field semi-conscious by an aide. BACK

[5] Unidentified beyond the information given here. BACK

[6] Battle of Dennewitz, 6 September 1813, in which a French force was defeated by a combined army from Prussia, Russia and Sweden. It was an important turning point in the war in north Germany. BACK

[7] The King’s German Legion (1803–1816), a unit in the British army made up of expatriate German personnel. BACK

[8] Constantine Charles Henry Ernest Frederick Augustus Gustav Adolph de Forster (dates unknown). BACK

[9] Frederick William, Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbuttel (1771–1815), leader of the German volunteer force, the Black Brunswickers, against French troops. He died at the battle of Quartre Bras, 16 June 1815. BACK

[10] Lines of forts built to defend Lisbon during the Peninsular War. BACK

[11] Nash illustrated the Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816). His drawing ‘Entrance to Hougoumont’ is between pp. 58–9 and ‘Interior View of the Ruins of Hougoumont’ between pp. 70–1. BACK

[12] Engelbert Werth (dates unknown), a German-born merchant and acquaintance of Vardon. Werth drew a plan of the battle of Waterloo for Southey. BACK

People mentioned

Southey, Edith May (1804–1871) (mentioned 2 times)
Vardon, Thomas (dates unknown) (mentioned 2 times)
Nash, Edward (1778–1821) (mentioned 1 time)