247. Robert Southey to John May, 15 August 1797

247. Robert Southey to John May, 15 August 1797 ⁠* 

Burton. Tuesday August 15. 1797.

Thomas left me yesterday. I took leave of him with regret. his gaiety is inoffensive, & our intimacy at Lisbon created many ideas & associations which he only partakes. this evening he will be at Bath; & I hope my mothers affairs will now be settled comfortably; the plan of settling them once fixed, I expect her here.

We were surprized on Sunday by seeing Charles Lloyd & Charles Lamb, names with which you must be well acquainted if you have seen Coleridges last edition. I think I told you the very melancholy history of poor Lamb, [1]  of all I ever heard of the most distressing. he tells Lloyd he is happy, a state of resignation almost incredible. can you believe it possible that within a fortnight after the dreadful death of his mother, the head of his office at the India house almost turned him out of the room because he had not shaved! assuredly I fear that if Society had not very bad materials to work upon, it could not produce the beings it does. but physical evil is in great part produced by moral evil, the germ of existence is cankered oftentimes, & the sins of the father are indeed visited upon the children. that all moral evil may be removed may, I think, be deduced from all we know of the nature of the human mind, & of the attributes of the Creator. Atheism were piety to the belief that God can have made one being necessarily & irremediably bad. but surely Society is so constituted as to encourage every evil propensity. the straight path of rectitude is rugged & difficult & every possible allurement used to draw us from the painful way. it is most like a whitened sepulchre. Go to the haunts of amusement; to the evening fire side of affluence what so gay so happy as civilized society? return <go> to the streets of London what so wretched! the Crisis is approaching, & tho I perish in the storm I would gladly see it scatter the fogs of this pestilential calm.

The son of the old woman whom Edward Coleridge married [2]  lives in this village: a strange old man who has eat till he has lost the use of his limbs, & covered himself with chalk-stones.

Have you seen some verses in the Morning Chronicle addressed to me by Miss Anna Seward upon Joan of Arc?  [3]  she calls me a hyena & a beardless parricide, & says I am like the Devil who sings divinely in Pandæmonium. my great offence is abusing our wicked Henry the fifth, whom I take to be as bad a man as ever wore a crown. I have not seen the lines myself

I use the expurgatory pen with no sparing hand in preparing for the new edition of that poem. none of my the Reviewers detected my errors in the costume. they were few, but ought to have been obvious to men who pretended to criticise it for the public.

If your residence in the country were not so short I should urge you to make a longer visit at Burton. Will you let us know when to expect you that we may be at home. Edith will be making aristocratic excuses for a very sleepable bed room, tho it is sumptuous for one who has journeyed in Portugal. [4]  I am beginning to take root here, & shall return to London with regret. I get on well in my legal studies & after Christmas shall go to a Special Pleaders office, where one years hard labour will qualify me for practising myself.

You see what Edith has been doing above, by way of vindicating herself.

Charles Lloyd is still with us, but his stay will be short. he is a very interesting young man. I love his poetry because it is wholly written from the heart. in a world such as we live in it is unprofitable & unwise to give way to our feelings. it is the business of a wise man to check & regulate them, to become despotic over his own mind. I am fond of great part of the Stoical system, & there are few characters that I contemplate with more reverence than the slave Epictetus. [5]  his book was <once> for some months my pocket companion, & I think I am the better for it. our language, & perhaps every other, wants a name for that pride which every man ought to possess, & without which he can never be compleatly respectable. the Stoic doctrines tend to make a man tranquil & self-contented. such too is the end of Christianity when well understood, but among its many corruptions is the wretched doctrine that we ought to be vile in our eyes — alas! if we are not respectable to ourselves to whom shall we be so?

my feelings & my reason are alike opposite to the established belief of England. were I to consult mere inclination, there is no line of life so suited to my habits & affections.

God bless you. we shall daily expect to hear from you. Edith begs to be remembered. remember me to your brother — we shall rejoice to see him

yrs truly

Robert Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr./ Hale/ near Downton/ Wiltshire./ X Post
Endorsement: 1797 No. 6/ Robert Southey/ Burton 15 August/ recd: 16 do/ ansd: 18 do
MS: Beinecke Library, Chauncey Brewster Tinker MS Collection, GEN MSS 310, Box 13, folder 553. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Lynda Pratt, ‘Interaction, Reorientation, and Discontent in the Coleridge Southey Circle, 1797: Two New Letters by Robert Southey’, Notes and Queries, 47.3 (2000), 314–21. BACK

[1] In 1796, Mary Anne Lamb (1764–1847; DNB) killed her mother. BACK

[2] Edward Coleridge (1760–1843), an older brother of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Edward’s ‘first marriage to a widow [Mrs Wagg] some twenty years older than his mother, was the source of many family jests’, Lord Coleridge, The Story of a Devonshire House (London, 1905), p. 56. BACK

[3] Anna Seward (1747–1809; DNB), ‘Written by Anna Seward, After Reading Southey’s Joan of Arc’, published in the Morning Chronicle, 5 August 1797. BACK

[4] Edith ... Portugal: The reference in the subsequent paragraph indicates that this deletion is in the hand of Edith Southey. BACK

[5] The Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. AD 60–after 100), author of the Encheiridion. BACK

People mentioned

Lloyd, Charles (1775–1839) (mentioned 3 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 2 times)
Lamb, Charles (1775–1834) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 2 times)