3340. Robert Southey to [Ann Attersoll] [c. late July 1819]

3340. Robert Southey to [Ann Attersoll] [c. late July 1819]⁠* 

I have behaved very ill in having so long delayed replying to a Lady’s letter, & that letter too one which deserved a ready & a thankful acknowledgement. [1]  Forgive me. I am not wont to be thus discourteous, – & in the present instance there has been some excuse for it. For it your letter arrived at a time of much anxiety. My wife had a three months illness after the birth of a child, – & during that time it was as much as I could do to force my attention to business which could not be left undone. My heart was not enough at ease to be addressing you.

The number of unknown correspondents whom I have had in my time, does not lessen my desire of seeing you, nor xxxxxx <abate> that curiosity which men feel as strongly as women, – except that they have not the same leisure for thinking of it. – There is xxxxxded mention of a namesake of yours in one of John Wesleys [2]  Journals, for the year 1781. He says “Jany 23 I went to Dorking, & buried the remains of Mrs Attersal, a lovely woman, snatched away in the bloom of youth: I trust it will be a blessing to many, & to her husband in particular.” The latter part of the sentence might be taken in a very different meaning from what the writer intended. The name is so peculiar a one that I suppose it to be the same as yours, & that Wesley has mis-spelt it; – – but this brings me no nearer you than to induce a guess that Surry may be your country. You tell me that the whole of your happiness is dependent upon literary pursuits & recreations. It is well that you have these resources, – but were we near each other, & were I to like you half as well upon a nearer acquaintance, as it appears to me at this distance that I should do, – I think that when I had won your confidence I should venture to tell you that something better than literature is necessary for happiness.

To confess the truth, one of the causes which have prevented me from writing to you earlier has been the wish & half-intention of touching upon this theme, – checked by that xxxx xxxxxxxx thought sort of hesitation which sometimes (& that too often) prevents us from doing what we ought, for fear of singularity. That you are a woman of talents I know, – & I think you would not have given me the preference over more fashionable poets, if there had not been something in the general character of my writings which accorded with your feelings, & which you did not find elsewhere in theirs. But you have lived in the high life, – you move in circles of gaiety & fashion, – & tho you sympathize with me when I express myself in verse, it is more than probable that the direct mention of religion may startle you, as something unwarranted as well as unexpected.

I am no Methodist, no Sectarian, no Bigot, no Formalist. My natural spirits are buoyant beyond those of any person man, woman or child, whom I ever saw or heard of. They have had enough to try them & to sink them & it is by religion alone that I shall be enabled to pass the remainder of my days in chearfulness & in hope. Without hope there can be no happiness, & without religion no hope but such as deceives us. Your heart seems to want an object, – & this would satisfy it: – it if it has been wounded, – this & this only is the cure.

Are you displeased with this freedom? – Or do you receive it as a proof that xxx I am disposed to become something more than a mere literary acquaintance, – & that you have made me feel an interest concerning you which an ordinary person could not have excited?

Lord Byron has damned himself by the licentiousness of his Don Juan, & the unmanly manner in which he has insulted his wife. [3]  There is something fiendish in this mans nature, – & his genius will serve only to perpetuate his name for infamy. – Walter Scott is very ill. He suffers dreadfully, – but bears his sufferings with admirable equanimity, & looks on to the probable termination of them with calmness & well-founded hope. The immediate danger is from spasms in the stomach, – gall stones I believe are the cause. God grant that he may recover. He is a noble & generous-hearted creature, whose like we shall not look upon again.


* MS: Bristol Reference Library, SR4 pb Southey MSS, B20863. AL; 3p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 344–346 [in part; dated ‘Keswick, 1819’].
Dating note: Dated from content and from dating in Life and Correspondence; the letter was written after the publication of Don Juan on 15 July 1819, and after Edith Southey’s ‘three months illness’ following the birth of Charles Cuthbert Southey on 24 February 1819. It is possibly either unsent or a draft of a lost letter that was sent; the MS is unfolded and there is no surviving address leaf or concluding salutation and signature. BACK

[1] Ann Attersoll had sent Southey a copy of her play, Peter the Cruel King of Castile and Leon: an Historical Play in Five Acts (1818). BACK

[2] John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) kept an extensive journal, some of which (though not this entry) Southey was able to draw on for his The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820); see The Works of the Rev. John Wesley, 3rd edn, 14 vols (London, 1829–1831), IV, p. 196. BACK

[3] Byron’s Don Juan (1819–1824); the first two cantos were published anonymously on 15 July 1819. The ‘Dedication’, which attacked Southey and others, was suppressed. It soon became very well known, though it was not published until 1833. Southey disliked Don Juan’s ‘licentiousness’, calling it ‘a foul blot in the literature of this country, – an act of high treason in English poetry, for which the author deserves damnation’; see Southey to Walter Savage Landor, 20 February 1820, Letter 3443. Dona Inez, the mother of Don Juan, was seen as a thinly veiled portrait of Byron’s estranged wife, Anne Isabella [Annabella] (1792–1860; DNB). As was pointed out in the London Literary Gazette and Journal of Belles Lettres, Arts, Sciences, &c., 130 (17 July 1819), [449]: ‘It has been the fashion to make an application of Lord Byron’s portraits to living characters; and we fear that some of his nearest connexions will be recognised in these sketches’. BACK

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