3397. Robert Southey to John May, 4 December 1819

3397. Robert Southey to John May, 4 December 1819⁠* 

My dear friend

I need not, & indeed cannot say how much I feel the true kindness of your letter. It so happens however that I stand in no need of the assistance which you offer, & that my arrangements could not be altered without inconvenience to others as well as myself. Two months, if there be no interruption to my steady course, will provide provide ways & means for the next half year, & discharge my engagements both with Murraylemagne, & with Our Fathers which are in the Row. In that time I shall hope to finish Wesley, [1]  & to compleat two papers for the Q.R. at the price of 100£ each. [2] 

With regard to my own complaint, [3]  it is certainly xxxxx much less troublesome since the winter began, – I cannot ascribe this to any change of living, or any thing but the bracing effect of the weather, – if the weather can be supposed to brace a man who sits by the fire all day, weather wears a good leathern jerkin to keep the cold out, & always has his bed warmed. So however it is, I think I should be disposed to take Edith with Edith-May with me, if I could dispose her to be of the same mind. But she is painfully shy, & will not be persuaded to feel that she is old enough to be separated from her mother. Of course I should over rule this if there appeared any reason for serious uneasiness. But any thing which affected her spirits would do her more harm at present, than the probable benefit of the journey would counteract.

I have just finished my yearly task-verses, [4]  & sent them off. These things which I regard merely as impositions, & which I have succeeded in keeping from the newspapers, (which is doing all I can to prepare the way for the abolition of a foolish custom) – are fit only to be befiddled, [5]  tho they cost me more time than they are worth. In the present case there seems a chance that I may lose my labour, by being beforehand with it. For if the King dies [6]  what I have done will not do for the fiddlers ears, – & something more will be required. My thoughts therefore are taking this direction. – & the plan is already so far shaped, that I am more in doubt just now as to the metre, – the mold in which the ore is to be cast, than about any thing else. My scheme extends to something rather longer than the Carmen Nuptiale, [7]  – but the manner of the fiction would be rather that of Dante than of Spenser [8]  – the tone however will in a great degree depend upon the metre which I may chuse, – & I hesitate between blank verse, – the measure of Thalaba, [9]  – & – hexameters: – the first would give a character of more solemnity, in the second I should have most freedom, & a more elastic movement, – the third would have all the advantages & disadvantages of perfect novelty – which are pretty equally balanced. It would excite notice, & ridicule, – it would draw in <invite> attacks, & <it would> make partizans, – the great advantage is in the freshness of phraseology which it would necessarily produce, the cadence being so different from that of any other measure. As for its practicability in English, I know that it is manageable, & that I can manage it. So I incline to make this my choice. [10] 

You will see a paper of mine on the Monastic Orders in the QR. [11]  The purport is to introduce the subject of the Braybrook House Establishment. [12]  There is no evil in the country so great as the condition of women in a certain rank of life who are left either unprovided or with a scanty provision – But it is the curse of this country that public attention is almost always xxxxx occupied by questions which stir up the passions of men to a dangerous point, & yet in general relate to matters so insignificant in themselves that when we look back upon them, we marvel at the interest they have excited. And objects of deep & permanent importance are overlooked, if they are not connected with some vile party purpose, or political feeling.

I have no time to speak of the intended measures of Government. [13]  They have my hearty assent, as far as they go, – but it would have been better to have gone farther with regard to the press, & half-measures meet with the same opposition as whole ones. The Whigs are acting worse than I expected, – which is saying a great deal. si quid mea carmina possunt [14]  or what is more to the purpose, my prose, – verily they shall have their reward. [15] 

God bless you

Yrs affectionately


Keswick. 4 Dec. 1819


* Address: To/ John May Esqre-/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ 7DE7/ 1819; 10o’Clock/ DE.7/ 1819 F.N.n
Watermark: GW/ 1816
Endorsement: No. 210. 1819/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 4th December/ recd. 9th do./ ansd. 15th March 1820
Seal: red wax; arm raising aloft cross of Lorraine
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4pp.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 182–184. BACK

[1] Southey’s The Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820). BACK

[2] Southey’s review of William Coxe, Memoirs of John Duke of Marlborough, with his Original Correspondence; Collected from the Family Records at Blenheim, and Other Authentic Sources. Illustrated with Portraits, Maps, and Military Plans (1818–1819), Quarterly Review, 23 (May 1820), 1–73; and his review of Benjamin Haydon, New Churches, Considered with Respect to the Opportunities they Offer for the Encouragement of Painting (1818) and other volumes, which appeared in Quarterly Review, 23 (July 1820), 549–591. BACK

[3] Southey was suffering from a rectal prolapse, see Southey to Henry Herbert Southey, 3 October 1819, Letter 3356. BACK

[4] Southey’s duty as Poet Laureate was to produce a New Year’s Ode for 1820; this was later published as ‘The Warning Voice. Ode I’ in The Englishman’s Library: Comprising a Series of Historical, Biographical and National Information (London, 1824), pp. 381–383. BACK

[5] Southey’s odes were sent to William Shield, the Master of the King’s Music, so he could set some of their verses to music. Traditionally, these settings were performed at court, but the practice had been suspended since 1810. BACK

[6] George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB) died on 29 January 1820. Southey responded with A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[7] Southey’s The Lay of the Laureate. Carmen Nuptiale (1816), written on the occasion of the marriage of Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales. This ran to 77 pages, only two pages shorter than A Vision Judgement (1821), even though the Vision was bolstered by 32 pages of ‘Notes’ and ‘Specimens’, compared to The Lay of the Laureate’s modest five pages of ‘Notes’. BACK

[8] The proposed model for A Vision of Judgement (1821) was Dante Alighieri (c. 1265–1321), Divine Comedy (1308–1321), rather than Edmund Spenser (c. 1552–1599; DNB), The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). Spenser had influenced some of Southey’s earlier Laureate compositions, notably The Lay of the Laureate (1816). BACK

[9] Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), which used irregular, unrhymed verse forms. BACK

[10] A Vision of Judgement (1821) was written in hexameters. Southey had used this verse form before, at greatest length in his unfinished poem ‘Mohammed’, which, though written in 1799, was unpublished until it appeared in Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale Unfinished: With Other Poetical Remains (London, 1845), pp. 113–116. BACK

[11] Southey’s review of Thomas Dudley Fosbrooke (1770–1842; DNB), British Monachism; or, Manners and Customs of the Monks and Nuns of England (1817) in Quarterly Review, 22 (July 1819), 59–102. BACK

[12] The Ladies’ Association, founded in June 1816 at Bailbrook House, near Bath, by Lady Isabella Lettice King (1772–1845; DNB). It provided a home for orphaned gentlewomen with no income. Southey praised it in his article on ‘British Monachism’, Quarterly Review, 22 (July 1819), 59–102 (at 96–101). BACK

[13] The Cabinet had published its proposals on 29 November 1819 for what became known as the ‘Six Acts’ to suppress radical agitation, including a new Criminal Libel Bill. The Whig opposition opposed these measures. BACK

[14] Virgil (70–19 BC), Aeneid, Book 9, line 446: ‘if my verses can aught avail’. BACK

[15] In Southey’s New Year’s Ode for 1820, later published as ‘The Warning Voice. Ode I’, the Whigs appeared as ‘insane Faction, who prepares the pit/ In which itself would fall;’ (lines 95–96). BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)