3645. Robert Southey to John May, 4-20 March 1821

3645. Robert Southey to John May, 4–20 March 1821⁠* 

Keswick. 4 March. 1821.

My dear friend

Yesterday I received a letter from my Uncle with the news of Miss Tyler’s death, an event which you will probably have learnt before this reaches you. My Uncle is thus relieved from a considerable charge; [1]  & from the apprehension which he must have felt of her surviving him. She was in the 82 year of her age. She will be interred (tomorrow I suppose) in the burial place of the Hills, where her mother & two of the Tylers are laid, & my father with five of my brothers & sisters. –  [2] 

Her death was, even for herself, to be desired as well as expected. My affection for her had been long & justly cancelled; I feel no grief therefore, but such an event of necessity presses for a while upon like a weight upon the mind. Had it not been for the whim which took her to Lisbon in the year of my birth, you & I should never have known each other, my Uncle would never have seen Portugal, [3]  & in how different a course would his life, & mine in consequence have run! – I have known many strange characters in my time, but never so extraordinary a one as hers, & hers <which> of course I know intimately. I shall come to it in due course, – & sooner than you may expect from the long intervals between my letters.

Yesterday’s post brought me also an intimation from my musical colleague Mr Shield that “our most gracious & royal Master intends to command the performance of an Ode at St James, [4]  on the day fixed for the celebration of his birth day.” [5]  – Of course therefore my immediate business is to get into harness & work in the mill. Two or three precious days will be spent in producing what will be good for nothing; for as for making any thing good of a Birth Day Ode I might as well attempt to manufacture silk purses from sows ears. Like Warton, I shall give the poem an historical character, – but I shall not do this so well as Warton; who has done it very well. [6]  He was a happy, easy minded, idle man, to whom literature in its turn was as much an amusement as rat-hunting, & who never aimed at any thing above such Odes.

March 20th

I now send you the fourth letter of the promised series, dated at the beginning nearly four months before it was brought to an end! [7]  Were I to proceed always at this rate with it, I should die of old age before I got breeched in the narrative. But with all my undertaking I proceed faster in proportion as I advance in them. Just now I am in the humour for going on, & you will hear from me again sooner than you expect, – for I shall begin the next letter as soon as this packet is dispatched.

It is a long while since I have heard from you, & I am somewhat anxious to hear how your brother [8]  goes on in Brazil. Surely he has had time & warning to provide against the storm. – Wretched as the government was both in Portugal & Brazil, [9]  in the latter country certainly, the remedy will be worse than the disease, & in the former the evils of revolutionary process are much more certain, than its beneficial end. If O Grande Marquez [10]  could have been raised from the dead, he would have had courage & capacity to have modelled both countries according to the circumstances of the age. – But I am more anxious about the manner in which these events may affect you, than concerning their general course; – that is in the will of Providence, & with regard to the state of the Peninsula, & of Italy, [11]  I really see so much evil on all <both> sides, & so much good intent acting erroneously on both, that if I could turn the scale with a wish I should not dare to do it.

Did you get the portrait [12]  from my poor friend Nash before his death? His death is a great grief & a great loss to me.

I desired Longman to send you the reprint of the Odes, [13]  – & the Vision of Judgement. [14]  – In my last I asked you when the Strong Beer might be tapt & bottled? [15]  forget not to answer this important question, I have waited your reply with heroic self-denial.

We are all tolerably well. I am busy upon the private Memoir which I mentioned in a former letter, [16]  & which I hope to finish in the course of a month. The printer proceeds very slowly with the Peninsular War. [17]  Last week I compleated the revision of that strange story of Lope de Aguirre, & sent it off, to be printed in a little volume by itself. [18]  I have also done a good deal to the first vol. of Brazil, which is far advanced in the press. [19] 

Let me hear from you soon. Where is your son, [20]  & how do you think of disposing of him? – Remember me most kindly to Mrs May, & to him & your daughters. [21]  To John Coleridge also: – I hope he received Shelleys correspondence [22]  in which case you will have seen it. Did I tell you of the curious communication concerning Wesley which has been made to me, & which perplexes me, – for I hardly now how I ought to act? [23] My little boy thrives as well as could be wished, – thank God.

God bless you my dear friend

Yrs affectionately



* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ 4. Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square
Stamped: [illegible]
Postmark: [partial] ‘Clock/ MR/ xxx
Endorsement: No. 218 1821/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 4th–20 March/ recd. 23d do/ ansd. 5th April
MS: Beinecke Library, Osborn MSS File ‘S’, Folder 14140. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), V, pp. 62–64 [in part]. BACK

[1] Elizabeth Tyler had been a drain on the finances of her half-brother Herbert Hill for many years. BACK

[2] Long Ashton, Somerset (now a suburb of Bristol), the ancestral home of the Hills and burial place of: Southey’s maternal grandmother Margaret Hill, née Bradford (1710–1782); William Tyler (1742–1789) and Edward Tyler (1744–1786), two of her sons by her first marriage to William Tyler (1709–1747); Southey’s father; and five of Southey’s siblings who had died in infancy, John Cannon Southey (1773–1774), Eliza Southey, Louisa Southey (1779–1782), John Southey (b. 1782) and Margaretta Southey (1787–1788). BACK

[3] Herbert Hill had accompanied his half-sister to Portugal in 1774 and had presumably there made the connections that led to him being appointed Chaplain to the British Factory in Oporto in 1777 and to his subsequent career in Portugal for the next thirty years. Hill’s residence in Portugal led to Southey visiting him in 1795–1796 and meeting John May. BACK

[4] St James’s Palace, London, the official base of the monarch and the court. BACK

[5] Southey was required, as Poet Laureate, to commemorate the official birthday of the monarch with an ode, which would be set to music by the Master of the King’s Musick and performed at court. This custom had been suspended since 1810 due to the illness of George III (1738–1820; King of Great Britain 1760–1820; DNB), but Southey had been informed that it had been reinstated by his successor in 1820. It had been decided that George IV would celebrate his official birthday on St George’s Day, 23 April, apart from years when that fell on a Sunday, when the celebrations would be deferred until Monday 24 April. Southey had therefore written a Birthday Ode for 1820 (the unpublished ‘Ten fateful years have passed away’) and was about to embark upon a second one (‘Ode for St George’s Day’, unpublished until Poetical Works, 10 vols (London, 1837–1838), III, pp. 258–262). Neither ode was performed at court and the tradition lapsed. BACK

[6] Thomas Warton (1728–1790; DNB), one of Southey’s predecessors as Poet Laureate 1785–1790. Southey admired Warton’s efforts to take the annual odes he was required to write for the New Year and the monarch’s birthday seriously. Here Southey may be thinking of ‘Ode on His Majesty’s Birth-Day’, Gentleman’s Magazine, 63 (June 1788), 540. BACK

[7] The fourth of the autobiographical letters Southey was writing for May; see Southey to John May, 1 December 1820–19 March 1821, Letter 3572. BACK

[8] William Henry May (1785–1849), May’s younger brother and business partner in Brazil. BACK

[9] An army revolt in Oporto in August 1820 had led to the election of a Cortes in December 1820 and demands that the monarchy should return from Brazil, where it had fled from the French invasion in 1807–1808. BACK

[10] ‘the great Marquis’: Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, Marquis of Pombal (1699–1782), Prime Minister of Portugal 1750–1777. BACK

[11] An army revolt in Spain in January 1820 had led to the restoration of the liberal Constitution of 1812 in March 1820; there had also been an army revolt in Naples in July 1820, which also led to the adoption of a liberal constitution. BACK

[12] A portrait of Edith May Southey, John May’s goddaughter. For the three sketches Nash had made of Edith May during his last visit to Greta Hall in 1820, see Robert Southey to John May, 8 April 1821, Letter 3667. BACK

[13] A combined second edition of Southey’s Laureate poems Carmen Triumphale (1814) and Odes to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia, and His Majesty the King of Prussia (1814). It was published under the title Carmen Triumphale, for the Commencement of the Year 1814: Carmen Aulica. Written in 1814, on the Arrival of the Allied Sovereigns in England (1821). BACK

[14] Southey’s A Vision of Judgement (1821). BACK

[15] A barrel of strong beer sent to Keswick by John May; see Southey to John May, 29 December 1820, Letter 3595. BACK

[16] Southey had been paid for writing a ‘private Memoir’ of David Pike Watts (1754–1816), a fabulously rich wine merchant and philanthropist, who had been an important supporter of Andrew Bell’s educational schemes and owned the Storrs Hall estate on Windermere. He was also the uncle of the painter John Constable (1776–1837; DNB). The work had been commissioned by Watts’s daughter and heiress, Mary Watts-Russell (1792–1840), who had married in 1811 another heir to a business fortune, Jesse Watts-Russell (1786–1875), MP for Gatton 1820–1826. Southey had mentioned it to John May on 15 November 1820, Letter 3556. BACK

[17] Southey’s History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832). The printer was Thomas Davison (1766–1831). BACK

[18] The conquistador Lope de Aguirre (c. 1510–1561), notorious for his final expedition down the Amazon in search of El Dorado. Southey had written an account of these events for the Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1810, 3.2 (1812), [i]–l. It was revised and republished as The Expedition of Orsua; and the Crimes of Aguirre (1821). BACK

[19] A second edition of the first volume of the History of Brazil (1822). BACK

[20] May’s son John (1802–1879). Following his expulsion from Eton in 1818 he was being educated at Thomas Arnold’s (1795–1842; DNB) school at Laleham, near Staines. BACK

[21] May’s daughters, Mary Charlotte (b. 1804), Susanna Louisa (1805–1885) and Charlotte Livius (b. 1812). BACK

[22] Edith May Southey had made copies of the correspondence in 1820 between Southey and Shelley. These were sent by Southey to John Taylor Coleridge on 19 January 1821; see Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, [c. 29 July 1820], Letter 3517, and Southey to Percy Bysshe Shelley, 12 October 1820, Letter 3538. For Shelley’s side, see Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), pp. 357–366. BACK

[23] Southey had received information, via John Banks Jenkinson (1781–1840; DNB), the Dean of Worcester 1817–1825, that implied the improper conduct of John Wesley (1703–1791; DNB) towards a female follower, Elizabeth Briggs (1751–1822). He had been unable to confirm the authenticity of the material, though; see Southey to [Glocester Wilson], 29 December 1820, Letter 3596, and Southey to James Everett, 7 February 1821, Letter 3626. BACK

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