1081. Robert Southey to Peter Elmsley, 10 July 1805

1081. Robert Southey to Peter Elmsley, 10 July 1805 ⁠* 

Keswick, July 10, 1805

Dear Elmsley,

I should have written to you in consequence of a letter received from Wynn on Sunday last, if the newspaper of the same post had not acquainted me with your brother’s death. The older we grow the more important these ties of relationship become, as we become more sensible of the value and comparative instability of all others – so much the worse for the loss.

Autumn is a better time for visiting this country than summer, because the weather is settled, – indeed our summer hardly sets in till autumn. I hope you may be able to come this year, especially as it is very possible I may not be here the next. The want of my own books, which it would be folly to remove till I have a fixed residence, and the want of occasional access to others are inconveniences that I feel more and more, and I have made up my mind to settle in the neighbourhood of London as soon as possible. My brother has made prizes in the West Indies which, if they have escaped the Toulon fleet, will be worth a thousand pounds – he will lend me a fourth of this, of which 50 will remove me and my appendages and the 200 purchase furniture enough to make a house habitable. [1]  If my bookselling speculations answer I shall be able to discharge the debt by the end of the next year, – by which time I calculate that ‘Madoc,’ [2]  the specimens which Bedford is going with at last, [3]  and another scheme now in hand on which I depend more than on both the others, will have sent in their first returns. This, which is at present so secret that neither Wynn nor Bedford have heard of it, will be published as a translation from the Spanish, being Letters from England [4]  – in which I am putting as many of the odd things that I have seen or heard as can be published without touching upon any personalities, and as many of my own speculations as can be let loose without exciting suspicion as to the quarter from which they come. My object is to make as compleat a picture of the existing state of society in England, in as lively colours as I can – to the life I should have said – for some of the colours must necessarily be dark ones. I have no wish not to be known ultimately as the author – but secresy at first will be serviceable, because the book certainly will attract attention, and anything like mystery will help the sale.

I am working up-hill, but up-hill I get, so that the labour is not hopeless. There is as much historical matter lying on my shelves as ought to, and probably will, one day produce me 1,500l. [5]  Considering my outset in the world, I have been very fortunate, and I believe no other circumstance would have ripened me better, or left me more contented.

Matthew Lewis [6]  has offered thro’ Wynn, if I will write a play, to insure its reception at Covent Garden and perfect secresy with regard to the author till it shall have succeeded, if succeed it should. I cannot write a good play, though neither Wynn nor Lewis would believe me if I said so; but it is one thing to write a striking dramatic passage in a narrative form and another to tell a whole story dramatically. However, it is very likely that I can write such a one as will not be damned – tho’ it should die after the season – and the profits are so enormously greater than any that I can look for by any other kind of literary drudgery, that I cannot in conscience refuse to try for five hundred a year in a very easy way, tho’ not an agreeable one. [7]  It was on this that I meant to have written to you, because there is in Diodorus Siculus a circumstance mentioned of which it might perhaps be possible to make a fine Grecian puppet show. It is how a young Pythoness was stolen by a Thessalian, which ought to be connected with the Pythian games and the attack on Delphi by the Persians or Gauls [8]  Will you refer to Diodorus for me and see if there be any names or particulars of the story? Lib. 16, p. 428 is the reference which I found – to what edition was not mentioned.

The way to enter the Lake country to most advantage is from Lancaster, cross the sands to Ulverston and see Furness Abbey, proceed up to the head of Coniston Lake – from thence by Esthwaite Lake to the ferry at Windermere – and so by boat to Lowood or Ambleside. If you go on to Scotland it would be better to leave Ullswater for your return. You might also contrive to take in the Yorkshire caves which lie about Ingleton [9]  and strike down thence to Lancaster; but it is of great advantage to enter in this direction, because you will then see everything the right way.

I have a great wish to see Edinburgh. From every description it seems to be a very sociable place of residence for one who has any friends there, and who could consent that his children should be Scotchmen. My brother (who is now with me) has got into good society there; Jeffrey has been very attentive to him, so also has Walter Scott, the only man whom I am really desirous of seeing. It will give me great pleasure to accompany you if I can. I hope our spare bed will be vacant, – if it should not there will be no difficulty in procuring a bedroom in town, which will be quieter than the inns.

‘Madoc’ has sold very well considering its size, a month ago more than half were gone; by what I hear of its repute it will perhaps give ‘Thalaba’ a lift. [10]  I am satisfied with the poem, but not quite so with myself, – for the same labour upon a better subject would have produced great things. If it [had] not been planned and the key pitched before ‘Thalaba’ was written I should think it symptomatic of decay in the author of a premature old age.

God bless you.

R. Southey


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from H.M. Poynter, Athenaeum, 3808 (20 October 1900)
Previously published: H.M. Poynter, Athenaeum, 3808 (20 October 1900), 512. BACK

[1] In December 1804 HMS Amelia, of which Thomas Southey was a lieutenant, captured the Spanish brig Isabella and the ship Conception, both laden with wine and brandy, and the ship Commerce, laden with cotton. It was customary for naval officers to be allotted a share of the value of ships and cargo captured in armed conflict, but Southey was concerned that the arrival of the French Mediterranean Fleet in the West Indies, which had sailed from Toulon in March 1805, would mean the loss of the vessels. BACK

[2] Southey’s poem Madoc which was published in March 1805. BACK

[3] The project that Southey undertook with Grosvenor Bedford and published with Longman in 1807 as Specimens of the Later English Poets, as a companion to George Ellis, Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790, 2nd edn 1801, 3rd edn 1803). BACK

[4] Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella: Translated from the Spanish (1807). BACK

[5] Southey’s ‘History of Portugal’, which he never completed. BACK

[6] Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB): novelist and playwright. Southey first met Lewis at Westminster School where they were both pupils. BACK

[7] Southey was contemplating writing a play, stimulated by an offer, sent via Wynn, from Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB) to smooth its passage to the stage. He contemplated a Greek drama, a dramatisation of Madoc, and a play set in the reign of Mary I (1516–1558, Queen of England 1553–1558; DNB); see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192 and Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 12 July 1805, Letter 1083. BACK

[8] Diodorus Siculus (1st century AD), Greek historian, whose Bilbioteki, Book 16 contains the story of the Pythoness. The Pythia was the title given to the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who was famous for her prophecies, uttered under the influence of vapours rising from the earth. The priestess was originally always a young virgin, but after Echecrates the Thessalian kidnapped and raped the incumbent, the priestess was always chosen from among old women. Because of its wealth and influence Delphi was a regular target for attack by Greece’s enemies, such as the Persians and Gauls. BACK

[9] The Yorkshire town of Ingleton is close to the notable geological features, Ingleborough Cave and White Scar Cave. BACK

[10] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

Places mentioned

Ambleside (mentioned 1 time)
Ullswater (mentioned 1 time)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)
Furness Abbey (mentioned 1 time)