1420. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 2 February 1808

1420. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 2 February 1808 ⁠* 

I opened your letter, expecting it to contain the ill news that Sir E. [1]  was about to go to London, – news which I suppose will yet reach me before I reach Penkridge, & for which I shall be very sorry. We are as you may be sure in hourly expectation; [2]  – & in five or six days after the event (that is if all be well) off we set. Tom & I: not exactly by the shortest route, tho by one little out of the straight line. There is a Leeds Coach from Kendal, & we shall go thro Leeds Sheffield & Derby, for the sake of varying the road & showing D Manuel the country. [3] 

You are to blame in fretting about Hannahs sonnets. [4]  It is unquestionably an infamous proceeding on the part of the publisher, whose only object must be to extort money. Hannah probably [six word deletion], & that gave the hint for her insolent manner. Let the thing take its course, – not a single copy will be purchased. – & being printed out of London it is ten thousand to one that any review notices it. The book is too insignificant in size (by price you speak of paid for printing it it cannot run to 40 pages) – to come to their hands. – & if it should the case will probably be plain. I should I confess like a copy myself, – & if I see one in the window shall go in, & ask a few questions of the She-Devil in the shop.

Harry is trying his fortune at Durham, where he is likely to do well, but he will be dismally put to his shifts for money till the fees begin to come in. For my Uncle has lost half his income by this expulsion from Portugal, – that wretched Mr. Southey will do nothing for him, & as for myself, I am already too fleet for the constable who always keeps limping behind me, just at my heels. Harry will make his way, at last, – still it is provoking to want so little as he wants – just one spring tide to launch him, & no more, – it is provoking to be ready for launching, fit for sea, sure of a good voyage, – & yet lie high & dry aground out of reach of the water. He has excellent good spirits, & says that in May if he can either beg borrow or steal money to do it, he will go & bring home a wife. – There is but one competitor, & man to man, we may bet upon the Doctor, especially when he is married & may be received among women without danger.

Wordsworth has written a masterly poem called The White Doe of Rilston Hall, or the Fate of the Nortons. – a father & eight sons who were executed after the great Rising in the North, in Elizabeths days. The poem is 1700 lines, & is incomparably fine. [5]  It would amuse you to hear how he talks of his own productions, – his entire & intense selfishness exceeds anything you could have conceived; – I am more amused at it than offended, not being sufficiently attached to him to feel pain at perceiving his faults, & yet respecting him far too much on the average of his qualities to be disgusted. But Tom is absolutely provoked, as well as astonished. – It is so pure & unmixed a passion in him that Ben Jonson would have had him in a play had he been his contemporary. [6] 

I am transcribing Brazilian History for the press, so as to begin with proof sheets immediately on my return from London. [7]  This will be a year of great exertion with me. I ought to write a play that is certain, for the sake of getting money; – I am afraid it is as certain that my stomach will never be made up to it. – No other kind of poetry will pay me for the paper. I told Sir G. Beaumont who blamed me for not writing more that it was very well to be content with posthumous fame, but there was no being contented with posthumous bread & cheese. Sir G. should have bought Thalaba [8]  instead of borrowing it of the author, & then he might have repeated this reply of mine with a good face. – It is however likely enough that I may finish Kehama the Almighty; [9]  whether it be worth while to publish it or not, because disuse is a bad thing for a poet, & that which is worth little to me will become of great value by keeping. I ought to write poems for the benefit of my heirs.

I should not think there is much chance of a call of the house – ministers are too strong to need it, – the opposition not strong enough to propose it. I heartily agree with Ld Sidmouth about Copenhagen, [10] 

– after all I look upon him to be the honestest politician there, – no very wise one to be sure, – but as for wisdom there is not a pin to chuse among them.

God bless you – I hope very shortly to write again



Feby. 2. 1808.


* Address: To/ Miss Barker
MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 262–265. BACK

[1] Sir Edward Littleton (1726–1812), squire of Penkridge, Staffordshire, where Barker resided, and builder of Teddesley Hall, was M.P. for Staffordshire from 1784 to 1812. Mary Barker’s brother-in-law, William Brewe (dates unknown) was his steward. BACK

[2] Emma Southey was born on 9 February 1808. BACK

[3] Don Manuel, the putative hero of Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish (1807). Southey’s projected continuation of Letters from England for which he was planning to collect materials was never written. BACK

[4] Untraced. BACK

[5] The White Doe of Rylstone, written October 1807-January 1808, published 1815. BACK

[6] (1572–1637; DNB). Jonson based several of his comic characters on fellow poets Thomas Dekker (1572–1632; DNB) and John Marston (1576–1634; DNB). BACK

[7] Southey’s History of Brazil was published in three volumes from 1810 to 1819. BACK

[8] Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[9] An early name for what became The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[10] In September 1807, British forces had bombarded Copenhagen, then neutral, to prevent Napoleon gaining possession of the Danish fleet. The attack was opposed in parliament by the former Prime Minister Henry Addington, first Viscount Sidmouth (1757–1844; DNB). BACK

Places mentioned

Teddesley (mentioned 1 time)