1473. Robert Southey to John May, 29 June 1808

1473. Robert Southey to John May, 29 June 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick, June 29. 1808.

My dear friend.

Your letter from Oxford gave me great pleasure. I had been anxiously expecting to hear what news you had of Worthington, [1]  and you have sent me the best that could be. That general and permanent good will arise out of partial and transitory evil, is your faith as well as mine; and it is by no means impossible that, in your own particular case, you may ultimately be the richer for your hopes. There is no country in the world which is at this time so likely to be prosperous as Brazil. It is out of the reach of France as long as England can keep the seas; it has no pestilence to keep down its progress like North America, and is in less danger of intestine commotions than the United States. I have no great respect for the Braganzas, the first of the family was a villain, and, with the single exception of Joam IV., [2]  they who have sat upon the throne have been either very weak princes, or, in the case of Pedro II., [3]  very wicked. But, except Pedro, there has been nothing abominable among them; and, in the present state of things, Prince Joam [4]  rises above his contemporary princes, as having some sense of honour, and, I verily believe, a conscientious desire to do the best he can. A more liberal system of policy was gaining ground, and circumstances must now necessarily assist it. There will be a great and increasing harvest for English enterprise. I hope you will have your full share of it.

Since the stirring day of the French Revolution I have never felt half so much excitement in political events as the present state of Spain has given me. I had often said, that if Europe was to be delivered in our days, in no country was its deliverance so likely to begin as in Spain; and this opinion, if my recollections do not play me false, you will find expressed in the reviewal of Semple’s ‘Travels’, [5]  written eight or ten months ago. There was then a millstone about the neck of Spain; nothing could be done under such a Government, and now that obstacle is removed. The dynasty is felo-de-se, and if the Spaniards would bury the crown and sceptre which they have left at four cross roads, little as I like to move from home, I think I would gird up my loins and go to assist at the ceremony as devoutly as ever pilgrim put cockle-shell in his hat, and set off for Compostella. Spain is without a government; there never was a country whose situation so plainly pointed out what Government would suit it best.

On every account it is desirable that the whole peninsula should be united; on many accounts it is equally desirable that, in their internal governments, the several kingdoms should be kept distinct. A federal republic would accomplish both objects, and would remove the main difficulty which stands in the way of a union with Portugal. Arragon, Biscay, &c., would retain their own fueros,  [6]  – each province have its own Cortes, and the General Assembly might be held at Madrid.

The Spaniards have to deliver their country first. I hope and believe that they will deliver it. I never had any hope from the old confederacies of Austria, Russia, &c. I never could have any from the old Governments of the continents; their hour is come, and we have only to regret that it did not come sooner. Nothing but a spirit of liberty and of patriotism can check the power of France. That spirit has arisen, and in a country where it cannot easily be checked or overpowered. Biscay, Asturias, and Galicia, have a population which contains above 400,000 men between the ages of sixteen and fifty, and there is, probably, not a peasant among them who is not a good marksman. The remembrance that they have once before recovered their country will assist them not a little in recovering it again; if the flame be not speedily put out, it must spread; and I heartily pray that the French who have made Lisbon the wretched place it is, may soon find their graves there. If once the tide turns against them, we shall witness such a vengeance as the world has never exhibited before.

I have been sadly impeded in my pursuits, – first, by a bilious fever among the children, which endangered little Herbert, and latterly, by one of my violent catarrhs, which clings to me, and afflicts my eyes, so that I spend half the day in the darkest place I can find. Still I get on a little, and in the intervals of these interruptions, have got on considerably. My last notes to the Cid  [7]  are completed, and go off to-morrow: in about a month, I hope you will receive the volume. Next week I shall send off to my uncle the first seven chapters of my Brazil, containing about two fifths of a volume. [8]  I have as much more ready for transcription. For my volume of Travels, or rather Letters, [9]  I have been collecting stray materials into one drawer, and my order of the evening is to begin this as soon as your letter is despatched. I am not certain whether or not I told you in my last that I had adopted a system of earlier rising than usual, and thus won a good hour before breakfast, which, being thus created for the purpose, may allowably be given to poetry. In those hours, and those only, I have gone on with my Hindoo poem, [10]  which was begun at Lisbon, and has lain dormant for many years. Great part of it will be in irregular rhymes, of a higher pitch than Walter Scott’s; for mine is a lofty subject, which takes in all worlds of a wild mythology. This is not all: it is my nature to do two things at a time better than one; or rather, it is my belief that time is saved by doing it; because a train of thought may be ready for use, when it would be necessary to wait for them before the other could proceed. I am, therefore, planning another heroic poem, to be begun forthwith, and prosecuted on those mornings when I am not ready with the immediate matter for Kehama. Pelayo [11]  is my hero, the Restorer of Spain – a subject which has long been in my mind, and which I have at last chosen before that of the Battle of Albubarrote, [12]  giving it precedence rather than preference. Considering that the first edition of Thalaba [13]  is lying in the warehouse, and that my whole profits upon it have amounted to five-and-twenty pounds, this is having good heart. But I cast my bread upon the waters, and if I myself should not live to find it after many days, my children will.

Tom left us last week – summoned by an unsolicited appointment, which happens to be a good one. It is to the Dreadnought, a ninety-eight, Admiral Sotheby’s ship. [14]  I know his brother, the poet, and am on very courteous terms with him, – so much so, that if this Admiral can be of any service to Tom, I think Sotheby would take some pains to influence him in his behalf.

Remember me respectfully to your mother. I have a longing recollection of the Hale strong beer, and shall never see the abominable malt-physic of this country without thinking of it. [15]  Mrs. T. May was in poor health when I saw her; is she recovered? It vexes me that you and Mrs. May should be so far on the road as Derby, and yet not near enough. God bless you.

Robert Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 76–80. BACK

[1] John Worthington. Business partner of John May’s. Later a merchant in Brazil. BACK

[2] John IV (1604–1656), King of Portugal from 1640. BACK

[3] Pedro II (1648–1706), King of Portugal. BACK

[4] The Portuguese Prince Regent, John VI (the Duke of Braganza) (1767–1826). BACK

[5] See Southey’s review of Robert Semple (1777–1816; DNB), Observations on a Journey Through Spain and Italy to Naples; and thence to Smyrna and Constantinople (1807), in the Annual Review for 1807, 6 (1808), 118–130. BACK

[6] Bodies of laws/charters. BACK

[7] Southey’s edition of the Chronicle of the Cid (1808). BACK

[8] The first volume of Southey’s History of Brazil was published in 1810. BACK

[9] A reference to Southey’s planned account of his travels in Portugal; see Southey to John May, 16 December 1807 (Letter 1398) and Southey to Thomas Southey, 11 July 1808 (Letter 1478). Southey did not publish a new book of this description but his 1797 Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal were reprinted in an expanded form in 1808 as Letters written during a Journey in Spain, and a Short Residence in Portugal. BACK

[10] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[11] Pelagius/Pelayo (c. 685–737), founder of the Kingdom of Asturias. Through his victory at the Battle of Covadonga, he is credited with beginning the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. BACK

[12] The Battle of Aljubarrota (1385), fought between Portugal and Castile, and resulting in a decisive victory for the Portuguese. BACK

[13] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[14] HMS Dreadnought was a 98-gun second rate ship of the line launched in 1801. She had fought at Trafalgar (1805) and was now under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Sotheby (1759–1831), younger brother of the author, William Sotheby (1757–1833; DNB), Southey’s acquaintance. BACK

[15] Hale Park was the Wiltshire residence of the May family, then belonging to John May’s elder brother. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)