1518. Robert Southey to John May, 12 October 1808

1518. Robert Southey to John May, 12 October 1808 ⁠* 

Keswick, October 12 . 1808

My dear Friend.

You have, I hope, before this received the ‘Chronicle of the Cid,’ and the new edition of the ‘Letters,’ both which Longman was instructed to send to Tavistock Street. [1]  On the latter work I laboured just eight days, from morning till night; unluckily it was thought expedient to hurry it through two presses at once, with all possible expedition; time, therefore, was not allowed for the proof sheets to travel here, and I anticipate many vexatious blunders of the printer, which will stare me in the face on cutting the leaves. The booksellers would have republished this book three years ago if I had wished it. People asked me about it; the subject excited curiosity just at this time. To destroy the 1250 copies which were abroad was impossible, for alas! Nescit vox missa reverti; [2]  the best way therefore, which could be done was to reprint it in such a form that I should have less reason to feel ashamed of its contents. So by plentiful erasures, and a good deal of pertinent matter of fact, which my favourite studies enabled me easily to lay hand on, I have made the book more respectable than it was.

I need not tell you what my feelings were respecting Sir Hew Dalrymple’s convention. [3]  Since the execution of the Brissotines, [4]  no public event ever distressed me so deeply. I could not sleep the whole night after the news reached me; the whole business indicates such a total want of all honourable and generous feeling on the part of our commander that it sickens me to think of it. Thank God, the nation has redeemed itself, as far as words can redeem it. What the Government will do remains to be seen; what they ought to have done they have not done. Had I been minister I would have followed the Roman example in such cases – annulled the treaty, and delivered up the generals who signed it to the French, with ropes round their necks. It is nonsense to say that we were bound by the treaty, as if any claims which the French could derive from the act and deed of a fool or a coward could be paramount to those of such allies as the Spaniards, and such a cause as they are engaged in. Surely we have men in England who would have humbled the French when they had beaten them, and made Junot sign his capitulation in his own infamous name; not by a title which is not, and cannot be his, if we have any grounds for going against him.

There will be bloody work in Spain, but I have no fears for the result. Meantime, will this present deliverance of Portugal enable you to recover some part of your lost property?

Winter is come upon us here prematurely – at least six weeks before its usual time. My grasshopper season is at an end, and fire and candle evenings bring with them regular employments, which there is now nothing to disturb. When Longman will be for putting my first volume [5]  to the press I know not; in all probability his next letter will say the sooner the better. It will finish with the Dutch treaty after the Acclamation. [6]  I wish the ‘History of Portugal’ had preceded this work upon Brazil; for I am sure common readers will blame me for the want of interest in great part of the events which are related. [7]  Thinking minds will judge differently. I have begun this branch of my history with a sort of exordium, in which the nature and character are explained; this will, perhaps, be ridiculed now, but I think it will be approved hereafter.

The last news from my publishers was that the edition of ‘Thalaba’ [8]  had at last reached the end of its slow seven years’ sale; that its later movement had been rather of accelerated pace, and that they recommended reprinting it with as little delay as possible. [9]  The property now reverts to me, and as the sale certainly will not slacken, I may, in the course of a second seven years, look for another 115l. from this source. Slow and sure, but it is satisfactory to see the fruit trees of one’s own planting beginning to bear, however slender the first crop. The most apparent alteration will be in the manner of printing. It went through the press while I was last in Portugal, and I never saw a proof sheet of it. There is an unpleasant effect by the manner of placing the notes; for many pages have only a line of text, and so the eye runs faster than the fingers can turn them over. I shall now place the notes at the end of each book.

I am getting on with my new ‘Letters’, [10]  and have the comfort of finding at hand almost all the information with which books can supply me. We go on well. Herbert grows stout, and Edith looks like a great girl beside the two younger ones. Of Harry I have not heard for some time, but I conclude he has not much employment, because the papers do not speak of any remarkable mortality at Durham. Tom has no chance of any practice in his line: the maritime war is at end as to what Irishmen call ‘de fun of de ting’, and with that said fun has gone all his chance of preferment.

Remember me very kindly to Mrs. May, and believe me

Yours very affectionately,

Robert Southey.


* MS: University of Kentucky. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 99–102. BACK

[1] Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid (1808) and the expanded edition of his Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797, 1798) published in 2 volumes as Letters Written During a Journey in Spain, and a Short Residence in Portugal (1808). BACK

[2] ‘A word once spoken can never be recalled’. Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65 BC–8 BC), Ars Poetica, 390. BACK

[3] Southey’s exasperation was caused by the Convention of Cintra, signed on 30 August, whereby the French army commanded by Jean-Andoche Junot (1771–1813) and defeated by Anglo-Portuguese forces under Sir Arthur Wellesley (later the 1st Duke of Wellington) at Vimeiro on 21 August, was allowed to retreat intact, with its weapons, from Portugal. Wellesley, who did not sign the Convention, had been superseded in command by two veteran generals, just arrived in Iberia, who were content to make peace: Sir Harry Burrard (1755–1813; DNB) and Sir Hew Dalrymple. Public outcry led to an inquiry, after which Burrard and Dalrymple never again took command. BACK

[4] On 31 October 1793 the French Revolutionaries known as Brissotins or Girondins were executed in Paris after a show trial. BACK

[5] Of the History of Brazil (1810). BACK

[6] The acclamation in 1640 of Joam IV (1603–1656), as King of Portugal and the Algarves. BACK

[7] Southey’s long-planned ‘History of Portugal’ was never completed. His History of Brazil appeared in three volumes from 1810 to 1819. BACK

[8] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[9] A second edition was published in 1809. BACK

[10] Southey did not publish a new book of this description but a new edition of Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal did appear in 1808. BACK

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 1 time)