1539. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 20 November 1808

1539. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 20 November 1808 ⁠* 

My dear Rickman

The earliest Chronicle in French is that of Geoffrey Vilhardouin, so often quoted by Gibbon, [1]  which relates the capture of Constantinople by the Latins, & is therefore long subsequent to my Cid. [2]  I believe the earliest histories of the Normans are in Latin, & believe also that all Latin chronicles will be found either as you describe them, – or florid & pedantic. Men never write with feeling in any language but their own, – they never write well upon subjects with which they do not sympathize, – & what sympathy could there ever be between monks & chivalry! – My Cid is the oldest & finest specimen of chivalrous history; – it is so true a book that it bespeaks belief for the story of his death victory after death, & it requires argument & dates to prove that this part is not authentick.

I am brimful of this kind of knowledge, – & much of it will appear in the first vol. of Portugueze history, than is in the Cid. [3]  – There are two other subjects on which I am as well informed as on those for which you give me credit, – savage manners; & monastic history, – the latter not the least curious of the whole, & <certes> the most out of the way. It is a little unlucky that the least interesting of all my histories must come out the first.

The Saxon language you say ousted the Welsh as completely as its possessors. But there is reason to believe that a part only of our prior population was Keltic. & that we had previously hived Teutonic & Cantabrian swarms. A Basque Dictionary would be a treasure, – none of our etymologists have had recourse to it. I was told by the only person I ever met with who had studied this language that there was far more of it than had been supposed both in the Spanish & Portugueze, – about as much probably as we have of Welsh. Bilbao would be the place to get Basque books, – but I will try to obtain a Dictionary thro Frere, who has offered his services to my Uncle in this line, – a new species of diplomacy, & of more use than the old.

In one point, & only in one does China offer an exception to the evil consequences of Polygamy & that is it has remained an undivided empire. This I suppose is owing to the unique circumstance of its having a literary aristocracy, all subordinate authority being in the hands of men whose education & whole habits of life make them averse to war. Robbers are the only rebels there. The demoralizing effects of the system are the same there as every where. – Shuey–ping–sin [4]  exemplifies that. I have not asserted that it is a barrier to intellectual improvement, otherwise than as that must be checked by public disturbances & private voluptuousness. The want of an alphabet in China is certainly cause sufficient, but it is a supererogatory cause, – for those Orientals who have one, are not advanced a step farther. For an effect so general there must be some general cause. which for operating under so many varieties of age climate & religion; & this is the only which has universally existed.

Our winter set in so prematurely that it xxx is lucky you postponed your journey hither. There is also another consideration which xx reconciled me to our disappointment, & that is – the hope that you will next year bring Mrs Rickman & leave her here while you advance into the land of itch & oatmeal. [5]  Her young one by that time will be well able to spare her & to thrive upon Sussex air.

The Spaniards fight well, & will ultimately beat the French, sans doubt, in spite of all the Sir Hews & Sir Arthurs that we may send them. They will probably suffer much at first, & I am prepared to hear of such scenes at Zaragoza as have not been renewed since the destruction of Saguntum & Numantia. [6]  A xxxx The same country, & xxxx the same invincible spirit still in its inhabitants.

Your guess about the armas de fuste is right I conclude so from this use of the word in old French romance – toute la place estoit couverte de trefz & de pavillons, et de loges de fust, [7]  – booths of canvas evidently. – Was the fusta the foist, so called from its sails in opposition to a gallery? – In the same romance a man standing lost in thought is compared to ung homme da fust – a man of buckram –. Romances you see are not read for nothing, – the phrase which you hit upon had puzzled the best antiquarians. I am reading in my idle hours Round-Table folios, – they are far inferior to Amadis, [8]  – & in morals even worse than Palmerin. [9]  But I glean from them to good purpose. [10] 

I recommend & exhort you to read Capt-Beavers African Memoranda. [11]  you will find a book & a man after your own heart. I would walk to the Lands End to have the satisfaction of shaking hands with him. How comes on the Capitaneus with his third volume? I want the History of the Buccaneers, [12]  – will you ask him to buy it for me when he meets with one, – because he xxx knows which is the right & entire book, & in sending from a catalogue there is a great chance of getting a wrong edition, – for I believe there is a great difference in the editions of this.

Thalaba is at last a second time in the press, – its appearance will be very different inasmuch as the notes are now, more antiquo, [13]  appended to each book. [14]  You will not be displeased to hear that I have got half thro the long planned Hindoo Romance, [15]  when you hear that it has been only written before breakfast.

My paper is nearly full, & I have not yet told you of my Uncles marriage. Somewhat late in life, – but he has done well to get a companion for his evening – a lovely parsonage would else have been a comfortless lot. It was to me a matter of great satisfaction on this account. You perhaps may know something of my new relation, as her father is a Hampshire man – his name Lovelace Bigg Wither. – of the family of old George Wither the poet who I love so well. [16]  She invites us into Herefordshire whenever we may be disposed to visit ‘the more civilized parts of England’. What an insult to come from the Black Mountain [17]  to Skiddaw! – I have never seen her, nor had heard of her before. – neither do I know her age. [18]  – a main point as to the fitness of the choice. I learn however that her fortune is about 4000 – with the expectation of some thing more after her fathers death.

The Brazilian History (about a third of the volume) returns here from my Uncle this week for certain insertions, & then travels to the printers. [19]  I wish it had been the days of the Tantarararas, [20]  – more in the hope that you would have found leisure to run your eye over the sheets, than for the sake of the franks. – I forget whether Longman was directed to send you my old book about Spain newly-mended, [21]  – if not – tell me that the oversight may be remedied. – Remember me to Mrs R &

God bless you


Sunday night, Nov. 20. 1808.


* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr./ St Stephens Court/ New Palace Yard/ Westminster/ Single
Endorsement: Fr[MS obscured]/ RS./ 20 Novr. 1808
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ NOV 24/ 1808
MS: Huntington Library, RS 133. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), III, pp. 190–192 [in part]. BACK

[1] Geoffrey of Villehardouin (1160-c. 1212), De la Conquête de Constantinople (On the Conquest of Constantinople), his eye-witness account of the Fourth Crusade. Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB) draws on Villehardouin extensively in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1789). BACK

[2] Rodrigo Diaz de Vivar (c. 1043–1099), Chronica de la Famoso Cavallero Cid Ruy Diez Campeador (published 1593), on which Southey’s Chronicle of the Cid (1808) was based. BACK

[3] Southey’s long-planned ‘History of Portugal’ was never completed. BACK

[4] Ping-hsin , the heroine of the seventeenth-century Ming work, the Hao Ch’iu Chuan or The Story of an Ideal Marriage translated by Thomas Percy (1729–1811; DNB) as Hau Kiou Choaan or The Pleasing History, a Translation from the Chinese Language (1761). BACK

[5] Scotland. BACK

[6] In the Siege of Saguntum, Iberia (219–218 BC) Hannibal’s Carthaginian army took the town after severe fighting. At the Siege of Numantia, in Hispania (134–133 BC) the army of the Roman republic, led by Scipio, destroyed the town after reducing the inhabitants to starvation and cannibalism. BACK

[7] The French translates as, ‘The whole place was covered with tents and pavilions and booths of canvas’. BACK

[8] Southey had translated the romance Amadis of Gaul in 1803; he attributed the original to Vasco de Lobeira (d. 1403) a troubador knighted after the Battle of Aljubarrota (1385). BACK

[9] Southey’s edition of Francisco de Moraes Cabral (1500?-1572), Palmerin of England was published in 1807. BACK

[10] Southey was undertaking preliminary reading for The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur ... With an introduction and notes by Robert Southey. (Printed from Caxton’s edition, 1485) (1817). BACK

[11] Philip Beaver (1766–1813; DNB), naval officer, who in 1791 participated in a scheme for colonizing the island of Bulama, near Sierra Leone. The scheme failed and he returned in 1794, publishing his Bulama experiences in African Memoranda (1805). In 1806 he was appointed to the 40-gun frigate Acasta and in her went to the West Indies, where he remained until after the capture of Martinique in February 1809 (DNB). BACK

[12] A work written by the buccaneer Alexandre Olivier Exquemelin (c. 1645–1707) in Dutch, and much translated, with numerous additions, over the next two hundred years. In English it appeared, incorporating additions from the Spanish translation, in 1684 as Bucaniers of America: or, a True Account of the Most Remarkable Assaults Committed of Late Years upon the Coasts of the West-Indies, by the Bucaniers of Jamaica and Tortuga, both English and French. A more recent translation of the material was derived from the German of Johann Wilhelm von Archenholz (1743–1812), The History of Pirates, Free-booters or Buccaneers of America (1807). Exquemelin’s work was also the basis of the fourth volume of Burney’s A Chronological History of the Discoveries in the South Sea (1816). BACK

[13] Meaning ‘in old fashioned style’. BACK

[14] The second edition of Thalaba the Destroyer was published in 1809. For the alterations that were made to the poem in this edition see volume three of Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793–1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004). BACK

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

[16] Lovelace Bigg (1741–1813) inherited the estate of Manydown, Hampshire, in 1789. He then took the name Bigg-Withers and brought up his children there. George Wither (1588–1667; DNB), the poet, was a distantly-related ancestor. BACK

[17] A range of rough hills, scarcely inhabited, on the Welsh side of the rive Wye near Hay on Wye, and a few miles from Hill’s parish of Staunton. BACK

[18] She was thirty-three. BACK

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

[20] Southey’s parlance for MPs, producing noise and hot air on the benches of the House of Commons. Tantara-rara, Rogues All was the title of a 1786 play by John O’Keeffe (1747–1833; DNB); see The Dramatic Works of John O’Keeffe Esq., 4 vols (London, 1798), III, pp. 349–90. ‘Tantara-rara, Fools All Fools All’ was also a popular song from Henry Fielding’s (1707–1754; DNB) play The Lottery (1732). With Parliament in session, Rickman, as the Speaker’s secretary, was able to send mail free under parliamentary franks. BACK

[21] Southey’s Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797) had been reprinted in an expanded form as Letters written during a Journey in Spain, and a Short Residence in Portugal. BACK

Places mentioned

Skiddaw (mentioned 1 time)