1720. Robert Southey to John May, 6 December 1809

1720. Robert Southey to John May, 6 December 1809 ⁠* 

My dear friend

You will wonder that I have not sooner replied to your last. the truth is that I have been waiting not so much to make up my own mind, as to see if any chance might occur to break off my present engagement with the Ballantynes,  [1]  – not that there xxx <is> any probability of it, still however the thing is possible, – my way of speaking plain truth may not square with their immediate interest, & they might expect concessions which it is not possible for me to make. [2]  Had this been the case it would not have suited me to pay the yearly insurance, – I trust it will not happen, & thankfully accept your offer of paying the premium for me, – which shall be repaid from my first Register receipts.

As for my profession, as neither poet nor historian, nor even reviewer are terms known in law I suppose I must be designated gentleman.

The parish of Christ-Church, Bristol is my birthplace, – the date of my birth August 12. 1774.

My present residence Greta Hall, Keswick, Cumberland.

My age 35–6. the sum for which to insure 1000 £.

I have had the small pox, I have not got the Gout, nor is it in my family on either side.

The point of reference as to a medical man is easily answered. – Mr Edmondson of this town will vouch for my being in as good health as I have been these six years, – that is to say as long as he has known me – I would refer to plenty of persons in London, who will take my word for my state of health at present, – if they will not be satisfied with your affirmation, here is the nearest justice of the Peace, my neighbour Wm Calvert Esqr Greta Bank, Keswick.

I know that I must neither be hanged, nor die out of Great Britain. Have I a right to be drownd, or to break my neck? This last I think, in a land of stage coaches is a privilege of which a free born Englishman ought not to be deprived.

I have estimated that were I now dead, & 1000 subscribers obtained for a collected edition of my works, it would produce upon the least favorable calculation a net residuary profit of 3200 £. – Full directions upon this head will be found among my papers. – I had drawn them up in the form of a letter to you – immediately after my last, – but it <is> sufficient to let you know that such directions are in existence. Every thing in this estimate is under-rated. With the sum insured I should therefore have no doubt of leaving to my family 4000£ & upwards,– nor is it by any means improbable that my friends & acquaintances by doubling the number of subscribers at which I have made xxx <the> estimate, should double that sum. No part of my historical labours (except the Cid) [3]  is taken into this account; – nor any of those rags & relicks for which public curiosity is so eager when any person dies in the odour of literature.


You ask me respecting that horrid story in the Friend. [4]  I hope it is not true, & have convinced myself that it cannot be. I remember to have read, but it is so very many years ago that I cannot say where (probably in an old Annual Register) [5]  that there were a set of fanatics some forty or fifty years ago in Denmark who used to commit murder for the sake of being put to death that they might be sure to die in a state of repentance, – & children were always their victims, on account of their innocence – The madness was speedily put to a stop to by the obvious method of confining these poor frantic wretches for life instead of executing them. I strongly suspect that on this foundation some German horrorist made the story & published it as a fact, – & that Coleridge has been taken in by it. – It is however rather singular that I should never have heard him mention it.

Did I say in my last [6]  that if your brother William [7]  could get me Grammar & Dictionary, one or both, of the Brazilian – xx i.e the Tupi [8]  language, or the Guarani, [9]  it would be of very great service?

Kehama is finished, [10]  & I am correcting & transcribing it during those odds & ends of time, – which like Mr Windhams [11]  cheese-parings amount to a good round sum by the close of the year. I have begun Pelayo in blank verse, [12] xxxxxxx & hope to do great things with so noble a subject

Remember me very kindly to Mrs May. I have no thoughts of setting my face southward next year

God bless you.

yours very affectionately

Robert Southey.

Keswick. Dec. 6. 1809.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ DEC 9/ 1809; 10o’Clock/ DE.9/ 1809F.N.n
Endorsement: No. 146 1809/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 6th Decr/ recd. 9th do/ ansd. 3d Jany 1810
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos (ed.), The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 118–119. BACK

[2] Southey was contributing the ‘History of Europe’ for 1808–1810 in James Ballantyne’s Edinburgh Annual Register, which was published between 1810–1812. BACK

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

[4] Coleridge’s periodical, The Friend, which was published in 26 instalments from 1 June 1809 to 15 March 1810.The thirteenth number, dated 16 November 1809, included the story of Maria Eleonora Schoning, which Coleridge claimed to have read on his visit to Germany in 1798. See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Friend; A Literary, Moral, and Political Weekly Paper (London, 1809), pp. 194–208. See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), II, pp. 172–183. BACK

[5] The story of this sect is given in the ‘History of Europe’ in the Annual Register for the Year 1767 (1768), 164. BACK

[6] For this, see Southey to John May, 16 November 1809, Letter 1710. BACK

[7] William Henry May (1785–1849), John May’s youngest brother and business partner in Brazil. BACK

[8] The Tupi people were the main inhabitants of coastal Brazil when the Portuguese arrived there in the early sixteenth century. BACK

[9] The Guarani tribe of Paraguay. BACK

[10] Southey’s poem The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[11] William Windham (1750–1810; DNB): Secretary for War and the Colonies, 1806–1807, ‘whose major contribution was a controversial overhaul of Pitt’s defence measures with the aim of gradually reducing the militia and volunteers, by improving the remuneration and terms of service for regular enlistment’ (DNB). BACK

[12] Southey’s poem was published as Roderick, the Last of the Goths in 1814. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Greta Hall/ Greeta Hall (mentioned 1 time)
Keswick (mentioned 1 time)