920. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 3 April 1804

920. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 3 April 1804 ⁠* 

Perhaps you may be anxious to hear of our goings on & therefore, having nothing to say, I take up a very short & ugly pen to tell you so. In a fortnights time, by Gods good will I may have better occasion to write. [1] 

I have within this last week received a pleasure of the highest possible terrestial nature – the arrival of some Portuguese & Spanish books. no monk ever contemplated with more devotion a chest of relics piping hot, than I did the happy deal box that contained the long expected treasures. but let us leave the books alone & talk of my manufactory. Did you ever see Ellis’s Specimens of the early English Poets? [2]  It is a very useful collection, tho not to my judgement made with due knowledge or taste, but still a good book, & which has sold wonderously well, George Ellis being a parliament man & of fashionable fame. [3]  Heber helped him in the business. Well, he ends with the reign of Charles 2d. [4]  now am I going to begin where he ends, & give Specimens of all the Poets & Rhymesters from that time to the present, exclusive of the living jockeys. [5]  whereby I expect to get some money – for be it known to you in due confidence, that tho this will really be a pleasant & useful book I have undertaken it purely for the lucre of gain. for if this should sell as a Sequel & Companion to Ellis’s book, for which I design it, & shall advertise it, the profits will be considerable. [6]  Some little notice of each author is to be prefixed to his pieces, sometimes being only a List of his works, sometimes a brief biography, if he be at all an odd fish, & sometimes such odd things as may flow from the quaintness of my heart. This costs me a journey to London, as at least half these Gentlemen are not included in the common Collections of the Poets – & must be resurrectionized at Stationers Hall, [7]  where they have long since been consigned to the Spiders. A journey will stir my stumps & perhaps do me good – yet I do’nt like it. it disturbs me & puts me out of my way. however I shall be very glad to see Rickman whom Coleridge calls a sterling man – & with whom I shall guest. & then there half a score whom I regard more than acquaintance – CarlisleDuppa – &c &c – not to mention all the oddities in my knowledge whom I love to shake hands with now & then & hug myself at the consciousness of knowing such an unequalled assortment. Oh if some Boswell [8]  would but save me the trouble of recording the unbelievable anecdotes I could tell – stories which would be worth their weight in gold – when gold will be of no use to me!

Coleridge is gone for Malta – & his departure affects me more than I let be seen. Let what will trouble me I bear a calm face – & if the boiling Well could be drawn (which however it heaves & is agitated below presents a smooth undisturbed surface) that should be my emblem. [9]  It is now almost ten years since he & I first met, in my rooms at Oxford, [10]  which meeting decided the destiny of both, & now when after so many ups & downs I am, for a time, settled under his roof, he is driven abroad in search of health. Ill he is, certainly & sorely ill, yet I believe if his mind were as well regulated as mine the body would be quite as manageable. I am perpetually pained & mortified by thinking what he ought to be, for mine is an eye of microscopic discernment to the faults of my friends, but the tidings of his death would come upon me more like a stroke of lightning than any evil I have ever yet endured. almost it would make me superstitious, for we were two ships that left port in company.

He has been sitting to Northcote for Sir George Beaumont. [11]  there is a finely painted, but dismal picture of him here, with a companion of Wordsworth. I enjoy the thought of your emotion when you will see that portrait of Wordsworth. [12]  It looks as if he had been a month in the condemned hole, dieted upon bread & water, & disbarred the use of soap, water, razor, & comb, then taken out of prison, placed in a cart, carried to the usual place of execution, & had just suffered Jack Ketch to take off his cravat. [13]  The best of this good joke is that the Wordsworths are proud of the picture & that his face is the painters ideal of excellence. how the Devil the painter has contrived to make a likeness of so well-looking a man so ridiculously ugly poozles every body.

I am expecting with pleasurable anticipation the bevers back. [14] 



R Southey.

April 3. 1804.


* Address: To/ Miss Barker/ Congreve/ Penkridge/ Staffordshire
Postmark: KESWICK/ 298
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. 101–104.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 269–271. BACK

[1] Edith May, the Southeys’ second child, was born 30 April 1804. BACK

[2] George Ellis, Specimens of the Early English Poets (1790; 2nd edn 1801; 3rd edn 1803). BACK

[3] Ellis entered parliament in 1796 as junior member for Seaford, one of the Cinque Ports; he never spoke in the house, and did not stand for re-election. His ‘fashionable fame’ related to his literary collaboration with George Canning and William Gifford on the journal The Anti-Jacobin, his friendship, from 1801, with Walter Scott, and his marriage to the daughter of an admiral (DNB). BACK

[4] Charles II (1630–1685, King of Great Britain 1660–1685; DNB). BACK

[5] Southey’s anthology that he undertook with Grosvenor Charles Bedford and published with Longman, in 1807, as Specimens of the Later English Poets. BACK

[6] Southey’s Specimens of the Later English Poets (1807) was not a highly profitable enterprise. BACK

[7] Near Ludgate Hill, in the City of London: a repository for old books because the Stationers’ Company, whose headquarters it is, had a royal monopoly on book production in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. BACK

[8] James Boswell (1778–1822; DNB), friend and biographer of Samuel Johnson (1709–1784; DNB). BACK

[9] The ‘Boiling Well’ was a tourist site in Bristol: the well was kept bubbling by gases from below. BACK

[10] Southey and Coleridge met in June 1794. BACK

[11] Coleridge apparently sat for the painter James Northcote (1746–1831; DNB) about the same time he made his visit to the Beaumonts in February 1804. BACK

[12] William Hazlitt painted portraits of Coleridge and Wordsworth on his visit to the Lakes in autumn 1803. Southey had singled that of Wordsworth out for criticism in his letter to Richard Duppa dated 14 December 1803, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Two, Letter 868. The whereabouts of the portraits is now unknown. BACK

[13] John Ketch (also known as Jack; d. 1686) was an infamous English executioner employed by Charles II (1630–1685, King of Great Britain 1660–1685; DNB). BACK

[14] Southey had asked Barker to make designs of a beaver and other animals and scenes from Madoc; see Southey to Mary Barker, 17 February 1804 (Letter 896), 3 March 1804 (Letter 906) and 29 December 18[04] (Letter 1009). BACK