370. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 9 January 1799

370. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 9 January 1799 ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

As for the verses upon Mr Pitt [1]  I never wrote any – possibly Lewis [2]  may have seen a poem by Coleridge of which I have heard of but have never seen − dialogue between Blood Fire & Famine [3]  or some such interlocutors. strangers are perpetually confounding us & I am no ways gratified at the association.

My Eclogues varying in subject are yet too monotonous in being all rather upon melancholy subjects. I must omit two − the Wedding & the Last of the Family [4]  I believe & write two instead [5]  the one upon witches – the other an old womans story to her grandchildren – a bloody murder & a ghost. Your parody is an excellent thought. [6]  I am only puzzled at one part − for in fact it must be rather the story parodied than the stanzas. the clysters boluses &c are to preserve life − not the carcase. it must either be the surgeon sending for his brother the undertaker & having his body watched three weeks after interment, or the physician keeping off death. the first is the best. he must be buried in a patent coffin −

And let the undertaker see it bought of the Maker
Who lives by St Martins lane.

the guards may refuse the first guinea − falter at the second & betray their trust at the third.

And they carried him off in his patent coffin,
And they carved him bone from bone −
But what became of the Surgeons soul
Was never to mortal known

I have some play plots maturing in my head but none ripe. My wish is to make something better than Love the mainspring; & I have one or two sketches about − but all my plots seem rather calculated to produce one or two great scenes, rather than a general effect. My mind has been turned too much to the epic which admits a longer action, & passes over the uninteresting parts.

The escape of the Pythoness with a young Thessalian seems to afford most spectacle. [7]  if you have Diodorus Siculus [8]  at hand & will refer to lib. 16. p. 428 (but Mitford does not mention the edition nor Barthelemi. [9] ) you may find all the story for I know no more than the fact.

Pedro the Just [10]  pleases me best. this is my outline. you know one of Inez’ murderers escaped − Pacheco. this man has by lightning or in battle lost his sight, & labours under the agony of remorse. the priest to whom he has confessed enjoins him to say certain prayers where he committed the murder, thus disfigured he ran little danger of discovery, & what he did run, enhanced their merit. A high reward has been offered for Pacheco, & the Confessor sends somebody to inform against him & receive it.

Leonor, his daughter, comes to Coimbra to demand justice. her mothers little property has been seized by a neighbouring noble who trusts to the hatred Pedro bears the family, & their depressed state for impunity. this too may partly proceed from Leonor having refused to be his mistress, a good scene may be made when she sees the King & he thinks she is going to intreat for her father. but Pedro was inflexibly just & he summons the nobleman.

Pacheco is thrown into prison – the Nobleman irritated at the King is still attached to Leonor. he is not a bad man tho xx xxxxxxx a violent one. he offers to force the prison − deliver Pacheco & retire into Castille if she will be his. the Kings Confessor intercedes for Pacheco. but his execution is fixed for the day when Inez is to be crowned. At the decisive moment Leonor brings the children of Inez to intercede. & is successful. she refuses to marry the Noble − & expresses her intention of entering a nunnery after her mothers death.

This is a half plot. you see capable of powerful scenes − but defective in general interest I fear.

I have thought of a domestic story founded on the persecution under Queen Mary. [11]  to this my objection this that I cannot well conclude it without either burning my hero, or making the Queen die very apropos, which is cutting the knot − & not letting the catastrophe necessarily arise from previous circumstances. however the story pleases me. because I have a fine Catholic woman & her Confessor in it.

For Feudal times − something may be made perhaps of a Neif with a wicked lord − or of the wardship oppressions. [12]  but what will Young Colmans play be? [13]  it may forestall me.

Then I have thought of Sparta. of the Crypteia, & a Helot hero. [14]  but this would be interpreted into sedition. of Florida & the customary sacrifice of the first born male. [15]  in this case to have a European father − & an escape. Sebastian [16]  comes into my thoughts. & Beatrix of Milan accused by Orombelli on the rack − & executed. [17]  A Welsh or English story would be better. but fix where I will I will be well acquainted with country manners &c. −

God bless you − you have these views as they float before me, & will be as little satisfied with any as I myself. help me if you can.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey

Jany. 9. 99.


* Address: To/ C. W. Williams Wynn Esqr/ Wynnstay/ Wrexham/ Denbighshire
Stamped: BRISTOL
Endorsement: Jan 9/ 99
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 5–7 [in part]. BACK

[1] Southey did not write a poem on William Pitt (1759–1806; Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–06; DNB). Coleridge did, the sixth of his ‘Sonnets on Eminent Characters’, Morning Chronicle, 23 December 1794. BACK

[2] Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB), novelist and poet. BACK

[3] Coleridge’s ‘Fire, Famine and Slaughter. A War Eclogue’, Morning Post, 8 January 1798, reprinted in Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 231–235. BACK

[4] ‘The Wedding’ was published in Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1800), pp. 119–126 and ‘The Last of the Family’ in Annual Anthology (Bristol, 1799), pp. 165–171. BACK

[5] ‘The Witch’ and ‘The Grandmother’s Tale’, Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. 216–225, 194–201. BACK

[6] Wynn had suggested Southey write a parodic ballad. The result was ‘The Surgeon’s Warning’, Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. [161]–173. The verses that follow are taken from an early draft. BACK

[7] The Pythia was the title given to the priestess of Apollo at Delphi, who was famous for her prophecies, uttered under the influence of vapours rising from the earth. The priestess was originally always a young virgin, but after Echecrates the Thessalian kidnapped and raped the incumbent, the priestess was always chosen from among old women. BACK

[8] Diodorus Siculus (1st century AD), Greek historian, whose Bilbioteki, Book 16 contains the story of the Pythoness. BACK

[9] William Mitford (1744–1827; DNB), History of Greece (1784–1810); Jean Jacques Barthelemy (1716–1795), Voyage de Jeune Anarchasis en Grece (1787). BACK

[10] Pedro I (1320–1367; King of Portugal, 1357–1367). His lover Inez de Castile (1325–1355) was murdered on the orders of his father. When he became King he personally killed two of the murderers, while one more escaped. He was alleged to have arranged for Inez’s corpse to be crowned Queen; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 189–190. BACK

[11] Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–1558; DNB). Her rule saw a determined attempt to return England to Catholicism and persecute Protestants. For the plan of Southey’s ‘The Days of Queen Mary’, see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192. BACK

[12] A neif was a female serf. Wardship was the system whereby a feudal lord had certain rights over his vassals, for instance the right to determine who daughters or widows should marry. For Southey’s planned works on these topics see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 18, 215. BACK

[13] George Colman the Younger (1762–1836; DNB), whose Feudal Times, or The Banquet Gallery opened at Drury Lane on 19 January 1799 and ran for 39 performances. BACK

[14] In Sparta the Helots were an unfree population tied to the land. The Crypteia was part of the training of young Spartans, in which boys were given the opportunity to prove their fighting skills by being sent into the countryside unarmed and with instructions to kill any helot they met at night and take any food they needed. BACK

[15] It was a widespread belief in Europe that the Timucua language group of Northern Florida (a people now extinct) sacrificed their first-born sons. Southey considered writing a play on the subject; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 181. BACK

[16] Sebastian (1554–1578; King of Portugal 1557–1578). Although he was killed in battle in Morocco, rumours of his survival long persisted. BACK

[17] Beatrice di Tenda (d. 1418) was the wife of Filippo Maria Visconti (1392–1447; Duke of Milan, 1412–1447). The Duke accused his wife of adultery with Orombello, Lord of Ventimiglia, and had her executed; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 153. BACK

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