424. Robert Southey to John May, 29 July 1799

424. Robert Southey to John May, 29 July 1799 ⁠* 

Monday night. 29 July. 99.

My dear friend

I write to you from Minehead. we arrived here on Thursday night, I wish I could add after a pleasant journey, but Ediths state of health embittered it & every hour since. Maurice, [1]  under whose medical care she is, thought the journey might benefit her, but it has proved otherwise, & unless a speedy amendment take place, we must measure back our way to Bristol, that she may have daily & hourly advice if needful. extreme debility, pains in the back & bowels, & a wasting away, with sleeplessness, & total want of appetite, these are her complaints. I am little able to attend to my usual employments. restless & uneasy I turn from one thing to another & find myself unfitted for all. Danger in her complaint there is not – there is no organic affection no part diseased – but this debility – this atrophy is alarming – I fall into gloomy day dreams; & dread the future while I wish the present were past. her sister is with us. this is fortunate. I get out a little, but the weather is cold & stormy, & I carry with me no chearful thoughts.

It is long since I have heard from you. I saw the marriage of, I suppose, one of your sisters announced in the papers. [2]  at the time I wishd it had been your own. but if the single man be never quite happy, neither can he be ever quite otherwise. in sickness in poverty in death the evil extends not beyond himself, he is prepared for all the contingencies of life, & its close is not embittered by the grief of the survivors whose happiness or welfare depends upon him. it has always been <my wish> to die far from my friends. to crawl like a dog into some corner & expire unseen. I would neither give nor receive unavailing pain.

Of the few books with me I am most engaged by the Koran. it is dull & full of repetitions. but there is an interesting simplicity in the tenets it inculcates. What was Mohammed? [3]  self-deceived, or knowingly a deceiver? if an enthusiast, the question again occurs wherein does real inspiration differ from mistaken? this is a question that puzzles me – because to the individual they are the same, & both effects equally proceed from the first impeller of all motions, who must have ordained whatever he permits. in this train of reasoning I suspect a fallacy, but cannot discover it. but of Mohammed, – there is one fact which in my judgement stamps the imposter – he made too free with the wife of Zeid – & very speedily had a verse of the Koran revealed to allow him to marry her. [4]  the vice may be attributed to his country & constitution – but the dispensation was the work of a scoundrel imposing upon fools. the huge & monstrous fables of Mohammedanism, his extravagant miracles & the Rabbinical tenets of his followers appear no where in the written book. admit the inspiration of the writer, & there is nothing to shock belief. There is but one God – this is the foundation – Mohammed is his prophet – this is the superstructure.

his followers must have been miserably credulous. they gained a victory over the Koreish with very inferiour numbers & fought lustily for it. yet Mohammed says, & appeals to them for the truth of what he says, that not they beat the Koreish but three thousand Angels won the victory for them. [5]  – the system has been miserably perverted & fatally successful. Bagdad & Cordova [6]  had their period of munificence & literature. all else in the history of this religion is brutal ignorance & ferocity. it is now a system of degradation & depopulation whose overthrow is to be desired as one great step to general amelioration.

If you could get me Anquetil Du Perrons Zendavesta [7]  I should be very glad. it is not easily met with – but perhaps your bookseller might meet with a copy. if Edith gets better we shall proceed to Ilfracombe in about ten days. if not – we must return. should you receive this soon my direction is at Mr Alloways Minehead. [8]  Somersetshire.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

R Southey.

Be good enough to remit my Mother what money Burn [9]  may have for her, directed to Cottles.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ 4. Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London/ Single
Stamped: [illegible]
Postmark: [illegible]
Endorsement: No 39. 1799/ Robert Southey/ No place 29 July/ recd:2 August/ ansd:3 do
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 15. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 76–78. BACK

[1] Possibly Joseph Maurice (dates unknown), an apothecary, based at St Michael’s Hill in Bristol. BACK

[2] May’s eldest sister, Maria-Emelia (dates unknown) had married the Revd Jeremiah Awdry (1774-1859), Vicar of Felsted, Essex, on 7 June 1799; see The Oracle, 19 June 1799. BACK

[3] Muhammad (570–632), Prophet of Islam. BACK

[4] Muhammad’s adopted son, Zayd ibn Harithah (588–629), was briefly married to Zaynab bint Jahsh. After their divorce in 627, the Prophet married her, contrary to tribal custom, which treated such a union as incest. But Muhammad received a revelation (Qu’ran 33: 37) that his marriage had divine sanction. BACK

[5] The Battle of Badr in 624 was a key victory for Muhammad over the forces of the Quraish, the dominant tribe in Mecca. Muhammad outlined the divine assistance the Muslims received in Qu’ran 3: 123–125. BACK

[6] Sophisticated centres of Muslim culture in Mesopotamia and Spain, especially in the 9th to 12th centuries. BACK

[7] Abraham-Hyacinthe Anquetil Du Perron (1731–1805), Zend-Avesta (1771), a translation into French of some of the key sacred writings of Zoroastrianism. BACK

[8] The house of Samuel Allaway (dates unknown), a staymaker. BACK

[9] William Burn (dates unknown), a member of the British Factory, Lisbon. BACK

People mentioned

Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 2 times)
Southey, Margaret (1752–1802) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Cottles (mentioned 1 time)