435. Robert Southey to John May, 19 September [1799]

435. Robert Southey to John May, 19 September [1799] ⁠* 

Exeter. Thursday. 19 Sept.

My dear friend

I should not <have> left your letter so long unanswered but that for five days I have been walking round the country. [1]  with the cause of my estrangement from Coleridge originally you have been made acquainted. I was injured & resented it. in the close of 1796 we were so far reconciled as to resume the common intercourse of acquaintance. Something was owing to the interference of common friends, more to our connection by marriage, & probably what most influenced me was that habit of mind which induces us rather to remember the good qualities of a lost friend than his faults, & to select for remembrances chiefly what is pleasurable to recollect. With similar pursuits & similar opinions we differed in practice, − but unless you domesticate with a man it is not his inconsistencies are not forced upon notice. We were on terms of decent civility which would have ripened into something more, when Lloyd came to Burton. [2]  the circumstances he related to me of Coleridge were such as to render it impossible for me, without hypocrisy, not at once to throw off all acquaintance with him; they represented him as perpetually by every means & in every place abusing me, & inventing tales of the most groundless calumny. I believed Lloyd, & acted accordingly. When we were at Minehead I received a letter from Coleridge  [3]  complaining of restless enmity in me & requesting me to make my feelings more tolerant towards him. my reply retorted the charge upon him – referring to Lloyds authority for the proofs. this produced a second letter from Coleridge, & one also from his intimate friend & neighbour Mr Poole, [4]  contradicting, as far as he could who lived most confidentially with Coleridge, that he ever spoke of me but in terms regretting our estrangement, & declaring that Lloyd had in his presence reported, & to his ocular knowledge written the same kind of tales of Coleridge <me> to me <Coleridge>, that he had of S.T.C. to me. the conduct of Lloyd to an acquaintance of his in London (Miss Hays) as she related it to me when I saw her in town had sunk him so precipitously in my judgement as at once to sink a tottering scale. It were idle to enter into minute particularities. to Lloyd I have not since written, nor am I determined how to write, or whether to write – from a whole survey of his conduct as known to me I dis behold a strangeness, a foolishness, a criminality more explicable on the ground of derangement than by any other supposition.

You have proposed a great question requesting the doctrine of rewards & punishment; that man, the creature of hopes & fears should be worked on by hope & fear religiously applied seems wisely adapted to our imperfect generation. but the fact is, as it appears to me, that men are very little influenced by them, that the present absorbs us, the wicked acting from the strong impulse of the moment − & the good likewise; both for the immediate gratification derived from the act, according as their habitual feelings are gratified by actions good or evil. the doctrine seems inefficacious. & for the picture it holds out of a future existence it is only by an allegorical interpretation that a thinking mind can understand it by substituting remedy for punishment.

Socrates was a wonderful man. I read the Memorabilia [5]  at school – not since. & it was not the book of morals which interested me most. from Epictetus I derived more satisfaction. the Enchiridion was long my Manual, my pocket companion. [6]  in the Stoical precepts I found a principle with which I could sympathize, & the effect of the book has been strong & deep & permanent upon me. certainly I could detect faults in the xx system, wrong reasonings, or wrong conclusion – but still there is a mass of practical wisdom in the wisdom book, it amalgamated with my feelings & has often when I was not perhaps aware influenced my conduct.

I hear of you every where, & always in one tone, & that always the tone in which I should wish to hear of you. Mr Philips,  [7]  Coleridges brother in law spoke of you. I am sorry we shall not meet here. but at Xmas will you not be in Hampshire −? & then tho you will be too far for me who am but a biped, I shall not be too far for you who may centaurize yourself. I shall have much to show you when we meet. for fortunately I have an habitual incapability of indolence.

In this neighbourhood I have fallen into pleasant society & my time has run rapidly. Edith is tolerable. she begs to be remembered. believe me

yrs affectionately

R. Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: EXETER
Postmark: [partial] SEP
Endorsement: No 42. 1799/ Robert Southey/ Exeter 19 Septr:/ recd: 21 do/ ansd: 2 Oct
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 47–49. BACK

[1] For Southey’s journal of his tour, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 522–523. BACK

[2] Charles Lloyd had stayed with the Southeys at Burton, Hampshire, from mid-August to mid-September 1797. BACK

[3] Coleridge to Southey, 29 July 1799, E.L. Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols (Oxford, 1956–1971), I, pp. 523–524. BACK

[4] Coleridge to Southey and Poole to Southey, 8 August 1799, E.L. Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols (Oxford, 1956–1971), I, pp. 524–525. BACK

[5] The Greek philosopher, Socrates (469–399 BC) wrote nothing and much of what is known of his life and thought comes from the defence of him in Xenophon’s (430–354 BC), Memorabilia. BACK

[6] Epictetus (c. AD 55–135), Greek Stoic philosopher. His ideas were preserved by his pupil, Lucius Flavius Arrianus (before AD 86–after 146) in the Enchiridion, or Handbook of Epictetus’s thought. BACK

[7] Jacob Phillips (dates unknown), an Exeter lawyer, was married to Coleridge’s half-sister Elizabeth (1751–1815). BACK

People mentioned

Lloyd, Charles (1775–1839) (mentioned 6 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Poole, Thomas (1766–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Hays, Mary (1759–1843) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)