448. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1799

448. Robert Southey to John May, 20 October 1799 ⁠* 

Sunday. Oct. 20. 99.

My dear friend

I should have acknowledged the receipt of the bill yesterday had there been any post to London. there was no inconvenience whatever in our not receiving it sooner.

In about ten days our future habitation will be made habitable. the former tenant has quitted – & the carpenter & the mason & the whitewashes & the painter are busy in repairing the dilapidations of many years. two beggarly cottages will soon be revolutionized into a decent dwelling. these necessary alterations are not at our expences – the little improvement which savour of luxury we set about ourselves as soon as we get in, such as papering & filling up an ugly corner with a convenient cupboard. the house will be small, but large enough to be comfortable & to have a spare bed room, a sine qua non with me. the garden is a large piece of ground, & quite empty, so that I may please myself in filling it, & have already in my head allotted out its various divisions of potatoes, peas, cabbages, artichokes, currant & gooseberry bushes, & the near turf plat where a few larger fruit trees may be ornamentally planted – planting is a trifling expence, & I shall at least have the pleasure of seeing the trees grow – tho perhaps the changes of life may prevent me from enjoying any other advantage. a spring rises close by the garden & fills a fishpond at the bottom. I mean to take much of my due exercise in the useful employment of gardening, which will be putting out time upon good interest.

I mentioned to you if I recollect aright some time ago, that we were uneasy respecting a brother of Edith, who went to sea & had not been heard of. after being driven by storms into Spain & walking thro that country into Portugal he is returned. the boy is about fifteen, & has been much neglected, but he is a good boy, & thoroughly sick of the sea life x which I believe he originally adopted rather from want of any better employ than from inclination. As soon as we are settled I mean to send for him, & do what I can in the way of informing him, by setting about this properly I can save time which is the most important thing. my after views are to make a printer of him. because it is a business which he may exercise without a long apprenticeship – <which> requires perhaps a smaller capital than any other, & because whenever he shall be able to exercise it I can at once put into his hands three fourths of that employment necessary for his support.

I have made some progress in my metrical Romance, Thalaba the Destroyer. a poem from which I expect credit & emolument. it will give me pleasure to read it to you when you visit Burton. the extent will be ten books, of which the fourth is nearly finished. it will probably be ready for publication in the spring. The second Anthology [1]  soon goes to press – this is a work which chiefly interests me as it is connected with many friends – a sort of memorial of those who are distant. These then are my employments, I wish I could give you as good an account of my health – but that certainly does not improve.

My opinions upon all important subjects have long since ceased to fluctuate. I repose upon Christianity, aware of the arguments against it, & flinging like JJ Rousseau, the weight of hope into the scale of reason. [2]  there is a preponderance of argument in its favour certainly, yet I perceive my own belief more the effect of volition than conviction; my reason might possibly be biased from it, but my affections could not. it is adapted to my wants & to my wishes, it is a matter of feeling with me. – is not this faith in its true meaning? – the mysteries attached to the orthodox creed shock my reason & disgust me. to define the Deity, is to increase Atheism. the Athanasian & Nicene creeds [3]  make me imagine Atheism comparitively wise & pious – but I walk abroad & see the Deity in all things – I close my eyes & I feel his presence. surely this is faith.

So far you will readily comprehend me – but you will not perhaps understand how my political opinions are founded upon feelings precisely the same. I examine the extremes of society & know that they are not fitted to the nature of man – that both extremes necessarily deprave him. I am <too> metaphysical enough <not> to know that our characters are for the most part the effect of surrounding circumstances, & I am too pious to believe that God can have made us naturally sinful, therefore necessarily wretched. hence the love of equality which is rooted in my heart & blended with all xx xx my associations. I see evil produced by existing establishments & know that it might be better & am with all the ardour & sincerity of my soul a Republican. On all points that may can come into action there is little difference between us. with most of my friends I agree in some essential point, scarcely with any in all.

God bless you.

yrs with affection

Robert Southey.

Keenan [4]  paints miniatures – & very beautifully. of the likeness I cannot judge having only seen the pictures. in his larger portraits he is very succesful. have you seen a poem called Gebir? [5]  it appears to me the miraculous work of a Madman. the fine parts in it are like flashes of lightning at midnight – a picture of which the greater part is indistinguishably dark, but all that you can distinguish – the unsurpassable strokes of Rafael or Buonarotti. [6] 


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/Surry/ No 4 Tavistock Street/ Bedford Square/ London Single
Postmarks: F./ OCT 21/ 99; 9 OCLOCK/ OC. 21/ 99 NIGHT; Unpaid Penny Post
Endorsement: No 45. 1799/ Robert Southey/ No place 20 Oct:/ recd: 21 do/ ansd: 13 March
MS: Beinecke Library, GEN MSS 298, Series I, Box 1, folder 14. ALS; 4p.
Unpublished. BACK

[1] Annual Anthology (1800). BACK

[2] Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), ‘Letter to Voltaire’, 18 August 1756. BACK

[3] Statements of Christian orthodoxy from the 4th or 5th centuries. BACK

[4] John Keenan (fl. c. 1780–1819), Irish portrait painter, then living in Exeter. Keenan painted two portraits of Southey. BACK

[5] Walter Savage Landor, Gebir (1798), although the poem was published anonymously. BACK

[6] Raphael Sanzio (1483–1520) and Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarotti Simoni (1475–1564), both Italian renaissance painters. BACK

People mentioned

Fricker, George (1785–1813) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)