490. Robert Southey to John May, 18 February 1800

490. Robert Southey to John May, 18 February 1800 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Your last letter entered into an interesting subject. a young man entering the world is exposed to hourly danger − & what more important than to discover the best preservative? to have a friend, dear enough & respectable enough to hold the place of a Confessor, would assuredly be the best, − & if the station of Confessor could always be well filled, I would give up half the Reformation to restore it. In my moments of reverie I have sometimes imagined myself such a character, xxxxxx can be more the obscure instrument in promoting virtue & happiness. But it is obvious that more evil than good results from this power being, like all other power, in improper hands. − I have wandered from the subject. it is not likely that I shall ever gain the confidence of my brothers [1]  to the desired extent. whatever affection they may feel for me, a sort of fear is mixed with it – I am more the object of their esteem than love. there has been no equality between us – we have rarely domesticated together, & when that has been the case, they have been accustomed, if they were faulty, to understand my silent disapprobation. No – Harry will never entrust his feelings to me −. & for precepts of warning – indeed I doubt their propriety – I doubt lest from the strange perverting powers of the mind, they should me made minister to temptation. indirect admonition – example – are not these better means? − Feelings almost romantically refined were my preservation − & with these I amalgamated afterwards a Stoical morality. I perceive the seeds of neither in Harry.

My health fluctuates − & the necessity of changing climate is sadly & sufficiently obvious, lest, tho my disease should prove of no serious danger, the worst habits of hypochondriasm fasten upon me & palsy all intellectual power. I look with anxiety for my Uncles letter, & think so much of Lisbon, that to abandon the thoughts would be a considerable disappointment. it would greatly gratify me to see my Uncle, & I have associations with Lisbons that give me a friendship for the place – recollected feelings & hopes – pleasures & anxieties – all now mellowed into remembrances that endear the associated scenes. But that my Uncle should approve this is perhaps little probable. a few weeks will decide, & if I do not go to Portugal – I have no choice but Italy. for Madeira is a prison, & the voyage to the West Indies of a terrifying length. this detestable war! if they would make peace upon motives as light as they made war, xxx there would be cause enough because I want to cross from Dover to Calais. it would save me some sea-sickness − & the wealth & blood of the nation in to the bargain.

I have busied myself in idleness already on the History of Portugal [2]  & the interest with which this employment will make me visit the field of Ourique, & the banks of Mondego & the grave of Inez. the Indian transactions are too much for an episode & must be seperately related. the manners & literature of the country should accompany the chronological order of events. I should disturb the spiders at the Necessidades & leave no convent library unransacked. should Italy be my destination no definite object of research presents itself. the literature of that country is too vast a field to be harvested by one labourer. the history split into fifty channels – the petty broils of petty states – infinitely perplexed, infinitely insignificant.

You have heard me mention Rickman, as one whose society was the <my> great motive for taking the cottage at Burton. he is coming to Bristol, to assist me in an undertaking which he proposed & pressed upon me. An essay upon the state of women in society, & its possible amelioration, by means, at first, of institutions similar to the Flemish Beguinages. [3]  you will feel an interest in this subject. I shall be little more than mason in this business under the master architect. Rickman is a man of uncommon talents & knowledge, & political economy has been his favourite study. all calculations & parts requiring this knowledge he will execute – the part intended to impress upon the reader the necessity of alleviating the evil which he sees inforced, will be mine – for Rickman would write too strictly & closely for the public taste. you probably know the nature of the Beguinages, they were female fraternities, where the members were engaged in some useful employment, & bound by no religious obligation. the object is to provide for the numerous class of women who want employment, the means of respectable independance, by restoring to them those branches of business which the men have mischievously usurped, or monopolized when they ought only to have shared. – O what a country might this England become did its governors but wisely direct the strength & wealth & activity of the people! every [MS torn]fession, every trade, is overstocked, there are more adventurers in each than possibly can find employment. hence poverty & crime. do not misunderstand me as asserting this to be the sole cause – but it is the most frequent one. a system of colonization that should [MS torn] an outlet for the superfluous activity of the country would convert this into a cause of general good, & the blessings of civilization might be extended over the desarts, that to the gre disgrace of man, occupy so great a part of the world! assuredly poverty & the dread of poverty are the great sources of guilt. want fills our streets with prostitutes, & the dangerous imprudence of early marriage drives many young men to a worse danger. but the country cannot be well regulated where marriage is an imprudence, where children are a burthen & a misfortune.

A very – very small portion of this evil our plan if established will remove. but of great magnitude seperately considered. I am not very sanguine in my expectations of success – but I will do my best in examining the evil & proposing the remedy. if the plan be not encouraged now, it may hereafter.

I will send you a bundle of the Chatterton proposals [4]  when the Anthology [5]  is finished which will be in a few weeks.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

Feby. 18. 1800.

<Edith desires to be remembered.>


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Postmarks: BRISTOL/ FEB 18 1800; B/ FEB 19/ 1800; [traces of 2 partial, illegible postmarks]
Watermark: crown and anchor/ 1796
Endorsement: No 49 1800/ Robert Southey/ No place 18 February/ recd: 19 do/ ansd: 8 March/ Portugal
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849-1850), II, pp. 49–43 [in part]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 64–65 [in part]; Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 50–53. BACK

[2] Southey’s uncompleted ‘History of Portugal’. Southey proposed to visit: the battlefield of Ourique, where Afonso I (1094–1185; King of Portugal 1139–1185) won a decisive victory over the Moors in 1139; the Mondego river, which flows through Coimbra; the tomb of Inez de Castro (1325–1355), lover of Pedro I (1320–1367; King of Portugal, 1357–1357), at the Monastery of Alcobaca; and the library of the Oratorian friars at the Convent of Necessidades. BACK

[3] Rickman had proposed a system of ‘beguinages’, modelled on lay Catholic communities of women in the Low Countries, in which poor single women could work and live together. BACK

[4] For Southey and Cottle’s Works of Thomas Chatterton (1803). BACK

[5] Annual Anthology (1800). BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 3 times)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 3 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Southey, Edward (1788–1847) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Burton (mentioned 1 time)