519. Robert Southey to John May, 2 May 1800

519. Robert Southey to John May, 2 May 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon. Friday May 2. 1800

My dear friend

We had a fine passage of five & a half days, delightful weather & light winds all the way. yet we both suffered much, scarcely eating or sleeping the whole of the way. On Thursday we left Falmouth, at five in the evening, glad to escape. my feeling at quitting England was not unpleasant, serious but not depressing. as we left the harbour all the land objects seemed to rock like a dream. one hour sickened me – I only rose the three following days just to wash myself & crawl on deck while John Moor [1]  (a good old man) freshened up my coffin like bed. A little circumstance which I witnessed there struck me much. a hen had just laid an egg & was eating it. so totally the sea seemed to denaturalize every thing. On Sunday a frigate chased us for seventy miles. Monday I heard the Captain [2]  awakened by Bell. there was a Cutter [3]  bearing down upon us. the Prince Ernest [4]  was in company with us, she carried six guns, the K. George ten. we made signals which the Cutter did not answer. we fired a gun – she did the same, & preparations were made for action. Edith was dreadfully terrified – I surrounded her with mattrasses in the cabin, but she could not feel in safety there. I lodged her in the cock pit, & went on deck & took my station with a musquet. The Cutter bore down between us – I saw the smoke from her matches. her colours were English. we spoke her – she answered in broken English, & passed on. still we believed her French & expected she was coming round. it was a Guernsey man who hailed us & I laid down my arms with high delight. – You may conceive the feelings this whole business excited in me, not satisfied with myself for taking up arms – my wife below – in full expectation of an engagement & myself no ways interested in the business – for God knows I think nothing worth fighting for, & my little luggage was insured. there I was going to fight for company-sake – I – who have fired a gun these seven years, & never intended to fire one again. Oh the joy of feeling two legs, two arms, & a head in my own possession! it made my stomach in good humour for half the day. the morning was a busy one. the Endymion Frigate boarded us. & I had the pleasure of seeing porpusses about the ship & a small grampus.

Tuesday evening we saw the Berlings. the next morning I rose with the Sun, & saw the Sun rise over the rock, where he seemed to rest a moment as he rose. we were very near the land – so near that I could see flocks of sea birds sporting over the silver dust of the breakers. any land is a delightful sight – but that magnificent rock! & the heights of Cintra ascended as we passed on, & I saw the Penha, & the summits which I had trod. the very pilot boat, its great sail floundering about like a womans petticoats in a high wind, unmanageable as an umbrella in a storm, seemed like an old acquaintance – I laid hold of the pilot & whetted my jargon Portugueze upon him – at the expence of a testoon [5]  for my lesson.

Ediths eyes quickened mine. hers had not been blunted, & every thing was new. the windmills drawn up in battle array amused upon every hill very much amused one of our fellow travellers. [6]  he saw an Inn also below St Joses – a large inn with the great coach door – & the sign. we gave him the glass – it was a convent & a crucifix. before we anchored I saw my Uncle. Warden the Commissary [7]  was with him who got my things on shore immediately unexamined. we dined at my Uncles & took possession of our own dwelling in the evening.

We are in the same street with the Hairs. [8]  the corner house on the left as you go from them to my Uncles. it is very small – but large enough. the bed room is the largest – we live in the queer, little, closet-looking, Portugueze, double-doored rooms. our view is magnificent. Manuel [9]  is consigned over to us. poor fellow he was rejoiced at seeing me. here he stands & talks of our journey with high delight. Edith is quite pleased with his honest face among this ill-looking generation. the ugliness of the people surprises her as much as their filth & laziness. their great hot cloaks – the childrens hair. the straggling chaise mules – all so strange! & I have left them long enough to laugh at seeing them again. – But we have a house full of fleas – & this she does not like at all: tho they have shown themselves very well pleased with her. the vermin plague of Egypt [10]  seems entailed upon this country. but I shall prescribe the English specific of cold water.

My Uncles house is almost altered out of knowledge, & much improved. I only recommend some red cords on each side his stair case that I may go down backwards as on board the packet. He looks exceedingly well. I miss poor Ursula [11]  exceedingly – & felt a sort of disappointment at not seeing her when I opened the door. poor old woman! my Uncle has got another – not so tall – not so clean – not such brains – but still a good old woman. She wears her hair like Medusa, [12]  with no bag or any thing. we have no woman servant yet. one had been engaged, but she failed in her engagement & would not come.

As yet I have only seen strange faces – except Mrs Hair & Charlotte. Isabel has the tooth-ache. today I go to leave my card at Mr Walpoles [13]  & at the Consuls. [14]  other visitors it seems I am to receive – return the visit & then plead an invalids excuse for seclusion, for into company I will not go. Murphy [15]  is here – busy in taking Belem. Lord Somerville [16]  too is here & claims relationship with me, which he never did in England.


I have been to Mr Walpoles – to the Consuls & General Fraziers [17]  – in half an hour I sally forth again to finish these ceremonials, & also to consult Pitcairn, [18]  who goes back by the King George. This arrival has indebted me in so many [MS torn] I can scarcely find time to write them. I have however begun my plan of early rising & the greater part of this sheet was written before breakfast. my occupations will be all methodically arranged – with these arrangements you shall be acquainted – & with my progress. I have not yet seen your Uncle. [19]  he is well however & gave a great dinner yesterday to some Porto correspondents. Ediths remembrance. God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

I hope you received a bankers draft on Sir James Esdaile [20]  for £50 which I sent from Bristol. Forgive me if I trouble you as my agent with some commissions. I want for my Uncle a silver hunting watch price 5 guineas – it is for Manuel. Wartons Essay on Pope. [21]  & Wartons History of Poetry. [22]  the books of course must be bound. – & should you chxxxx to pxxx. they must be directed to my Uncle – & to Capt Yescombes care, whom I found very attentive in every possible kindness. if also you can get the best stereotypic edition – that is the best paper) of Jean Bapt. Rousseau [23]  I should much like it for my Uncle. De Boffe [24]  has them – or else a man in Holborn nearly opposite Grays Inn – a corner shop by one of the elbow ways into Lincolns Inn fields, with a multitude of old books at the door. if there be no Jean Baptiste Rousseau (tho I know Didot [25]  has published him) chuse the best author so printed – this none of it has yet reached Portugal. – I would apologize for all this but you I know will not expect it.

I have seen Dr Pitcairn – he advises the moderate use of laudanum, – wine – exercise – summer at Cintra – & time in Portgual. he confirms the opinion given that I have no organic disease, but a dreadfully diseased irritability, which will yield to care & climate, but must yield slowly. above all I must be in no hurry to return.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Charlotte Street/ Rathbone Place/ London/ Single
Stamped: LISBON
Postmarks: FOREIGN OFFICE/ MA/ 17/ 1800; P.P./18 [rest illegible]
Watermark: crown and anchor/ E & R
Endorsement: No 54. 1800/ Robert Southey/ Lisbon 2 May/ recd. 17 do/ ansd. 27 do
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. 56–58. BACK

[1] John Moor (dates unknown), probably a sailor on the King George packet. BACK

[2] Edward Bayntun Yescombe (1765–1803), Captain of the Falmouth Packet, King George. BACK

[3] Fortunately, the ‘cutter’ turned out to be the British frigate HMS Endymion. BACK

[4] The Prince Ernest was another packet ship, which sailed on the Falmouth to Lisbon route. BACK

[5] A Portuguese coin; four testoons made a cruzado, the highest unit of currency. BACK

[6] Unidentified; but possibly Rundell (first name and dates unknown), a patient of Thomas Beddoes who travelled to Portugal with Southey. He may have been a member of a prominent Bath family of silversmiths, jewellers and surgeons. BACK

[7] Warden (first name and dates unknown). BACK

[8] The Hairs were members of the British Factory, Lisbon. In 1797, John May had considered marrying Charlotte Hair, presumably the Hairs’ daughter. BACK

[9] Manuel Mambrino (dates unknown), a Spanish servant from Oviedo who worked for Herbert Hill. Mambrino had accompanied Southey on some of his travels in Spain and Portugal in 1795–1796. BACK

[10] Exodus 8: 16–19; the fourth plague visited on the Egyptians for refusing to let the Israelites leave Egypt. BACK

[11] Ursula (d. 1797), Herbert Hill’s servant. BACK

[12] In Greek mythology a female monster with snakes for hair. BACK

[13] Robert Walpole (1736–1810), Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal 1772–1800. BACK

[14] Charles Arbuthnot (1767–1850; DNB), Consul and Charge d’Affaires in Portugal 1800–1801. Educated atWestminster School 1779–1784; a career diplomat, later a government Minister and confidante of the Duke of Wellington. BACK

[15] Unidentified. BACK

[16] John Southey Somerville, 15th Lord Somerville (1765–1819; DNB), agriculturist and distant relative of Southey. BACK

[17] Simon Fraser (1738–1813; DNB), Major-General in command of British forces in Portugal 1797–1800. BACK

[18] David Pitcairn (1749–1809; DNB), a London doctor who was in Portugal for his health. BACK

[19] Thomas Coppendale (d. 1833), prominent member of the British Factory in Lisbon, and business partner and uncle of John May. BACK

[20] The bank, Sir James Esdaile & Co. BACK

[21] Joseph Warton (1722–1800; DNB), Essay on the Genius and Writings of Pope (1757–1782). BACK

[22] Thomas Warton (1728–1790; DNB), History of English Poetry (1774–1791). BACK

[23] Jean-Baptiste Rousseau (1671–1741), French poet. BACK

[24] Joseph De Boffe (fl. 1786–1816), bookseller in Princes St., London, who dealt in French and German books. BACK

[25] The most illustrious of French publishers and printers, founded in 1713. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 8 times)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 4 times)

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 2 times)