534. Robert Southey to John May, [22-]23 June 1800

534. Robert Southey to John May, [22–]23 June 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon, June 23. 1800.

My dear Friend,

Your letter reached me safely. The Aveiro conspiracy [1]  will make a part of my historical researches, and the hospital of my general ones; concerning both I will procure all the information within my reach, and transmit to you.

On Monday next we go to Cintra. The summer is arrived, and we have had some days more oppressively hot than I had ever before experienced, accompanied with the hot wind, a sort of bastard siroc, which you must remember, and which it is much more agreeable to remember than to feel.

The disappointment of having a burning face fanned by a wind that heats it, has been useful to me. I had described desert sufferings, and can now retouch and heighten the picture. To-day we have had the fine fresh breeze which, in the West Indies, they call the doctor, – a good seamanly phrase, well expressing its healing comfort. The nights are miserably hot. I thirst after Cintra, and on Monday hope to hear once more the sound of running water. We shall be fortunate in having a pleasant neighbour there, in one of the birds of passage that chance sends to Portugal, a Miss Barker, who is here with a convalescent aunt, [2]  and remains at Cintra with her aunt’s infant, while she herself tries the Caldar. She is a very clever girl, all good humour, and a head brimful of brains.

We were at the museum on Monday last. There are the head and hands of one of our cousin ouran-outangs there, which I remember to have heard of some years ago. The poor fellow who owned them was walking quietly with a stick in his hand. A European saw him and shot him. He was more like the human animal than any ape that had been seen before. Unless you remember the face, you will hardly believe how human it is, – with black eyebrows and a woolly head like a negro’s. I could and would have given a conscientious verdict of wilful murder against the man who shot him – the cruelty pains me; and yet I smile at the impudence of a Portuguese in presuming to kill an ouran-outang as his inferior.

You imagine that we live much with the Hares. [3]  I had expected it, but it is not the case; their acquaintance are so numerous as to leave them little leisure, and Charlotte is generally with her next-door neighbour, Mrs. Warden, [4]  a very pleasant and pretty woman, who, besides her own society, has the attraction of an infant, – a plaything for which women have an interesting and instinctive affection.

We live mostly to ourselves, seeing something of everybody, and much of no one except my uncle. At the only two parties which I have attended, I was engrossed, much to my satisfaction, by Koster, a man more conversable than most of the English here, and whose opinions call forth somewhat more freedom of conversation than I allow myself elsewhere. We have dined at Mr. Walpole’s, [5]  – seen the Corpo de Dios from Miss Stevens’s, [6]  and St. Anthony from Mrs. Metzener’s. [7]  Some alterations I find here: the sight of a generation of young men and women, whom I remember in the class of children, makes me feel the increase of my own age. Miss Sealy is now Mrs. Dyson. [8]  The Misses ––  [9] are diffident and accomplished young women; and Miss ––, [10]  who wore her hair tied in a Portuguese knot, and was a pretty girl four years ago, is now the beauty of Lisbon, – not however in my eyes, for there is something very unpleasant to me in all the family. The burying-ground was an unpleasant sight: Buller, and the old Travers, and Mrs. Bulkely, [11]  – their names stared me in the face; and the Penwarne, whom I knew, was under my feet, and poor little Scott, [12] . whose foolish rhymes I now remember with a sort of melancholy. The Walpoles are regretted. Their lieutenants live too much with the emigrants, and observe too rude a retirement towards the English.

Of the books which I have met with, none has amused me so much as a metrical Life of Vieyra, the painter, written by himself. [13]  It contains a good deal of Portuguese costume. The poet is enormously vain, and abundantly superstitious, – but his vanity is so open and honest, that you rather like him the better for praising himself so sincerely. I have analyzed it at some length, for my sketch of the poetical history, which will swell to some size and shape before my return. One of the Portuguese poets, the brother of the famous Diego Barnardez, [14]  passed his noviciate in the Cork convent, professed at Arrabida, and died a hermit upon that magnificent mountain, – a miserably useless life; but he chose his situations like a poet, and I can half forgive the folly of his retirement for his taste in fixing. The “Life of Father Anchieta” [15]  very much tickled my fancy. As a Latin poet, I biographise him; but Anchieta was a candidate for canonisation, and worked more miracles than all the Apostles. Strip him of his miracles, and the truth is, that he was an honest Jesuit, who wrote vile verses in alphabetical praise of the Virgin Mary. He was among the savages in Brazil, and his practice was to write his verses upon the sea-sands, and then commit them to memory; and so, says his Life-writer, he brought home in his head about 5000 lines. You may believe the Jesuit, if you please; but he is so abominable a liar that I do not. Anchieta was in the habit of turning water into wine – “he did not do it once only, like Christ at Cana,” says the Jesuit; “and when the sun was too hot he called the birds to fly over his head and screen him, which was a much more elegant (gracioso) miracle than the cloud that shadowed the children of Israel!” [16] 

At Cintra I design to read the Ordinançoês de Affonso V., [17]  and extract from them a summary of the laws as he left them. This legal part of the history will be the most laborious and uninteresting. The East Indian affairs must be separated; they are totally unconnected, and to carry on two distinct stories in one chronological series is perplexing beyond all patience. The Portuguese story is uncommonly splendid, but I find their exploits in the Indies sullied by a detestable barbarity, which their own old writers had not moral courage enough to condemn.

To-morrow is the first bull-fight, and my uncle’s man [18]  is gone to take a box for us. This happens fortunately, as it will save us the trouble of returning from Cintra to see one, which we certainly should else have done. I expect only to be pained and disgusted.

Monday, June 23rd. – The bull-fight excited nothing but pain and anger at the cruelty and the cowardice of the amusement. These spectacles must have a bad effect upon the public morals. Mr. Wyndham and Mr. Canning defended bull-baiting upon the ground that these sports preserved the national courage. [19]  The opinion was absurd enough and unfeeling enough to come with propriety from Mr. Wyndham and Mr. Canning. If it were true, the courage of a nation would be in proportion to the cruelty of its sports or to the danger, the same would be the case with individuals; the Spaniards therefore who fight the bulls with untipped horns must be the most courageous people in Europe, and the butchers the bravest class of the community. Our laws only recognise them as men necessarily hardened by the habitual sight of blood, and therefore exclude them from the office of jurymen. I cannot understand the pleasure excited by a bull-fight. It is honourable to the English character that none of our nation frequent these spectacles. I am not quite sure that my curiosity in once going was perfectly justifiable; but the pain inflicted by the sight was expiation enough.

I have not applied to Mr. Coppendale [20]  for money, – my uncle has supplied me. Our departure for Cintra is delayed till Thursday. We have two baggage-carts from the army; and if the war did no more mischief elsewhere than in Portugal, I might reconcile myself to its continuance. I shall look out for the Tagus.

Mr. Worthington [21]  tells me the books are directed to him. The advantage of sending by Yescombe [22]  is that they are landed without difficulty or examination. Warden goes on board as soon as the packet arrives, and takes on shore unexamined all army parcels. I am certainly better: my heart continues its irregularities, but I am less disturbed at night, and less alarmed, and my spirits suit the climate, which is more than half the battle. Edith desires to be remembered. God bless you.

Yours affectionately,

Robert Southey.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856)
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 112–117 [dated July 23 1801]. BACK

[1] Better known as the ‘Tavora affair’. An attempt to assassinate Jose I (1714–1777; King of Portugal 1750–1777) on the night of 3 September 1758 was used to destroy some of the most powerful noble familes and the Jesuit Order in Portugal. Southey has named the alleged conspiracy after a nobleman who was accused of being one of its leaders, Jose de Mascarenhas da Silva e Lencestre, 8th Duke of Avora (1708–1759). BACK

[2] Unidentified. BACK

[3] Members of the British Factory, Lisbon. In 1797 John May had considered marrying Charlotte Hair, presumably their daughter. BACK

[4] Possibly the wife of the Commissary who had been very helpful when Southey arrived in Lisbon earlier in 1800. The Wardens’ names and dates are unknown. BACK

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

[6] Unidentified. BACK

[7] The Metzeners were a long-established merchant family in Portugal, originally from Germany. BACK

[8] Anne Baldwin Sealy (c. 1780-1857) married Thomas Fournice Dyson (1767-1843) in Lisbon on 15 May 1800. Anne’s sister, Mary-Harriet (d. 1811), later became Henry Herbert Southey’s first wife. BACK

[9] Unidentified. BACK

[10] Unidentified. BACK

[11] Buller: unidentified. Travers: unidentified. Mrs Bulkely was possibly the wife or mother of Thomas Bulkely, son of the British merchant John Bulkely, and US Consul in Lisbon 1797–1802. BACK

[12] Penwarne: unidentified. Scott: unidentified. BACK

[13] Francisco Vieira (1699–1783), O Insigne Pintor e Leal Esposo Vieira Lusitano (1780). BACK

[14] Agostinho da Cruz (1540-1619), brother of Diogo Bernardes (c. 1530-c. 1600). Southey owned a copy of the brothers’ poetry, no. 3178 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[15] Simão de Vasconcelos (1596-1671), Vida Do Veneravel Padre Jose de Anchieta do Brasil (1672), no. 3799 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Jose de Anchieta (1534-1597) was a Jesuit missionary to Brazil and one of the first Brazilian writers. He was beatified in 1980, but still awaits canonisation. BACK

[16] Simão de Vasconcelos, Vida do Veneravel Padre Jose de Anchieta do Brasil (Lisbon, 1672), pp. 204-205. Anchieta’s bird parasol was used in the note to Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 4, line 285. BACK

[17] The Afonsine Ordinances (1446) of Afonso V (1432–1481; King of Portugal 1438–1481). BACK

[18] Manuel Mambrino (dates unknown), Herbert Hill’s servant, from Oviedo in Spain. He had accompanied Southey on some of his travels in 1795–1796. BACK

[19] William Windham (1750–1810; DNB), Secretary of State for War, 1794–1801, and George Canning (1770–1827; DNB), Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, 1795–1799, Commissioner at the Board of Control 1799–1800 and Paymaster of the Forces 1800–1801, had been the most eloquent opponents of the unsuccessful Bill to outlaw bull-baiting in 1800. BACK

[20] Thomas Coppendale (d. 1833), John May’s uncle and business partner. BACK

[21] John Worthington (dates unknown), business partner of John May’s and later a merchant in Brazil. BACK

[22] Edward Bayntun Yescombe (1765–1803), Captain of the packet, King George, which sailed between Falmouth and Lisbon. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 3 times)
Barker, Mary (c. 1780–1853) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 6 times)