545. Robert Southey to John May, 1 September 1800

545. Robert Southey to John May, 1 September 1800 ⁠* 

My dear friend

The Watch & the Books are landed & safe. your letter also has reached me. Our life at Cintra is such as you may imagine – its unvarying employments allow nothing to describe. I lay down my pen or my book, & we walk. is the evening tranquil? for we are living in hurricanes here at present – out we go on burros. sometimes we drop in to tea at Kosters – rather more often at the Metzeners [1]  – & about once a fortnight I – make up a casino party at the Rooms. oftenest of all the English I visit – & infinitely – infinitely best of all do I like Mrs Gonne. [2]  in the crowd of a Lisbon party you know nobody – but here she has lain in, & we have frequently seen her by herself, nor did I ever see a woman of quicker or better feelings. Chance made me god-father to her child – Daniel Metzener [3]  & myself being the only Protestants in the place. A young man of modest merit – Waterhouse [4]  by name has been my the only man with whom I have associated. Koster calls & talks an hour with me whenever he comes down. I thought him rude formerly, he is not so at present – perhaps knowing that he can assert no superiority with me. Of Charlotte Hair [5]  I see less than ever – the house she inhabits is infested by soldiers, & all those fellows who talk nothing but nonsense, & talk that incessantly, buz about her like flesh-flies. For society I am in a state of mental famine – but Charlotte Hair, with an attention of which I am fully sensible, has this morning sent me Spenser, [6]  & I shall live the next month in Faery Land.

But first to business. my Uncle still supplies me with money & I have yet had no occasion to apply to Mr Coppendale. [7]  be good enough to send ten pounds to Charles Biddlecombe Esq. Burton near Ringwood. it is the years rent at Burton due Michaelmas next, with about surplus enough for an apothecaries bill for my illness there which I could not get in time before our departure. & ten pounds also to Mr Danvers. 9. St James’s Place. Kingsdown – Bristol. to purchase things for Edith at Bristol of which due directions will be sent, in the parcel that will soon carry off over Thalaba. [8]  mention this as I have no time to write him.

And now I have a tale to relate which you might doubt if it came from less authentic sources. for thank God these instances of frantic passion are almost unknown amongst Englishmen. A serjeant in the English cavalry quartered at Belem was jealous of his wife, suspecting her to be attached to one who held the same rank in the same regiment. attached to the man she certainly was, but I believe with no other criminality than this mental preference. she was handsome & a very well behaved woman. the man remarkably decent – these are my Uncles words. The Husband on account of this jealousy beat his wife. this made the other man so unhappy that he declared his intention of destroying himself. accordingly on Monday last, & after the hour when the Soldiers are punishable if out of quarters, in a taberna, he shot himself & died instantly. at the tidings the Woman came in, in a state of frantic agony. she gathered from the ground the blood & the dust with which it had mingled & swallowed all she could collect. her husband attempted to force her away. she called the Centinel charged him with her husband & threatened to report him to the Colonel unless he took him into custody. The Centinel foolishly did his military duty – & the Woman no longer prevented, ran to a Well in the barrack yard & leapt down. only solitary confinement & bread & water have prevented him <the Husband> from consummating the tragedy by self-murder also. The bodies were not brought to Lisbon for Xtian burial, neither was the savage indecency of driving a stake thro them perpetrated. a grave was dug in the sands at low water, one grave, the Lover & the Wife were laid in it – & the Tagus now flows over them. be sure I shall enquire the spot. only the perversion of strong & good feelings could have occasioned this madness.

I wish to see Branstone [9]  – but I cannot. my Uncle is offended with him, & reasonably, for, whether willingly, or because he must join with his fraternity, he has aided & abetted in smuggling some of the dying Protestants. he knows better – yet admit his principles – that error is guilt, & belief salvation – & these are assuredly the tenets of his church – & this death-hunting must be the consequence. tis a detestable superstition, & from the depths of my heart & feelings & understanding, I loathe & abominate it. you did not tell me that Nancy Tonkin [10]  had embraced it. Is it because she wishes to enter a convent? in that case I think her wish should be indulged. poor gir[MS torn] suffered to retire to a Bedlam of her own choice! – I plan [MS torn] May, of which St Domingos [11]  shall be the personage, & the Esta[MS torn] the Inquisition the subject. it would delight me to strike one heavy [MS torn] this hydra-headed monster.

At Cintra we shall not remain much longer. I wait the return of Waterhouse to visit Mafra, [12]  & spend one day at the Peninha, [13]  & then shall go back to Lisbon that I may get at the Libraries & be warm. in another fortnight I ship off Thalaba the Destroyer for publication. then my head will be clear of all ideas that are not Portugueze. – I have picked up much miscellaneous matter, as a man with open eyes & open ears must do.

I have good accounts from my brother Harry of his progress, & visible proofs of it by his improved letter-writing. he begins also to feel some anxiety for the future. on my return I hope to immediately settle – not in London – that air would[MS torn] poison me! but within a walk or a half-crown stage. Hampstead [MS torn] town, in sight of a blade of grass. this will enable him to get on in surgery & have his home with me. the profession which he has chosen as I wished, is the only one to which no objection can be started, & which is of unquestionable utility. He will do well I trust, & rise to that station, for which he is qualified by intellectual rank.

Edith does not improve in health by change of climate. perhaps in some measure owing to the absence of every friend except her husband. acquaintance enough we have. but I also want one companion to whom every serious thought might be freely communicated – who would see things a little as I see them – feel as I feel, & look upon the great theatre with the same hopes. when I return certainly I shall live upon Bread & butter – sit by the fire all day, & do nothing but talk.

Your information in the last letter will make me tremblingly anxious for [MS torn]hen it shall be time to expect it. – Ediths remembrance.

God bless you & yours!

Robert Southey.

[MS torn]day Sept. 1. 1800.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Postmarks: FOREIGN OFFICE POST/ SE/ 19/ 1800; P.P./ 1800; [partial] 4 o’Clock/ SE/ 180
Watermark: crown and anchor/ GR
Endorsement: No 56/ 1800/ Robert Southey/ Cintra 1st September/ recd. 19 do/ ansd. 30 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. 58–61. BACK

[1] The Metzeners were a prominent family of merchants, long-resident in Portugal, but originally from Germany. BACK

[2] Mrs Gonne (dates unknown) was the wife of William Gonne (d. before 1815), the packet agent in Lisbon. Their daughter, Louisa (d. 1830), later became Henry Herbert Southey’s first wife. BACK

[3] Daniel Metzener (1770–fl. 1840s), member of the Metzener family of Lisbon. BACK

[4] Samuel Waterhouse (dates unknown), English merchant in Lisbon. BACK

[5] John May had wished to marry Charlotte Hair in 1797. BACK

[6] Edmund Spenser (1552–1599; DNB), The Faerie Queene (1590–1596). BACK

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

[8] The Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[9] James Yorke Bramston (1763–1836; DNB), English Catholic priest in Lisbon 1796–1801; later, a prominent Catholic in England and Vicar-Apostolic of London District 1827–1836. BACK

[10] Ann Tonkin (dates unknown), the daughter of members of the English Factory, Lisbon. Southey had befriended her during his first visit to Lisbon. BACK

[11] St Dominic (c. 1170–1221), born Domingo Guzman, in Castile. Founder of the Dominican friars, he preached extensively against the Albigensian heresy in southern France; the Dominicans were later closely associated with the Inquisition; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 11. BACK

[12] Huge Baroque complex, containing a palace, library, monastery and basilica, built 1717–1735. BACK

[13] A mountain near Cintra, with a chapel at the summit. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 2 times)
Burton (mentioned 2 times)
Kingsdown Parade, Bristol (mentioned 1 time)