548. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [1 October 1800]

548. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [1 October 1800] ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

I have been looking for a letter from you with vain expectation. Of you I heard by a brother of Sir John Russell, [1]  a man who has picked up all the pertness & vanity which you know may be acquired at Eton & at Christ-Church. – I have a craving after society, or the possibility of society, which you will hardly comprehend: insomuch that I begin to assent to the Catholic opinion that the Ear is the most valuable of our senses. – Of the Ferrol Expedition [2]  you will know more than this could tell you. the Pestilence with which we are threatened is to us a more interesting speculation. It is believed to be the Yellow Fever imported from the Havannah, & improved by transplantation into the Black Vomit, a disease which has more than once ravaged this country. It has extended from Cadiz over all Andalusia. as yet Lisbon has escaped, God knows how! but unless a stop be put to the progress of the contagion by the rains, it must I think infall inevitably reach us. We talk of this with more coolness than you will hear of it. If danger approaches we shall fly – but not I think to England. more probably to the north of Portugal, to some little town or village among the mountains: the cause of our flight would be painful, but a residence entirely among the natives would be useful & pleasant, & as I should in fixing have an eye to some Convent Library, I know not whether on the whole this migration be not desirable. so is it that individuals profit by public calamity. Thus have we War & Pestilence at hand, & perhaps Famine at no great distance. There is not forage in the country for three months, & if war be declared against the Northern powers [3]  or the contagion reaches us, either circumstance will cut off its supplies of wheat from Lisbon, & no other means of applying for their daily bread will be left the inhabitants of that city – than the Pater Noster. Luckily the Provinces will not suffer. the importation of corn is only for Lisbon. the country supplies itself: & among the mountains Pestilence & Famine will protect us from War.

The four concluding books of Thalaba are transcribed for you, & wait only an opportunity to embark for England. the conclusion of the eleventh & the first half of the twelfth I have since rewritten – from the Simorgs speech to the actual descent. I send you the lines as originally written, & will transmit the substituted ones by letter. In the conclusion of the eighth book these lines are inserted, which are necessary to the after story. [4] 


She bade him break the slender thread,
She laughed aloud for scorn,
She clapt her hand for joy –

The She Bear from the chase came in,
She bore the prey in her bloody mouth,
She laid it at Maimunas feet,
And she looked up with wistful eyes
As if to ask her share.
“There! There” quoth Maimuna
And pointing to the prisoner youth
She spurned him with her foot,
And bade her make her meal.
But soon their mockery failed them
And anger & shame arose,
For the She Bear fawned on Thalaba
And quietly licked his hand.

The grey-haired Sorceress stamped the ground
And called a Spirit up
“Shall we bear the Enemy
“To the dungeon dens below?
Woe – woe – to our Empire woe
If ever he tread the Caverns below!
Shall we leave him fettered here
With hunger & cold to die?
Away from thy lonely dwelling fly!
Here I see a danger nigh
That he should live, & thou shouldst die!
Whither must we bear the foe?
To Moharebs island go,
There shalt thou secure the foe,
There prevent thy future woe.

And now that Thalaba is off my hands compleatly: corrected – transcribed – annotated – & ready to be shipped off to market. Rickman whom you saw at Bristol is my agent. The Days of Queen Mary [5]  are now in my head – my ideas of dramatic poetry are I think just & learnt in the good old school. the story is assuredly unhackneyed – Corneille [6]  has indeed two martyr-tragedies – but his martyrs differ as widely from mine, as my religion does from his. the characters are distinctly marked in my mind – yet I set about it with a fear & a diffidence which I never felt at undertaking any thing before. dramatic writing is an effort of reasoning; a continued effort. the dramatic parts mingled with Joan of Arc [7]  – the Eclogues [8]  which I have written – are xxx xx <each> in one tone – & the work only of one sitting.

I shall think of a dramatic Romance – literally a romance – where the splendour & the surprize of Pantomime may be united with story & language to interest & agitate.

Did I write you an account of a strange suicide among our soldiers here? almost the story of Werter? [9]  tell me if not, for it is a strange & dreadful tale.

Portugal consumes a prodigious quantity of gunpowder & that in the best possible way – in fireworks. there are fraternities belonging to every church who have every year a festival lasting some days – more or less according to the round they take. last week Our Lady of the Incarnation had her holydays at Cintra. the brotherhood were five days parading the country round, attacking the Sun with sky rockets & merry-making all the way. four Angels on horseback were in the procession. on the fifth night they returned – & the four Angels then alternately addressed their Lady – informed her of all they had been doing to her honour & glory, & besought her to preserve the same devout spirit in her own Portugueze, which would make them <still> invincible. this done the Angels left the church & with the Banner of the Virgin; & all their attendants – came into the Plaza – to see the fireworks. a comical thing for Angels. last year they had at this festival some very ingenious fireworks – Two Lions that spit fire at each other – & when they had done spitting fire, they made fire from a part that you would rather have expected to be employed in water-works – & <then> they veered round & bumbarded each other with fire – & all this in honour of our Lady of the Incarnation! – Among my many embryo plans are two attacks upon this ridiculous & detestable superstition. the one a burlesque Poem – some Saint the Hero – in which the mock-miracles & the strange mistake of apathy, indolence & filth for virtues might furnish ample scope for satire. the other is with me a favourite subject – [MS torn] Establishment of the Inquisition. [10]  St Dominic the prominent personage – connected [MS torn] the poor Albigenses. Dominic would make a fine character – a man indulging the blackest hatred, revenge & cruelty under the belief that he was serving the cause of religion.

Possibly the exceeding filthiness of the Spaniards & Portugueze may have arisen in some degree from the idea that washing themselves was a Mohammedan custom & xxxx unchristian like. the use of the bath was prohibited the Moriscoes, & it was an act of oppression which they felt severely. In the Author [11]  who relates this there is a remarkable instance how grossly & scandalously ignorant the Spaniards in general must have been of the Mohammedan religion. he was engaged in the Moriscoe War [12]  – the Conde Mendoza, the friend & patron of Garcilaso [13]  & Boscan, [14]  the reviver of literature in Spain: his history is one of the best books in the language – a fair & honest narrative, written with reflection & classic eloquence. & yet he says that the Moriscoes one day sacrificed in one of their mosques twenty virgins & twenty Priests. [15]  he must have known better – but it xx <is> evident his readers did not. probably the truth was that they had killed these Priests in retaliation – & served the women – as the Spaniards had taught them! – had the Moors asserted that the Spaniards burnt human victims in sacrifice they would not greatly have erred from the true statement.

As a proof how little reading there is in this country – or at least how few libraries, one of the living Academicians remarks that there is now little difficulty in procuring the original edition of any Portugueze author. I know but two books in the language that bear a high price for their scarceness, & it is unfortunate that they are both books which I want – the one a biographical & critical account of their authors &c &c [16]  – the other a collection of their poetry printed about 1575 [17]  – before Sa de Miranda & Ferreira & Camoens [18]  had made their poetical language. – Most of the old Poets have been reprinted – an unaccountable circumstance. for assuredly the sale can never have paid the expence even of the paper. the Academy here, & the University have acted more wisely in editing their old Chronicles, & the Code of Alfonso 5th. [19] 

French books are more easily procured than in England. Italian very few. – Of the Portugueze Latin Poets a collection was printed some forty years ago in eight quarto volumes. [20]  this work was till lately rarely to be got in a perfect state. & now the sheets are to be sold almost as waste paper – a six & thirty for the set.

We shall soon return to Lisbon, – where indeed I wish to be for the sake of the Libraries. omit my name when you direct – & write The Revd H. Hill Chaplain to the British Forces – this military title will frank the letter here. an S by the seal may mark it as mine.

God bless you –

yrs R. S.


* Address: To/C W Williams Wynn Esqr/ 5 Stone Buildings/ Lincolns Inn/ London
Postmark: FOREIGN OFFICE / OC/ 13/ 1800
Endorsement: Oct 1. 1800
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 115–119. BACK

[1] There was nobody called Sir John Russell alive in 1800. But it is possible Southey meant Lord John Russell (1766–1839; DNB), later 6th Duke of Bedford, and the brother he met in Portugal was Lord William Russell (1767–1840), MP for Surrey 1789–1807 and Tavistock 1807–1820, 1826–1831. BACK

[2] The British government was increasingly convinced that Spain would ally with France and declare war on Britain. As a pre-emptive strike, a fleet under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren (1753–1822; DNB) unsuccessfully attempted to capture the Spanish port of Ferrol on 25–27 August 1800. BACK

[3] The Second League of Armed Neutrality, or League of the North, had been formed in 1800 by Denmark, Prussia, Sweden and Russia to oppose the British fleet’s policy of searching neutral ships to prevent trade with France. BACK

[4] With few changes, these lines were published as Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 8, lines 379–409. BACK

[5] Southey’s planned play, set in the time of Mary I (1516–1558; reigned 1553–1558; DNB). Southey’s original sketch of the play is dated ‘Westbury, April 1799’, but some further notes are dated ‘Cintra, October 10, 1800’, see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 190–192. BACK

[6] Pierre Corneille (1606–1684), French playwright. His two ‘martyr-tragedies’ were Polyeucte (1643), about St Polyeuctus (d. 259); and Theodore (1646), about St Theodora (d. 304). BACK

[7] Southey’s controversial epic Joan of Arc, first published in 1796. BACK

[8] The six ‘English Eclogues’ in Poems (1799). BACK

[9] Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749–1832), The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), in which the eponymous hero shoots himself because he is in love with a married woman. Southey had related the story of a similar love triangle and suicide in Portugal to John May in his letter of 1 September 1800 (Letter 545). BACK

[10] 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

[11] Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1570), Guerra de Granada (Valencia, 1776), p. 20. BACK

[12] Probably a reference to the revolt in Spain in 1568–1573 by Muslims who had been forcibly converted to Christianity, though Mendoza did not participate in this conflict. BACK

[13] Garcilaso de la Vega (1503–1536), Spanish poet. BACK

[14] Juan Boscan Almogaver (1495–1542), Spanish poet. BACK

[15] Diego Hurtado de Mendoza (1503–1570), Guerra de Granada (Valencia, 1776), p. 107. BACK

[16] Diogo Barbosa Machado (1682–1772), Bibliotheca Lusitano (1741–1758). BACK

[17] Southey was mistaken about the date: Garcia de Resende (c. 1470–c. 1536), Cancioneiro Geral appeared in 1516. BACK

[18] Francisco de Sa de Miranda (1481–1558); Antonio Ferreira (1528–1569); and Luis Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), Portuguese poets. BACK

[19] Ordenacoens do Senhor Rey D. Affonso V (1792), reprinted by the University of Coimbra. BACK

[20] Antonio dos Reis, Corpus Illustrium Poetarum Lusitanorum qui Latine Scripserunt (1745). BACK

People mentioned

Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 1 time)