550. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 7 October [1800]

550. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 7 October [1800] ⁠* 

My dear Tom

The long intermission of my letters must not make you think I have forgotten you. Since we came to Cintra I have been employd in finishing, correcting, & copying Thalaba – which now wants only an opportunity to be sent to England. there is a copy written out for you also, [1]  which as I have forgotten your parcel-direction goes with the other to Danvers. my Mother will forward it.

You have probably heard enough of the infection at Cadiz to be anxious for information. our accounts agree on nothing but in the extent of the calamity. one day we are assured it is the Black Vomit – another day the yellow Fever, & now it is ripened into the Plague. this only is certain that for the last ten or twelve days of our accounts, from 240 to 260 persons have died daily in Cadiz. whether it has extended beyond that city is also uncertain – some reports say it has spread to the South – to Malaga & Alicant – others bring it to the frontier town – within 200 miles of us. We all think & talk seriously of our danger – & forget it the moment the conversation is changed – Whenever it actually enters Portugal – we shall probably fly & probably to England. I hope the rains which we may soon expect will stop the contagion.

So much have I to tell you that it actually puzzles me where to begin. – My Cintra memorandums must be made; x more than once have I delayed the task of describing this place from a feeling of its difficulty. There is no scenery in England which can help me to give you an idea of this. the town is small – like all the country towns of Portugal containing one Plaza or square, & a number of narrow & crooked streets that wind up <down> the hill. the Palace [2]  is old – remarkably irregular – a large rambling shapeless pile – not unlike the prints I have seen in old Romances of a castle or palace whose infinite corners overlook the sea – two white towers – like glass-houses exactly – form a prominent feature in the distance, & with a square tower mark it for an old & public edifice. from the valley the Town appears to stand very high, & the ways up are long & winding & weary. but the Town itself is far below the summit of the mountain. You have seen the Rock of Lisbon from the sea – that Rock is the Sierra, or mountain – of Cintra. above us it is broken into a number of pyramidal summits, of rock piled upon rock – two of them are wooded completely – the rest bare. Upon one stands the Penha Convent – a place where if the Chapel of Loretto had stood one might have half credited the lying legend – that the Angels – or the Devil – had dropt it there – so unascendable the height appears on which it stands. yet is the way up easy. on another point the ruins of a Moorish Castle crest the hill. to look down from here upon the Palace & Town my head grew giddy, yet is it further from the town to the valley, than from the summit to the town. the road up is as a terrace, now with the open heath on the left all purple with heath flowers & here & there the stoney summits, – & coombs winding to the vale, luxuriously wooded, chiefly with cork trees. descending as you advance towards Colares, the summits are covered with firs, & the valley appears in all the richness of a fertile soil under this blessed climate. The Cork is perhaps the most beautiful of trees, its leaves are small & have the dusky colour of evergreens, but its boughs branch out in the fantastic twistings of the oak, & its bark is of all others the most picturesque. you have seen deal curl under the carpenters plane – it grows in such curls – the wrinkles are of course deep – one might fancy the cavities the cells of hermit-fairies. There is one Tree in particular here which a painter might well come from England to see. large & old – its trunk & branches are covered with fern – the yellow-sun-burnt-fern – forming so sunny a contrast to the dark foliage –! a wild vine winds up & hangs in festoons from the boughs – its leaves of a bright green – like youth – & now the purple clusters are ripe. – These vines form a delightful feature in the scenery. the vineyard is chearful to the eyes – but it is the wild vine that I love, matting over the hedges, or climbing the cork, or the tall poplars, or twisting over the grey olive, in all its unpruned wantonness. The Chesnut also is beautiful. its blossoms shot out in rays like stars, & now its hedge-hog fruit stars the dark leaves. We have yet another Tree of exquisite effect in the landscape – the fir – not such as you have seen, but one that shoots out no branches, grows very high & then spreads broad in a mushroom shape exactly – the bottom of its head of the brown & withered colour that the yew or the fir always have, & the surface of the brightest green. If a mushrooms serve as the Pantheon dome for a faery ball – you might conceive a giant picking one of these pines for a parasol. they have somewhat the appearance in distance that the Palm or the Cocoa has in a print.

The English are numerous here, enough to render it a tolerable market, for sellers will not be wanting where purchasers are to be found. yet last year the Magistrate of the place was idiot enough to order than no English man should be served till all the Portugeuze were satisfied, one of those laws that carries its antidote in its own absurdity. among the people the English are in high favour. they are liberal – or if you will extravagant, & submit to imposition, – now a Portugueze fights hard for a farthing. servants love to be in an English family. The mistress when they go If a Portugueze mistress goes out she locks up her maids for fear of the men: the relations of the servants often insist that this shall be done. Oftentimes the men & women servants in a family do not know each other. all kitchen work is done by men who sleep & live below, the females are kept above, – a precious symptom of national morals! calculated to extend the evil it is designed to prevent – but I wander from Cintra. the fire flies were abundant when we first came here – it was like faery land to see them sparkling under the trees at night. the glow-worms were also numerous. their lights went out at the end of July – but we have an insect which almost supplies their place – a winged grasshopper. in shape like our own, in colour a grey-ground hue, undistinguishable from the soil on which they live – till they leap up & their expanded wings then appear – blue, or purple. at night we hear at evening the grillo – it is called the cricket because its song x is like that animal but louder – it is however wholly different – shaped like a beetle, with wings like a bee, & black. they sell them in cages at Lisbon by way of singing birds.

We ride asses about the country – you would laugh to see a party thus mounted, & yet soon learn to like the easy pace & sure step of the John burros. At the S. Western extremity of the Rock is a singular building which we have twice visited – a chapel to the Virgin – (who is omnipresent in Portugal) – on one of the stoney summits – far from any house. it is the strangest mixture you can imagine of art & nature – you scarcely at approaching know what is rock & what is building. & from the shape & position of the chapel itself it looks like the Ark left by the waters upon Mount Ararat. x long flights of steps lead up & among the rocks are many rooms designed to house the Pilgrims who frequent the place. a poor family live below with the keys. From this spot the coast lies like a map below you – to Cape Espichel, with the Tagus. Tis a strange place – that catches every cloud & xxxx I have felt a tempest there when there has been no wind below. in case of plague it would be an excellent asylum. At the N. Western extremity is a rock which we have not yet visited where people go to see Fishermen run the risque of breaking their necks by walking down a precipice. – I have said nothing to you of the wild flowers so many & so beautiful – purple crocuses now cover the ground. nor of the flocks of goats that morning & evening pass our door. nor of the lemon gardens of these hereafter. Our Lady of the Incarnation will about fill the sheet. Every Church has a fraternity attached to its patron Saint for the anniversary festival they beg money, what is deficient the chief of the brotherhood supplies. for 3 or four more days preceding the holy day, these people parade the country with the church banner, taking a longer or shorter circuit according to the celebrity of the Saint, attacking the Sun with sky rockets, & merry-making all the way. Those of whom I now speak travelled for five days. I saw their nature – they had among them four Angels on horseback, who as they took leave of the Virgin at her church door, each alternately addressed her, & reminded her of all they had been doing to her honour & glory, & requested to continue the same devout spirit in her Portugueze which must infallibly render them still invincible: this done the Angels went into the Plaza – to see the fireworks. I regret much that I was not present last year when the fireworks were singularly ingenious as there were then – my Uncle saw them two Lions who spit fire at each other, & then they made fire from a part which would have been more naturally employed in water-works – & then they tacked about, & bumbarded each other with fire – & all in honour of our Lady of the Incarnation!

I have a letter half written about Mafra [3]  – it shall go with the parcel & I shall soon fetch up my lee way. When you write omit my name in the direction & address my Uncle as Chaplain to the British forces. they will frank the letter – & fix an S. by the wafer – Ediths love – I wish you were here – in a week your cheeks would ache with laughing at the oddities of the people – & your whole sea stock of oaths be exhausted in cursing their filth.

yrs truly RS.

October 7. Cintra. we go soon for Lisbon


* Address: To/ Lieutenant Thomas Southey/ H. M. S. Bellona/ Plymouth Dock/ or elsewhere/ Single
Stamped: LISBON
Endorsement: 7th
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 115–121 [in part]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 122–124 [in part]. BACK

[1] Tom Southey’s copy of Thalaba is now Pierpont Morgan Library, LHMS MA 415; Thalaba the Destroyer was published in London in 1801. BACK

[2] The medieval royal palace at Cintra served as a summer residence for the royal family. BACK

[3] Southey to Tom Southey, 6 October-6 November 1800, Letter 551. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 5 times)