553. Robert Southey to John May, 29 October 1800

553. Robert Southey to John May, 29 October 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon, Oct. 29. 1800.

My dear Friend,

Your half-letter was more welcome than any full-grown one that has reached me since my arrival in Portugal. I have had enough unpleasant intelligence. My acquaintance have been dropping off – not like autumn leaves, but like the blasted spring fruit; and I shall again have the joy of meeting my friends in England poisoned by mourning and recollection. The birth of your little girl [1]  forces on me the knowledge how far I am advanced in my own life-journey. I see the generation rising who will remember me when my part is over, and Homer’s exquisite lines [2]  come upon my mind, of the leaves that bud, and flourish, and fall, to make room for the race of the succeeding spring.

We left Cintra on Tuesday. In the bustle of removal there was no leisure to be sorry; but when I saw the white palace chimneys for the last time, there was time enough in a four hours’ ride to remember and regret what I had left. The mosquitoes treated me like a stranger on my return: they found out a hole in the net. I rose in the night, and killed nine who had entered the breach, which I also closed; but my hands, arms, face, and neck, bear the marks of the assault. It was not till we arrived in Lisbon that I was sensible of the astonishing difference between the city and Cintra in climate. These people do nothing to correct their country: everywhere some tree or other will grow. The olive, the chestnut, the pine, require not a moist soil, the acacia even grows in the deserts. The great and bloody Joaõ de Castro [3]  is the only Portuguese who has left a monument of taste behind him. I esteem him more for planting his Cintra estate than for his exploits at Diu: every Portuguese then could fight and cut throats, but no other ever thought of planting trees for posterity.

I am thinking to undertake a fortnight’s expedition into the country, with Waterhouse, [4]  whose name I have mentioned to you before, and also with Edith, who I think may, by the aid of a burro and the good baiting-places in the way, perform the journey without any serious or injurious fatigue. My objects are Batalha, Alcobaça, and the poems collected by King Diniz which are preserved at Thomar; [5]  the tract proposed is the Torres Vedras road to the Caldas, the Fabric, [6]  and home from Santarem. At Thomar is a man of talents – his name I think Verdin [7]  – from whom we expect hospitality; and Colonel Caldwell [8]  is at Santarem. Thus we shall never be obliged to pass more than two succeeding nights among the filth and the fleas of the estalagems. I am anxious to see if Edith can bear the fatigues of Portuguese travelling, as, in case she does, I shall visit most parts of the kingdom. The plague, or yellow fever, or black vomit has not yet reached us. Strange as it must appear, we are not yet certain what the disease is. A stupid indifference prevails respecting our danger, which is imminent; and people speak of it as a slight disorder, which it is not worth while to avoid by leaving Lisbon, if it comes, – as a fever curable by the slightest medicines, – when every post brings worse and worse tidings of its ravages. At Cadiz it has ceased, but only because its work was done. The fire went out for want of fuel; 4000 only escaped contagion, 8000 died, the remainder fled or recovered. Yesterday’s news from Seville stated the daily deaths at 500.

The remainder of the sheet must be allotted to business. I have drawn upon you for thirty pounds. I must beg you to send the same sum to my mother. I shall write by this packet to have forty pounds paid into your hands, which will leave me something in your debt. By letters from William Taylor, I find it is expedient to remove my brother Henry, because he has outgrown his situation, and takes up the room of a more profitable pupil. This, too, I collect from his own letters. No alternative offers; and what William Taylor suggests is perhaps the best plan practicable – to place him with a provincial surgeon of eminence, who will, for a hundred guineas, board and instruct him for four or five years, that is, till he is old enough, after a year’s London study, to practise for himself. For the first time in my life I have the power – at least it appears so – of raising this sum. My metrical romance goes by the “King George” to market, [9]  and I ask this sum as the price of a first edition. I have little doubt of obtaining it. I had designed to furnish a house with this money, and anchor myself; but this is a more important call. When the bargain is concluded, I shall desire Rickman to lodge the price with you. Harry will thus be settled till he is launched into the world, and will then have a profession to support him, – a useful and honourable profession, which will always secure him bread and independence. Norwich obviously offers itself as the most desirable place in which to settle him, where he has all his acquaintances and friends. There W. Taylor will look out for a situation – if indeed he has not one already in view. Otherwise Bristol would be thought of, and there I shall cause inquiries to be made. It will greatly rejoice me to have this affair accomplished to my wish. In the last few months Harry’s mind appears to have grown rapidly, and he is perhaps more awake to the future at seventeen, than I am at seven and twenty. You remember the old doggerel, that “Learning is better than house or land.” ‘Tis a lying proverb! A good life-hold estate is worth all the fame of the world in perpetuity, and a comfortable house rather more desirable than a monument in Westminster Abbey.

As a hot climate appears rather to agree with my constitution than to be any way injurious, I have been advised [10]  to think whether it be not advisable to try my fate at the East Indian bar, where the success of a barrister of any ability is not doubtful. Many and powerful objections immediately arise. I doubt whether the possibility of acquiring any fortune could pay for the loss of the friends in whose society so much of my happiness consists. The fate of Camoens [11]  stares me in the face; and if I did go, prudence would be the ostensible motive – but verily the real one would be curiosity. I do long to become acquainted with old Brama, [12]  and see the great Indian fig-tree! [13]  So at the end of twenty years, home I should come with a copper-coloured face, an empty purse, and a portfolio full. However, I must give it a fair consideration; tell me your opinion; in these affairs anybody’s is worth more than my own. I have seen the poor young man [14]  whom you have sentenced to pass a winter on the top of a church with the Abbé [15]  and Miss Montague. [16]  He is melancholy already. This morning I shall attempt to find him out, and half expect to see him hanging at the end of one of the long passages, George Sealy [17]  asked him if it was not “rather lonesome.” He replied, “rather so,” and smiled –

“But such a smile as bids
To Comfort a defiance; to Despair,
A welcome, at whatever hour he will.” [18] 

God bless you. My next will perhaps be the history of our travels. Edith desires to be remembered. My uncle may possibly be obliged to visit England soon. The small living in his gift as Chancellor is fallen, and he thinks of presenting it to himself. [19]  In that case he must go over.

Yours truly,

Robert Southey.

Wednesday evening. – N.B. Mr. Lefroy was not felo-de-se this morning.


* 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. 127–132; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800–1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 133–134 [in part]. BACK

[1] John May’s first child, Susan, was born on 26 September 1800. She died on 12 February 1801. BACK

[2] Homer, Iliad, Book 6, lines 146–149, ‘A generation of men is like a generation of leaves; the wind scatters some leaves upon the ground, while others the burgeoning wood brings forth – and the season of spring comes on. So of men one generation springs forth and another ceases.’ BACK

[3] Joao de Castro (1500–1548), Viceroy of Portuguese India, who relieved the siege of the fortress of Diu in 1545 and secured Portugal’s place in India. BACK

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

[5] Batalha, Alcobar and Tomar are all medieval monasteries with important libraries. Diniz (1261–1325; King of Portugal 1279–1325) was also a poet, but Southey did not find the manuscript he was looking for at Tomar. BACK

[6] A large glass and crystal factory at Marinha Grande. BACK

[7] Timoteo Lecussan Verdier (1754–1831), Portuguese literary figure and mill-owner of French parentage. BACK

[8] Colonel Caldwell (dates unknown), member of an Anglo-Irish family, was serving in the Portuguese Army. BACK

[9] Southey intended to send the manuscript of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) to England on the Falmouth to Lisbon packet, King George. He received £115 for 1,000 octavo copies. BACK

[11] Luis Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), Portuguese poet who did not find his fortune in India. BACK

[12] The Hindu god of creation. BACK

[13] The banyan tree, a type of fig tree, often achieves great size and age in India. It is particularly associated with the god Siva in Hinduism and the Buddha is believed to have attained enlightenment whilst meditating under a banyan tree. BACK

[14] Presumably the Mr Lefroy (first name and dates unknown) mentioned at the end of the letter. BACK

[15] The identity of this French cleric is unclear. Possibly, either Abbé Francois Garnier (1722–1804), the long-standing chaplain to the French factory in Lisbon, or the Abbé Du Boys (dates unknown), who was collecting materials for a history of Brazil. BACK

[16] Unidentified. BACK

[17] Possibly George Sealy (1781–1843), relative of Richard Sealy (c. 1752–1821), a prominent member of the English Factory at Lisbon. BACK

[18] An adaptation of Walter Savage Landor, Gebir (1798), Book 5, lines 183–185. BACK

[19] Herbert Hill was Chancellor of Hereford Cathedral. This gave him the right to appoint the incumbent of the joint living of Little Hereford and Ashford Carbonell. The post became vacant in 1800 and Hill appointed himself to the living on 5 December 1800. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Cintra [Sintra] (mentioned 3 times)