559. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 8 December 1800

559. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 8 December 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon. December 8. 1800. Monday

My dear Wynn

Your letter reached me yesterday, only 13 days after its date. it may be worth while to tell you that the Lisbon mail leaves London every Tuesday. a days delay in writing therefore loses that mail & probably that packet.

I am troubled in spirit about a Xmas ballad. I have conned & reconned all my stock-stories, & cannot catch fire. there are plenty of seeds but the soil is not prepared for them. my head is full of history & my very dreams made up of chronicles & records. poetry written out of season is as vapid as forced fruits. my best pieces have ever been written most rapidly, three or four during the same heat. If I had stiled the books of Thalaba Fits this old word would have been strictly applicable. – however I am straining a costive brain – to what purport I know not. There was a Bishop of Bremen xxx <seen> once in a ship full sail against the wind – going to old Beelzebub in Mount Hecla. [1]  but whether you will have him. – or the Monk that dipt down a volcano with a brass bucket for gold [2]  – or a corpse-candle story [3]  – may be perhaps written upon the great adamantine table by the self-moving pearl pen [4]  – but ink & grey goosequill have yet done nothing. most probably I shall send you some headless & tail-less story, which xx <has> the polypus power of growing at both ends. Old Nick is grown too familiar – a mealy-faced Mumbo Jumbo would excite more wonder in a ballad or a masquerade.

My Uncle is gone to xxxxx England. a small living has become vacant in his own gift & he went to present himself. [5]  its clear value does not exceed 60 £ after paying a curate – but it was worth the voyage. We therefore removed into his house for the convenience of having the Library & Cellar at hand. moreover there was a fire-place to tempt us.

I am delighted with historical labour. [6]  the materials are ample & excellent. beginning with Count Henrique [7]  there is much preliminary matter needful. I think the fabulous history ought summarily to be given. Milton [8]  thought so – & I love old Geoffrey of Monmouth [9]  and he ought to be kept in countenance by showing that these as great liars as the Welsh. What can be gleaned from the classical writers respecting the old Lusitanians ought to have its place. the Gothic period is all a barbarous confusion – & had better be made into a sort of St Pelaye chapter [10]  – an historical sketch of manners. afterwards it will be best to insert as far as can well be done all traits of costume in the main story. I do not strip off all the embroidery of miracles. Popery has acted a higher part than Paganism – & the monks have as much right to have their rogueries related as the Priest of Delphixxx much however of all this descend to the bottom of the page, – xxxxxx – blessed be the man who invented notewriting! –

The scarcity: – you will doubtless foreknow my opinion as to the main cause, a failing harvest &c are only aiding & abetting circumstances. the enormous war expences pressing upon all parts of the community must inevitably occasion a rise in the price of provisions proportionate to that of every thing else. not that peace can immediately alleviate the evil. tis a gloomy prospect. the funding system seems to have nearly reached its utmost extent – the burden is so heavy upon the poor that their distresses are made the subject of parliamentary discussion. I should hope for a radical remedy if I saw the possibility of one. but relief can hardly be expected – & nothing can be more likely to render a populace turbulent than assistance with whose manner they will always be dissatisfied – & which – instead of to humanity – they will always attribute to fear. I never here see the papers – nor have I any wish. conversation informs me of any important event. I long for peace because the evil of continued war is certain & the good very doubtful. I should also rejoice to hear of a change in ministry, but this is not probable. no middle standard is hoisted.

Lately my health has been comfortable. indeed I like the climate so well that if there were any possible situation here xx <in> which I could settle, there would be very little hesitation about giving up England. except climate xx Portugal has little to recommend it – & the only person in whose intimate society I could take pleasure [11]  looks on to a speedy removal. but I feel an ease here which ether & laudanum will hardly give me at home – & in the literature – it were more proper to say in the – books of the country materials might be found for long amusement & useful labour. to this there are some slight obstacles & objections. imprimis [12]  the plague is likely to arrive next year. 2ds there must most inevitably be a Boderation here. [13]  & lastly it is impossible.

But the suicide tale – I had almost forgotten. a Serjeant in our cavalry here was jealous of his wifes attachment to one who held the same rank in the same regiment. this man was in his manners & conduct remarkably good for his situation – the woman a modest & interesting woman. That she was improperly attached is evident from the sequel – but it is not believed that she was otherwise guilty than in admitting this feeling of preference. Her husband however beat her. the other man was so wretched at being the cause of this quarrel that he said he would shoot himself. one night accordingly, after the hour when he ought to have been in the barracks – he went into a little wine-house – a taberna – shot himself & died instantly. At the tidings She came in – in a state of frenzy. she gathered up the blood with both her hands – mingled with the dust – & devoured it greedily, by handfuls. her husband attempted to force her away. she called the Centinel – commanded him to take him into custody for being out at that hour, & threatened to report him to the Colonel unless he did his duty. the fool was afraid – & did so. immediately she ran to a large deep well & threw herself in. a weeks confinement & bread & water were necessary to tame the husband & prevent him from compleating the catastrophe. They did not bring them to Lisbon for Xtian burial – neither did they practise the old brutality of our custom. at low water they dug a grave in the sands – one grave – & the Tagus flows over it.

If you send Lewis’s book [14]  to Mr Danvers. 9 St James Place. Kingsdown. Bristol – he will send it in a parcel. I dread having it by post. the letter your brother [15]  was to send from the Secretary of States Office came as usual thro the Post office. your last I know not how – but General Fraser [16]  sent it me. To my great joy I have at last got the Guerras Civiles do Granada [17]  – with a second volume by the same author bringing it down to their expulsion. God bless you. I shall send something by the next packet – & the parts of Thalaba – which will at least prevent you from going empty handed.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.


* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M.P./ 5. Stone Buildings/ Lincolns Inn/ London Wynnstay / Wrexham/ Wales
Stamped: LISBON
Postmarks: FOREIGN OFFICE/ DE/ 25/ 1800; DE/ 25/ 1800
Endorsements: Dec. 8 1800; 25 Decr
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. 140–143. BACK

[1] ‘How the Bishop of Bremen went to Hell by water’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 274. BACK

[2] ‘The Dominican dipping for gold in a volcano’, Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 274. BACK

[3] See Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 212. BACK

[4] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Book 11, line 363 and Note, from Lodovico Maracci (1612–1700), Alcorani Textus Universus, 2 vols (Padua, 1698), I, part 2, p. 94. BACK

[5] 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 Herbert Hill appointed himself to the living on 5 December 1800. BACK

[6] Southey’s unfinished ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[7] Henrique (1066–1112; Count of Portugal 1093–1112), re-established Portugal’s separate identity. BACK

[8] John Milton (1608–1674; DNB), The History of Britain, that Part Especially Called England; From the Beginning, Continued to the Norman Conquest (1670). BACK

[9] Geoffrey of Monmouth (c. 1100– c. 1155), Historia Regum Britanniae. BACK

[10] Jean-Baptiste de la Curne de Sainte-Pelaye (1697–1781), compiler of the 40-volume manuscript, ‘Dictionnaire des Antiquites Francaises’. BACK

[11] Identity unclear, but possibly Herbert Hill. BACK

[12] Translates as ‘in the first place’. BACK

[13] A banking crisis. BACK

[14] Matthew Gregory Lewis (1775–1818; DNB), Tales of Wonder (1801), which reprinted several poems by Southey. BACK

[15] Sir Watkin Williams Wynn (1772–1840). BACK

[16] Simon Fraser (1738–1813), major-general in command of British forces in Portugal 1797–1800. BACK

[17] Gines Perez de Hita (1544? –1619?), Historia de los Vandos, de los Cegries, y Abencerrages, cavalleros moros de Granada, y les civiles guerras que huvo en ella, hasta que el Rey Don Fernando el Quinto la gano (1595–1619), no. 3403 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

People mentioned

Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)

Places mentioned

Kingsdown Parade, Bristol (mentioned 1 time)