561. Robert Southey to John May, 16 December 1800

561. Robert Southey to John May, 16 December 1800 ⁠* 

Lisbon, Dec. 16. 1800.

My dear Friend,

I have drawn on you this day for 40l., to which amount you will receive a draught from Wynn. He had directed me to draw immediately on him, at his banker’s, but it appeared better to me to proceed as usual. My uncle will pay 25l. for me into your hands; when you receive it, have the goodness to remit 15l. to Mr. Danvers, 9. St. James’s Place, Kingsdown, Bristol.

I had hoped ere this to have heard from you, but you have of late proved a lax correspondent. With all our news you are acquainted from other quarters. We have a pleasant family near us, introduced to our circle by Mr. Barnes’s [1]  letter – the Hammets. [2]  In their companion, Miss Seton, I have found an accomplished woman, whose society is pleasant and profitable. We are in my uncle’s house, to take care of it, – and use more conveniently the cellar and the library, both highly essential apartments, and well stored. Better information is, that I am seriously at the great historic task. John Bell [3]  has introduced me to Müller, [4]  the apostate, who is, however, just as sincere a Catholic as he was a Lutheran. Müller has procured me access to the library MSS., and I expect, through him, daily, an introduction to the disembargador, my opposite neighbour, chief librarian, a curioso in the poetry of the country, and whose collection is rich with the duplicates among the Jesuit libraries, whose ruins formed the magnificent public one, so well and liberally conducted. [5]  Moreover, there is a Portuguese physician, [6]  introduced to me by English letters, a man of great merit, who is in hopes to get me the unrestrained use of the St. Bento Convent books, [7]  that I may have them at home.

You will not think the paper ill employed that communicates my plan [8]  – now, I think, maturely considered. The fabulous history from Tubal [9]  to be briefly given. So Milton [10]  did with our British fables; – and the vain fictions of one country have as much right to be preserved as those of another. All that is known of the nations to be collected from classical writers. The Roman revolutions that occurred are irrelevant: the object is a picture of the prevailing manners. Of the Gothic period, the Moors, and the various Christian states that grew upon their ruins – a sort of St. Palaye chapter. [11]  Their barbarous annals are thus best treated, and the moral features of the people more accurately and rememberably painted. An ecclesiastical chapter will complete the preliminaries; and thus a full account be presented of those fermenting principles that have stagnated into the two miserable kingdoms. You know that, till Count Henrique’s [12]  time, all that regards Spain equally regards Portugal; and, indeed, a description of one people now needs little alteration to resemble the other.

Manoel Faria [13]  is my text-book; him I correct or amplify. The Portuguese chronicles, and the Spanish historians, of whom I shall peruse every one. Many of these it is needless to purchase. Many my uncle possesses. Still there is a heavy expense in indispensable books. But the most costly will never lose their value; and as I have no ambition to crowd my shelves with books that have been distilled, I may afterwards sell them with little or no loss. The “Monarquia Lusitana” of Brito and Brandaõ, is the great magazine of information. [14]  These eight folios the bookseller is now procuring for me – Bertrand, [15]  the only civil and reasonable man in the trade. The “Genealogical History” [16]  my uncle means to buy; and it is not desirable to collate all the accounts at once – so many channels puzzle and perplex. Miracles connected with the history I retain, because I will not strip off the embroidery from a bare canvas, and because Affonso Henrique [17]  has as much claim to have his miracles recorded as Romulus. [18]  Insulated traits of the character of the age and people must be arranged in supplementary chapters, and much matter will descend to the bottom of the page in notes – that happy olla podrida  [19]  dish of literature, in which all heterogeneous materials may be served up.

Of manuscripts, the most important are the five folio records of the Inquisition, in whose bloody annals the history of extinguished reformation must be sought. This is a somewhat awkward task. I have seen with eager eyes, itching fingers, and heretical qualms of apprehension this great mass, where and where only the documents for this very important period are attainable. The sub-librarian [20]  is an intelligent man, – more eager to talk freely than I was to encourage the strain. He will not be alarmed to see me employed upon records which he abominates as religiously as myself.

Our weather, with frequent rain, is still delightful; it is like a fine English April. I have, however, little to tempt me from home; and a fire, among my other comforts, contributes to keep me there. Historical researches are very interesting, and of so various a nature, that something may be done even in the most listless moment of indolence. I should, however, like to indulge in an amanuensis, sit in an easy chair, screening my face from the fire with a folio, and so dictate in all imaginable ease. The contortions of the body from book to paper make my sides ache.

Asiatic history must be separately treated; La Clede’s [21]  example shows the impropriety of attempting to carry it on in parallel chronology. The African wars are more fatally connected with home affairs. For all the important history, the documents are ample and excellent, from John I. [22]  to the miserable expedition of Sebastian. [23]  The Braganza revolution and the deposition of Affonso VI. [24]  are also fully enough related. The latter years have events less striking, and more difficult to investigate. The Abbé [25]  has as much life and spirits as when you left Lisbon. His library is very rich in all that relates to Portugal; but there is no person here – or perhaps any where else – so well informed, and so willing to communicate or procure information, as John Bell.

God bless you. Do not omit writing. Have you heard that in one nunnery near St. Jose’s, and unhappily 1 near the emigrant quarters, there are seventeen nuns about to lie in? Edith’s remembrance.

Yours affectionately,

Robert Southey.


* 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. 132–135; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 143–146 [in part]. BACK

[1] Unidentified. BACK

[2] A family from Bideford, Devon. BACK

[3] John Bell (d. 1819), member of the English Factory at Lisbon. BACK

[4] Johann Wilhelm Christian Muller (1752–1814), came to Portugal in 1772 as chaplain to the Dutch Factory; entered the Portuguese civil service as a translator in 1790 and converted to Catholicism. BACK

[5] Antonio Ribeiro dos Santos (1745–1818), Professor at the University of Coimbra, poet, historian and director of the Real Biblioteca Publica da Corte, established in 1796. BACK

[6] Unidentified. BACK

[7] The national Portuguese archive, the Torre do Tombo, had been moved to the Convent of Sao Bento in 1757, after the earthquake of 1755. BACK

[8] Southey’s plan for the unfinished ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[9] Tubal was Noah’s great-grandson and, according to legend, landed in Portugal in 2204 BC. BACK

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

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

[12] Henrique (1066–1112; Count of Portugal 1093–1112). BACK

[13] Manoel de Faria e Sousa (1590–1649), Epitome de las Historias Portuguezas (1628), no. 3743 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[14] Bernardo de Brito (1569–1617) published the first two books of the Monarquia Lusitano in 1597 and 1609. Antonio Brandao (1584–1637) continued the work with a further two volumes. Eight were published in all, no. 3320 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[15] Jorge Bertrand (dates unknown), Portuguese publisher. BACK

[16] Historia Genealogica de Casa Real Portuguesa (1735–1748), compiled by Antonio Caetano de Sousa (1674–1759). BACK

[17] Afonso I (1109–1185; Count of Portugal 1112–1139; first King of Portugal 1139–1185). BACK

[18] Legendary founder of Rome, with his brother, Remus. BACK

[19] The Spanish literally translates as ‘rotten potful’, but the meaning is more like ‘hodgepodge’. BACK

[20] Agostinho Jose da Costa Macedo (1745–1822), lexicographer and editor. BACK

[21] Nicolas de la Clede (1700–1736), Histoire Generale de Portugal (1735). BACK

[22] John I (1357–1433; King of Portugal 1385–1433). BACK

[23] Sebastian (1554–1578; King of Portugal 1557–1578); killed in battle in Morocco. BACK

[24] Portugal regained its independence from Spain in a coup led by John IV (1604–1656; King of Portugal 1640–1656), Duke of Braganza. Afonso VI (1643–1683; King of Portugal 1656–1683) was confined for much of his reign on the grounds of insanity. BACK

[25] The identity of this French cleric is unclear. One possibility is that he was Abbé Francois Garnier (1722–1804), the long-standing chaplain to the French factory in Lisbon; another that he was Abbé Du Boys (dates unknown), who was collecting material for a history of Brazil. BACK

People mentioned

Places mentioned

Kingsdown Parade, Bristol (mentioned 1 time)