574. Robert Southey to Margaret Southey, [28 March 1801]

574. Robert Southey to Margaret Southey, [28 March 1801] ⁠* 

My dear Mother,

On our return from a three weeks journey [1]  I looked with some hope for a letter from you – & am disappointed. from Tom & Harry I have heard – Harry writes me a manly & sensible letter – indeed I never witnessed so rapid & striking an improvement as his letters exhibit.

We have travelled three hundred & fifty miles – in almost all possible ways – carriage – mules – asses – by land & by water. On a Wednesday morning five mules & a calessa [2]  were ready at five o clock at my door. Waterhouse [3]  & I commanded – Edith Miss Seton a woman with brains who draws well, & two Miss Petries [4]  were alternately to mount mules & ride in the calessa. Bento as gentleman-servant rode. Manuel (not my Uncles former servant) [5]  drove. Antonio was arriero or muleteer – & Jacinto was our literal footman. with this equipage we departed to every bodys wonder that women would travel in this country or men take charge of such incumbrances. the carriage we soon found a heavy inconvenience, its slow motion in bad roads obliged <us> to halt a league short of our first nights mark – & the Ladies had a fair sample of what they might expect when we were recommended to take up our nights lodging in one room with two beds. a little exertion procured us two rooms & six beds & we did well. the next day the same impediment obliged to travel an hour by torch light – we then reached Caldas & an Irish Hotel. there two friends of the Petries [6]  joined them designing to pass a day & return. Miss E. Petrie however was taken ill – luckily one of her visitors was Surgeon to the Army – so we left them there & proceeded with the better number of four persons all better suited for the journey & for each other. We slept at Alcobaça – or did not sleep – for it was our worst night. indeed it made Edith feelingly understand my account of flea-biting. there was also a water mill under the window – very picturesque – but a little too loud for so near a neighbour. Alcobaça was one mark of our journey. it contains the tombs of the earlier Kings & of Inēs de Castro. [7]  so beautiful themselves – of workmanship so marvellous – so finely preserved – & so dear by all historical & poetical association that the sight would amply have repaid a longer & more laborious pilgrimage. Perhaps no place contains so monstrous a medley as this huge Convent. the finest works of old Portugal, & the most execrable puppetshows of modern popery – angels playing the fiddle at the nativity & Portugueze washerwomen coming to see the infant Jesus – jewels beyond all price sown upon the fools-caps of the Friars – a noble Library – & beyond all comparison the most magnificent Kitchen that even priestly luxury designed. a brook flowing thro it to supply water & wash the dishes, & an opening into the refectory that the dishes may not cool on their way. The Empire of Alcobaça (for such it may be called) is miserably mismanaged, & no subjects in Europe are more ready, or with more cause, to fling off their yoke, than those who suffer under the absolute dominion of these Bernardines. [8]  they take a fourth of the whole produce – & compel the people to send their corn to the convent mills – their olives & grapes to the convent presses. so extravagant are they that being only two hundred & their income 200,000 English pounds sterling they are in debt. which you will not wonder at when I tell you that a sum of 250 pounds being deficient in their accounts one year the Steward set it down as an extra charge for Eggs. they are so ignorant that Bernardism is become a word in the language synonymous to stupidity. fine rosy cheeked oily men of God! I observed most of the young women near were drest in their old hats, & I also observed a greater number of children & of healthier appearance than have anywhere else been born of saltfish & milho bread.

We also saw Batalha – the wonder of Portugal – & indeed of Europe. for so magnificent a structure, or stone work so miraculously beautiful exists no where but in this secluded village. Will you believe me when I tell you that the front of <a> stone pillars is cut into a rich foliage, & the pillar itself hollowed behind the leaves? that painting could not trace the large leaves more truly or dispose them with finer taste, & that no workmanship in the softest materials could possibly exceed the delicacy & sharpness which the stone cutters chisel has produced? I had seen accurate prints – & yet stood lost entirely in wonder & admiration. The present Queen [9]  would not believe that it was actually stone work & part of the pillar, & to satisfy her royal scepticism commanded a large xxxxxxx <piece> <part> to be hammered to pieces!! This was the work of an Englishman, [10]  tho the Portugueze claim it for themselves. the finer part has never been finished or roofed in. the death of Emanuel [11]  put a stop to his work. in this country it is the childish vanity of subjects & sovereigns to do something themselves – never to compleat what their predecessors have begun. thus is the Kingdom full of new ruins – houses begun & never finished. & thus have these beast-barbarians left the noblest work of ark architecture that any country can boast of exposed to the weather for four hundred years. Perhaps the Architect feared this neglect & by some unknown varnish or coating secured his own immortality. for the stone is not discolourd or cankered, or in the slightest degree injured. Time has spared the great work of genius. not a moss – not a lichen has fretted one spot – & yet the very same stone used in modern buildings decays in half a century. the Earthquake [12]  too just shook its tower & flung down a few battlements – just showed its power & did no injury. Till I saw Batalha I thought the fame of an architect perishable like his works.

One day we rode 20 miles in the rain. the army of our attendants mutinied on this occasion. these fellows going with women had looked on to a summer campaign – & sorely disliked the feel of cold water. they all ran into a wine-house – & our own servant, sorely against his will, was the only one who followed us, growling all the way. umbrellas & great coats kept us tolerably dry. Waterhouse however wrapt himself in a sheet till the sumpter mule [13]  arrived – & poor I – compleatly wet in only one place – it was the seat of my pantaloons – was unable [MS torn] sit down. & walked the room in expectation & delicate distress. – Edith proved an excellent mulewoman. I did not take her on a journey with whose inconveniences I was well acquainted without some apprehension – but her health was actually better than when she is stationary. the constant & gentle exercise, & the novelty of all objects equally benefitted her. at night we eat oranges by the dozen & they effectually removed the fever of fatigue. the mules have an ugly trick of lying down under their rider & rolling in dry sand. this happened three times to Edith – more to our merriment than terror – at seeing them both sprawl together. she did not like it. our complections have suffered. Edith has acquired a fine Squaw tint – & I am of a ruddy copper – a perfect Chikkasaw bloom.

I must now go pack up my books. my Uncle is at the same work – preparing for our now probable expulsion. you will show this letter to Danvers. if time permits I shall write to him to day. I expected letters from him – & am not quite easy at not hearing of the arrival of the new Thalaba book. [14]  in May you will see us. I hope to sail for Bristol – if any merchant-ship should be bound for that port. the expence is a serious object.

my love to Peggy. I cannot excuse all your Silence – if only that you keep me ignorant how she is. now I wish the voyage over – & look on to a meeting with my friends – & a proof sheet – & a gooseberry pye. Lisbon has done for me what I expected. I am now well. whether or not cold winds & wet may throw me back again remains to be tried – at worst if the disease return I know the remedy. God bless you –

yr affectionate Son

Robert Southey

Ediths love. P.S. I see a novel advertized which you have doubtless read for the names-sake – My Uncle Thomas. [15]  – Tell Peggy that if as we expect the English are all obliged to decamp I must then bring over & consign to her care, Lord Thomas the Cat.


* Address: To/ Mrs Southey/ Mrs Tylers –/ Bristol./ Single
MS: Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, KESMG 1996.5.183. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 140-144 [dated March 1801]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 154-157 [in part; dated 28 March 1801]. BACK

[1] For this expedition see Southey’s journal, published in Adolfo Cabral, Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 15-33. BACK

[2] A light carriage with small wheels and seating for four passengers. BACK

[3] Samuel Waterhouse (dates unknown), later a leading figure in the British community in Portugal. BACK

[4] Two sisters resident in Portugal. They were possibly connected to Martin Petrie (d. 1805), a Commissary in the British Army. BACK

[5] Herbert Hill’s ‘former servant’ was Manuel Mambrino (dates unknown), a Spaniard from Oviedo, who had accompanied Southey on many of his journeys in Spain and Portugal in 1795-1796. BACK

[6] The brother of the Misses Petrie, possibly William Petrie (d. 1842), later a Commissary-General in the British Army; and an army surgeon called Burrows (first name and dates unknown). BACK

[7] Ines de Castro (1325-1355), lover of Pedro I (1320-1367, King of Portugal 1357-1367). She was murdered on the orders of Pedro’s father, Afonso IV (1291-1357, King of Portugal 1325-1357). BACK

[8] The Alcobaca monastery was a Cistercian foundation, so Southey calls the monks ‘Bernardines’ after St Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153), the founder of the Order. BACK

[9] Maria I (1734-1816, Queen of Portugal 1777-1816). BACK

[10] There are clear English Perpendicular influences on the Batalha Monastery, but it is difficult to identify a particular English architect who worked on the building. The most likely candidate is Master Huguet (d. 1438), whose nationality is much debated. BACK

[11] Manoel I (1469-1521, King of Portugal 1495-1521). BACK

[12] The earthquake of 1755, which destroyed much of Lisbon. BACK

[13] The mule carrying the baggage. BACK

[14] Book 12 of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), sent in Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 15 February 1801, Letter 567. BACK

[15] Uncle Thomas, a Romance, from the French of Pigault Le Brun (1801), a translation of a novel by Guillaume Charles Antoine Pigault-Lebrun (1753-1835). Southey also had an ‘Uncle Thomas’, his father’s youngest brother, Thomas Southey. BACK