575. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 3 April 1801

575. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 3 April 1801 ⁠* 

It is unreasonably long since a letter has past between us – my excuse is probably more valid than yours – I have been a twenty days journey into the country – to Torres Vedras, Caldas, Alcobaça, Batalha, Leiria, Coimbra, Ourem, Thomar, Abrantes & Santarem the last eighty miles down the Tagus. [1]  Edith went with me, & a Miss Seton a pleasant companion as she is a woman of good sense, & a very useful one for she made drawings of the finest spots we saw. You have seen Murphys prints of Batalha. [2]  they are very exact, & I believe as good as prints can be – but it is only eye-sight that can give a competent idea of that most miraculous building. I allude most to the unfinished chapel of Emanuel [3]  – the great Emanuel, who seems to have bestowed the whole plunder of the East, in collecting to Portugal the whole genius of Europe. The largest possible scale upon which a view could be taken would necessarily lose all the smaller ornaments – & every ornament is of that perfect workmanship & delicacy, & in a taste so harmonious to the whole, that it cannot be omitted with destroying the effect of the whole. In every other Gothic building I have (florid Gothic as this is) I have seen ornaments crowded together, neither beautiful seperately nor grouped – the grotesque is usually prevalent – but here like every thing in Emanuels reign – it is as if Rafaelle [4]  had designed Gothic ornaments. there is that perfect elegance. the hollow work is so finely executed – that one princely personage about fourscore years ago, & the present Queen [5]  also – commanded a part to be hammered away to convince themselves that it was not a plaister joined to the stone!

The perfect preservation of the stone is quite unaccountable. it has stood for 300 years unroofed & exposed to the weather – yet the work is as sharp as if the chissel had just left it. not a blade of grass or of moss has rooted there, nor one lichen cankered it. I have heard it surmized that the architect by some unknown varnish hardened the stone. stone of the same colour & which coming from a near quarry may be supposed to be the same – moulders away in half a century. – We have larger buildings in England, & churches perhaps as fine – not finer, nor do I recollect any of such simple grandeur. but the unfinished chapels of Emanuel are certainly of unique excellence. there is nothing elsewhere like them.

Alcobaca is of more historical interest than Batalha. It is a huge mixture of old magnificence & modern meanness – old & new Portugal. The tombs of Pedro & Ignez [6]  – fine & impressive as they ought to be – & a puppetshow of the nativity with Portugueze peasantry large as life coming to see the Infant Jesus, & Angels playing the fiddle & touching the guitarre behind. The kitchen is most ecclesiastical – with a brook running thro it. 200 xxx Bernardines [7]  are the allodial Lords of the Empire of Alcobaça & you may judge how well their treasury is managed – by an extra charge for eggs one year to the amount of (250 £) a million reas – which were deficient. Bernardism is literally become synonimous with stupid ignorance in the Portugueze language. In justice to the Alcobaça brethren I must say that while the legitimate nobles & fidalgos of Portugal have dwindled down into little – lean – Kings-evilly figures – as if the bottled abortions of a surgeons museum had been reared up & called human by courtesy – they have preserved a fine – healthy – handsome bastard breed. In no other part of the kingdom have I seen so fine a race of peasantry. they were never bred upon salt-fish & milk or ho lupins.

We not only saw the country – but all the inhabitants. they crowded to see our caravan. a fine boy of about 13 stopt on his way to school to look at us one morning. I looked at his book – the only one he learnt – it was – Directions for a converted sinner. one night we passed in a salt-fish warehouse – some of our party literally upon piles of that savoury article. yet we slept sweetly. good humour & good spirits are necessary to travel here – every where they are useful – but here there is no travelling without them. – On Tuesday I set out for Algarve. thro Evora (the seat of Sertorius [8] ) & Beja – by the field of Ourique [9]  to Tavira – thence to Faro – & Sagres the dwelling of the great Prince Henry, [10]  & home along the coast to Setuval. with the rights & lefts of curiosity – not much less than five hundred miles. that done I must think of returning to England. I return with an eagerness a hunger & thirst after old scenes & old friends. yet I should rather remain – it is almost mortifying that climate should possess so much influence <over> me – that I partake so much of vegetable nature & imbecillity. I gladly look on to the necessity of returning to compleat the latter years of the history. A crazy Astrologer once cast my nativity & promised me great good fortune either at Berlin or Algiers. I wish the stars had named Lisbon – they would have agreed so well with the man.

The History. [11]  – I have tried my strength & can bend the bow. my style is not likely to be infected by the mannerism of any English writer – because my reading is exclusively foreign. I prefer the sober stateliness of Lord Bacon, [12]  & the mighty strength of Milton & Jeremy Taylor [13]  to our later writers. they cut their sentences into epigrams. Johnsons [14]  I utterly disapprove – & would have mine a well of English undefiled [15]  – understandable even to a minuteness of meaning, by an unlearned reader. Gibbons [16]  is French & God knows I hold nothing with France but the principles which she professes & abuses. Hume [17]  I think wants a character of style. a little individuality there should be. I recollect no book that to my taste could be corrected into such impressive language – as Gordons Tacitus. [18]  I correct & recorrect with [MS obscured] that would not disgrace a Dutchman. no one can like his work better, or labour more willingly. it shall be a good book, & worthy to survive me. – If a merchant ship can be found I shall embark for Bristol. accommodations matter little to people who are sick all the way, & the difference of expence is very important. By packet it would cost me forty two guineas to reach Falmouth – & then have I nearly 200 miles by land. A merchantman for about 20 lands me at Bristol. I may perhaps wait some weeks for an opportunity– which will be no inconvenience. When I land I must draw upon you for my first expences. my ways & means will soon be in forwardness & I shall raise supplies in the autumn & winter to recover what I have here expended.

There will yet be time for a letter to reach me. let me hear from you once more. I looked with some eagerness for your news on my return.

God bless you –

yrs affectionately

R S.

Saturday. April 3. 1801. Lisbon.


* Address: To/ Charles Watkin Williams Wynn Esqr M. P./ 5. Stone Buildings/ Lincolns Inn/ London
Stamped: LISBON
Postmark: [partial] FOREIGN OFFICE
Endorsement: April 3 1801
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. 160-162. 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] James Cavanah Murphy (1760-1814; DNB), Plans, Elevations, Sections and Views of the Church of Batalha (1795). BACK

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

[4] Raffaelo Sanzio da Urbino (1483-1520), Italian Renaissance painter. BACK

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

[6] 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

[7] 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

[8] Quintus Sertorius (123-72 BC), Roman politician and general who controlled the Iberian peninsula 83-72 BC. BACK

[9] Site of a major Portuguese victory over Muslim forces in 1139. BACK

[10] Prince Henry ‘the Navigator’ (1394-1460), promoter of Portuguese voyages of discovery down the west coast of Africa. BACK

[11] Southey’s uncompleted ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[12] Francis Bacon, 1st Viscount St Albans (1561-1626; DNB), statesman and philosopher, author of The History of the Reign of King Henry the Seventh (1622). BACK

[13] Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667; DNB), Anglican clergyman and devotional writer. BACK

[14] Samuel Johnson (1709-1784; DNB), writer and lexicographer. BACK

[15] Edmund Spenser (1552-1599; DNB), The Faerie Queen (1590-1596), Book 4, canto 2, stanza 32. BACK

[16] Edward Gibbon (1737-1794; DNB), author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776-1788). BACK

[17] David Hume (1711-1776; DNB), philosopher and author of The History of England (1754-1762). BACK

[18] Thomas Gordon (d. 1750; DNB), The Works of Tacitus (1728). BACK

People mentioned

Seton, Barbara (dates unknown) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)