585. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, [mid-June-]21 October 1801

585. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, [mid-June-]21 October 1801 ⁠* 

What shall I say – what will you say – of my long & abominable silence? – Will two long journies [1]  – much sight-seeing abroad & a room full of folios at home help me out in my defence? – Or is it not better to plead guilty & throw myself on your mercy? – At last I am writing, & it is of the greatest consequence to me that the letter should reach England safely – because I am going in the packet with it. We have been three weeks in a state of wash-&-wear preparation & expectation & disappointment. day after day fixed & our departure day after day delayed by state affairs. [2] 

Of the campaign in Portugal you can have formed but very imperfect ideas. No General ever brought an enemy so soon to terms as the Duke de Lafoes [3]  has done. The campaign lasted nineteen days. The Duke set out from Lisbon when the Spaniards were at his headquarters. The army had neither food nor ammunition. He indeed sent carriers to bring him water from the Fonte da Praia here for his own drinking – & this was the only instance of any supplies being sent. When tidings were brought him of the Enemys movements he clapped his hands to his head – O my God what can Luiz Pinto [4]  be about! – Luiz Pinto was signing & sealing at Badajoz [5]  what terms France & Spain in their mercy might grant – What those terms are we do not yet know – The murder is daily expected to come out – & the packet is waiting for this state secret – to the very great annoyance of a poor Passenger who does not care one button about the business of the state, & has business of his own in England. – But you must not imagine that while the seat of war was only fourscore miles from Lisbon, no preparations were made in the Capital. true it is nobody knew what was going on in the armies. We were as ignorant here as you could be in England – but the Portuguese made ready for the worst & called upon their neverfailing allies – the whole army of Saints – The theatres were shut – processions made & Ladies of rank followed Nosso Senhor [6]  bare footed thro the streets. He was placed in the Cathedral by the High Altar with candles & soldiers round him, & then for days did the Devout kiss his heel, after touching it with each eye. He was to save the country, & as he did not make his appearance till it was well known what was doing at Badajoz – the infallible Image retains his credit, & is the Author of the Peace.

When the wise rulers of this country combined with other wise rulers in this wise war, they said they were going to be Pall-bearers at the funeral of France. they digged a pit – you know the text, [7]  & here is the comment. ridiculous as this burlesque war has been still its consequences will be serious to Portugal. her commerce will be clipped – & as the armies have trampled down the corn-country – the want of provisions in those inland parts where it cannot be conveyed will be dreadful. –

And there I left off – & we embarked – & here I am in the Bay of Biscay as deplorable an object as you can picture. Surely old Beelzebub must have a large navy manned by sea-sick souls – it were a braver punishment than any that ever Dante [8]  dreamt. its degrees & varieties of torture would be infinite, & the wicked might purify slighter crimes by a short cruise in the Flying Dutchman [9]  – or be frozen up in the North Seas in the Royal Satan. – I am vexed to see by your letter that Cottle sent you the quarto edition of Joan of Arc; [10]  which is as inferior to the later copy – as a distance of two years ought to make it. at the best it is faulty enough. but it was my intention that you should have the best. The Vision [11]  is very bad as to its composition, to use a painters phrase, tho well painted & in colors that will not fade. in dramatic or epic writing all visions are faulty. if they anticipate they do harm – if not – to what purpose are they there? the one in question in about one thousand lines does not carry on the action of the poem one minute, & it might have been extended to any length. I cannot think a mole would improve a womans face tho it had the colors of the rainbow or the peacocks tail. You have perhaps by this time seen Thalaba, who must now be about a month old; [12]  my next poetical employment it would be difficult to decide, as half a dozen unborn subjects are battling who shall enter the world first, & all of them are secondary objects to my great labour, the History of Portugal, on which I have expended much time & much money. this will be the work of years. [13] 

Dublin. 21. October 1801

Here Miss Barker is the half written sheet which has been lying in my desk, & travelling in my pocket book now nearly six months. I send it – to help my last in pleading pardon – & because it contains some Portugueze anecdotes. there is room enough in the sheet for memoirs of myself.

I came here in consequence of an invitation from Mr. Corry, to be his private Secretary. a good situation, & promising future fortune. I have been here just a week, & daily expect to return to England, – My way must be straight to Keswick for Edith, & thence to London. I hope & believe you will write me – something that shall be like a good natured look & a friendly shake by the hand. direct it Keswick – Cumberland. – & let me find it on my arrival.

Give me an introduction to Charlotte Smith [14]  – that is – send me her address & tell her I will call: I wish to see her for she is a favourite novelist with me, far above more popular names – & also by a very odd association the cause of my present situation. – I took in when a boy a periodical work with prints of ruins. there was a view of the ruins at Christ Church in Hampshire. those said ruins are introduced either in Celestina of the Old Manor House [15]  – I think in the latter. one summer [16]  I went to the sea, & for no earthly reason else but the remembrance of that print & that novel – chose Christ Church for my abode. & there made a friendship with the man who accompanied Mr. Abbot [17]  as Private Secretary here, & has been the means of employing me in the same capacity to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. [18]  – All this is foolish prattle – but it is odd & strictly true.

So God bless you.

Robert Southey


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 5-8
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 176–180 [dated Lisbon 1801 and 21 October 1801]. BACK

[1] Southey made two long excursions from Lisbon in March and April 1801, visiting central and southern Portugal; see Adolfo Cabral, Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 15-61. BACK

[2] The brief war between Spain and Portugal, known as ‘the War of the Oranges’. The only fighting was between 20 May and 6 June 1801 in the Portuguese province of Alentejo. BACK

[3] Joao Carlos de Braganca e Ligne de Sousa Tavares Mascarenhas de Silva, Duke of Lafoes (1719-1806), Secretary of State (prime minister) 6 January–21 May 1801, and commander of the Portuguese army sent to resist the Spanish invasion. BACK

[4] Luis Pinto de Sousa Coutinho, Viscount of Balsemao (1735-1804), Portuguese Secretary of State (prime minister) 1788-1801. He was dismissed on 6 January 1801, but remained in the ministry as Foreign Secretary until 21 May 1801 and returned as Secretary of State in 1803. He was the chief negotiator with Spain in 1801. BACK

[5] Portugal and Spain ended their brief conflict with the Treaty of Badajoz, signed on 6 June 1801. Portugal agreed to close its ports to British ships, pay Spain’s costs incurred in the war and cede the border town of Olivenca to Spain. BACK

[6] A statue representing Jesus as Our Lord of the Sufferings. BACK

[7] Psalms 57: 6, ‘they have digged a pit before me, into the midst whereof they are fallen themselves’. BACK

[8] Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), whose Divine Comedy (1308-1321) described the sufferings of the damned in Hell. BACK

[9] In legend a ghost ship that is doomed to sail the seas for eternity. BACK

[10] Joan of Arc (1796), rather than the second edition of 1798. BACK

[11] The ninth book of Joan of Arc (Bristol and London, 1796), pp. 308-363, described the eponymous heroine’s vision of the future. It was omitted from Joan of Arc (1798) and reworked as ‘The Vision of the Maid of Orleans’ in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), II, pp. [1]-69. BACK

[12] Thalaba the Destroyer was published in June 1801. BACK

[13] Southey’s life work, the ‘History of Portugal’, was never completed. BACK

[14] Charlotte Turner Smith (1749-1806; DNB), poet and novelist; author, among many other works, of Celestina (1791) and The Old Manor House (1793). BACK

[15] The ruins at Christchurch are described in Charlotte Smith, The Old Manor House, 4 vols (London, 1793), IV, pp. 202-205. BACK

[16] Southey lived at Burton, near Christchurch, in June-September 1797 and again in October-December 1799. BACK

[17] John Rickman was private secretary to Charles Abbot, Lord Colchester (1757–1829; DNB), who was the Chief Secretary for Ireland from July 1801 to January 1802, and then The Speaker 1802-1817. BACK

People mentioned

Corry, Isaac (1753–1813) (mentioned 2 times)
Cottle, Joseph (1770–1853) (mentioned 1 time)
Barker, Mary (c. 1780–1853) (mentioned 1 time)
Fricker, Edith (1774–1837) (mentioned 1 time)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)

Places mentioned

Keswick (mentioned 2 times)
Dublin (mentioned 1 time)
Burton (mentioned 1 time)