663b. Robert Southey to John King, 16 March 1802 [translation] 

663b. Robert Southey to John King, 16 March 1802 [translation]⁠* 

My friend

It is not easy for a man who does not know how to speak or write in French, to write a letter in this language without a grammar or dictionary. Oh well! he will take time to learn. and if you want to be irritated by reading letters of the greatest barbarity, here is your correspondent – you know I do not like the French language. it does not have the softness of Italian, nor the delicacy of Portuguese, nor the majesty of Spanish. French poetry is to my taste detestable – for an epigram, for a song, it is good enough. for an epic – for tragedy – holy God! what harmony. what a frightfully strange mouth is needed to pronounce it. A man of genius such as Voltaire – or the even greater Rousseau, will overcome the language. in fact in order to produce good work, a good worker is more valuable than good instruments.

You know of the arrangement that I have made with Messrs Longman & Rees for the works of Chatterton. my friend Rickman has drawn a view of the Church of St. Mary Redclift [1]  for the frontispiece – it will be a beautiful engraving. but another will be required for the other volume, and Mr Duppa a knowledgeable artist, (perhaps you will have heard of the heads adapted from Michelangelo’s Last Judgment that he has published?) [2]  has suggested to me that the best subject would be the view of the interior of the apartment in which the collection of supposed manuscripts was deposited. I make so bold as to beg you to make the drawing [3]  – there is no need for me to excuse myself from soliciting humbly an act that can be called charitable. I think the antique chamber – and the old chest would also make a sufficiently pretty and very appropriate illustration.

The climate of my homeland is so execrable that today, in the spring, my hand shivers so much with the cold, notwithstanding I am so close to the fire that my legs are well roasted.

Believe me my friend that I <have formed> with the greatest and truest satisfaction, the hope that I will have you for my companion during my exile in Ireland. To live in a wild land – amongst the most strange and barbarous people, without a single friend – this prospect of the future was very terrible – Even curiosity will not last long without a companion. I have considered a tour of Killarney. and to the North to see the famous rocks of the Giants, [4]  on which journey Rickman has promised to be my associate. I will not be sorry if I am able to exchange him as a traveller for you. The mountains and waterfalls of Wicklow will not be equal to those of your sublime land, nor the Fortunate Isles [5]  that you have visited. But I believe it will be worthy of your paintbrush.

Unfortunately for the science of Galvani S. Patric did not leave one of these [6]  – oh I am stupidly ignorant of this beast – what are they called? your friends – the little animals so slender and cold-blooded <by nature> of which you have murdered so many thousands with your scientific cold-bloodedness? all the venom of the island since that <time> has passed into the human inhabitants. If you had one of these people –in your laboratory, you could only analyse his potatoes and his whiskey, these are their primary constituents – Coleridge has suggested that they are a truly antediluvian race, whose ancestors did not want to enter the Ark with Noah, [7]  but escaped in a small boat, that landed on Mount Tauré! [8]  as for me I have another theory more favourable to the nation’s vanity. I believe that they are from a much nobler origin than the other peoples of the world, because – all the others are from the loins of Noah. – by Jove [9]  it is worth nothing in this execrable language – because – I mean because other people spring from the loins of Noah, & they from the Sirloins of Pasiphae’s lover. [10]  there is a very aristocratic descent.

The final treaty [11]  is expected every day, every hour I can say. a friend [12]  who has needlessly been waiting some weeks for a passport to France, has this morning received intelligence from the Immigration Office that he will be able to go in a few days without restrictions.

Have you read Schiller’s tragedy about Joan of Arc?  [13]  They say that La Pucelle a witch is in love with an English officer – ! Mr Cottle the great Poet – who first blew the epic trumpet, and since the Jewish trumpet [14]  – at present is printing in his own press a new poem on a subject which is not so new, & has already been treated – it is a sermon <in verse> preached by John the Baptist [15]  – it will be a desirable study when you are not able to sleep, because it is really soporific, & it is the most agreeable way to take one’s medicine by the eyes than [MS obscured] the mouth.

I am hoping in a little while to write passably in French – this was written without effort, with the same disregard of the laws of grammar that the first Consul [16]  has demonstrated for all the other laws –

I have the honour to be – that is to say I am truly

& with regard

your friend

Robert Southey.

Here I have received a letter from our good friend Danvers – to which I will reply the day after tomorrow.


* Address: To/ Mr King./ Pneumatic Institution/ Bristol – Hot-Wells
Stamped: BATH
Seal: [partial, illegible]
Endorsement: March 16 1802; The right hons Isaac Corry &c &c &c/ Gt George St Westminster
MS: British Library, Add MS 47891. ALS; 4p. The French version (original) is to be found in Letter 663a
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 186-189 [in French only]. BACK

[1] Despite Southey’s praise, this drawing was not used in The Works of Thomas Chatterton (1803), edited by Southey and Joseph Cottle. BACK

[2] Richard Duppa, A Selection of Twelve Heads from the Last Judgement of Michael Angelo (1801). BACK

[3] John King’s drawing was used for the engraving opposite the title page of The Works of Thomas Chatterton, 3 vols (London, 1803), II, unpaginated. It was entitled ‘Interior of the Room in Redcliff Church where Rowleys Manuscripts were Said to have been Deposited’. BACK

[4] i.e. the Giants Causeway in County Antrim. BACK

[5] The Canary Islands. BACK

[6] Luigi Galvani (1737-1798), Italian doctor and physicist, had conducted experiments on frogs and shown the link between electricity and muscular activity. In legend, St Patrick (5th century) had cleared Ireland of snakes. BACK

[7] The story of Noah and the Ark is told in Genesis 6-9. BACK

[8] A pun that links the origins of the Irish to bulls, as Taurus was a bull in Greek legend. BACK

[9] The chief of the gods in Roman mythology. BACK

[10] Another story linking the Irish to bulls. Pasiphae was the wife of Minos, King of Crete. She fell in love with a white bull and their child was the Minotaur. BACK

[11] The Treaty of Amiens, between Britain and France, was signed on 25 March 1802. BACK

[12] William Taylor. BACK

[13] Friedrich Schiller (1759-1805), Die Jungfrau von Orleans (1801). BACK

[14] Joseph Cottle, Alfred, an Epic Poem, in Twenty Four Books (1800) and A New Version of the Psalms of David (1801). BACK

[15] Joseph Cottle, John the Baptist: a Poem (1802). An earlier version had appeared in Cottle’s Poems (1795). BACK

[16] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, First Consul 1799-1804, Emperor of the French 1804-1814). BACK

People mentioned