773. Robert Southey to John May, 19 April 1803

773. Robert Southey to John May, 19 April 1803 ⁠* 

My dear friend

I need not say that your last letter gave me great pain, but it was less than what I apprehended from your long silence & your mourning wafer. [1]  the black wafer had made me so fully believe the worst, that the intelligence of your other losses, heavy as they are, came like a light evil. I hope however you will yet recover more than you seemed to expect.

You say you shall think as badly of mankind as I do. I am heartily grieved that the opinion should be purchased so heavily. I would rather you thought as well of men in their posse than as badly in their esse, [2]  in their actual state. a system of emulation, of struggling & scrambling necessarily makes them bad. Some years & some observation have modified many of my opinions, but every thing that I have observed in the history of man & in the nature of the mind of man, has tended to confirm & establish the belief that the inequalities of property are now the cause of moral evil & human misery. I say now, for they were necessary parts of the process. I conceive this to be the doctrine of Christ, when he so explicitly forbids the existence of power or riches among his disciples. at present, the institutions of society are perpetually counteracting the precepts of religion, for selfishness & acquisition make the basis of the commercial system. the Mosaic dispensation approaches Xtianity in this political system, as it does in every thing else, by its year of jubilee, & agrarian division. [3] 

To teach such a system which would best secure the happiness & virtue of man appears to me a worthy part of revelation. & without such a system revelation can do comparatively little. the quantum of wickedness in London is probably not less than that of Rome under Augustus, [4]  & the quantum of misery is certainly greater, for poverty in the true sense of the word, actual physical want, is an evil of modern growth, unknown under the ancient for regime of domestic slavery, unknown in the feudal times, the effect of the commercial system, beginning with that system & increasing with it. The first Xtians understood the gospel as I understand it, & half a score sects have grown out of parts of it. but any system will be spoiled if parts only be taken. the loss of one wheel deranges a watch.

I heard lately from Lisbon, but my Uncle mentioned nothing of his legacy nor of his increased salary – the letter was too full of his English business. perhaps that increase, if it be any thing considerable, may fix him at Lisbon, a circumstance which would give me great pleasure, for my heart is fixed upon Portugal, & I look forward with something of the same hope towards my next voyage – as I used to the holydays when a school boy. By the winter of next year my history [5]  will be, I trust, so forward as to give me a fair cause for crossing the Bay. I shall work the harder with that hope. the occupations which keep me from history are quite irksome & laborious. Yesterday I sent off the conclusion of Amadis. [6]  I have done a world of reviewing, & have now a Collection of all the Living Italian Poets [7]  to go thro for the same purpose. but then I shall take breath & go on like old Christian when his bundle fell from his back. [8] 

If you have forty pounds of my Uncles will you have the goodness to send it to me, payable to Mr Charles Danvers. it is due to him for freight & duties from Lisbon, & for money which Miss Tyler obtained thro my poor Mother. x my Uncle thought there was 100£ in poor Thomas’s hands, as Thomas told me when last I saw him. he desired me to pay Danvers with it & keep the remainder. but on enquiry it seems Thomas had advanced money to Miss Tyler, & some she has had from the Executors since – so that only £14. remains of the whole hundred. with all this I have acquainted my Uncle & likewise told him that if you have 40£ I should apply for it to pay Danvers.

The old Lady whom I mentioned in my last was the mother of Danvers, & died as we expected. She was a most excellent woman, & her death is a serious loss to us. we were near neighbours – only three doors asunder – I saw her daily, & had for many years regarded her & been by her regarded with something like family affection.

I had nearly forgotten to thank you & Burn [9]  & Capt Markham [10]  for my brothers appointment to the Galatea Frigate. [11]  if it be war he is in a fair way of making money – but God grant it may be Peace!

Margaret is growing a very fine little girl. her mother still suckles her. we are all well. your next I hope will bring me as good an account of your family [MS torn] I hope – a fairer prospect of retrieving the very heavy losses which you have sustained from the dishonesty of others.

God bless you.

Yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.

Tuesday. Apr. 19. 1803


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: [partial] TO
Postmarks: B/ APR 20/ 1803; 10 o’Clock/AP 20/ 1803 [illegible]
Endorsement: No 77 1803/ Robert Southey/ No place 19th April/ recd. 20th do/ ansd. 28th do
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 73-75. BACK

[1] John May’s second son, Richard, had died on 21 February 1803, aged ten days. His wife, Susanna Frances Livius (1767-1830), recovered from the birth. In addition, May was suffering financial troubles due to unpaid debts. BACK

[2] i.e. ‘In their potential rather than as badly as in their actuality’. BACK

[3] Leviticus 25. The Year of Jubilee occurred every 49 or 50 years. In that year all property was to be returned to its original owners and indentured servants manumitted. Numbers 26: 53-56 and 33: 54 told how the land of Israel was divided by lot among the twelve tribes, depending on the number of families in each tribe. BACK

[4] Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus (63 BC-AD 14; Emperor of Rome 30 BC-AD 14). BACK

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

[6] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

[7] Possibly G.B. Cassano (fl. 1802), Il Fiore della Poesia Italiana (1802), which Southey reviewed in Annual Review for 1803, 2 (1804), 562-563. BACK

[8] John Bunyan (1628-1688; DNB), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678-1684). Christian’s burden is sin and when he reaches the ‘place of deliverance’ (Calvary), it rolls away into the tomb left empty by Jesus’ resurrection. BACK

[9] William Burn (dates unknown), a member of the English Factory, Lisbon. BACK

[10] John Markham (1761-1827; DNB), naval officer; served on the Board of Admiralty 1801-1804 and 1806-1807; MP for Portsmouth 1801-1818 and 1820-1826. BACK

[11] HMS Galatea, a 32-gun Royal Navy frigate, bound for the West Indies. BACK

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