777. Robert Southey to John May, 1 May 1803

777. Robert Southey to John May, 1 May 1803 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Your with the bank-post bill of £40 for Danvers arrived safely & the money has been paid. the first part of your letter gave me great pleasure. what relates to Harry is every way unpleasant, – what William Taylor palliates as only an imprudence I feel to be a very serious & a very dangerous fault. Harry’s allowance is surely a sufficient one. my dress, including every article, costs me upon the average not more than £15 a year, set down 5 more for the indulgence of a pardonable pride of appearance – & Harry ought to be contented. he must after his washing & other little necessary expences be paid have a clear ten pounds for his yearly pleasures. xx his journey to Paris did not break in upon his allowance. Wm Taylor you know bore his expences there, conditioning that he should pay for his own journey, x & Harry said he had his unencumbered quarterly sum for that – but I gave him ten guineas for the occasion. The mischief is that prodigality is in his nature & in the nature of all my brothers. he must write to Lisbon now – the act of writing will give him some pain, & the very gentle reproof which he will receive from <in> my Uncles answer ought to give more <him> more – for he knows how my Uncle, who would else be an opulent xxx man, has been & is still kept needy by spendthrift connections. I will write to Wm Taylor. I do not like that substitution of honour for steady principle, which he is disposed to make. Harrys prospects are as good as he could wish if he did not mar them by his own folly. let him keep out of debt & about four years hence, he is almost secure of xxx xxxxx a good practise in Norwich & he will probably marry well – ambition will make him prudent the in that instance. he will do well in the world – but I have no expectation of his doing good in the world. he has great talents, but no genius. videri might be his motto. I should chuse esse to be mine. [1] 

I shall perhaps see you in the course of the summer. it was my design to go to London for the purpose of getting materials in the Museum [2]  for the first Chapter upon Monastic institutions – & the last upon the mixed Moorish period [3]  – this I had determined to delay, but an unpleasant complaint has been stealing upon me unawares, for which exercise is one of the main remedies, & I know no place where that so compels me to great exercise as London. the complaint is diabetes with a disposition in the kidneys to manufacture lime calculus matter, which I hope has been discovered in time to prevent the bladder from becoming a lime-kiln. soda is the peculiar medicine needful – aided by the red sulphat of iron, which is certainly the most powerful general tonic that has yet been discovered. I know <not> how I can take so much exercise with so little expence & so much little loss of time as by passing a fortnight with Rickman in London, & on resting myself for two hours at midday in the Museum.

I must have expressed myself <meaning> improperly in my last if you understood that I considered the present period, upon the general average of good & evil, as worse than older times. On the contrary it appears to me very far the best, as being the most enlightened. it is the best for the best men, virtues & talents which would have been blasted formerly can grow up & flourish now. what I meant to express was that the condition of the greater part of society – of the poor, is more uniformly miserable now than it ever has been in any former period, & that, in consequence xxxx of the inevitable effects of our commercial system. they were exposed to sudden calamities formerly from which we are now tolerably secure – war we have not at home – nor pestilence, nor actual famine. but when neither of these ravages <visitations> happened to be let loose the peasantry & labourers of England in old times enjoyed a degree of comfort & plenty which they now never can attain. their morals & their health were not poisoned by the soul-&-body-murdering plan of herding together in large & unwholesome manufactories. the aggregate of human wisdom & human virtue is greater now. but the aggregate of human misery is increased also. Upon my view of the moral government of the world, these progressive steps have all been needful – a state of innocence is necessarily insecure. the Tree of Knowledge [4]  must be tasted, & good & evil must be experienced before mankind can attain a state of wisdom.

In the gospel – in the express words of Christ I find the distinctions of rank & riches expressly forbidden to his disciples. [5]  & it is well known that the first Xtians understanding this as I understand it had among themselves a community of goods. Without this indeed Xtianity is but a palliative for human evils – not a remedy. indeed unless morals be grafted upon civil polity they can never generally flourish. this rule xxx the xxxxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxxx xxxx. now the institutions of society directly counteract the main precepts of Christ. he forbids rank & riches & worldly ambition – to renounce them is not merely difficult now – it is actually impossible – but either the way of the world or the way of the gospel must be wrong.


Is not the time past when they nominate the boys for Christ Hospital? [6] 

Your letter could not be answered by return of post because letters are not delivered here till after the post returns. our respects to Mrs May [7] 

God bless you –

Yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.

Sunday. May 1. 1803.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry/ Single
Postmarks: [partial] STOL/ MAY 1 1803; B/ MAY 2/ 1803, 10 o’Clock/ MY 1/ 1803F. N.n
Endorsement: No 78. 1803/ Robert Southey/ No place 1st May/ recd. 2d do/ ansd. 13th 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. 75-77. BACK

[1] ‘To seem might be his motto. I should chuse to be to be mine.’ BACK

[2] The British Museum, London, opened in 1759. BACK

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

[4] Genesis 2-3. Adam and Eve were forbidden to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge. When they did so they were banished from the Garden of Eden. BACK

[5] For instance, Mark 10: 21-25. BACK

[6] Famous public school, founded in 1552, which admitted some pupils free, or on much-reduced fees. Those entitled to nominate pupils included certain livery companies and the Guild of Freemen of the City of London. BACK

[7] Susanna Frances Livius (1767-1830). BACK

People mentioned

Taylor, William (1765–1836) (mentioned 3 times)
Hill, Herbert (c. 1749–1828) (mentioned 2 times)
Rickman, John (1771–1840) (mentioned 1 time)