850. Robert Southey to John May, 10 November 1803

850. Robert Southey to John May, 10 November 1803 ⁠* 

My dear friend

Your letter as you may well suppose has given me very great uneasiness. Among all his faults Harrys disingenuousness appears to me the worst. I could more readily have admitted or devised palliations for the rest. It grieves me that he has been thus turned to Edinburgh, tho after Mr Martineau [1]  refused to keep him I know not what else could have been done. But to the point of the money matters – add the sum you speak of to my debt – the burden belongs to me more fitly than to my Uncle, – & in fact it is the same thing for if I should want he would be ready did he know it to assist me. I am labouring assiduously to make Madoc [2]  fit for the press. my intention is to publish it by subscription that I may make as much by it as I can, & my object with those profits to discharge my debt to you, that is what of it is dischargeable, for the bond of deep & lasting obligation will remain, a thankful recollection of good offices, – unalterable esteem & affection. this intention I have just begun to make known to my friends. not meaning to announce it publicly till I have seen what private success I may meet with. It was at the age of fourteen that the design of this poem was conceived – at that <time> Wynn was made acquainted with it & from that time it has never been out of my mind. There is to me a sort of awefulness in compleating it – I feel as tho discharging one of the purposes of my existence, & have a sort of presage that I shall live to set forth that & my History [3]  & that then my work will be done. I would fain leave those fair testimonies behind me, proofs of what I could have done under more favourable circumstances, for my chief labours will have been obscure task work, things written without choice, without pleasure, without hope – from the mere motive of the from-hand-to-mouth profits which poor as they are are more than could be obtained by the best & voluntary efforts of a healthy intellect.

What you say of your own affairs grieves me deeply. [4]  I have no consolation to offer. perhaps the evil may be averted – God grant it! yet at the worst you are a man prepared for the change, & a mind of Xtian fortitude extracts not only consolation but even a kind of joy from endurance. Your relatives too have the means & the will to set your fortunes once more afloat should they now be wrecked. To me however it appears very improbable that even if Portugal be forced into a war with England [5]  she would commit an act of such villainy so to terminate xx an alliance so faithfully preserved for so many generations. Our Government too must be very remiss if they suffer such a confiscation to take place. Lisbon is not the defenceable city it was in 1384, [6]  nor are its batteries such as would now intimidate an English fleet. If the property of the English merchants be not regularly embarked, a few ships of the line would prove excellent negociators.

I continue in tolerable health. my eyes have been a sore grievance to me & a very serious evil. from the expence of time they have occasioned. at present they are better – yet they still prevent me from that continual employment to which I have been accustomed. my mornings are still at Reviewing, the least interesting of all employments but the most profitable. when this is cleared off I must look out for some fresh job. my evenings are at history or Madoc. as I feel the wind blow & both advance well. but I shall soon be distressed for the Castenheda. [7]  having only the first book like yourself. the enormous price of the old copy put it quite of my reach. indeed this unhappy broil with Portugal will sadly affect my history. my Uncle was perpetually on the look out for materials – & now I shall have no other resource than to beg favours of great men, & examine books uncomfortably in their libraries which would have made me quite happy by my own fire side.

Coleridge is in a miserable state of health. he has a sort of anomalous gout which damp weather never fails to put in action, & which flies all over him, sometimes puffing up his hand or feet or knee – then back into the stomach or head. it does not emaciate him, yet the attacks are so sudden, & so often accompanied by violent diarrhæa that they are very alarming. he himself is convinced that a warm climate would be his only cure & all the medical friends whom he has consulted are of the same opinion. indeed he is as much affected by weather as a barometer.

Edith is in feeble health. our low spirits we both keep to ourselves, perhaps thinking the more because we never mention the subject. we beg our remembrances to Mrs May. [8] 

God bless you.

yrs very affectionately

Robert Southey.

Thursday. Nov. 10. 1803.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond/ Surry/ Single
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: E/ NOV 14/ 1803; 10o’Clock/ NO 14/ 1803 F.N.n
Watermark: JM & Co/ 1800
Endorsement: 86 1803/ Robert Southey/ No place 10th Nov/ recd. 14th do/ ansd. 21st 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. 81-83. BACK

[1] Philip Meadows Martineau (1752-1829), surgeon at the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital and a member of the Martineau family, prominent Unitarians in Norwich. Henry Herbert Southey entered the University of Edinburgh in November 1803. BACK

[2] Southey completed a version of Madoc in 1797-1799 and was revising it for publication. It did not appear until 1805. BACK

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

[4] John May’s business was in serious financial difficulties because of unpaid debts. BACK

[5] Portugal and Britain did not go to war and Portugal retained a precarious neutrality until 1807. BACK

[6] In 1384 Lisbon was unsuccessfully besieged by a Castilian army. BACK

[7] Fernao Lopes de Castanheda (c. 1500-1559), Historia do Descobrimento, e Conquista da India pelos Portuguezas (1554). Southey owned two volumes of a 1797 eight-volume edition, no. 3187 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

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

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