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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 4: 1810-1815

2193. Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 30 December 1812 ⁠* 

My dear Tom,

I should know that midshipmans name if I saw it, & the name we must have – so I have written to Bedford to learn what mids of the Victory fell in that action. [1] 

You used to speak of the dead lying in shoal water at Copenhagen; [2]  there was the boatswains mate, or somebody, asked for, when he was lying face upward under the stern or somewhere, – tell me the right particulars of this, – which is too striking a circumstance to be lost. I believe I xxx {am} making a most impressive narrative of this battle by your help. Some thing I remembered from Quillian, [3]  something from Ponsonby [4]  – to whom I shall walk over, & read this chapter in hope of making getting some corrections & additions. And a Danes account printed in English gives me some fine things. [5] 

I am such a sad lubber that I feel half-ashamed of myself for being persuaded ever xx even to review the life of Nelson, much more to write one. [6]  Had I not been a thorough lubber I should have remembered half a hundred things, worthy of remembrance, which have all been lost because tho I xx xxxxx {indeed} know the binnacle from the xxx xxxxx xxx {main mast, I know little more.} xxx tackle & sheets, xxxx & tally & belay {are alike to me, & if you ask me about the lee-clue garnets, I can only tell that they are xxxxxx xxx not the same kind of garnets as are worn in necklaces & bracelets} They xx are all Aballeboogobanganorrobo [7]  to me & so fine facts have been lost because I did not know where to stow them in the ship, or in my recollection-closet up stairs. There is something ridiculous, & something like quackery in writing thus about what I so little understand. I walk among sea terms as a cat does in a china pantry, in bodily fear of doing mischief & betraying myself. And yet there will come a good book of it I verily believe!

I have touched your old tyrant Sir Thomas, gently, but upon the sore place; imputing no blame, but stating every circumstance which makes misconduct an (almost) unavoidable inference. [8] 

What was your loss? Tell me all about your guns, & what loss they occasioned. Were they not honey combed? Were you not saying when you pulled the triggers, here goes the death of six? – this is a thing which would be felt.

Did not Victor [9]  distinguish himself that day. I must not mention poor “Sir Hyde” as Joe [10]  was called for that days behaviour, for Sir Hyde had his merits. A jealous man, or a conceited one would not have let Nelson do anything, & I can perfectly well enter into Dometts feelings when he said Save what you can Sir H. [11] 

I do not rightly understand you about the spare spars. “Many would have been saved that were destroyed lying on the booms” you say. Do you refer to the mere value of the spars thus destroyed, – or to the damage also done by the splinters from these spars?

I am taking great pains with this chapter, & great interest in it. Your letter was of main use.

What a miserable thing is this loss of a second frigate to the Americans! [12]  Coleridge knew Decatur at Malta, & has often spoken of him in the highest terms. – It is a cruel stroke, & tho their frigates are larger ships than ours, must be felt as disgrace & in fact is disgrace. It looks as if there was a dry rot in our wooden walls. Is it that the Captain also is a youngster hoisted up by interest? or that the Americans were manned by Englishmen? or that our men do not fight heartily? or that their men are better than ours?

The paragraph about Coleridges tragedy is correct. It is the play which he wrote in 1797 & which Sheridan [13]  then rejected. I think it will succeed. [14] 

I have written to Sister Anne, [15]  earnestly enough, but probably to little effect.

Herbert has been reading the Pilgrims Progress, [16]  & {taking infinite delight in the letter, but} Sarah will think with no great improvement { edification from the spirit} when she learns {that} his favourite amusement at present is to what he calls “play Apollyon” [17]  with Bertha & Kate. He goes about the room or the passages, roaring towards them like a Lion seeking whom he may devour: [18]  & Kate & bluff Queen Henry, cry out don’t pollyon, don’t pollyon Herby! – Tho when he has done they ask him to pollyon again.

Supposing the action [19]  had not been suspended when it was were not you with the Russell & the Desiree in danger? The great Book [20]  here says that these three ships were not – but I think I remember otherwise from you.

Robertson [21]  & Bryan Edward [22]  I knew must be in the Newcastle Library, [23]  but it was better you should have them at hand, – the latter indeed you will want throughout the whole of your opus. I wish you had the Naval Chronicle, [24]  but it is too expensive to be bought, & whenever you meet with a volume it may soon be gutted of all that is to your purpose. I shall look out for books for you when I go to London: especially for Du Tertre. [25] 

God bless you


Many happy new years to you all!

Xxxx Dec 30. 1812. Keswick


* Address: To/ Capt Southey. R. N./ St. Helens/ Auckland
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: British Library, Add MS 30927
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 315–317. BACK

[1] Southey wished to know the names of the midshipmen who shot the French sailor who killed Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar (1805). In Southey’s final account they were Francis Edward Collingwood (1785–1836) and John Pollard (d. 1868). See The Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 264–265. BACK

[2] Tom was providing Southey with information about the battle of Copenhagen, 2 April 1801, in which he had fought. For the build up to the battle, the engagement and its aftermath, see Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 95–153. BACK

[3] John Quilliam (1771–1829), First Lieutenant on HMS Amazon and later on HMS Victory. BACK

[4] Lieutenant John Ponsonby (dates unknown), who was then living at Ormathwaite, near Keswick. BACK

[5] Andreas Andersen Feldborg (1782–1838), A Tour in Zealand, the Year 1802; with an Historical Sketch of the Battle of Copenhagen (1805). BACK

[6] Southey’s biography grew out of his review of a series of Nelsonian ‘lives’ in Quarterly Review, 3 (February 1810), 218–262. BACK

[7] A nonsense word much favoured by Southey; used as a ‘mystic word’ in ‘Interchapter II’ of The Doctor, 7 vols (London, 1834–1847), I, pp. 91–94. BACK

[8] Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson, 1st Baronet (1766–1828; DNB), Tom’s former commanding officer. During the battle of Copenhagen HMS Bellona, captained by Thompson, disobeyed orders and ‘kept too close on the starboard shoal, and grounded abreast of the outer ship of the enemy: this was the more vexatious, inasmuch as the wind was fair, the room ample, and three ships had led the way. The Russell, following the Bellona, grounded in like manner: both were within reach of shot; but their absence from their intended stations was severely felt’. Only Nelson’s prompt action stopped his own and other ships running aground and the battle being lost. See Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 118–119. Southey’s account ignored that fact that Thompson was wounded in the ensuing action and lost a leg. BACK

[9] Possibly a dog on board Tom Southey’s ship HMS Bellona. BACK

[10] Tom’s dog Joe had been on board the Bellona during the battle. He had perhaps been scared and hidden, hence Joe’s renaming after the British admiral Sir Hyde Parker (1739–1807; DNB) whose unwillingness to engage the enemy during the Copenhagen campaign led to the ruin of his reputation. BACK

[11] Sir William Domett (1752–1828; DNB), commander of HMS London during the Copenhagen action. Southey later changed his account of the battle because of some new information sent to him by Domett via Croker. This described how on Domett’s urging the fleet had entered the Baltic directly through the Sound rather than through the Great Belt, as Parker had originally decided. As a result the fleet was more effectively positioned for the battle. See, The Life of Nelson, 2nd edn, 2 vols (London, 1814), II, pp. 101–102; and Robert Southey to John May, 22 August 1814, Letter 2473. BACK

[12] On 25 October 1812 the USS United States, commanded by Stephen Decatur (1779–1820), had dismasted and captured HMS Macedonian, captained by John Surnam Carden (1771–1858). This followed the capture of HMS Mandarin on 11 October 1812. Although the United States was a large ship, Carden was heavily criticised for the loss of the Macedonian and never held an active command again. He remained in the navy and continued to rise through the ranks, reaching full Admiral before his death. BACK

[13] The playwright, theatre proprietor and politician Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816; DNB). He had rejected ‘Osorio’ (later retitled Remorse) in 1797. BACK

[14] Coleridge’s Remorse was staged at Drury Lane, London, 23 January-12 February 1813. This made it a moderate success. BACK

[15] ‘Sister Anne’ was an acquaintance who had converted to Catholicism. She might have been Tom Southey’s sister-in-law; see Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 24 December 1812, Letter 2192. BACK

[16] John Bunyan (1628–1688; DNB), The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678). BACK

[17] The ‘Destroyer’, an archdevil in Pilgrim’s Progress. BACK

[18] 1 Peter, 5: 8. BACK

[19] Incidents at the battle of Copenhagen, presumably after the Bellona and Russell ran aground. The Desiree did not run aground. BACK

[20] James Stanier Clarke (c. 1765–1834; DNB) and John McArthur (1755–1840; DNB), The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, K.B. from his Lordship’s Manuscripts (1809). BACK

[21] William Robertson’s (1721–1793; DNB), History of America (1777). Southey owned an edition of 1788, no. 2456 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[22] Bryan Edwards (1743–1800; DNB), The History, Civil and Commercial, of the British Colonies in the West Indies (1793). Southey possessed a later edition of 1807, no. 986 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[23] Probably a reference to the Thomlinson Library at St Nicholas Church, Newcastle. BACK

[24] The Naval Chronicle was an annual account of naval affairs. It had first appeared in 1759 and re-started in 1799. BACK

[25] The missionary and botanist Jean-Baptiste du Tertre (1610–1687), Histoire Generale des Antiles habitées par les François (1667). Southey later obtained a copy, no. 2828 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

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August 2013