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

2197. Robert Southey to John May, 3 January 1813 ⁠* 

Keswick, Jan. 3. 1813.

My dear Friend,

Many happy new years to you, and may those which are to come prove more favourable to you in worldly concerns than those which are past! I have been somewhat unwell this Christmas; first with a cold, then with a sudden and unaccountable sickness, which, however, has not returned, and I now hope I have been physicked into tolerable order. The young ones are going on well: little Isabel thrives, your god-daughter is old enough to figure at a Christmas dance, and Herbert will very soon be perfect in the regular Greek verb. A Testament is to come for him in my next parcel, and we shall begin upon it as soon as it arrives. No child ever promised better, morally and intellectually. He is very quick of comprehension, retentive, observant, diligent, and as fond of a book and as impatient of idleness as I am. Would that I were as well satisfied with his bodily health; but in spite of activity and bodily hilarity, he is pale and puny: just that kind of child of whom old women would say that he is too clever to live. Old women’s notions are not often so well founded as this; and having this apprehension before my eyes, the uncertainty of human happiness never comes home to my heart so deeply as when I look at him. God’s will be done! I must sow the seed as carefully as if I were sure that the harvest would ripen. My two others are the most perfect contrast you ever saw. Bertha, whom I call Queen Henry the Eighth, from her likeness to King Bluebeard, [1]  grows like Jonah’s gourd, [2]  and is the very picture of robust health; and little Kate hardly seems to grow at all, though perfectly well, – she is round as a mushroom-button. Bertha, the bluff queen, is just as grave as Kate is garrulous; they are inseparable play-fellows, and go about the house hand in hand. Shall I never show you this little flock of mine? I have seen almost every one of my friends here except you, than whom none would be more joyfully welcomed.

I shall have two interesting chapters in this volume for 1811, upon Sicily and S. America. [3]  My Life of Nelson, [4]  by a miscalculation, which lies between Murray and the printer, [5]  will appear in two volumes instead of one, which will materially, beyond all doubt, injure the sale. Murray has most probably ordered a large impression, calculating upon its going off as a midshipman’s manual, which design is thus prevented. If, however, this impression can pass off, I shall have no fear of its answering his purpose when printed in a suitable form; for though the subject was not of my own choice, and might be reasonably thought to be out of my proper line, I have satisfied myself in the execution far more than I could have expected to do. The second sheet of the second volume is now before me. I have just finished the battle of Copenhagen, [6]  which makes an impressive narrative. Two chapters more will complete it, and I hope to send you the book by the beginning of March. My labour with it will be completed much before that time, probably in ten days or a fortnight; and then the time which it now occupies will be devoted to the indigesta moles of Mr. Walpole’s papers. [7]  I find the day too short for the employment which it brings; however, if I cannot always get through what is before me as soon as could be wished, in process of time I get through it all. My poem [8]  comes on well; about 2700 lines are written; the probable extent is 5000; but the last half is like going down hill, – the difficulty is over, and your progress accelerates itself. The poem is of a perfectly original character. What its success may be I cannot guess.

Yours, very affectionately,

Robert Southey.


Notes

* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850)
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 5–7. BACK

[1] Henry VIII (1491–1547; King of England 1509–1547; DNB), who had six wives (executing two of them) and who Southey likens to the legendary French wife-murderer, Bluebeard, created by Charles Perrault (1628–1703) in Histoires ou Contes du Temps Passé (1697). BACK

[2] i.e. grows rapidly, like the gourd in Jonah 4: 6. However, the biblical parallel was not one Southey chose to pursue too hard as Jonah’s gourd was short-lived, Jonah 4: 6–8. BACK

[3] Edinburgh Annual Register, for 1811, 4.1 (1813), 395–437. BACK

[4] The Life of Nelson (1813). Southey was wrong, the Life sold well and went into a second edition in 1814. BACK

[5] James Moyes (d. 1839), of Greville St, Hatton Garden, London. BACK

[6] Life of Nelson, 2 vols (London, 1813), II, pp. 90–153. BACK

[7] ‘Indigestible mass’. With May’s encouragement, Southey was considering writing a life of the diplomat Robert Walpole (1736–1810), Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal, 1771–1800. He did not do so. BACK

[8] Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

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August 2013