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

2383. Robert Southey to John King, 27 February 1814 ⁠* 

Keswick, Feb. 27. 1814.

My dear King

You once asked me for a passage in Herrera, [1]  which is not to be found in that author. at least I did not find it there when I read the whole work carefully thro. If however I remember rightly, I sent you xxxx xxx xxxxx xxxxxx an extract to the same purport from the letters of Amerigo Vespucci: [2]  & this morning I have found the matter more fully stated & confirmed by much better authority. The Portugueze {Academy} have just published (for the first time) some observations upon the natural history of Brazil by Anchieta: [3]  & the nineteenth section is as follows.

Est alius vermiculus Scolopendrae fere similis, pilis totus obsitus, deformis visu, cujus varia sunt genera; colore se differunt, et nomine; eadem forma omnibus.x  [4]  Horum alii si corpus tangant, magnum inferunt dolorem, qui multis horis perseverat; aliorum vero (qui oblongi sunt et nigri rubro capite) pili venenosi sunt, et ad libidinem incendunt: quos solent Indi genitalibus imponere, quæ in vehementem excitantur libidinis ardorem, intument et post triduum computrescunt; unde sæpe fit, ut præputium multifariam perforetur, aliquando etiam ipsa virilia corruptionem contrapant insanabilem, nec se solum ea morbi fœditate deturpant, sed et ipsas etiam fœminas, quibus se immiscuerint, conspurcant et inficiunt. [5]  [6] 

The notes are by Diogo de Toledo Lara Ordoñez, a correspondent of the Academy who communicated the original paper from Brazil.

There are one or two other things in this little treatise which (as I am writing) may be worth mentioning. Anchieta says that a person who has once recovered from the bite of a dangerous serpent is in xxx {no} danger, & suffers much less pain if bitten a second time. [7]  This seems to corroborate what Thunberg says, – which you will find in the Omniana. Vol. 2d. – p. 261–2. [8] 

His commentator affirms that in one part of Brazil the inhabitants were {are} fully convinced that they had {a} certain cure for the bite of a serpent, – if th it could be applied . As soon as the patient was {is} bitten, another person, having his mouth half full of tobacco, was {is} to suck the wound with great force, spitting repeatedly during the operation: this was to be continued for a considerable time – & then the tobacco to be laid upon the orifice. [9] 

The same commentator says that the reason why Parrots so very rarely procreate in captivity (for the fact is equally rare in all climates) is that it is their habit to couple while in the act of flying. [10] 

I send you these facts with a safe conscience, as neither dog, cat, frog nor any other unhappy subjects of experimental philosophy can possibly be the worse for them.

x Some of the hairy caterpillars in England are said to sting the hand if they are touched, like nettles. I have handled all sorts that ever came in my way & never found this to be the case: & my skin is neither hardenend by labour, nor inirritable by nature. But it may very possibly be unsusceptible of their particular irritation, just as some constitutions are not liable to certain diseases – Why negroes suffer so dreadfully from the small pox is I believe accounted for. – but has it ever been discovered why they {are} entirely free from the yellow fever?

If you & I were neighbours once more (which I sincerely wh wish we were) you would often be amused at my physical speculations; – X here, like all my other speculations, they ‘waste their sweetness on the desert air’ [11] except when {unless} in some idle Omnianaish hour I commit them to paper {writing}!; x then they find their way into a little desk appropriated for the reception of xxxxx stray papers: & there they contract sweetness from a bottle of Ottar of Rose, which my brother Tom bought of a Jew at Tetuan, & which serves no other purpose than to sweeten perfume them for the printer. With him at least my xxxxxxxx works are in good odour.

In the course of the summer I shall have something to send you. Roderick [12]  is in the press – & I have corrected nine sheets; every proof spurring me on towards the completion of it. Without this spur it would probably remain much longer unfinished; – for occupations multiply upon me, & I have none of that feeling which makes a young poet impatient to appear before the world & receive the reward of his labours. You will be pleased with this poem: it is deep tragedy throughout, but that kind of tragedy which elevates the mind instead of destroying it. I am thinking already what to beg[MS torn] next, – for tho my motions in poetry are slow now become slow as a tortoise, nevertheless I should not be happy xx unless some long one [MS torn] in hand. I hesitate between four. 1. a New-England historical subject with an ideal Quaker hero by name Oliver Goffe, son of one of K Charles judges, & godson of Oliver Cromwell: – a rhymed poem, pitched in Spensers key, but with dramatic & lyric parts. [13]  2dly Robin Hood: to which the chief objection is that I should be accused of imitating Scotts manner – tho the story was planned, & one or two detached sketches written, before Scott was heard of. [14]  3 a Persia romance founded upon the Zendavesta, [15]  & 4th a Runic romance, – but this last has the least chance, as I should chuse to read the Sagas first, & have a language to learn.

Let me say a word or two to Danvers before I conclude. From the lists of books which he has sent me I shall be glad to have Knox’s history of the reformation in Scotland. [16]  And about the money, whatever balance may be in his hands, Eliza will have a use for, when she removes to Wells, which she will do in May. I thought I was in his debt for some books from Gutch & a few other commissions, & xxxxx that the xxxx xxxxx xxxx from George & information about that xxxxxx xxxxx xxxx & had not xxxxxx perhaps I had not got other items.

Our winter has been rigorous, but less uncomfortable than yours, for we have had less snow. We have had xx ailments of late, which seem now to be passing away. I wish you could see my live stock. Edith is my Long daughter, & Bertha is my Slim daughter, & Katharine is my Round Daughter, & Isabel is my Square daughter, & as for Herbert I add (& Bertha & Kate repeat it after {me} with no small triumph) – he is no daughter at all. If Buonaparte be killed (& I pray to God that the war may continue till he is) I shall probably some years hence take them to the continent & domesticate there for some years, – as the easiest & cheapest mode of education.

God bless you



* Address: To/ John King Esqre/ Mall/ Clifton/ Bristol
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: British Library, Add MS 47891
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), II, pp. 343–346. BACK

[1] The Spanish chronicler Antonio de Herrera y Tordesillas (1559–1625). King’s letter has not survived, so it is not possible to identify the passage he requested. BACK

[2] Amerigo Vespucci (1454–1512), explorer who made three or four voyages to the east coast of South America at the start of the sixteenth century. BACK

[3] José de Anchieta (1534–1597), Jesuit missionary, whose interests extended to natural history. The ‘notes’ on Anchieta’s Epistola Quamplurimarum Rerum Naturalium (1560) were produced by Diogo de Toledo Lara Ordoñez (fl. 1780s–1810s) in Collecção de Noticias para a História e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas (1812–1813). For Southey’s copy, see no. 3273 in the sale catalogue of his library. BACK

[4] x Larvæ sunt Papilionum, species omnes, quarum pili inferunt dolorem, nomen obtinent Brasilicum Tataurana id est tanquam ignis urens. [Southey’s note, from Collecçaõ de Noticias para a Historia e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas que vivem nos Dominios Portuguezes, 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812–1813), I, no. III, p. 172; it translates ‘The larva are of butterflies, all species, whose hairs bring pain. They are called Tataurana Brasilicum, that is like the burning of fire’.] BACK

[5] Collecçaõ de Noticias para a Historia e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas que vivem nos Dominios Portuguezes, 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812–1813), I, no. III, p. 147: ‘There is another larva of the centipede which is almost the same, totally covered with hairs, horrible in appearance, of various types: they differ in colour and name but they all have the same form. Some of them, if they touch their bodies, give you great pain which lasts for a number of hours; but the hairs of others (which are rectangular and black with a red head) are poisonous and arouse lust. These the Indians are accustomed to place on their genitals, which are then aroused to great heights of lust, they grow and after three days they rot away completely; so that it often happens that as the foreskin is perforated in many places, sometimes also their sexual organs suffer incurable disease, so that not only do they disfigure themselves with the deformity of illness but they also infect and sexually defile the women with whom they consort’. BACK

[6] ‡ Si verum est hæc ulcera insanabilia fieri et contagiosa, Lue quoque venerea ægrotus laborare conjectari potest? [Southey’s note, from Collecçaõ de Noticias para a Historia e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas que vivem nos Dominios Portuguezes, 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812–1813), I, no. III, p. 172; it translates ‘If it is true that these ulcers are incurable and contagious, is it possible to infer that the affliction works like a veneral disease?’] BACK

[7] Coleção de Noticias para a História e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812), I, no. III, p. 144. BACK

[8] Southey and Coleridge, Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, 2 vols (London, 1812), II, pp. 261–262; citing the Swedish botanist, physician and disciple of Linnaeus, Carl Peter Thunberg (1743–1828), Travels in Europe, Africa, and Asia, 1770–79, 4 vols (London, 1795), II, p. 163, no. 2812 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. Thunberg related that natives of South Africa made themselves immune to poison by encouraging venomous reptiles and insects to bite them with gradually increasing severity. BACK

[9] Coleção de Noticias para a História e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812), I, no. III, p. 130. BACK

[10] Coleção de Noticias para a História e Geografia das Nações Ultramarinas 2 vols (Lisbon, 1812), I, no. III, p. 175. BACK

[11] Thomas Gray (1716–1771; DNB), ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’ (1751), stanza 14, line 4. BACK

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

[13] ‘Oliver Newman’, left incomplete at his death. In Southey’s poem, Newman was the godson of Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658; DNB) and the son of William Goffe (d. 1679?; DNB), Puritan, regicide and major general, who fled to New England in 1660 after he was excluded from the Act of Indemnity after the Restoration. BACK

[14] Southey eventually collaborated with Caroline Bowles on a romance on the legendary outlaw. It was left unfinished at his death, and a fragment published posthumously in 1847. BACK

[15] The sacred text of Zoroastrianism. Neither this nor the Runic poem were written. BACK

[16] An unknown edition of the religious reformer John Knox’s (c. 1514–1572; DNB) History of the Reformation in Scotland (1559–1566). BACK

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August 2013