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

2460. Robert Southey to John May, 15 July 1814 ⁠* 

Keswick. 15 July. 1814.

My dear friend

This evening I have received yours of the 12th with its inclosure of £50. which sum with the preceding one shall be replaced as soon as I receive what will be due to me when the second edition of the Life of Nelson is published. [1] 

I will give fresh directions about the Bust. [2]  The delay must have been owing to Bedford who had the management of the business, – but has lately lost his father, & is himself at present laid up. In the course of a day or two I shall write to Harry, & will desire him to look to it. [3] 

Yesterday I had the satisfaction of compleating my poem, – which was begun 2 Dec. 1809. [4]  It has extended to 7000 lines. Most probably I shall never write another poem so long, – perhaps never another so good. The length, among the present race of readers will be an objection to it. I have not however thought of them, nor of any thing but of making the work as good as I can make it. It is called a Tragic poem, that in order that passion rather than action may be expected from it, – & it has this character peculiar to it, that tho the story is deeply tragical, it is nowhere painful: for the characters with whom you sympathize are in a state either of enthusiasm, or piety, or moral heroism which renders them more the objects of admiration than of pity. It is not unlikely that the reestablished Inquisition [5]  may do me the honour of inserting the title of this poem in the next edition of the Index Expurgatorius, [6]  – for instead of impxx exaggerating facts into miracles, after the ordinary course of poets, I have by a better chemistry extracted something like truth from miraculous legends. Mr Walpoles [7]  papers now take their turn, & the Memoir which I take now in hand immediately, will be the first next thing which I shall compleat. I neither know who engraved the head of Nelson, [8]  nor what the expence was, but will learn both from Murray.

You ask me about Norway. [9]  I look upon the interest which has been excited in this country concerning it as originating in mere faction. The case is exactly as if when Scotland & England were seperate king monarchies, the one had ceded to another a portion of its border territory as the price of peace at the end of an unsuccesful war. In the state of our relations with Denmark, & of Denmarks obstinate adherence to Buonaparte, England & her allies would have been clearly justified, if they had deprived Denmark of its existence as a Kingdom. A cession like that of Norway is unjust if, as in the memorable instance of the Seven Reductions in Paraguay, [10]  the inhabitants are to be turned out of their own country; – if they are ceded to a state which professes a different & intolerant religion, – or if their situation is made by it {in any way} manifestly worse. In the present instance Denmark has a clear right to make the cession, & the Norwegians are not injured by it. I look upon the resistance as a manœuvre of the Danish court. [11]  Laws, manners, language, religion differ little in the two countries, what advantage there is of civil institutions is on the side of Sweden; & if you lay the map before a person who does not know to which power Norway belongs, – he would from geographical fitness certainly assign it to Sweden. – Denmark (which also receives equivalent territory & restitutions in exchange) has not been half punished. [12]  She has acted a wicked part, – witness Romanas army, & witness Hamburgh. [13] 

In this new Quarterly I have an account of the Nicobar Islands, [14]  & a review of Montgomerys poem, [15]  which I understand has been very much mutilated, & it will not surprize me if I should find it altered in other respects. Indeed if I had not expressed some degree of resentment upon the subject it would have been excluded. [16]  It is my sincere wish to withdraw from all employments of this kind: but at present it is impossible; I may calculate fairly that by devoting this last six months as I have done, almost exclusively, to the completion of Roderick, I have incurred a loss of not less than £200, which the same labour bestowed upon any temporary occupations would have produced more than the poem will do. This however is a sacrifice which I am far from regretting, – for I owed it to myself.

God bless you. Remember us to Mrs May, & believe me ever most affectionately yours

Robert Southey

I am about to address a letter to Coleridge upon the state of his family, – the purport of which is, that unless I obtain a satisfactory reply to it by the beginning of next month, I must be compelled to consider him as having left them to take their chance in the world; & regarding him as if he were no longer in existence, or no longer a moral agent, take measures accordingly for providing for the children. If, as I expect, my letter be not answered, I shall write to you at length upon the subject.

– I shall send a small parcel to Harry in a few days, & will inclose in it your brothers journal, which has afforded me much amusement, some information, & some hope for Brazil. [17] 


* Address: To/ John May Esqre/ Richmond/ Surry
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: E/ 18JY18/ 1814; 10o’Clock/ JY18/ 1814F.N.n
Endorsement: No. 174 1814/ Robert Southey/ Keswick 15th July./recd. 18th do/ ansd 26th August
Watermark: J Dickinson & Co/ 1811
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 133–134. BACK

[1] The second edition of the Life of Nelson was published by John Murray in 1814. BACK

[2] Southey had sat for a bust in October 1813 by James Smith (1775–1815). In 1814 Henry Colburn had asked to borrow a portrait of Southey, in order to produce an engraving for the New Monthly Magazine. Not entirely satisfied with Southey’s response, he borrowed the bust and ‘got someone to attempt the impossible task of making a portrait from it, which he engraved as an original picture: - a miserable looking wretch it is – something in physiognomy between assassin & hangman’. The offending engraving, accompanied by a ‘long Memoir’, appeared in the New Monthly Magazine, 1 (January-July 1814), Frontispiece; 566–571. See also Southey to Henry Colburn, 5 June 1814, Letter 2434. BACK

[3] If Southey did write to his brother, this letter appears not to have survived. BACK

[4] Roderick, the Last of the Goths. A Tragic Poem (1814). BACK

[5] In 1814 the Spanish Inquisition had been re-established by Ferdinand VII (1784–1833; King of Spain 1808, 1813–1833). It was permanently abolished in 1834. BACK

[6] The Index of books prohibited by the Catholic Church, maintained 1559–1966. BACK

[7] Robert Walpole (1736–1810), Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to Portugal, 1771–1800. Southey had promised to write his biography, but never did so. BACK

[8] The preliminary pages of the first volume of Southey’s Life of Nelson (1813) contained an engraving by an unnamed artist. Its source was an 1800 pencil portrait of Nelson by Simon de Koster (1767–1831). BACK

[9] Demark had been allied to France since 1807, but by late 1813 was isolated and bankrupt. Consequently, on 14 January 1814, the Danes signed the Treaty of Kiel with Britain and Sweden. Most importantly, it ceded Norway, which had been under Danish rule, to Sweden. The Norwegians responded with a declaration of independence in May 1814, but Swedish troops were poised to invade the country, crossing the Norwegian border on 29 July 1814. Eventually, the Norwegians agreed to union with Sweden. BACK

[10] The Treaty of Madrid (1750) settled the boundary between Portuguese and Spanish possessions in South America. Seven Reductions, or settlements, founded by Spanish Jesuits, east of the Rio Uruguay were transferred to Portuguese territory and the population was forced to relocate west of the river. Their resistance to this plan was crushed in a short campaign by Spanish and Portuguese troops in 1756, called the Guarani War, or War of the Seven Reductions. BACK

[11] The Norwegian independence movement was formally headed by Prince Christian Frederik (1786–1848), the representative of the Danish monarchy in Sweden, but also the heir presumptive to the Danish throne, to which he later succeeded as Christian VIII (1839–1848). This led to accusations that the whole movement was merely an attempt to maintain Denmark’s hold on Norway. BACK

[12] The Treaty of Kiel (1814) promised that Denmark would be compensated for the loss of Norway at the general peace following the final defeat of Napoleon. BACK

[13] Pedro Caro, 3rd Marquis of la Romana (1761–1811), was commander of the ‘Division of the North’, an Army which Napoleon had compelled the Spanish government to contribute to his wars in north Germany. The Division was stationed in Denmark when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808. A majority of the troops managed to escape to Spain on British ships, but the rest were interned in Denmark. The Danes continued to co-operate closely with French troops in north Germany until 1813, including taking part in the re-occupation of Hamburg on 30 June 1813. BACK

[14] Johann Gottfried Haensel (1749–1814), Letters on the Nicobar Islands (1812), Quarterly Review, 11 (April 1814), 57–72. BACK

[15] James Montgomery, The World Before the Flood (1813), Quarterly Review, 11 (April 1814), 78–87. BACK

[16] See Southey to John Murray [c. 13 May 1814], Letter 2421. BACK

[17] William Henry May (1785–1849), John May’s youngest brother and business partner in Brazil. At Southey’s request, Tom Southey transcribed a journal that William Henry May kept when he was at São Paulo. It appeared as no. 3146 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library, described as ‘Journal of a Journey in the Brazils in Search of Ship Timber’. BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013