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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 1: 1791-1797, Edited By Lynda Pratt

146. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 29 January [1796] ⁠* 

Lisbon. Jany. 29.

I am safe & in health — & after a temper[MS torn] sea a journey of eight hundred miles in Spain, & an earthquake at Lisbon, this is more than I had reason to expect. our passage was very bad — the dead lights were up sixty hours — the danger was magnified by my apprehensions & the unskillfulness of Spanish sailours — & I can now form a tolerable idea of what a man feels at the point of death. we remained five days at Coruña — the only place where I met with the society I wished. Jardine is Consul there — you have probably waded thro his travels [1]  — a book that conveys much thought in a most uninteresting manner. such at least was the opinion I formed of it three years ago. he behaved to me with that degree of attention that soon produces intimacy — my time at Coruna was chiefly spent at his house & he gave {me} much information respecting the country. I met a singular character [2]  there. the filthiest of Spaniards with the finest of physiognomies. he was a monk — but has walked to Rome to procure a dispensation from his vows, & now employs his time in writing poetry. he lives with his brother a man of some fortune — & enjoys all the luxury of dirt & indolence the two characteristics of a Spaniard. we conversed in Latin with some difficulty on account of our different pronunciations. he told me that they were very far behind the rest of Europe in literature, but said he crossing his hands — our hands are tied istâ terribile Inquisitione! I learnt afterwards that his opinions were atheistical — & indeed I believe there is no medium in the country between the most gross ignorance — & atheism.

our journey to Madrid (400 miles) took up eighteen days & a half — we were up before day break & travelled till after sunset. of the posadas — you never can have seen an exaggerated account. miserable hovels of filth & wretchedness — yet we met with the greatest civility. in both countries the peasantry are very hospitable & eager to accommodate — it is true they are apt to impose upon travellers but this is the case every where, & it is easy to excuse extortion when it arises from want. the higher classes are despicable — & the whole body of people depraved beyond all my ideas of licentiousness. the Queen of Spain [3]  travels publicly with her Cortegos [4]  — & certain families go with the King [5]  — because (say the people here) he cannot do without a wife. You may know a Portuguese nobleman by the feeble & blighted body he inherits from the vice of his ancestors. xxxxx vice is now more general — & its consequent disease almost universal.

Over the {departed} spirit of [MS torn]ish gallantry — Mr Burke might pronounce with propriety a funeral oration.  [6]  [MS torn] American charge d’affairs [7]  {at Madrid} lived with a friends wife at the hotel for a week while the husband was in the country. but adultery is universal. a Swiss Officer in the English service — gave the Marq. Santiago [8]  the lie in his own house & beat him; while we were at Madrid. he remained three days in expectation of a challenge — & then took himself out of the reach of assassination.

You have heard by the papers how the two Kings of Brentford [9]  are to meet. we followed the Spanish court. their train amounted to seven thousand people. & they have marked their way by dirting all the linen — eating up all the provisions cutting up the roads — burning & mutilating the trees — & leaving dead mules horses & asses. at every place we heard complaints — for not a real had been paid. once they enquired if they were come to pay the Kings debts. They apprehend at Madrid that the King will fix his court elsewhere — they dislike that place — & the Queen (a woman very ugly very abandoned & very unpopular) has hardly seldom entered it since some seditious washerwomen insulted her two years ago. “you amuse yourself with your cortegos & dress yourself in your jewels while we are in want of bread” — cried the old girls — & they are now in perpetual confinement. his Majesty is a mighty Hunter, & in the neighbourhood of Merida killed birds innumerable — five wolves & a pole cat. we saw a cart load of stags horns which he sent to the palace at Madrid.

the name of an Englishman is a passport thro Spain — & the only place where we met with incivility was where they thought us French. I am informed that the contrary is the case in those provinces where the French penetrated. — we broke down three times upon the road, & once slept in the room with a barber surgeon & his wife. [10]  this Doctor asked my Uncle on finding he was an Englishman if he believed in a God. — & in Jesus Christ too? asks him (said his son-in-law in a whisper loud enough to be heard) ask him — if he believes in the Virgin Mary.

as for vermin — Apollo was fool for fleaing Marsyas [11]  — he should have put him to bed in Spain & he would have skinned himself by the morning. rich tracks of land are uncultivated for want of hands & so we have often travelled five or six hours without seeing any trace of man except the agreable memento of a few monumental crosses. there are always a great number of children in the neighbourhood of a convent. & this {remark} scandalous as it may seem forces itself upon a traveller.

no situation can be worse than that of Madrid — exposed to the extremes of heat & cold, & at {such} a distance from the sea. the necessaries of life are very dear, & the comforts are not to be purchased. we were fifteen days on the road to Lisbon where I arrived after crossing the Tagus at night in a high wind — to the disappointment of finding no packet had arrived from England since we left it — & to be awakened at five the next morning by an earthquake, the severest that has been felt since the great one. the people are very much alarmed. it is the seventh shock [MS torn] the beginning of November — some walls & the a cross from one of the churches were thrown down by it — & they say most houses must be weakened so much that another shock if equally strong would destroy them: so much are they alarmed that two persons in the circle of my Uncles acquaintance have already removed to a lower situation.

Your letter reached me before I left Falmouth. ther[MS torn] wa[MS torn] sinking of the heart when night & distance hid the shore from [MS torn]yond any feeling I could have conceived — to look round upon such a waste of waters! I was very sick till Fear conquered sickness. the fatigue of travelling did not affect me, tho Ld B [12]  [MS torn] who accompanied us to Madrid was almost knocked up by[MS torn] was voracious & perhaps this supplied the want of re[MS torn] allowed very little. I lay awake one whole night t[MS torn] as they settled upon my face.

& of what advantage has this journey been to me? why I have learnt to thank God that I am an Englishman — for tho things are not quite so well there as in El Dorado [13]  — they are better than any where else. [14]  I know no news later than the fifth of December — & indeed I now think so much of private life that public affairs affect me little. I have every reason to expect happiness — & yet dare not expect it — my prospects in life have varied so often that I almost doubt the stability of any one.

So is my fixed intention to quit this country in May. I came here in compliance with my Mothers earnest wishes — I have reaped instruction, xx xxxx {for} I did {not} expect pleasure. the acquisition of two languages is valuable. I go this evening to an Abbè for the first time, to converse in French. this my Uncle is earnest with me to acquire. — I had begun to speak a little Spanish when we entered Portugal, & find little difficulty in corrupting it into Portuguese.

the society of this place is very irksome. the men have no ideas but of business, & tho the women are accomplished — yet their company only makes the absence of one woman more painful. I cannot play with a fan ladies fan & talk nonsense to her — & this is all the men here are capable of doing.

I have the maladie du pays — & a very wearying disorder it is. gladly would I exchange the golden Tagus with the olive & orange groves of Portugal — for the mud encumbered tide of Avon & a glimpse of Bristol smoke.

Were there leisure in this place I should write a tragedy — for I struck out a strange subject on the road — one that if it be not too bold & eccentric is capable of great effect. I have sometimes thought of Inez de Castro & of the revenge of Pedro [15]  — as the spring advances I shall make a pilgrimage to the tomb of Inez [16]  — tis about two days journey from Lisbon.

God bless you.

R Southey.

direct to me with Rev. Herbert Hill. Lisbon.

tis almost two years since we have seen each other — & the Bay of Biscay is between us!


* Address: CWW Wynn Esqr/ No 5 Stone Buildings/ Lincolns Inn/ London
Postmark: [partial] M/ 16
Watermark: J LARKING
Endorsement: Southey/ Jan 29/ 1796
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4811D
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections From the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 20–24 [in part, where it is dated 26 January 1796]. BACK

[1] Alexander Jardine (d. 1799; DNB), Letters from Barbary, France, Spain, Portugal &c. (1788). BACK

[2] Unidentified. BACK

[3] Louisa (1751–1819), wife of Carlos IV (1748–1819; reigned 1788–1808). BACK

[4] The Queen of Spain was reputed to have a series of lovers. BACK

[5] Carlos IV. BACK

[6] Edmund Burke’s (1729/30–1797; DNB) Reflections on the Revolution in France (London, 1790), lamented that ‘the age of chivalry is gone’ (p. 113). BACK

[7] Either William Carmichael (c. 1739–1795), American chargé d’affaires in Madrid, 1783–1794, or his successor William Short (1759–1849), American chargé d’affaires in Madrid, 1794–1795. BACK

[8] The incident is related in full in Southey’s Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (London, 1797), pp. 114–115. BACK

[9] A reference to the meeting in 1796 of the monarchs of Spain and Portugal. The comparison is with two mythical characters (‘Kings’ of the Essex town of Brentford — a place renowned for its dirtiness), whose existence seems to derive from George Villiers, 2nd Duke of Buckingham (1628–1687; DNB), The Rehearsal (1672), a satire on heroic tragedy. A ‘mock’ play within Villiers’s play includes a scene in which the two Kings of Brentford enter hand in hand. In the next century, the phrase entered into wider cultural use; see for example, William Cowper (1731–1800; DNB), The Task, a Poem, in Six Books (London, 1785), p. 5. BACK

[10] Unidentified. BACK

[11] The legend that Apollo, Greek god of poetry and music, was challenged by the satyr, Marsyas, to a musical contest. Marsyas lost, and Apollo tied him to a tree and flayed him alive. BACK

[12] Unidentified. BACK

[13] Legendary gold mines in Spanish America. BACK

[14] A paraphrase of the sentiments of Dr Pangloss in Voltaire’s (1694–1778), Candide, ou l’Optimisme (1759). BACK

[15] Inez de Castro (1325–1355) was the daughter of a Castilian nobleman. She secretly married the Portuguese crown prince, Pedro (1320–1367; reigned 1357–1367). When Pedro’s father, Alphonso IV (1291–1357; reigned 1325–1357), discovered the marriage, he ordered her murder. On Pedro’s succession to the Portuguese throne in 1357, he took revenge on his wife’s killers. BACK

[16] Inez de Castro’s tomb is at the Alcobaça Monastery in central Portugal. BACK

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March 2009