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

236. Robert Southey to John May, 19 July 1797 ⁠* 

Burton. July 19. 1797.

My dear friend I sincerely thank you for your letter. its contents are strange & I am inclined to think when my Uncle blamed me for not doing my utmost to relieve my family he must have alluded to my repeated refusal of entering into orders; a step which undoubtedly {would} have almost instantly relieved them & which occasioned me great anguish & many conflicts of mind. To this I have been urged by him & by my Mother, but you know what my religious opinions are, & I need not ask you whether I did rightly & honestly in refusing.

Till Xmas last I supported myself wholly by the profits of my writings. when I left Lisbon I had thirty pounds from my Uncle, of which a large part was expended in paying my passage & the journey home. When my determination was made not to enter into the church I instantly quitted the University, that my Uncle might no longer be inconvenienced by me. I applied for a clerks place in a public office & my republican principles occasioned my ill success. at this time my acquaintance with Coleridge commenced; I had all the enthusiasm which a young man of strong feeling & an acute sense of right & wrong can possess, & resolved to go to America & attempt to establish a better system. we hoped to raise a sum sufficient amongst us, & I had then expectations that the reversion of a family estate might be sold, which has since proved worth nothing. wild as the plan was it wanted not plausibility & my Mother would have gone with us had it taken place. at the end of 1794 I found myself disappointed in this; my Aunt with whom I had previously lived had turned me out of her doors; & I would not be burthensome to my Mother tho my quitting her was against her wishes. I went to Bristol to Coleridge & supported myself & almost him I may say, for what my labours earned were as four to one. I gave lectures, I wrote indefatigably. nor is there one single action of this whole period that I would wish undone.

One friend I had, only one, willing & able to serve me; but he had not the power till he was of age. in the summer of 1795 my Uncle, as you know, came to England, he urged me very strongly to take orders. my heart was heavily afflicted: my literary resources were exhausted, & it was yet a year & half before my friend could assist me, & you will believe {me} when I say that my spirit could but ill brook dependance. I Add to this that my opinion of S T Coleridge was not what it had been, for by long living with him I knew much of his character now. I gave him my Uncles letter when it arrived & told him I knew not what I ought to do. I wrote to my friend — he strongly advised me against the church & recommended the Law when he could enable me to pursue it. after some days I followed this advice; our xxxxxx xx xxxx finances no longer suffered us to remain at Bristol as we had done, we removed as we had before agreed, I to my mother, & bef our arrears were paid with twenty guineas which Cottle advanced as the copy right price of the poems which were published not till after my return from Lisbon. during all this Coleridge was to all appearance as he had ever been towards me — but I discovered that he had been employing every possible calumny against me & representin me as a villain.

My mothers was now my home, but I was more frequently with Cottle, & with a mind agitated by so many feelings did I compose the greater part of Joan of Arc. when this was nearly compleated my Uncle asked me to go abroad with him. I consented, & married the morning of my departure. this too requires some explanation. I had never avowed an long formed attachment till the prospect of settling in America made me believe it justifiable. I placed Edith during my absence with Cottles sister, who keep a school, as one of their family, & it was not proper that she should be supported by me except as my wife. the remainder of what Joan of Arc was to produce would defray this expence. on my return I {had} resolved still to leave her there, & live seperately till the Xmas of 1796 when I had no evil to endure — but dependance.

I returned however with the remainder of the thirty pounds — about 18 I believe. I had likewise the matter for my Letters, which were only published from necessity. Cottle supplied me in advance with such small sums as I wanted from time to time, which the sale of the first edition of that book would repay, & my own reserved copies of Joan of Arc produced me with thes enough with these assistances. By Xmas I had published my poems & letters. [1]  & in the course of the following month received the first quarterly payment of an annuity of 160£.

Had this been without the heavy incumbrance of such obligation I would have taken a cottage, & lived there with my wife & mother, without one wish unsatisfied. as it was, it was my duty to labour till I could do this indepently by the Law. we had clothes to purchase — some little to discharge — & a journey to London. with these draw-backs you will easily conceive that at [MS torn] the end of the first half year nothing could remain.

It is only two days since I have learnt that my Mother had any obligations to the D. of N. [2]  & what that obligation was I knew not till your letter informed me. my Uncle wrote to me by Thomas, said he had desired Burn [3]  to send me ten pounds — that he would supply me with money from time to time — & requested therefore to know the state of my finances. this surprized me because I had told him what I expected. on the receipt of this letter I wrote to my Mother & told her to expect this ten pounds, which I fortunately wanted not, for this purpose I wrote to Burn for it by means of Thomas, explaining to Thomas why I accepted it that he might not think I was wantonly draining my Uncle. this I shall explain in my letter to Lisbon which fortunately is not yet written.

Thus you may see that the only means I have omitted ever possessed of assisting my Mother was by entering the Church. God knows I would exchanged every intellectual gift which he has blest me with for implicit faith to have been able to do this. I have urged her to come & live with me; she has a large lodging house which does not pay its own rent, & my wish is that she would let the remainder of her lease upon a reduced rent, that what & sink a certain little to prevent greater loss. I can then support her.

I care not for the opinion of the world, but would willingly be thought justly of by a few individuals. I labour at a study which I very much dislike, to render myself independant — & I work for the booksellers whenever I can get employment that I may have to spare for others. I now do all I can I sent ten pounds when last in London to Ediths mother whose wants were more pressing than those of my own. I now do all I can, perhaps I may one day be enabled to do all I wish. however there is One who will accept the will for the deed.

God bless you.

Robert Southey.


* Address: For/ John May Esqr/ 4. Bedford Square/ London
Postmark: AJY/ 20/ 97
Endorsement: 1797 No 4/ Robert Southey/ Burton 19 July/ recd: 20 do/ ansd: 22 do
MS: Stirling Library, University of London, SL V.28
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections From the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 40–43; and Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), I, pp. 320–321 [in part; misdated July 15. 1799]. BACK

[1] Southey’s Poems (1797) and Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797). BACK

[2] Unidentified, but the abbreviation suggests an aristocrat, perhaps a Duke. BACK

[3] William Burn (dates unknown) was attached to the British Factory, Lisbon. BACK

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Published @ RC

March 2009