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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1016. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 10 January [1805] ⁠* 

Jany. 10

Dear Wynn

I have letters from my brother this evening. He is appointed first lieutenant to poor Lord Proby’s ship. [1]  – I am sorry to add that the vessel is in the most dreadful state. In the last 24 hours before he wrote they had buried four, & Tom himself had experienced some alarming symptoms the evening before he wrote, which however had left him. As he has had one attack of the fever before I hope he is in less danger of a second. Were it not for this new danger the affair of the Court Martial might be considered as very fortunate for him. [2]  The Commodore [3]  to whom it was the means of introducing him speaks of him in very high terms & has even said that he was fitter to command the Galatea than his Captain. [4]  It seems too that he has got some credit for his defence which is very likely as he had not prepared one, till till when he was called upon for it & allowed half an hour. On subjects which have affected him I have known him write very affectingly, & this short time xxx would be xx advantageous as it gave him no leisure to think of how he should say what he had to say, which would have puzzled him & made him curse his stars for not being able to write like Robert. He tells me there are hardly officers to make in the West Indies, & asks if I have not interest enough to get his name mentioned at the Admiralty. If the combined forces should defeat the Colonel & the Doctor [5]  I shall have in more ways than one.

3             2             1             4

For this story telling business – copia me inopem fecit. [6]  I have ten thousand stories – but it is ten to one that whatever I send may come to you like a twice told tale, – & to take a story out of its fit place is like tooth drawing or like putting a picture in a bad light. Richest I am in stories of Catholic Mythology. I could tell you how when Adam fell sick he sent Shem to the gate of Paradise to beg a branch of the Tree of Life – in hopes thereby to escape the penalty of death. That Shem got the bough – but returned with it too late – that he planted it upon the grave of Adam, where it took root. That Noah took the tree with Adam’s bones into the Ark. That Adam was buried at Golgotha so called in consequence. That the Tree which was a Trinitarian tree being at once a palm, a cypress & a cedar, was cut down for Solomon’s temple, but being by accident or rather especial Providence not used in the building was the actual Cross, which was planted upon Adams skull – so that as it had at first grown upon his grave, it xxx attracted his whole nature. [7]  Much too I could tell you of the Virgin Mary – how she must be bodily in heaven – because no reliques of her have ever been found on earth – which whatever you may think of it is sound logic to a papist. I could tell you how St Peter had a daughter called Petronilla who was very ill; that one evening when he had company he said to her get up & wait upon my friends, when her disease left her & she arose in health; & that when they were gone he said now Petronilla go to bed & be sick again. & so he let her die. [8]  But these are no tales for a Xmas fireside. –

Some such as these might make Ballads – if they do not find a worthier occupation. St Eucherius Bishop of Orleans being rapt in a vision to the other world saw Charles Martel tormented bodily for the sin of sacrilege. When he recovered from his trance he called to St Boniface King Pepins chaplain & told him what he had seen, requesting that the grave {tomb} of Charles Martel might be opened to verify what he affirmed. They opened it accordingly & out came a huge dragon. There was no body to be found & the inside of the tomb was black – as if a fire had been burning there. [9]  – When St John the Almsgiver was in his last illness a woman came to him for absolution, but so overpowered was she with shame for her sinfulness that she could not articulate the confession. He therefore bade her write it down, & promised that none should ever see the writing. Before she could return to take back the paper & be forgiven, he was dead & buried & her confession with him. She went to his grave & complained fearing that her secrets would now be known, & for three days & nights continued to weep by the tomb & to upbraid the dead [MS torn]. At length all the inhabitants of the grave arose with St John [MS torn] for foreman, who told her that she disturbed the dead & wetted them with her tears: however he gave her her confession sealed. Her own writing was obliterated, & in its place these words appeared – ‘Thy great sin forgiven thee because of my servant John’. [10]  – True stories these – the next is equally true & more comprehensive. Fray Antonio de Santarem once knocked a Devils eye out (Martin Luther once did the same thing with an inkstand [11] ) a poor rogue of a shepherd by name Domingos fell in with this one eyed Devil & made a bargain with him that he would make him pass for a Saint. Accordingly Domingos began to work miracles with great success. The affair however was managed clumsily. They stole a cross containing certain relics, burnt it & then made a miraculous discovery of the treasure. The Knight to whom it had belonged claimed it, but the mob hooted & fell upon him & Domingos went on triumphantly till Brother Antonio who had darkened one of the Devils daylights fell upon him, got him into his church & exorcised him; upon which he confessed all his tricks & laid them all to the Devils account. This being a first offence & Domingos having given up his accomplice he was forgiven. But it was not long before he drove certain cows to Badajoz for sale, where they were unluckily claimed by the owner. Domingos peached again, & said that his friend the Devil had met him in disguise & desired him to sell the cows on his account, promising to pay him well: No doubt was entertained of the truth of this story, & that the latter part might be fulfilled to the letter, they hung Domingos. [12] 

Father, said a Franciscan to Frey Gil, [13]  I have overcome a terrible temptation. A woman was behind me in the street & the Devil assaulted me furiously, the nearer she came the stronger the temptation grew. At last I stood still & determined to look her full in {the} face & brave the old Enemy. And so I conquered. – What sort of a woman was she said Gil. He replied very old & abominably ugly.

The story of St Magnus’s dance is in Matthew of Westminster [14]  who hath sundry good stories – xxxx which are much curtailed & mutilated in the Nuremberg Chronicle. [15]  Matthew Paris too is very rich in these things. [16]  I have got scent of a xxx tremendous story about K Arthur to be found in Gervase of Tilbury – concerning his family of apparitions. [17] 


Notes

* Address: To C W Williams Wynn Esqr M. P/ Wynnstay/ Wrexham
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 305–308. BACK

[1] William Allen Proby, Lord Proby (1779–1804), eldest son of Sir John Joshua Proby, 1st Earl of Carysfort (1751–1828; DNB). Proby was the captain of HMS Amelia, who, having been sent to the disease-ridden Leeward Islands station, died on 6 August 1804 at Surinam, from yellow fever. BACK

[2] Thomas Southey was court-martialled for neglect of duty, disobedience of orders and contempt in contradicting his captain, Sir Henry Heathcote (1777–1851), in command of HMS Galatea, 1803–1805. The last charge only was proven, but he was dismissed from his ship, the Galatea. However the commander of the fleet in which Thomas served, Commodore (later Vice-Admiral) Sir Samuel Hood, 1st Baronet (1762–1814; DNB), appointed him lieutenant of HMS Amelia, a 38-gun Hébé-class frigate of the French navy captured in 1796, and a finer ship than his previous one. On taking up his appointment on the Amelia, Thomas found the ship’s crew struck down by fever. BACK

[3] Commodore (later Vice-Admiral) Sir Samuel Hood, 1st Baronet (1762–1814; DNB), who was in command of the fleet in which Thomas Southey served. BACK

[4] See note 2. BACK

[5] ‘Doctor’ was the nickname of Henry Addington, 1st Viscount Sidmouth (1757–1844; DNB), whose father had been a physician. Prime Minister from 1801 to 1804, Addington was removed from office by the ‘combined forces’ of William Pitt (1759–1806; DNB), Prime Minister 1783–1801, 1804–1806, Charles James Fox and William Wyndham Grenville. Southey hoped that the new government would bring him useful connections in the Admiralty through Wynn, who was Grenville’s nephew, and William Dickinson (1771–1837), a fellow pupil with Southey at Westminster School, Civil Lord of the Admiralty, 1804–1806. BACK

[6] Meaning ‘abundance makes me speechless’. BACK

[7] For these stories see the Latin edition (Cologne, 1700) of the compendium of lives of the saints, Flos Sanctorum by Pedro de Ribadeneyra, vol. I, pp. 19–20. BACK

[8] Petronilla is discussed in the Latin edition (Cologne, 1700) of the compendium of lives of the saints, Flos Sanctorum by Pedro de Ribadeneyra, vol. I, pp. 252–253. BACK

[9] Hincmar (806–882), Archbishop of Reims, reported this story to a Council of Quierzy in 858. It concerns Saint Eucherius, Archbishop of Orléans (c. 687–743), his enemy Charles Martel (c. 688–741) the Frankish ruler, St Boniface (672–754), and Pepin (714–768), King of the Franks from 752 to 768—the son of Charles Martel. In Acta Sanctorum (Antwerp and Brussels, 1643–1794). t. IV (January), ‘De S. Rigoberto Remensi Archepiscopo’, chapter IV ‘Caroli Martelli sacrilegia damnatio’. BACK

[10] This story of St John the Almsgiver (d. c. 1616/1620 ) is contained in a contemporary biography by Leontios, 7th century Bishop of Neapolis, Vita Sancti Joannis Eleemosynarii, p. 93, col. 1623; Acta Sanctorum, t. II (January), p. 501b. BACK

[11] Coleridge relates this story in The Friend, 8 (5 October 1809). See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton, 1969), II, pp. 118–120. BACK

[12] This story is to be found in Boaventura Maciel Aranha (dates unknown), Cuidados da Morte, e Descuidos da Vida (Lisbon, 1761), pp. 557–8. BACK

[13] A brief life of Frey Gil de Santarem (d. 1265), the well-known Portuguese Dominican, about whom there are numerous legends including the story that he made a pact with the devil, is contained in Cuidados da Morte, e Descuidos da Vida (Lisbon, 1761), pp. 458–64. BACK

[14] In the fourteenth-century manuscript chronicle Flores Historiarum (first printed 1567), the author (the so-called ‘Matthew of Westminster’) records a story from the town of Colewiz in Saxony, where, in the year 1012, the priest of the church of Magnus Martyr cursed a group of revellers so that they were compelled to continue singing and dancing without pause for a year. For a translation, see Matthew of Westminster, The Flowers of History, 2 vols (London, 1853), I, p. 502. BACK

[15] The Nuremberg Chronicle, or Liber Chronicarum (1493) by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) contains stories derived from many earlier chronicles, including the Flores Historiarum. BACK

[16] Matthew Paris (c. 1200–1259; DNB) was a Benedictine monk, English author of the Chronica Majora. BACK

[17] Volume one of Scriptores rerum Brunsvicensium (Hanover, 1710), ed. Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716), contains Gervase of Tilbury (c.1150–c. 1228), Otia Imperialia, in which Gervase reports the tradition that Arthur and his knights were seen in the form of ghostly huntsmen. BACK

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August 2013