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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1033. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, [9 February 1805] ⁠* 

Saturday night

Dear Wynn

I have been grievously shocked this evening by the loss of the Abergavenny – of which Wordsworths brother was Captain. [1]  Of course the news came flying up to us from all quarters – it has disordered me from head to foot: – AtIn such occasions {circumstances} I believe we feel as much for others as for ourselves – just as a violent blow occasions the same pain as a wound, & he who broke his shin feels as acutely at the moment as the man whose leg is shot off. – In fact I am writing to you merely because this dreadful shipwreck has left me utterly unable to do anything else. It is the heaviest calamity Wordsworth has ever experienced – & in all probability I shall have to communicate it to him as he will very likely be here before the tidings can reach him. – What renders any near loss of this kind so peculiarly distressing is that the recollection is perpetually freshened when any like xxxxxxxxxx {xx event} occurs – by the mere mention of shipwreck, or the sound of the wind. Of all deaths it is the most dreadful from the circumstances of terror which accompany it.

I have to write the history of two shipwrecks – that of Sepulveda & his wife – which is mentioned by Camoens, [2]  & that of D. Paulo de Lima, one of the last Portuguese who distinguished himself honourably in India. [3]  Both these, but especially the first, were so dreadfully distressful – that I look on the task of dwelling upon all the circumstances & calling them up before my own sight & fixing them in my own memory as I needs must do, with very great reluctance. Fifteen years ago the more melancholy a tale was the better it pleased me – just as we all like tragedy better than comedy when we are young. But now I as unwillingly encounter that sort of mental pain as I would any bodily suffering.

Once more I am historifying – totis viribus  [4]  – & that with much such a feeling as we used to have when the bible exercise was done – & there was a clear week before us without any other such nuisance. Whether the expedition to Portugal takes place or not I neither know, nor think about, nor that I have done all which befitted me to do. Bedford has spoken to General Moores brother, [5]  & my name has been mentioned – or is on the road to the General – by two other roads. The army will most likely be wasted if it goes there: & for my own private convenience I should rather my Uncle were driven to England than that Mahomet should go to the mountain, – for by the help of Lord Butes [6]  Library, & the Museum [7]  I could do quite well enough to satisfy every body except myself.

You will get Madoc early in March. It was finished the beginning of this week – the plates are quite ready, – & as the publishers are always interested in making speed there will be no delay in that quarter. They tell me the title page is very beautiful – I have not seen it. Tomkins [8]  who wrote the Gothic letters for me by Duppas desire, is an amateur in the art as well as an antiquarian & they are perfect in their kind. – Longman was directed to send you the Metrical Tales – which have the merit of a good motto. [9]  – I have a ballad hatching for you – which if it be ready by next Xmas will be in time – for thus saith the first stanza which is all that is written –

A Xmas tale this Xmas time
Dear friend you ask of me –
I will begin, dear Williams Wynn
A Xmas tale for thee. [10] 

The subject is one of the quaintest that ever man devised, & was begotten one morning by a dream. I will say no more of it than that it is designed to illustrate three things, first the Platonic doctrine of Ideas, secondly the omnipotence of Law, in Hookers sense of the word, [11]  & lastly the sin of cheating at cards. But I have been so amused with the conception that in all likelihood the execution will disappoint me, – & so it stands still till the humour comes on.

God bless you

RS


Notes

* Address: To C W Williams Wynn Esqr M. P./ Lincolns Inn/London
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmark: FREE/ FEB13/ 1805
MS: National Library of Wales MS 4812D
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 321–322.
Dating note: Southey’s dating of ‘Saturday’ suggests 9 February, as this was the first Saturday before the postmark date of 13 February 1805. BACK

[1] John Wordsworth (1772–1805), captain of the East Indiaman, the Earl of Abergavenny, went down with his ship on the Shambles rocks off Portland Bill, on 5 February 1805. BACK

[2] Captain Manuel de Sousa Sepúlveda (1500?–1552) was shipwrecked on the South African coast in 1552. He, his wife, Dona Lianor de Sa (dates unknown), and their young children died. Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580) lamented the death in Lusiads (1572), Canto 10, verses 46–47. BACK

[3] Dom Paulo de Lima Pereira (1538–1589) was wrecked in the Sāo Thomé in 1589. The events are narrated by Diogo do Couto (1542–1616) in Vida de D. Paulo de Lima Pereira, Capitam mor de Armadas do Estado da India, Onde por seu Valor, e Esforço Nas Batalhas de Mar, e Terra, de que Sempre Conseguio Gloriosas Vitorias, foy Chamado o Hercules Portuguez (1765), collected in the compendium of shipwreck narratives by Bernardo Gomes de Brito (1688–1759), Historia Tragico-Maritima, 3 vols (Lisbon, 1735–1736), II, pp. 153–213. BACK

[4] Meaning ‘with all one’s might’. BACK

[5] Sir John Moore (1761–1809; DNB), Scottish General with a long and varied military career. He was also MP for Lanark Burghs 1784–1790. After the controversial Convention of Cintra (1808), Moore was given the command of the British troops in the Iberian peninsula. He was fatally wounded at the Battle of Corunna. In December 1804 he was sent to review the practicability of defending Portugal from a French invasion. His favourable report was widely leaked to the press, e.g. Aberdeen Journal, 9 January 1805. Moore was part of a large and well-known family that included his younger brothers, Dr James Moore (1763–1860; DNB) and the Royal Navy officer Graham Moore (1764–1843; DNB). BACK

[6] John Stuart, 1st Marquess of Bute (1744–1814; DNB), son of the 3rd Earl of Bute (1713–1792, Prime Minister 1762–1763; DNB) a literary patron, whose library the Marquess inherited. BACK

[7] The British Museum. BACK

[8] Thomas Tomkins (1743–1816; DNB): writing-master and calligrapher, who took commissions for decorative book titles of luxury publications. BACK

[9] Metrical Tales and other Poems (1805) was published with the Latin motto ‘nos haec novimus esse nihil’ meaning ‘we know these things are nothing’. It comes from Martial’s (Marcus Valerius Martialis AD 38/41–102/104) Epigrams (AD 86–103), XIII. 2. BACK

[10] The poem was not published. BACK

[11] Richard Hooker (1554–1600; DNB), wrote Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie (1593–1662), in which he argued that ‘The laws which have been hitherto mentioned, i.e. the laws of nature, do bind men absolutely, even as they are men, although they have never any settled fellowship, never any solemn agreement amongst themselves what to do, or not to do: but forasmuch as we are not by ourselves sufficient to furnish ourselves with competent store of things, needful for such a life as our nature doth desire, a life fit for the dignity of man; therefore to supply those defects and imperfections which are in us, as living single and solely by ourselves, we are naturally induced to seek communion and fellowship with others: this was the cause of men’s uniting themselves at first in politic societies. But I moreover affirm, that all men are naturally in that state, and remain so, till by their own consents they make themselves members of some politic society’ (Book I, section 10). BACK

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August 2013