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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1037. Robert Southey to John Rickman, [started before, and continued on] 17 February 1805 ⁠* 

Dear Rickman

The motto to those metrical Tales is strictly true [1]  – but there is a history belonging to them, which will show that I was not trifling when I wrote them. With the single exception of Gualberto [2]  (the longest & best – ) all the others were written expressly for the Morning Post [3]  – & this volume full is a selection from a huge & xxx heap by which I earned 149£ – 4s/– & is now published for the very same reason for which it was originally composed. Besides the necessity for writing such things – there was also a great fitness – inasmuch as by so doing a facility & variety of style was acquired, to be converted to better purposes, & I had always better purposes in view.

The last proofs of Madoc go back to night – thus am I safely delivered of a quarto volume of 557 pages – the last whole hundred being notes.

I have been reading the earliest travels in Abyssinia [4]  – namely the history of the Portugueze embassy in 1520 by Francisco Alvares the chaplain – a book exceedingly rare – my copy which is the Spanish translation – a little 24mo volume [5]  – having cost a moidore. [6]  As I cannot bear to lose any thing I shall draw up just such an abstract as if for a review, & throw whatever is not essential to the main narrative among the Works of Supererogation which will be enough for a volume. The King, or to give him his proper title the Neguz dwelt like an Arab – in his tents, & the people were so barbarous that they thought all blacksmiths dealt with the Devil – xx to be sure their xxxxxx trade certainly might be called the black art. What every where surprises me in the history of these discoveries is to find that so little should have been known of the East in Europe, when so many Europeans were to be found in the East. for the Neguz was never without some straggler or other. Still more that the Eu in European such idle dreams about Ethiopia should prevail when Abyssinians so often found their way to Rome. The opportunities lost by foolish ministers & foolish Kings makes me swear for pure vexation. if Alboquerque [7]  had lived I verily believe he would have expelled the Mamalukes from Egypt, [8]  & xxxx by the help of the African Xtians, & have made that country a Xtian instead of a Turkish conquest. I should like to give Egypt to the Spaniards – they are good colonists & would take a pleasure in cutting Mohammedan throats. How came Abyssinia & Nubia [9]  to fall into barbarism? even Monomotapa [10]  was once a civilized country – for there are ruins there resembling those at Axum. [11]  there was learning in Egypt as late as Lucans time [12]  – I suspect that the good {great} step towards barbarism was the exchange of their old superstitions for the dirty follies of monkery. priests were the learned formerly – but when learning was thought profane, every thing went to ruin.


Feby. 17. After a long interval I proceed – tempted so to do by having just seen that Alexander Blackwell M.D. published an 8vo. volume in 1741 – entitled – A New Method of improving cold, wet & clayey ground. [13]  his principles being precisely the same as yours – that of repeatedly ploughing & turning the ground. – My information comes from the Cyclopoedia [14]  & may perhaps make you curious to see the book.

Do you know that reflecting mirrors of steel were used instead of spectacles for weak or dim eyed persons to read in? this must have {been} so troublesome & so expensive that it never can have been common – but that it was used I have found in an odd book purchased when I was first your guest in London. The 400 questions propounded by the Admiral of Castille & his friends to a certain Friar Minorite. [15]  1550 – the date of the book – which was some thirty years after it had been written. I am in the middle of this most quaint book & have found among the most whimsical things that ever delighted the quaintness of my heart some of more consequence. This is one whether the reflecting mirror of steel should be concave convex or plane, to save the sight most effectually – & he answers the plane – because if it be not too far from the eyes it reflects the rays most perfectly. – The Spanish word for spectacles (antojos) occurs in the same volume: but whether with the modern meaning I cannot say, for I am not sure that spectacles were invented so early, & have no books of reference to consult. [16] 

I have got on swimmingly since the annual task is over. [17]  but this sad affair of the Abergavenny has hindered & will continue to hinder me. [18]  poor Wordsworth & his sister are in a miserable state – & I have been over with them – & am going over again. Meantime I have my own troubles. Some symptoms in my little girl have alarmed me – & we think it necessary to apply blisters behind the ears, & to give her calomel. [19]  If it be possible to prevent the disease from forming, there [MS torn] good reason to hope it may be done in this case – as I have had a perpetual apprehension upon me – & seen the very first indication – if indeed it be any thing more than commo the common indisposition incident to all children during teething. Meantime I am xxxx uneasy enough to be very uncomfortable. this however will rather accelerate than impede my work – for as business is my main enjoyment, so is it the best remedy.

The probabilities of my seeing you this year seem to increase. I begin to think the Mountain may come to Mahomet – xx in plain English that instead of my going to Lisbon – my Uncle may come to England – in which case I shall meet him in London. The Expedition to Portugal seems given up – Coleridge is confidential secretary to Sir A. Ball, [20]  & has been taking some pains to set this country right as to its Neapolitan Politics – in the hope of saving Sicily from the French. [21]  He is going out with Capt Leak [22]  into Greece & up the Black Sea to purchase corn for Government. odd, but pleasant enough if he could but learn to be contented in that state of life unto which it has pleased God to call him – a maxim which I have long thought the best in the catechism.

I have just received Το φρανκοτατον. [23]  – We gave Pocock [24]  a ship from the Bayeaux tapestry [25]  to copy. but he understanding the poem was about the discovery of America chose to rely on his own knowledge – & so has given a hulk of the 15th century with modern riggings. – How G.C.B. will take my last letter concerning the book with which he has been now nine months in labour remains to be seen. [26]  I desired him as courteously as could be – either to do the business – or give it up that I might transfer it to somebody else – in which latter case I shall address a letter to Lamb. – I am heartily glad to have Madoc off my hands, – & am now looking on in hope to the time when the first historical volume shall be as near its birth [27]  – for from that I expect with some confidence sufficient profit to emancipate me from all task work. the sale of Madoc is to be doubted greatly.

God bless you



* Address: To/ John Rickman Esqr
Endorsements: RS./ 16 Feb. 1805; Circa. 16. Feb. 1805
MS: Huntington Library, RS 69
Previously published: Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), II, pp. 313–315 [in part]. BACK

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

[2] ‘St. Juan Gualberto’, first published in the Annual Anthology, 2 (1800), 1–19, was published in Metrical Tales and other Poems (London, 1805), pp. 48–66. BACK

[3] Southey contributed poetry to the Morning Post from mid-1798 to December 1799. BACK

[4] Modern day Ethiopia. BACK

[5] Southey owned Francisco Alvarez (c. 1465–c. 1540), Historia de las Cosas de Etiopia (1557), trans. Thomas de Padilla (dates unknown) and also a French translation, Historiale Description de l’Ethiopie (1558). BACK

[6] A Portuguese gold coin. BACK

[7] Afonso de Albuquerque (1453–1515): naval officer and second governor of the Portuguese colonies in India, which he greatly expanded by conquest and fortification. His feats were celebrated in the epic poem The Lusiads (1572), by Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), of which Southey owned several editions. He also owned an edition of the collection of Albuquerque’s papers and letters, Commentarios do Grande Affonso d’Alboquerque (1774). BACK

[8] The Egypt-based military elite of the Muslim Caliphate and, later de facto rulers within the Ottoman empire, originally composed of slaves from Turkey and the Caucasus. The Mamelukes held the Egyptian throne from about 1250 until 1517 and remained powerful until 1811, when Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha (1769–1849), whom they supposed their ally, tricked and slaughtered them. BACK

[9] A region along the Nile, which is now divided between southern Egypt and northern Sudan. BACK

[10] Monomotapa (Mutapa) was a medieval kingdom which stretched between the Zambezi and Limpopo rivers in the modern states of Zimbabwe and Mozambique. BACK

[11] The ancient kingdom of Axum, in northern Ethiopia, contains ancient palaces, reservoirs, monasteries, stelae and a seventeenth-century church said to contain the Ark of the Covenant. BACK

[12] Marcus Annaeus Lucanus (39–65), author of the Pharsalia, the eighth, ninth and tenth books of which describe the Egyptian campaigns of Pompey (106–48 BC), Cato the Younger (95–45 BC) and Julius Caesar (100–44 BC). BACK

[13] Alexander Blackwell (c. 1700–1747), A New Method of Improving Cold, Wet, and Barren Lands (1741). BACK

[14] Ephraim Chambers’ (1680?–1740) Cyclopedia, or, An Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences was first published in 1728 and reprinted many times in the eighteenth century. An expanded edition, updated by Abraham Rees (1743–1825; DNB), was published from 1778–1788. BACK

[15] Southey owned a copy of Luis de Escobar (d. after 1552), Las Quatro Cientas Respuetas, a Otras Tantas Preguntas, con Quinienfos Proverbios de Consejos y Avisos a Manera de Letania (1550–1552). BACK

[16] The earliest visual evidence of spectacles being used is a 1352 portrait of the cardinal Hugh de Provence (1200–1263) by Tommaso da Modena (1326–1379). BACK

[17] Southey’s reviewing work for the Annual Review. BACK

[18] 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

[19] The common name for mercury chloride, which was taken for various ailments. BACK

[20] Alexander John Ball, 1st Baronet (1757–1809; DNB): Rear Admiral who directed the blockade of Malta (1798–1800). Coleridge wrote a biography of Ball in The Friend (1809–1810). See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), II, pp. 252–256, 287–294, 347–356, 359–369. BACK

[21] Coleridge discussed the politics of the ruling Neapolitan court of Sicily in The Friend (1809–1810). See S. T. Coleridge, The Friend, ed. Barbara E. Rooke, 2 vols (London and Princeton NJ, 1969), I, pp. 559–560, II, p. 99. BACK

[22] Captain William Martin Leake (1777–1860) of the Royal Artillery explored and mapped Greece and the Levant. A collector of Greek coins, he befriended Byron and became Britain’s negotiator with Muhammad Ali Pasha al-Mas’ud ibn Agha (1769–1849) during the Napoleonic invasion of the Ottoman empire. BACK

[23] English transliterated and declined as if Greek, meaning ‘your great(est) frank’. Apparently Rickman had franked to Southey the letter enclosing the illustration of Madoc’s ship. BACK

[24] Nicholas Pocock (1740–1821; DNB) was commissioned to create an illustration of Madoc’s ship in Madoc (1805). Pocock was a marine painter and formerly a merchant seaman, who exhibited regularly at the Royal Academy from 1782–1815. Southey felt that Pocock spoilt the image of Madoc’s ship that he had been commissioned to make for the 1805 edition of the poem, by drawing an anachronistic vessel, and the illustration was not included. BACK

[25] The Bayeux tapestry, commissioned by Bishop Odo (d. 1097), the half-brother of William I, the Conqueror (1027/8–1087; reigned 1066–1087; DNB), completed c. 1077. BACK

[26] Southey’s and Bedford’s jointly edited Specimens of the Later English Poets (1807). For this letter; see Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford [10 February 1805], Letter 1034. BACK

[27] Southey’s ‘History of Portugal’, which was never completed. BACK

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August 2013