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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1228. Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 17–18 October 1806. ⁠* 

My dear Wynn

I received yours & its enclosure yesterday – the day on which it could not be acknowledged. – I tried the double writer last night [1]  – some contrivance is wanted to keep the under paper from slipping, tho perhaps the habit of using it may render it less needful. The invention has the merit of being very simple, & I expect sometimes to find it very useful.

I am deeply obliged by what you have done for my brother. He is now at Taunton with his Uncle & namesake. The estate which has been left to a stranger lets for 500£ a year, & this it seems is what I was heir at law to, for in the Vale of Taunton, where the rest of the land lay Borough English prevails. My younger brother is therefore presumptive heir – whose history I may as well bring down to the present time – After thrice leaving the navy he obtained a commission in the Caermarthenshire Militia, from which he has now been dismissed – it is said for plundering some French prisoners under his guard!, – & is now turned strolling player under the name of Smith. – What a career for one who is not yet 18!

Surely this rocket expedition is something more than foolish. The French have only to take sure aim with these very rockets [2]  – (for it is absurd to suppose any such invention can be kept secret) – & half a dozen gun boats may destroy our fleet. Our seventy-four [3]  in the Gut of Gibraltar [4]  have often been endangered by gun boats which they cannot strike, & to which they present a dead mark. Only let them learn to send their firey-arrows from a balista [5]  – & our naval superiority is at an end.

Do not forget to make enquiries respecting the duty on books. You must know better than I whether the P. court is to remove [6]  – I am strongly inclined to think xxx {it} will & that in consequence my Uncle’s library must ere long be sent over to England.

The fact respecting Palmerin seems to be this – that the French & Italian translations were printed before the Port: original. [7]  If certain blunders in the English version be in there also the point will be decided, & this I can get Horace to examine for me as to the French copy – that being in the Museum. If you could procure for me the dates of the editions in Lord Spencers library [8]  it would be of use. I have finished one volume of four to which the new edition will extend – translating anew a full half: so completely have I been taken in in a job which I undertook for the lucre of gain: To be sure I like the book as well as ever D Quixote did. [9] 

The little one & his mother go on well.

God bless you

RS

Friday Oct. 17. 1806.

So thou art gone at last Old John.
And hast left all from me.
God give thee rest among the blest!
I lay no blame to thee.
Nor marvel I, for tho one blood
Thro both our veins were flowing
Full well I knew old man, no love
From thee to me was owing.
Thou hadst no anxious hopes for me
In the winning years of infancy
No joy in my upgrowing.–
And when from the worlds beaten way
I turn’d thro rugged paths astray,
No fears where I was going.
It touch’d not thee if Envys voice
Was busy with my name.
Nor did it make thy heart rejoice
To hear of my fair fame.

Old man, thou liest upon thy bier
And none for thee will shed a tear:
They’ll give thee a stately funeral
With coach & hearse & plume & pall
But they who follow will grieve no more
Than the Mutes who pace with their staves before:
With a light heart & a chearful face
Will they put mourning on,
And bespeak thee a marble monument
And think nothing more of Old John.

An enviable Death is his
Who, leaving none to deplore him,
Hath yet a joy in his passing hour
Because all he loved have died before him.
The Monk too hath a joyful end
And well may welcome Death like a friend.
When the crucifix close to his heart is prest,
And he piously crosses his arms on his breast,
And the brethren stand round him & ring him to rest,
And tell him, as surely he thinks, that anon
He shall sit on his throne & receive his crown.
And ring in the choir of the blest.
But a hope less sorrow it strikes to the heart
To think how men like thee depart
Unloving & joyless was thy life
Unlamented was thine end
And neither in this world nor in the next
Hadst thou a single friend.
None to weep for thee on earth.
None to greet thee in Heaven’s hall.
Father & Mother, Sister & Brother.
Thy heart had been shut to them all.

Alas, old man that this should be!
One brother had rais’d up seed to thee,
And hadst thou in their hour of need.
Cherished that dead brothers seed.

Thrown wide thy doors & calld them in,
How happy thine old age had been!
Thou wert a barren Tree around whose trunk,
Needing support, our tendrils should have clung.
Then had thy sapless boughs
With buds of hope & genial fruit been hung,
Yea – with undying flowers
And wreaths for ever young.

I know not my dear Wynn how you will like these lines, or whether you will like them at all, – but I threw them off, such as they are, an hour after I heard of the old mans death, & now your double-paper has induced me to copy them fair & add the last six lines.

You will not wonder that I want to have another long poem in hand. it is something to think about in a solitary walk. & something to dream about if one lies awake at night. – which fills up the time till sleep comes, & does not prevent sleep – as the thoughts of any reasoning composition would do – because ideas come like breathing without any sensible effort. & one rather seems to receive than to produce them. I hesitate between three subjects – the Deluge, Pelayo the restorer of the Spanish Goths, [10]  & the first deliverance of Portugal from Castille – in which the Battle of Aljubarrota would be the main action.  [11]  William Taylor favours the first subject, – my Uncle would probably prefer the last, but I am inclined to think Pelayo the best of the three, tho I would far rather have an English story than either.

You do not perhaps know this history intimately enough to see its capabilities. Nothing more is required as data than one splendid event, characters of sufficient interest, & a final issue of sufficient importance. This is all which one need ask from history. My characters would be these. Pelayo – a hero of fifty, – on whom I could throw a new interest by making him not so much a Goth as a Cantabrian, – an ancient-Briton-Spaniard, – for which there is authority enough for my purpose. His daughter Ormisinda, Munuza the tributary governor who chuses to have her for his wife, & so irritates Pelayo to revolt. Young Alonso, who married her & became King in her right, Count Julian & Oppas among the Moors. Egilona the Queen of Rodrigo, now wife of a Moorish chief. Rodrigo himself as a hermit, & Florinda – in a state of half derangement, finally killing herself in her fathers sight. The storming of Gijon, the death of Munuza & the marriage of Alonso would form the conclusion. [12]  If machinery be worth a trial there is the Cave of Toledo, [13]  – & in this story that fable can hardly be omitted, – else I might use Catholick faith & work possible miracles by it.

In all this I have a second-sight of so many situations in which strong passions are called out. So much zeal, so much patriotism, so much intrepidity, remorse & hope, – such pictures of mountain solitude, religious caverns, desolated convents, & of that pervading life & spirit which historical truth would communicate to the whole – that to use a common phrase my fingers itch to be at it. And it is some inducement that I have already acquired so much knowledge of the whole temper, laws, & manners of the time & place.

If you tell Lord H. that I think of this & of Aljubarrota he will lift up his hands & eyes in deprecation of the Portugueze story, – for they completely Castillianized him in Spain. But he will like the thoughts of Pelayo. Yet in the Portugueze story there is one finer character, one finer incident than I can feign, & I have the advantage of knowing the ground, & all the accompaniments –

God bless you – I have written later than usual –

RS

Sunday night Oct 18. 1806


Notes

* Address: To/ C W Williams Wynn Esqr M. P./ Whitehall/ London/ Private
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
Postmarks: [partial] FREE/ OCT20
MS: National Library of Wales, MS 4812D
Unpublished. BACK

[1] In his letter of 9 October, Southey acknowledges receipt of an ‘apparatus’ which is likely to have been an early version of carbon paper, first patented by Ralph Wedgwood (1766–1837) on 7 October 1806 as the ‘stylographic manifold writer’; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 9 October [1806], Letter 1223. BACK

[2] During the night of 7–8 October 1806, eighteen British boats carrying rockets on launching frames rowed into the bay of Boulogne to destroy French invasion barges moored there. The attack caused more damage to the town than the fleet, and Napoleon initiated a rocket-making scheme for his own forces in retaliation. BACK

[3] The ‘seventy-four’ was a two-decked sailing ship of the line, so named because it carried 74 guns. It was originally developed by the French in the mid-eighteenth century and was adopted by many countries, including Britain. BACK

[4] The bay of Gibraltar. BACK

[5] An ancient mechanical weapon that fired large projectiles at great distances. BACK

[6] The Portugueze royal family and the court escaped from Lisbon to Brazil on 29 November 1807, with British assistance, just before Napoleon’s forces captured the city on 1 December 1807. BACK

[7] This text was written by the Portuguese writer Francisco de Moraes Cabral (1500–1572) but first published in Spanish in 1547. A French translation of it was published at Lyons in 1553, and an Italian one at Venice in 1555. It was published in Portuguese in 1567. BACK

[8] John George Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758–1834; DNB), politician and book collector, who established the largest private library in Europe. By 1834 his library consisted of 40000 volumes, and was sold in 1892 to become the principal collection of the John Rylands Library in Manchester. BACK

[9] In Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), The History and Adventures of the Renowned Don Quixote, trans. Tobias Smollett (1721–1771; DNB), 6 vols (London, 1792), a priest praises the stylistic clarity of Palmerin of England, describing it as a unique work that is to be esteemed for two reasons ‘first, because, it is in itself excellent; and secondly, because it is said to have been composed by an ingenious king of Portugal’ (I, p. 46). BACK

[10] ‘Pelayo’ would become the subject-matter of Southey’s poem Roderick, The Last of the Goths, published by Longman in 1814. BACK

[11] The battle of Aljubarotta of 1385, repelled, and largely annihilated, Castilian invading forces, to establish John of Avis (1358–1433) firmly on the Portuguese throne. He ruled as John I, 10th king of Portugal and the Algarve from 1385–1433. BACK

[12] Characters in Roderick, The Last of the Goths. BACK

[13] In Roderick, The Last of the Goths, Book 10, line 262, Southey cites sources concerning the cave, supposedly made by Hercules, and occupied by a dragon, below an enchanted tower in the centre of Toledo: Las quatro partes enteras de la Cronica de España que mando componer el Serenissimo rey don Alonso llamado el sabio . . . vista y emendada mucha parte de su impresion por el maestro Florian de Ocampo (Zamora, 1541), ff. viii(v)-ix(r). In Juan Yagüe de Salas, Los amantes de Teruel: epopeya tragica (Valencia, 1616), p. 29, voices from the cave predict King Roderick’s downfall. Southey also cites a similar story of prophesied doom from Romances nuevamente sacados de historias antiguas dela cronica de España compuestos por Lorenço de Sepulveda (Antwerp, 1551), ff. 94r-5r and Pedro de Corral, Crónica del Rey Don Rodrigo (1587), I, pp. 172–81. Walter Scott used the same legend in The Vision of Don Roderick; a Poem (Edinburgh, London, 1811), pp. 76–84. BACK

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August 2013