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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1467. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, 14 June 1808 ⁠* 

You probably know Senhora that I thanked Sir Edward for the books, eight or nine days ago, soon after their arrival; – not immediately, – because Herbert was at that time very ill. He has had a severe attack of bilious fever, which has sadly reduced him, & left him in a state of great debility. For about a week I was too uneasy about him to do anything, except reading, & this has brought upon me an accumulation of letters to be written, – for seldom as I write to anybody, & little as I love letter-writing, it is still an occupation which takes up more time than I can either conveniently or willingly spare. – This however is the reason why I have not sooner told you of the arrival of the books, thanked you, & abused the Stafford bookbinder, for his vile lines, & the yet viler way in which he has inserted the prints, so as to render it impossible to see them fairly open.

The books of gold leaf came seasonably, after Lieutenant Juniper [1]  had been about ten days at a stand for want of it. I anticipate with a good deal of pleasure your entrance into the room, & the discussions we are to have. Whether piles of one colour look better than merry-andrewers of all colours, – whether the illuminated first letter looks best in red & gold, in blue & gold – or with both colours, together with sundry other points of the same nature, which the Lieutenant & I debate with all due solemnity. Uncle Toby & the Corporal [2]  were not more in earnest about their fortifications than we are about these piles & pyramids of parchmentarians & vellumarians, [3]  – & thus I will venture to say that nobody in Europe has anything like them. – Talk of Lord Spensers Library! [4]  – The worst is Senhora that I shall assuredly set the fashion & then be eclipsed in it, – for here will come Wynn some day, & the device will win his heart, & he will go to his bookbinder, – substitute real morocco for our poor old Spanish sheep-skins, plaistered with vermillion, – & pay one two & three guineas per volume for what costs Tom an hours work with the [MS obscured] & the gold leaf.

I am seriously at work before breakfast every morning (unless my rest has been too much broken by the children to allow me to rise) – upon Kehama, [5]  & am seriously advancing with it, very much to my own satisfaction. But this Senhora is not enough for me. I am persuaded that I can write two poems better at a time than in sequence, & that time will be saved by so doing; because I can be going on with one when at a stand with the others. for tho the whole story be made out, the immediate way of getting forwards is not always obvious, nor to be found by beating about for it. There is nothing to be done in such cases but to lie still & wait for a revelation. Now I believe that by having two at once upon the stocks, I may be working one field while the other lies fallow, & so I am planning a long poem in blank verse upon Pelayo, the Restorer of Spain, [6]  – whom I suppose you will find called Pelagius [7]  in common histories. A fine story I hope to make of it, & it will not be very long before the plan is made out sufficiently for me to set at work. Huzza Senhora – another nine thousand lines for five & twenty pounds, – is it to be so think you? I shall make a quiet trial whether it be possible to get five hundred subscribers & so secure the whole profits of an edition to myself, instead of letting the booksellers take the Lions share, – it is not very likely, – it is not at all likely that I shall succeed, – I do not believe that I shall get half the number. – but perhaps if I were to succeed so far, a bargain might be made to let the book-seller print as many as they please, & give me my subscription copies, & thus my end would be answered. At any rate as I write no poetry after breakfast, whatever the profit be, it will be so much gained as the price of morning-sleep, & if it be not sufficient to enable me to afford other times of the same pursuit – paciencia [8]  – I shall have done enough.

I have one or two friends among those whom I love best in the world, & who love me best, who do not dissuade me from writing poetry, but who are better pleased at seeing me otherwise employed, because they think truth more valuable than fiction; – & if it were impossible to pursue both, I should be of their opinion. But there is one man in the world who thinks poetry exclusively the only worthy pursuit of any one who can succeed in it, – & yet has never once expressed to me the slightest wish that I should not utterly abandon it, as I seemed to have done, & did in fact for three full years. [9]  This was [two word deletion] [10]  He may be said to think justly upon the average of all the world, – for he thinks so much more than he ought of himself, & so [MS obscured] less of every body else, – that upon averaging the account you make it tolerably fair.

As for the Portugueze paying the losses of the English [11]  – it will be done about the same time that we shall pay off the national debt. – My blood swells when I think of Spain – Often have I said that if Europe is to be delivered in our days, it is Spain that her deliverance will begin. Love & remembrance from a whole household, &

God bless you

from RS.

Tuesday. June 14. 1808


* Address: To/ Miss Barker
MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 277–281. BACK

[1] Underlined by Mary Barker in red ink with asterisk and note in the left margin: ‘See Saint Juniper and Disciple of St [two words illegible]’. Juniperize meant to add a gold border and lettering to the bindings of Southey’s books. The allusion was to Friar Juniper, disciple of St Francis, who cut the silver bells off the gold border of an altar cloth to give to a poor woman begging alms. BACK

[2] The obsessive ‘hobby horses’ of characters in Laurence Sterne (1713–1768; DNB), The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759–1767). BACK

[3] That is, Southey’s valuable manuscripts, stored on shelves bracketed to the wall. BACK

[4] George John Spencer, 2nd Earl Spencer (1758–1834; DNB) was noted for his library at Althorp. BACK

[5] The Curse of Kehama (1810). BACK

[6] This project was eventually published as Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). BACK

[7] Pelagius/Pelayo (c. 685–737), founder of the Kingdom of Asturias. Through his victory at the Battle of Covadonga, he is credited with beginning the Christian reconquest of the Iberian peninsula from the Moors. BACK

[8] Portuguese for ‘patience’. BACK

[9] After publishing Madoc in 1805 Southey did not publish another long poem until The Curse of Kehama (1810), because, as he often remarked, he could not afford it. BACK

[10] The blotted words were undoubtedly ‘William Wordsworth’. BACK

[11] That is, of the British merchants who had lost their businesses in Portugal when the French took over the country. BACK

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Published @ RC

August 2013