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442. Robert Southey to John May, 10 October 1799 ⁠* 

Christ Church. Thursday Oct. 10. 99.

My dear friend

We arrived here on Tuesday night – to meet ill news & discomfort. Edith glanced her eye upon a newspaper & saw that Tom was a prisoner at Ferrol. [1]  at least his ship is there, but whether there has been an action & whether he is safe or not, we must wait to learn. this suspence is one of the comforts of war, & we have had our share. Biddlecombe who undertook to manage for us here, has managed badly, so that on our arrival we find the house in possession of the old tenant who seems disposed to stick there. so we have turned into lodgings & my mother & Edith are house-hunting while I write. there is no doubt of our soon finding one, so the inconvenience is only temporary & we are likely to better suit ourselves. Your brother [2]  I enquired for immediately on my arrival & am sorry to find he is gone.

To day the sunshine & I am in hopes that the flood gates are shut & the deluge abating. the country exhibits a sad appearance. here the marshes are flooded of course, this does no harm & makes by moonlight a scene of magnificent dreariness. it impressed me much on my arrival – the ruins & church by moonlight & the waters out – & the sky stormy & wild, the moon rolling among scattering clouds. & the xxxxx x the rush of the waters now mingling with the wind, now heard alone.

In the winter I hope to see you here. the circumstance that detains you in town is an affecting one. death is a strange thing – life & death are both mysteries, which it is well to contemplate that we may feel our own littleness. it is wonderful how we use words & understand them not – or not below the surface of their meaning.

I did not leave Exeter without some reluctance. in no strange place did I ever experience more kindness. there is a painter & his wife there [3]  – very pleasant people, the wife in particular a woman of uncommon talent – who has been in the West Indies, South America, Switzerland & France, & profited by these opportunities of knowledge. she knew Dr − Franklin − & Brissot − & Buonaparte. [4]  a singular thing for an obscure individual to have known three such men.

Will you be good enough to remit the remainder of my mothers money here. the old direction – Burton near Ringwood. this indeed was the purport of my writing. I must now to work & to get settled as soon as possible. this state of laborious idleness is the most unpleasant in the world.

God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.


Notes

* Address: [deletions and readdress in another hand] To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green {4 No. Tavistock Street}/ Surry {Bedford Square/ London}/ Single
Stamped: CHRIST/ CHURCH; Richmond/ Unpaid
Postmarks: E/ OCT 11/ 99; 10 o’Clock/ OC. 11/ 99 FNoon
Watermark: J Whatman/ 1794
Endorsement: No 44. 1799/ Robert Southey/ Christ Church 10 Oct./ recd: 11 do/ ansd: 18 do
MS: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas, Austin
Previously published: Charles Ramos, The Letters of Robert Southey to John May: 1797–1838 (Austin, Texas, 1976), pp. 49–50. BACK

[1] It was widely reported in the British Press in early October 1799, e.g. St James’s Chronicle, 5 October 1799, that the brig, Sylph, on which Tom Southey was serving, had been captured and was at the Spanish port of Ferrol. BACK

[2] Possibly May’s eldest brother Joseph (1767–1830). BACK

[3] John Keenan (fl. c. 1780–1819), Irish portrait painter, then living in Exeter. Keenan painted two portraits of Southey. Mrs Keenan was a sister of Daniel MacKinnon (1767-1830), whose Tour through the British West Indies was reviewed by Southey in Annual Review for 1804, 3 (1805), 50–56. BACK

[4] Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), American Revolutionary; Jacques-Pierre Brissot (1754–1793) leading Girondin; Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821; First Consul 1799–1804, Emperor of the French 1804–1814). BACK

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August 2011