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488. Robert Southey to John May, 9 February 1800 ⁠* 

My dear friend

It is so long since I have heard from you that I feel a degree of uneasiness at your silence. but one great benefit of marriage is that it never allows those intervals of vacancy which must occur in the best directed solitude, & which probably create the epistolary mania in very young persons. this was my own case once. I wrote not from a fullness of matter to communicate but from sheer emptiness – day after day – fools-cap sheets & close writing for three pages & the top & bottom of the fourth. more knowledge & the daily increasing consciousness of how much yet remains to be learnt. more employments & marriage have long since cured me. My pleasure now consists in receiving letters, not in writing them.

The state of my health is in some respects amended, in others stationary. I had accustomed myself to low living, seldom eating except at breakfast & dinner & then with an appetite no ways like my Portugal one; & when at home drinking only water. Since my removal here I have increased the number of my meals, taken porter with my meat, & wine after it. certainly I feel stronger, – but the startings & miserable feelings which have so long distressed me at night still continued & were only lessened by ether, not removed. About a fortnight ago I breathed the oxyd of azote [1]  – the air whose strange effects you must have seen some account of in the Reviews. [2]  I had been fearful of it since my return to Bristol – but on making the experiment, was surprized by its beneficial influence. I slept without for the disease which for months before had invariably preceded sleep. after several nights it recurred again. I repeated the dose. & have taken it about once in three days since, & the complaint has been till now removed. to say the gas has been the cause would be hasty – but I cannot help thinking so. The pain in my side still continues – its intermittance seems to prove that there is no organic affection, & this is the opinion of all my medical friends. the spring is advancing – & I hope something from warmer & less inconstant weather. certainly I will avoid the next winter. the experience of two has satisfied me of the ill effect of that season on my health. I have written to Lisbon, xx x & stated to my Uncle my reason for thinking of removing somewhere abroad, & the sum I can raise for the consequent expence. my reasons also for not determining immediately upon Lisbon, at the same time stating that if he thought that more advisable, all circumstances considered, I would adopt that plan, & employ my time there by seriously beginning the History of the country. [3]  a work which I could compleat in England, but for which the materials & the necessary topographical knowledge must be sought in Portugal. his answer will probably determine me. On the whole I am inclined to wish that his advice may favour this plan. Occasional excursions of a fortnight or three weeks would afford novelty enough, & enable {make} me well acquainted with the whole of the country. I know the language well enough to travel without embarrassment, & the subject of my studies would supply a constant interest of employment. Less than two quarto volumes could not comprize the work. I should suppose not less than three for the great Indian Episode would require one to itself. the pecuniary profit of such a work might be estimated at not much less than a thousand pounds. Gibbons six quartos [4]  acquired him eight thousand. here is a great plan – & the ske embryo skeletons of chapters on the religion & manners & literature of the country are now [MS torn]ng before {me.} & one half filld sheet of paper by the next packet may [MS torn] them all!

I wait here for this letter to regulate by it my movements. either to lose no time in getting into Germany that I may reach Trieste by autumn; or to return to Burton, which will not be & wait there a fit time for my departure to Falmouth. in either case I shall see you – either when I visit London, or when you visit Hampshire.

In the course of a very few weeks I shall have the second Anthology [5]  to send you. numerous contributions have arrived, & I shall not have written a single line myself with an immediate view to the volume. [MS torn] Thalaba eight books are finished.

Will you exert yourself to assist the Chatterton subscription? [6]  I am setting all my friends to work in this way, & a little trouble will render the sister & her daughter [7]  comfortable for life. the volumes will be fairly priced at 16 shillings. we have 177 names on our list, chiefly Bristol & Cumberland nam subscriptions. from Hampshire I expect 20 or 30 more, a greater number from Norfolk. & in London I suppose the great subscription will be. the sale of 750 copies would produce about between four & five hundred pounds. &, the circumstances considered, this will be a smaller subscription than ought to have been expected.

Edith desires to be remembered. God bless you.

yrs affectionately

Robert Southey.

Kingsdown. Bristol. Feby. 9. 1800.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry./ Single
Postmarks: BRISTOL/ FEB 9 1800; 10 o Clock/ FE. 10/ 1800; B/ FEB 10/ 1800
Endorsement: No 48 1800/ Robert Southey/ Kingsdown 9. Feb/ recd: 10 do/ ansd 13 do
MS: Bristol Reference Library, B20959
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 94–97 [in part]; Adolfo Cabral (ed.), Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 62–64 [in part]. BACK

[1] Nitrous oxide, or ‘laughing gas’. BACK

[2] Beddoes’s and Davy’s experiments with nitrous oxide and other gases were publicised in Thomas Beddoes, Notice of Some Observations Made at the Medical Pneumatic Institution (1799) and Humphry Davy, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical, Chiefly Concerning Nitrous Oxide, or Dephlogisticated Nitrous Air, and Its Respiration (1800). Widely reviewed, these accounts were also parodied in ‘The Pneumatic Revellers, An Eclogue’, Anti-Jacobin Review, 6 (May 1800), 109–118. BACK

[3] Southey’s never-completed ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[4] Edward Gibbon (1737–1794; DNB), Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (1776–1788). BACK

[5] Annual Anthology (1800). BACK

[6] Southey and Cottle’s The Works of Thomas Chatterton (1803). BACK

[7] Mary Newton (1749–1804) and her daughter. BACK

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August 2011