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540. Robert Southey to Humphry Davy, 26 July 1800 ⁠* 

July 26. 1800.

I had the good luck as a poet, & the misfortune as a man to feel the night mare last night. the night was very hot, I had been extremely restless for many hours, the intelligence that my Cousin Margarett was in a decline had reached me in the morning & prevented me from sleeping. a sort of delirious activity at last seemed to possess my imagination & I remember combining in words that the mind heard the most incongruous associations of monstrous thought, involuntarily. I was in a seperate bed, lying on my back, my arms & legs stretched out asunder, the right hand fearing to touch the left on account of the heat. I recollect my last definite feeling was as tho I had been stretched on a wheel that raised up my breast & strained my extremities. after that, I had forgotten myself & the seizure came on. it was a weight on the breast – I thought some evil being was trying to destroy me. I attempted to move but I saw other legs than my own coming from the bed as if mocking me – I thought I was awake – this was the most singular circumstance – I knew where I was – I knew it was the night mare, I knew one word one motion would relieve me yet it appeared that my eyes were open – that I saw a red fire suspended in the middle of the room, that some evil being had caught me. there was a lamp burning on the table. at length with great effort I made a feeble noise which awakened Edith. she called to me – the charm was broken. the oppression brought on the same head seizure to which I was subject in England, & then with very great difficulty I at last made a feeble noise, but enough to awaken Edith. she called to me – the charm was broken. I do not wonder at the old superstition, for nothing can so strongly impress the belief of an evil agency. you have an accurate account of what my feelings were, & given while the recollection is still vivid.

You request a particular account of the effect the change of climate &c has produced upon me. I slept so well on my arrival that I made no use of the Laudanum which Pitcairns [1]  prescribed. as to diet I have drank more wine, & it is likewise probable that eating much fruit by assisting digestion may have had some beneficial effects. but assuredly the total change of external objects & the climate must have {been} the great causes. my spirits have been uniformly high, & the bodily anxiety which threatened very badly in England, gone. last week my Uncle was seized with a sick head ache. I did not know he was subject to this, & it alarmed me as the probable fore runner of a fever. I lay in fear at night listening to hear him breathe or move. that night I was attacked as when in England. anxiety had renewed the complaint. the news of my Cousins state of health produced the same effect. Pitcairns was right when he told me I should not soon be thoroughly recovered.

It must be Climate that has been most beneficial. I have no society in which I take pleasure, or feel any interest whatever. thus am I without the greatest inducement to chearfulness, & in a state of mental solitude which might be thought likely to depress the mind. it is true I look on to England – I write, read – gather information & hear good news – but it is told me with a long face, & there is only one Englishman, [2]  whom I can see but seldom, who looks at the world with eyes like my own.

Voltas [3]  experiment is important. it should appear as the galvanic fluid stimulates to motion, that it is the same as the nervous fluid; & your system will prove true at last. has it yet been tried whether the electrical shock will produce the same motion in frogs as the galvanic fluid? – I have seen Dr Constantia [4]  he has tried the fox-glove unsuccessfully. I thought possibly from having a tincture not well made, & gave him the bottles from your manufactory. since then I have not seen him. the consumption is certainly a disease not uncommon among the natives. if with the Alfred [5]  you could send some of the new acid [6]  securely packed – I would give it him to try in venereal cases. what you sent was so insecurely stopped that I could not venture to bring it. – I tremble for Alfred. those long speeches! & if reviewed by a hostile or even an indifferent hand – had he listened to me, cut out his dialogues & introduced machinery he would have done. angel & devil nature he could have known as much about as his neighbour, but of human feelings he knows nothing, & might as well write an account of the moon & a history of the Man in it. I shall {expect} it with your book the next voyage that Yescombe [7]  makes, that is in about a month from this time.

Thalaba [8]  is finished, & my employment is now correcting & copying it for the press. my resolution being to send it over for publication. I have new plans of poetry, but it is impossible to build without materials, & the books needful are in England. I design a romance founded upon the creed of Zoroaster, [9]  the scene of course in Persia. the leading character one of the Sons of the Great King: persecuted by the Evil Powers, but every evil that they inflict developes – he in him some virtue which his situation had smothered. a Greek slave is a prominent character, & the conclusion is that the Persian Prince is exalted into a Citizen of Athens. here is an opportunity for seasoning the dish to my taste. no farther has the story got. – for another & more serious poem I design the Establishment of the Inquisition to serve as subject. St Dominic [10]  (more properly Domingos) the hero. a man indulging the blackest feelings of malignity & cruelty & believing them religious virtues. you may perhaps smile but by writing two Poems xxxx at once I expect to save time. because I may write a book of one, while the story for a book of the other matures, & thus not pause so long between the books of each as would be necessary to let the seeds ripen. these however are to be written in England. what I bring home will be labours of another cast.

For the History of Portugal [11]  I shall be likely to have a compleat & finished subject. the country is in a decline & cannot recover, beyond this it is not easy to speculate. Spain is so weak & xx tottering & nearer the edge of the precipice, but both must inevitably fall – I trust to rise again in a better shape. I have collected much miscellaneous matter relative to this place; so much indeed that my chief reason for sending over Thalaba for publication, will be to make roo[MS torn] & leisure for other publications on my return.

Coleridges translation [12]  is admirable – but Coleridge who can write as well as Schiller [13]  ought not to have translated. he has done wrong, I think, in removing so far [14]  from his other friends & wholly giving himself to Wordsworth. it is wrong on his own account, & more so on his wifes, who is now at an unreachable distance from all her sisters. What of the Life of Lessing? [15]  the Essay on the Genius of Schiller amused me. [16]  it is not the first nor the second time that he has advertised what has not been written. Remember me to Tobin. he will ask what is the use of Thalaba, & condemn me with all a Metaphysicians apathy. he will x I know he must detest the Hexameters, & suspect my metre will not come off much better. but his ears are not much better than his eyes. [17]  God bless him! I know no one more zealous in a good cause.

I am induced to think with the Portugueze that consumption is an infectious disorder – by what has been told me here. if it really be so, its frequency in England may, in some degree, be ascribed to the prevalence of the contrary opinion. you will know where there is any possible means of ascertaining it, by examining the breath given out by patients whose lungs are decidedly affected. – I see the author of Gebir has been translating from the Arabic & Persian. [18]  can there possibly be Arabic & Persian poetry which the author of Gebir may be excused for translating? – God bless you.

yrs affectionately RS.



* Address: To/ Mr Davy./ Pneumatic Institution./ Hot Wells./ Bristol./ Single
Stamped: LISBON
Endorsement: July 1800
MS: Royal Institution, London, Davy MSS
Previously published: John Davy (ed.), Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (London, 1858), pp. 43–47 [in part]. BACK

[1] The London-based physician David Pitcairn (1749–1809; DNB), who discovered the connection between rheumatic fever and valvular disease of the heart. Ill health drove him to Portugal in 1798. He spent eighteen months there, his visit overlapping with Southey’s. BACK

[2] Probably Southey’s uncle, Herbert Hill. BACK

[3] Alessandro Volta (1745–1827) had invented the ‘voltaic pile’, an early form of electric battery, in 1800. Humphry Davy built on this work, making several crucial contributions in the new field of electrolysis. BACK

[4] Unidentified. BACK

[5] Joseph Cottle, Alfred, an Epic Poem in Twenty-Four Books (1800). BACK

[6] Probably nitrous acid; see Thomas Beddoes, A Collection of Testimonies Respecting the Treatment of the Venereal Disease by Nitrous Acid (1799). BACK

[7] Edward Bayntun Yescombe (1765–1803), Captain of the packet, King George, which sailed between Falmouth and Lisbon. BACK

[8] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[9] Zoroaster (11/10th centuries BC), Prophet and founder of Zoroastrianism, the state religion in Persia until the 7th century; see Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 23 July 1800, Letter 538. BACK

[10] St Dominic (c. 1170–1221), born Domingo Guzman, in Castile. Founder of the Dominican friars, he preached extensively against the Albigensian heresy in southern France; the Dominicans were later closely associated with the Inquisition; see Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, p. 11. BACK

[11] Southey’s unfinished ‘History of Portugal’. BACK

[12] The Piccolomini, or the First Part of Wallenstein, a Drama in Five Acts. Translated from the German of Frederick Schiller by S. T. Coleridge (1800) and The Death of Wallenstein. A Tragedy in Five Acts. Translated from the German of Frederick Schiller by S. T. Coleridge (1800). BACK

[13] Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller (1759–1805), German playwright. BACK

[14] Coleridge told Davy of his move to Keswick in a letter of July 15 [16] 1800 (E.L. Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols (Oxford, 1956–1971), I, pp. 604–607), though his family joined him on 24 July 1800. Wordsworth was living at Dove Cottage in nearby Grasmere. BACK

[15] Coleridge had projected a life of the German dramatist Gotthold Lessing (1729–1781). It was not written. BACK

[16] The Oracle, 4 April 1800, for example, announced that ‘In the Press and speedily to be published’ was an ‘Essay on the Genius of Schiller’. It did not appear. BACK

[17] The abolitionist James Webbe Tobin had suffered from increasingly poor eyesight since the mid-1790s; hence his nickname ‘Blind Tobin’. BACK

[18] [Walter Savage Landor], Poems from the Arabic and Persian; with notes by the author of Gebir (1800). BACK

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August 2011