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861. Robert Southey to Mary Barker, [6 December 1803] ⁠* 

Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain. [1]  – Why do I write upon this paper? – better is half a loaf than no bread. [2]  the paper is good paper – very substantial & good. cost me seventeen shillings per ream. I could not get any letter paper here & this when folded in the true batchelorship form will look very respectable at the post office.

I like your Stork well – & doubt not you will like my motto for it – which is – riddle-my-riddle-my-ree. I can find no better – but I can do what is better – for the device being a true emblem I can make a poem upon it which being put in one volume will serve instead of a motto for all the rest. & I can put you in the Poem – so send me the drawing & I will write in the very spirit of old honest Wither [3]  – God rest his soul, he was a fine, sulky stubborn, good-hearted, mutinous Puritan, & tho he was dull his warm heart sometimes heated his imagination & then he did write divinely. I wish you had seen as many Storks as I have. it is the most picturesque of European birds in its habits, stalking in the marshes or flapping homeward at evening to the church tower, or the ruined castle. the nest would cover the top of a pillar completely.

And now about the Madoc-drawings. [4]  I will get the book with the Mexican costumes [5]  down here by the time you make your appearance hand in hand with May – or with April day if you think that would be coupling you suitably. Summer is not the season for the country. Coleridge says, & says well, that then it is like a theatre at noon, there are no goings on under a clear sky – but at all other seasons, there is such shifting of shades – such islands of light, such columns & buttresses of sunshine – as ought almost make a painter burn his brushes – as the sorcerers did their books of magic when they saw the divinity which rested upon the apostles. [6]  The very snow which you would perhaps think must monotonize the mountains, gives new varieties. it brings out their recesses & designates all their inequalities – it impresses a better feeling of their height, & it reflects such tints of saffron – or fawn – or rose colour to the evening sun – O Maria Sanctissima [7]  – Mount Horeb [8]  with the glory upon its summit might have been more glorious – but not more beautiful than old Skiddaw in his winter pelice of ermine. I will not quarrel with frost – tho the fellow has the impudence to take me by the nose. the Lake side has such ten thousand charms! a fleece of snow or of the hoar frost lies on the fallen trees of large stones – the grass points that just peer above the water are powdered with diamonds. the ice on the margin with chains of crystal & such veins & wavy lines of beauty as mock all art – & to crown all Coleridge & I have found out that stones thrown upon the lake when frozen – make a noise like singing birds – & when you whirl on it a large flake of ice, away the shivers slide chirping & warbling like a flight of finches. –

But once more to the drawings. Madoc is not such a painters poem as Thalaba [9]  tho you doubtless will find out more in it than I can. But it will be possible to make very learned drawings which will be useful. let me see what subject seems practicable. – The blind old man sitting on the smooth stone beside the brook & feeling Madocs face, that will surely do. [10]  – The canoes rowing Madoc over the lake on a floating Island. [11]  – Coanocotzin showing Madoc where the dead Tepilomi stood up against the wall, by devilish art Preserved, & from his black & shrivelled hand The steady lamp hung down. [12]  I cannot find any other passage as yet that is picture-fit. The interest is more internal than in Thalaba. The intellect is more addressed than the eye. it has more to do with feeling than with fancy. However I shall read it over with you, & then we will see with both our pair of eyes at once – Senhora I conceive two sets of eyes to see more clearly than one & a pair of spectacles.

I should be very much fretted if I had not determined never to suffer any manufactory of fiddlestrings in my inside. my youngest brother, of whom you have always heard me prophesy ill, is playing the Devil. he has left his ship – is living with some stranger [13]  at Exeter – running in debt – & taking up money in my name – & thus at the age of fifteen. Of course I have protested his drafts & refused to pay his bills – & he & his new friend & his accursed Aunt (who it seems advised him to quit the navy & has since quarrelled with him) may settle the scrape how they can. If ever I write my life the family anecdotes will be exceedingly amusing – like the history of the plagues of Egypt [14]  to those who have no concern in them. I have made up a theory upon the process of family diseases which will stand test I think. – how all oddities are different appearances of some intellectual affection – some disease or disorganization of the brain – & that if mine had not broken out in poetry – I should have been an Evangelical in sad sober earnest – & perhaps have sprouted prophecies in Moor-fields. [15] 

Fare you well. you see I am in good spirits. in plain verity I will not be cast down for what man can do. When God afflicts me it is for wise purposes – & I bow & suffer & am the better. But whenever the folly or depravity of any person with whom it is my misfortune to be connected, annoys me – I feel it as an insult – & permit resentment to prevail in me, as the best antidote to vexation. If you have never read Epictetus – get Mrs. Carters translation [16]  & become wiser & happier.



Tuesday night.


* Address: To/ Miss Barker/ Congreve/ Penkridge/ Staffordshire.
Stamped: KESWICK/ 298
MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Robert Galloway Kirkpatrick Jnr, ‘The Letters of Robert Southey to Mary Barker From 1800 to 1826’ (unpublished PhD, Harvard, 1967), pp. 79-83
Previously published: John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, pp. 256–259 [in part; dated February 1804].
Dating note: Dated from internal evidence; Tuesday was 6 December in 1803. BACK

[1] The third commandment, Exodus 20: 7. BACK

[2] A proverb that goes back at least to the 16th century. BACK

[3] George Wither (1588-1667; DNB), poet, satirist and Parliamentarian soldier during the Civil War. BACK

[4] Southey had finished a version of Madoc in 1797-1799 and was revising it for publication. It did not appear until 1805. BACK

[5] Francisco Javier Clavigero (1731-1787), Storia Antica del Messico (1780), no. 659 in the sale catalogue of Southey’s library. BACK

[6] Acts of the Apostles 19: 19. BACK

[7] The Latin translates as ‘O Mary most holy’. It is the title of a Latin hymn to the Virgin Mary. BACK

[8] Exodus 3: 1; the mountain on which Moses received the Ten Commandments. BACK

[9] Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). BACK

[10] Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 3, lines 228-238. BACK

[11] Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 6, lines 131-137. BACK

[12] Madoc (1805), Part 1, Book 6, lines 249-252. BACK

[13] John Barham Foster-Barham (1763-1822), a wealthy merchant in the West India trade and partner in Plummer, Barham & Co. How Edward Southey had made his acquaintance is unclear. BACK

[14] Exodus 7-12. The ten plagues visited on the Egyptians for refusing to let the Israelites leave. BACK

[15] Moorfields was an open area in London that became a site for Methodist preaching, especially in the Tabernacle, first constructed in 1741. BACK

[16] Elizabeth Carter (1717–1806; DNB), All the Works of Epictetus which are now Extant (1758). BACK

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August 2011