571. Robert Southey to John May, 27 March 1801 ⁠* 

March 27. 1801. Lisbon.

My dear friend

Of late my time has been so employed that I neither recollect the time or subject of my last letter. yet I think it related to my brother Harry & expressed a full satisfaction with all the arrangements that have been made for him. On my return to Lisbon I found a letter from him, a manly & sensible letter, of a spirit that anticipated success & bids fair to deserve & obtain it. – I drew on you yesterday again. as I have no propensity to extravagance it is useless to regret expences unavoidable & well bestowed. the work of twelvemonths in England will balance my accounts with xxx you, & again set me equal with my income. – Your little girl [1]  – but consolation is idle common-place. all I could say, you have thought. it is a reparable loss – & the younger the plant the easier are its roots plucked up.

We have – as you probably know from other quarters – been travelling. [2]  Caldas by the Torres Vadras road, Alcobaca, Batalha, the Fabric, Coimbra, Thomar – Santarem – this has been our rout, & in twenty days, with some little expence of money & fatigue – we have seen enough to remember for the remainder of our lives. Miss Seton (Mrs Burns [3]  knows her & her talents) the Miss Petries, [4]  & Waterhouse [5]  whom I have before mentioned as my chief acquaintance here, formed our party. rather too large a one. a Doctor at Aldea da Cruz of whom we besought house room in distress told us that four Ladies were “hum grande incommodo.” [6]  we did not find them so. they made our chocolate at morning, laughed with us by day & enjoyed the scenery, & at night endured flea biting with a patience that entitles them to an honourable place in the next martyrology. All Lisbon I believe thought us [MS obscured] when we set out, & they now regard our return with equal envy, as nothing but our complections have suffered. Edith has acquired a good Squaw tint – & I am of a fine copper, – a perfect Chikkasaw bloom. Our oddest adventure was at Aldea da Cruz, a village under Ourem, mid-way between Leiria & Thomar. the road is little frequented, & the only two rooms at the Estalagem were employed as warehouses for bacalhao. [7]  necessity is never nice. the Corregidor Bernardo Antonio Macedo [8]  called on us & sent four beds for the Ladies. Waterhouse had a pile of salt fish for his bed, & I slept sweetly under it. the next morning among the villagers who were standing to gaze at us I saw a schoolboy lingering with his book under his arm. a fine boy about 12 years old. I looked at his book – the only one he learns. it was “Directions for a converted sinner.” poor boy! I longed for Robinson Crusoe or the Arabian Tales [9]  to give him. At Thomar we had a high entertainment. Koster had given me letters to Verdier. [10]  you probably know him – or at least his character & that of his wife. [11]  the sort of family that novels sometimes picture, & which I never elsewhere saw in real life. a large family trained up in solitude, dotingly attached to each other, drawing, playing, & speaking four languages – all their mothers work – their English such as of native English children. Verdier himself is a great mind wasted. he is immersed in mills & wheels & the dirty work of a manufactory. I grew intimate enough to philosophize with him & attack all his machinery with a moral battery which neither he nor Adam Smith, [12]  nor the whole race of commercialists could withstand. A man of more varied learning, more winning manners, more alive intellect I have rarely seen. Eyes all fire & a sunshine of genius breaking thro a great beard & under a little black worsted cap. Such society was manna in the wilderness.

Waterhouse & I left our party there & proceeded to Abrantes. the passage of the Zezere was the only circumstance interesting on the way. it is a fine river – like all mountain streams of irregular & untameable force. in summer it is fordable. in winter the ferry price varies according to the resistance of the current from one vintem to nine. it then enters the Tagus with equal waters – sometimes with a larger body – for as the rains have fallen heavier North or East, the one river with its rush almost stagnates the other. We crost it in its tamest part; hills of our Clifton height were its banks covered with cistus & heath & the fragrant plants of this country, the water beautifully clear, flowing over sand. A little below its junction we all embarked – at Barquinha, & returned down the Tagus thro flat & objectless shores.

I would speak of Batalha if I were certain you had not seen it, & of Alcobaca [13]  also. Coimbra [14]  delighted us. I never saw a City so nobly situated – nor a view so altogether glorious as we witnessed when approaching it. We had been well wetted the preceeding day from Pombal to Condeixa. the Sun of course was welcome – it shone upon one snowy summit of the Estrella – the farthest object visible – & down the southern boundary of mountains clouds were floating so beamy white – that they seemed like light condensed to a visible shape & substance. the city itself with its fine convents shining on an eminence over the Mondego, now in the fullness of its waters – Our letters there procured us much attention & we saw every thing. for the students – I never elsewhere saw such a mob of impudent blackguards

There is an actual scarcity in the country. the prices of provision differ little in the country from the dearness of Lisbon. The Mail Coach has spoilt the Estalagems – you will laugh & question the possibility of any alteration for the worst thus however it is. they now expect you to call for Port Wine of most poisonous abomination – & butter your toast with uneatable butter. the women also have learnt the true London alehouse manners. Of their charges you may judge by this – from Leiria to Coimbra we were four persons. on that road going & returning our nightly charges always ran from 3//000 to 3//600. at Leiria our number was exactly doubled – & all the rest of the way the expences of the doubled party never exceeded 2//500. – At the Fabric [15]  we slept two nights. Wm Stephens [16]  was not there. you never saw a man so broken down. his memory is gone. to speak upon any subject is a trouble & he is obliged to pause & pause & labour for recollection. –

If circumstances do not expel us earlier than we expect, I hope to go thro Algarve – take the chain of forts along the Guadiana & return by Evora & Beja. the alarm is now general. [17]  my Uncle is packing his books – & I am going to the same work. in May I shall be in England. not very willingly – this climate so completely suits me that I dread the rains & frosts & snows, & fogs of England – I am afraid I shall pine away like a myrtle at a London parlour window. Ediths remembrance. God bless you.

R Southey.


* Address: To/ John May Esqr/ Richmond Green/ Surry./ Single
Postmarks: [partial] OF/ AP; H; 13
Endorsement: No 59. 1801/ Robert Southey/ Lisbon 27th March/ recd. 13th April/ ansd. 20th do.
MS: Beinecke Library, Chauncey Brewster Tinker MS Collection, GEN MSS 310, Box 13, folder 555
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 242-245. BACK

[1] John May’s first child, Susan (b. 26 September 1800), died on 12 February 1801. BACK

[2] For an account of this journey, see Southey’s journal, published in Adolfo Cabral, Robert Southey: Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838 (Oxford, 1960), pp. 15-33. BACK

[3] Wife of William Burn (dates unknown), member of the British factory at Lisbon. BACK

[4] The two Petrie sisters (dates unknown). They were possibly related to Martin Petrie (d. 1805), a Commissary in the British Army. BACK

[5] Samuel Waterhouse (dates unknown), later a prominent member of the British community in Lisbon. BACK

[6] The Portuguese translates as ‘a great nuisance’. BACK

[7] Codfish, often salted. BACK

[8] A local official who presided over the town council and administered justice. BACK

[9] Daniel Defoe (c. 1659-1731; DNB), Robinson Crusoe (1719). The first English version of the group of traditional Arabic stories known as the Arabian Tales had appeared in 1706. BACK

[10] Timoteo Lecussan Verdier (1754-1831), Portuguese man of letters and mill-owner. He was of French origin. BACK

[11] Elena Frizoni (dates unknown). BACK

[12] Adam Smith (1723-1790; DNB), author of the Wealth of Nations (1776). BACK

[13] Medieval monasteries with important libraries. BACK

[14] Medieval capital of Portugal and site of the University of Coimbra, founded in 1290. BACK

[15] A large glass and crystal factory at Marinha Grande. BACK

[16] William Stephens (d. 1802), owner of the Fabric. BACK

[17] Spain had declared war on Portugal on 27 February 1801 and a Spanish invasion was widely expected. BACK

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August 2011