793. Robert Southey to John Rickman, 8 June 1803 ⁠* 

It is many a week since I have written to or heard from you, & probably you as well as myself have been silent more from industry than idleness. & silent I should have continued till my commissions from Lisbon arrive & enable me to say when I shall appear in town, if I had not a question to propound to my Oracle.

How is it that debasing the coin produces such ruinous effects, in countries that not carrying on any extensive commerce, have but very little dealing with foreign states? & at a period when there were no Birmingham traders [1]  to set up a mint of their own? the people always have complained that such a measure has increased the price of every thing – was this effect produced merely by increasing the current value, & so lessening the value of money by increasing the quantity? if so – paper money acts in the same manner – & I want you to explain why a piece of copper may not xxxxx pass for five shillings – or five guineas as well as a piece of silver paper. It is very clear that base money will not do for foreign traffic – but the iron money of Sparta served at home as well as gold. the Castilian trade in the 14th century was too trifling to account for the general complaint. – When you have half an hours leisure do make this matter plain to me.

That rascally Scotch Review of John Woodville [2]  provoked me bitterly by its dishonesty, in exaggerating every fault & overlooking every beauty. the last lines of that play are some of the finest that ever I remember & the whole is full of beauty. the story indeed is very defective, & that from a love of imitation. Lamb loves the Old Plays & thinks he loves them for their whole composition when in fact it is only for xx particular excellencies which outweigh their defects. Coleridge thinks that the reason why those Scotchmen hate him as they evidently do, is because Stoddart [3]  once went to Edinburgh & fell in company with these men & his praise – God knows – would be motive enough to make honester men a priori dislike the object. Exempli gratiâ [4]  if you & I had never seen or known Lamb or Coleridge & heard this unhappy Spider-brained metaphysician speak of them as the greatest men in the world & his most particular friends – should not we be apt to think that Birds of a feather flock together. & put down his friends for a couple of Jack Daws?

I am promised access to the Kings Library [5]  where there is a fine collection of the rarest Portugueze books, the present of a former Embassador. if by access, use be meant this will be indeed a valuable privilege. this damned war (& mark you all the damnation imprecated by me is for the other side of the channel) this foolish – mad – quarrel of that cursed Corsican little Bedlamite, [6]  vexes & perplexes me sadly. he will draw Spain into the scrape – & then Portugal suffers, & will be threatened & invaded. & I cannot upon this uncertainty carry over Edith & Margaret, & my own poor substratum of bones, & stay there to get a little flesh upon them, & lay in health & history. by the xxxx winter – perhaps the Autumn of next year all my materials here will be gone thro, & then I should go over, & fix no period for my return. Now as things are, perhaps it would be my wisest way to go over at once & collect what I can while I can. but then I shall be wishing myself at home. & to look one way & now another is not the way for any one, except a waterman, to get on. Since you heard from me I have had a sad diabetes, a complaint to which I have been often subject – in consequence probably of general weakness, & both last Autumn & last Spring I felt the climate like a confirmed valetudinarian. now I do not value my self so little as to think myself as well underground as above it, for certainly I am good for something else beside church yard manure. & moreover I like life, for I enjoy it, & have as xxx much reason to like it & as much actual happiness as falls to the lot of most men. And I do verily believe that were I settled in such a climate as that of Lisbon it would renew my lifehold lease, & give me a better tenure, & a chance of a much longer life than I can possibly have here – where I am going on somewhat like a myrtle at a parlour window in London. If there should be an army sent to Portugal, as there was last war, I think I would try to get some civil appointment – there are plenty of such appointments with good pay & good rations into the bargain, & perhaps my Uncles interest might help me to one – I could do the business & yet have leisure.

It will not be long before I shall announce my appearance. I have begun to catalogue my books here with a view to filling it up in London. since Amadis [7]  was finished I have done a great deal – I believe half a quarto volume of history. [8]  If I do not make a good book – but it will be very mortifying if I cannot get over to Lisbon & make it as good as I have the will & the wish & the ability.

Edith desires to be remembered. she is well & Margaret grows lustily, & has a pair of as quick eyes as were ever kindled by intelligence.

God bless you.

R S.

Wednesday June 8. 1803.


* Address: John Rickman Esqr
Endorsement: RS/ June 8. 1803.
MS: Huntington Library, RS 35
Previously published: Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, pp. 315-317. BACK

[1] A common term for forgers. BACK

[2] Edinburgh Review, 3 (April 1803), 90-96, reviewed Charles Lamb’s John Woodvil: a Tragedy (1802). BACK

[3] Sir John Stoddart (1773-1856; DNB), lawyer and writer who had toured Scotland in 1800. He had been a disciple of William Godwin, but his radicalism was waning by this period. BACK

[4] The Latin translates as ‘By way of example’. BACK

[5] Library at Windsor collected by George III (1738-1820, King of Great Britain 1760-1820; DNB), and given to the nation in 1823. The Portuguese books were the gift of Luis Pinto de Sousa Coutinho, Viscount of Balsemao (1735-1804), Ambassador to Great Britain 1774-1788, Prime Minister of Portugal 1788-1801 and 1803. BACK

[6] Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821, First Consul 1799-1804, Emperor of the French 1804-1814). BACK

[7] Southey’s translation of Amadis of Gaul (1803). BACK

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

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August 2011