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It is hard to think of a literary figure so central to the major aesthetic and political debates of his or her times and whose work has been so clouded and obscured by later generations of critics and literary historian as that of Robert Southey. Southey befriended Coleridge before Wordsworth and, between them, the two young poets advocated a new kind of simplicity in poetic verse, as well as the communitarian scheme of Pantisocracy which suited their then radical politics. Southey developed (after Beckford and Landor), in Thalaba the Destroyer and the Curse of Kehama, the Orientalist epic that Byron would later tailor to the early nineteenth century taste for the exotic. His verse contains one of the first female vampires in English literary history. He pushed the national epic in new directions with his Joan of Arc and Madoc. Southey was a key member of the ‘Lake School’, as defined by Francis Jeffrey, in an attempt to outline and criticize a new poetic grouping antithetical to the decorum and rules of neo-classicism. He was an important influence, then antagonist, of the next generation of younger, radical poets, Byron and Shelley for whom he became the archetypal political apostate, an ‘epic renegade’ for an epic time. He was an important commentator and essayist who wrote voluminously about his own age and its leading trends and fashions. On a biographical note he was probably the man responsible for ensuring a cold-footed Coleridge’s marriage to his intended sister-in-law Sara Fricker, a miscalculation he paid for heavily when Coleridge offloaded his wife and family on him a few years later.
It is hard for us to imagine exactly what the literary scene would have been like without his presence. Would ‘Romanticism’ as we know it, look anything like it does to us today without his contribution? Almost certainly not. As General Editor Lynda Pratt points out, Southey is ‘a kind of “missing link” in contemporary romantic studies’ (I, xxiii). The editors of this new edition of Southey’s Poetical Works, 1793-1810 (Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts) are clear that Southey is not just an important poet of the period (such as George Crabbe for instance) but also a key Romantic poet: ‘Southey was at the heart of the movement we call Romanticism, and that his Oriental romance, just as much as ‘Tintern Abbey’ or ‘The Ancient Mariner’, is a quintessential Romantic poem’ (3, xxiii). Yet there has as yet been no authoritative and complete edition of this quintessential Romantic writer’s poetry or prose. Not for him were the substantial editorial projects that expensively produced multi-volume editions from Cornell or Princeton University Presses. We are therefore extremely grateful for this magnificent new, five-volume edition of Southey’s poetry from Pickering and Chatto, edited by a team of distinguished Romanticists (and Southey scholars) led by Pratt, who produced three of the volumes herself. This is the first modern scholarly edition of Southey’s poetry and it coincides with a period of major reassessment of his complex contributions to romantic period culture. It includes extensive use of previously unpublished manuscript poems and texts not included in the major lifetime edition of Poetical Works (1837–8).
To an extent the edition reproduces the quandary that informs our positions on Southey. Do we take him seriously as a poet, or does his importance stem from his privileged historical position and his undeniable influence as model and/or as satirical Byronic target? Is Southey a key Romantic writer, or is his work somehow an alternative kind of Romantic writing to that of Wordsworth, so long metonymic of Romanticism itself. I’m not sure that this edition resolves either of these issues; for instance, volume 5 consists of ‘Selected Shorter Poems’ selected on the grounds of their representativeness and resulting from the exigencies of space. It’s hard to imagine this treatment for any canonical writer even when collecting obvious failures, juvenalia and hackwork. There is the sense that Southey’s poems are reducible to representative exemplars of the kind of poetry they wrote, whereas Coleridge’s or Wordsworth’s would not be. The editors accept many of the views and comments of Southey’s own reviewers as well as his own anxieties that he wrote too much and too quickly; but they have a sense that a great deal of the great deal that he wrote is extremely good and deserves serious treatment beyond that of mere recovery; good enough, at least, to require the extensive archival and scholarly labour that these five volumes evince on almost every page. Certainly one thing that this edition will do will be to demonstrate that Southey was, indeed, capable of fine writing in various modes, capable writing tales of narrative bravura, as well as of composing poetry of surprising wit and subtlety. Of course, as this edition concentrates on the period 1793-1810 when Southey’s ‘reputation as a poet and controversialist was established’ (I, xxvii) we don’t have Wat Tyler, A Vision of Judgment, Roderick Last of the Goths or A Tale of Paraguay to complicate our critical perspective.
Our critical perspectives on Southey are perhaps already complicated enough by this edition. First it is important to point out just how much primary work the editorial team has accomplished. They have located the extant manuscripts relating to these poems, and collated them with their various copytexts noting with scholarly precision substantive variants. They have looked afresh at Southey’s formidable body of published notes and identified, in practically all cases, the original source of the note and the actual book itself which the poet used (for Thalaba the editor has identified every case but one); a huge task as Southey is notoriously imprecise or inaccurate about where his materials derive from, citing author and brief title. They have translated all the non-English passages (and Southey was a gifted and fluent linguist). More than this they have grappled with the unique problems that Southey presents as a poet. Scholars of Romanticism who have delved into Southey have hitherto been forced to rely on what Pratt calls the ‘heavily revised, self-canonising Poetical Works’ of 1837-8 (I, xxiii), or on the earlier editions found in research libraries. Many of us were certainly grateful for the Woodstock facsimile reprints of the 1796 Joan and the 1801 Thalaba but few of us will have fully appreciated the complexity of the composition and publication history of these tests. While Romanticist are relatively comfortable with the idea that there are several versions of Wordsworth’s ‘Prelude’ and Coleridge’s ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, they have yet to grapple and with the facts of Southey many revisions prior and after the publication of his texts and that many of these earlier version exist in manuscript form.
This edition takes the first published text as the copy in the belief that these were the texts that influenced Southey’s contemporaries most and thus of chief interest to us; however, in cases such as Joan of Arc and Madoc, other versions of the text are printed. Both the 1796 and 1798 versions of Joan are contained in volume I, and volume 2 prints the 1805 published edition of Madoc and the earliest extant draft of the poem (c. 1794-5) and, crucially, the fair copy of the fifteen-book version of 1797-99 (the Tinker MS). This is important because the latter was the version of the poem that circulated in Bristol during the late 1790s and was the version known to friends like Coleridge. Critics of Madoc have long been handicapped by the textual problems of this poem, now with the benefit of the fruits Pratt’s many years of study, they can understand more clearly the genesis and transformation of the poem Southey regarded as his ‘magnum opus’. As Pratt writes, ‘Madoc emerges from this process of textual reclamation as a complex poem, one whose shifts (from radicalism to enlightenment toleration, to conversion narrative) reflect the ideological and intellectual conflicts that besets its authour and also the period within which it was written and consumed’ (2, xxvi). Joan also underwent wholesale revision prior to their publication. The first version of the poem of 1795 was very much a collaborative effort between Southey and Coleridge at the height of their creative partnership; later versions show how Southey refined his own vision of the maid’s career. Romanticists will now be able to understand this process much better with the help of Pratt’s extensive and scrupulous scholarship and too appreciate the poem as a work by Southey and not a failed Coleridgean collaboration. In printing these multiple versions, the reader can more easily can track the changes in Southey’s views from radical to evangelist of the British Empire and the Anglican Church, with his hero Thalaba in 1838 speaking ‘like a good iconoclastic Protestant of the ‘Lord’ rather than a fervent believer in Mohammed’ (3, 28) .
A further problem which Southey presents in his epics, Thalaba, Madoc and Kehama is of course what to do with his copious annotations to his work. Nineteenth-century editions tended to simply print the text of Southey’s poetry without his notes. Southey, however, needed to print his notes to give both authority and context to his writing and to show how he had laboured in his ‘laboratory of cultures’. A knowledge of the sources and an understanding of the notes of his epics are vital for the serious scholar of his work, and this edition devotes from its predecessosr in restoring this body of work to the text. Printing the notes was problematic for Southey in his own time. He regretted their placing on the same page as the text of the 1801 Thalaba, and in subsequent editions moved them to the end of the each book of the poem. The editors of the Pickering and Chatto Southey have sensibly placed Southey’s own notes so that they follow the poetic text. This leave the page clear for the poetry annotated with variants from all later authorised editions at the foot of the page. To have mixed the notes, editorial annotation of the notes, and textual variants on each page would have made the text unreadable. Less satisfactory is the expedient of removing the editors’ annotations to Southey’s notes to the end of the volumes themselves, though such sacrifices to the utility of the volume are often required for the work to be produced at all. This edition is also the first sustained and serious attempt to deal with Southey’s notes and identify their sources.
Each volume contains an introductory essay setting the texts within their literary, historical and critical contexts, and detailed textual discussion. Throughout these are exemplary, informed and sensitive to their subject with much fascinating information about Southey’s compositional habits and artistic objectives. They share the clear aim of the edition to restore Southey to the central position that he held in Francis Jeffrey’s dissection of the literary scene of the early nineteenth century. At times this claim can be overstated. Kehama and Thalaba are seen as important in that they influenced or were related to ‘Kubla Khan’ (though one suspects neither editor would challenge the literary supremacy of Coleridge’s short poem). So too the claim that Thalaba is, after Coleridge’s ‘Ancient Mariner’, the main influence on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a little strong (one might prefer the candidatures of Milton and Aeschylus for instance). Above all there remains the suspicion that our new interest in Southey’s poetry derives not from a wish to expand, redefine or rediscover the literary terrain of Romanticism itself, but from the relevance of Southey’s interest to our own postcolonial concern with the representation of other cultures and the conflicts of national identity, concerns to which Thalaba, Kehama, Madoc, and Joan speak loudly and insistently. It will be interesting to see if the volume of Southey’s shorter poems receives the same attention as the epics in our post 9/11 times. Certainly this is an important and authoritative publication and one that will surely serve as a key scholarly resource for many years to come.