In October 1800 the poet, travel-writer and polemicist Robert Southey was in Portugal. He wrote to his friend John Rickman asking him to act as his agent in negotiations for the publication of his latest poem, an oriental romance entitled Thalaba the Destroyer. Rickman was a civil servant not a poet and Southey gave him advice on which London publishers to approach (first Longman, then Arch and then Philips) and assured him that he should have no difficulties in obtaining good terms from one of them. The new poem was, he noted, eminently saleable and its author’s “name would carry it through an edition though it were worthless” (L&C 2: 121). Southey had every right to be confident about the currency of his own “name”. By 1800 he had published three collections of miscellaneous verse (Poems (1795, 1797 and 1799)), a travel book (Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal) and an epic poem (Joan of Arc). He had in addition edited two volumes of contemporary verse (the Annual Anthology) and translated the second part of Jacques Necker’s On the French Revolution. His works had been widely reviewed by the metropolitan periodical press and their literary and political radicalism had helped to make him notorious. In 1797-8 he had been named and shamed by the conservative Anti-Jacobin as the prolific leader of a “NEW SCHOOL” of seditious poets and caricatured by Gillray as a donkey-headed worshipper at the shrine of the “New Morality” (A-JWE 1: 6-7 and Anti-Jacobin Review 1: between 114-5).
Southey’s attitude to his own contemporary celebrity was complex. He consciously courted a high public profile, continuing to publish poems on political subjects even in the late 1790s (for example “The English Eclogues”, “The Devil’s Thoughts” and “The King of the Crocodiles”, PW 5: 306-29, 380-4, 397-402, 426-32, 451-4, 365-8). At the same time he expressed awareness of the dangers of being publicly labelled a radical in a climate that was increasingly repressive and anti-jacobinical (L&C 1: 329). Although he was not prepared to remain silent, many of his most radical poems of the late 1790s first appeared not in volumes with his name on the title page but as anonymous (occasionally pseudonymous) contributions to London newspapers, including Daniel Stuart’s Morning Post (see MP and PW 5: passim). His attitude to the print culture in which he so vigorously participated was equally fraught. As he explained to Rickman, although his new poem, Thalaba, was guaranteed to sell:
In literature, as in the playthings of schoolboys and the frippery of women, there are the ins and outs of fashion. Sonnets and satires and essays have their day, - and my Joan of Arc has revived the epomania that Boileau cured the French of 120 years ago; but it is not every one who can shoot with the bow of Ulysses, and the gentlemen who think they can bend the bow because I made the string twang, will find themselves somewhat disappointed.L&C 2: 121-2
Southey was not unique amongst a younger generation of poets in criticising the “ins and outs of fashion”. His observations were sent to Rickman in the same year that William Wordsworth used the “Preface” added to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads to denounce his contemporaries’ love of “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” (LB 1: xix). In their stead he offered two volumes of “Poems” that were he claimed “materially different, from those on which general approbation is at present bestowed” (1: viii). Wordsworth’s desire to reform culture also made him keen to distance himself from his peers, even collaborators such as Coleridge (for example, Wordsworth’s 1800 note to “The Thorn” LB 1: 211-4). At one point he had considered changing his collection’s name in case readers confused it with Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales and at his express request the 1800 edition contained no advertisements for the works of other writers (EY 298, 297; Curran, “Lyrical Tales” 18-19).
Southey was equally concerned about the state of contemporary culture and his own very public poetic and linguistic experiments of the mid and late 1790s had helped to pave the way for Lyrical Ballads. Yet although he was quick to dismiss the capriciousness of literary fashion, placing it on a par with the likings of schoolboys and women rather than those of adult males, he was also aware of his own position. A prolific, experimental writer, by 1800 he had already tried his hand at all the genres he listed to Rickman and more beside. Moreover, as his observations about the “epomania” generated by his Joan of Arc reveal, he was a poet whose productions were complicit in the fashioning of contemporary taste. He was a trend-setter whom other poetically-inclined “gentlemen” found it both desirable and difficult to ape. Wordsworth, who had published nothing under his own name since An Evening Walk and Descriptive Sketches in 1793, offered to reform contemporary taste by completely abstracting himself from it. Southey, a “name” to contemporary readers, reveals his engagement with his literary peers and involvement in a culture governed by its mobility and diversity. In so doing he demonstrates the importance of a re-historicised Romanticism, of a fuller knowledge of a culture in which a multiplicity of “Books” and literary forms, not just a handful of privileged texts and genres, provide a “portrait of the public mind” (Southey, Letters 130).
II. Romances and Epics
Thalaba, the poem sent to Rickman, was a major illustration of his ability to actualise generic potential and to influence contemporary culture. Southey was an important pioneer of a quintessential and central romantic period form – the annotated exotic verse romance. He published two oriental longer poems: Thalaba (in 1801) and The Curse of Kehama (in 1810) and in addition planned further ones based upon different world mythologies (for examples see Robberds 1: 447). The combination of metrically experimental verse with annotations taken from a dazzling array of sources was a potent one. Drawing upon his own reading in works of literature, travel, history, religion and ethnography, Southey’s innovation was to provide in poetic form a series of tales of other lands. His romances shrink different cultures, making them both accessible to and manageable for a British readership that sought to know, colonise and govern the territories and peoples acquired by an expansionist empire. They also provided a model that his contemporaries both followed and reacted against, as Scott’s verse romances, Tom Moore’s Lalla Rookh, Byron’s oriental tales and Shelley’s Alastor demonstrate (PW 3: xxiv-xxvii).
Thalaba and Kehama are evidence that Southey was a powerful poet for a new imperial age. His contributions to contemporary debates about governance and national identity were also found in his engagement with one of the highest of all literary forms – the epic. Southey’s epic ambitions began early and eventually resulted in three poems: Joan of Arc (1796), Madoc (1805) and Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). He was not the first or only poet of the romantic period to produce an epic but he was one of the most publicly controversial and confrontational. For example, Madoc rejected the “degraded title of epic”, whilst Joan openly violated the decorum of the national poem by celebrating a labouring-class, French heroine at a time when England was at war with revolutionary France (PW 2: 6). In addition, he was often publicly dismissive of the epic-writing pretensions of fellow poets, attaching a lengthy satirical analysis of Jean Chapelain’s La Pucelle to the second edition of Joan (PW 1: 206-33) and proposing to publish a volume devoted to the “Analysis of Obscure Epic Poems” (qtd in Pratt, “Patriot Poetics” 103). This would also showcase his own talents, as he explained, “when I see a fine subject massacred [by another writer] I may throw off a passage of my own to show what could have been made of it” (103).
Southey’s overt parading of his revisionist intentions, combined with the radical politics espoused in his first published epic Joan, inevitably elicited a response from his contemporaries. As late as 1799 the Anti-Jacobin described the second edition of Joan as “treacherous”, a product of a “seditious” rather than a “poetic spirit” (Anti-Jacobin Review 3: 121). Indeed the poem’s critique of the unthinking nationalism latent in the genre encouraged a revitalisation (rather than a repudiation) of contemporary interest in writing an epic poem about an English subject. As John Thelwall’s “Edwin of Northumbria”, and Joseph Cottle and Henry James Pye’s poems on Alfred the Great demonstrated, it was still possible to celebrate a hero “who has ever been esteemed the pride and glory of the English nation” (Cottle, Alfred 39 n.3). Although the ways in which writers chose to do so in their turn exposed the political complexities of a period in which there was more than one language of patriotism, in which all sides claimed to act for the national good. For example, Pye was the Poet Laureate and his epic was written to celebrate the Act of Union 1801. With its conservative style (epic similes, catalogues of heroes, single combats and visions of the nation’s future) and its celebration of a country united under its king and aristocracy in a defence against foreign invaders, his Alfred provided both an allegory of contemporary politics and a loyalist response to the radical displacements of Joan (Pratt, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” 146-50). As the Anti-Jacobin pointed out, it was an epic that Southey would “do well to consider seriously before he insults his country a second time by an ostentatious display of the triumphs of her enemies” (Anti-Jacobin 9: 232). Cottle had published Joan and in contrast his poem on the Anglo-Saxon monarch learned from and extended the theme of epic revisionism. It rejected the genre’s reliance upon scenes of war and bloodshed, rethought the nature of heroism and relied upon a democratised style (Pratt, “Anglo-Saxon Attitudes” 152-6). In so doing it also showed Southey that a radicalised national epic on an English theme was not merely desirable but also achievable (Curran, Poetic Form 68-9).
Awareness of Southey’s epics, as much as an ambition to emulate Milton, also lay behind Coleridge and Wordsworth’s preoccupation with the genre. Initially these concerns were articulated as a critique of Joan (for example, EY 169). In itself this was indicative of both poets’ anxiety about Southey’s achievements and his colonising of a high-status cultural territory that they might also wish to make their own. Coleridge, who had contributed to the first edition of Joan, physically removed his lines from the copy he sent to John Thelwall in December 1796 (CL 1: 285). In spring 1797 he went further criticising Southey for writing “too much at his ease” and ignoring the “lofty imaginings” of “the poet” in favour of “story and event” (CL 1: 320). Making an implicit comparison with his brother-in-law’s practice, he added that when writing a major work he would follow the model established by Milton and could “not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem” (CL 1: 320). He almost certainly realised that Cottle, the recipient of these confidences, would pass them onto Southey. Although he and Wordsworth were to plan a number of individual and jointly-authored epic projects, such as “The Destruction of Jerusalem”, “The Brook” and “The Recluse”, none of these was ever completed. This did not however mean that their sense of the “age” being “a happy [one] … for tossing off an Epic or two” diminished (CL 1: 646). As Coleridge increasingly cast himself in the role of note-taker for “The Recluse” and would-be author of a prefatory “Essay on Epic Poetry” to Southey’s second revisionist epic Madoc, Wordsworth took a different route (EY 452; CL 1: 546). In the late 1790s, a period which coincided with Southey’s work on his Welsh-American epic, he began to write a sequence of blank verse which was to reject both the anti-national model of Joan and “some British theme, some old/Romantic tale by Milton left unsung” in favour of a different, less explicitly public subject – the growth of the poet’s mind (Prelude (1805): 1. 179-80). Wordsworth’s poem was not published until after his death in 1850 and therefore obtained only a limited, essentially coterie romantic period readership. Moreover, its internalised Romanticism significantly emerged out of and co-existed alongside the public Romanticism of Southey’s epics, their imitators and their successors. Amongst the latter was the long poem Wordsworth did choose to publish and which had an important impact on his contemporary and nineteenth-century audiences although it was often overlooked by twentieth-century ones - The Excursion.
Southey’s ability to revitalise or refashion an individual genre and the implications of that process for our understanding both of romantic period engagements with literary form and of Romanticism also emerge in his use of another form of public (or at least potentially public) poetry – the inscription. He began to write inscriptions in the mid 1790s, later confessing that he had been inspired to do so by his reading of Mark Akenside (RSPW 3: [xi]). The connections between the latter’s blank verse inscriptions and Coleridge and Wordsworth, to whom they offered a means of moralising and spiritualising the landscape, have long been recognised, as has the potency of the latter’s experiments with the genre (Hartman 389-413; Jump 207-24). Akenside was also a “favourite author” of Southey’s and his inscriptions, in particular “For a Column at Runnymede”, provided the younger poet with a means of actualising the historical potential of a place, of producing a series of poems which were both highly politicised and highly public (RSPW 3: [xi]; Akenside 397-8). As the title of Akenside’s poem suggests, the conceit of writing onto a place or thing, of writing for structures that might have a potential as opposed to actual existence, is central to the genre of the inscription. In the 1790s Southey published a series of inscriptions for projected monuments in England, Wales and Spain. For example, “For a column at Truxillo” [Pizarro's birthplace], “For a column in Smithfield where Wat Tyler was killed” and “For a monument at Old Sarum” (PW 5: 147, 170-1, 345). The most notorious of these was designed for an actual location, a room in the castle at Chepstow, on the borders of England and Wales:
PW 5: 64-5
For thirty years secluded from mankind
Here Marten linger'd. Often have these walls
Echoed his footsteps, as with even tread
He pac'd around his prison; not to him
Did Nature's fair varieties exist;
He never saw the Sun's delightful beams;
Save when thro' yon high bars he pour'd a sad
And broken splendour. Dost thou ask his crime?
He had rebell'd against the King, and sat
In judgment on him; for his ardent mind
Shap'd goodliest plans of happiness on earth,
And Peace and Liberty. Wild dreams! but such
As Plato lov'd; such as with holy zeal
Our Milton worshipp'd. Blessed hopes! awhile
From man with-held, even to the latter days
When Christ shall come, and all things be fulfill'd.
“For the apartment in Chepstow Castle where Henry Marten the Regicide was imprisoned thirty years” was published in Southey's 1797 collection Poems (59-60). Its radical politics were not allowed to pass unremarked by his contemporaries. On 20 November 1797 the newly-founded, loyalist Anti-Jacobin; or weekly examiner issued a riposte entitled “For the door of the cell in Newgate where Mrs Brownrigg, the 'prentice-cide, was confined previous to her execution”:
A-JWE 1: 7
For one long Term, or e'er her trial came,
Here BROWNRIGG linger'd. Often have these cells
Echoed her blasphemies, as with shrill voice
She scream'd for fresh Geneva. Not to her
Did the blithe fields of Tothill, or thy street,
St. Giles, its fair varieties expand;
Till at the last in slow-drawn cart she went
To execution. Dost thou ask her crime?
SHE WHIPP'D TWO FEMALE 'PRENTICES TO DEATH,
AND HID THEM IN THE COAL-HOLE. For her mind
Shap'd strictest plans of discipline. Sage schemes!
Such as Lycurgus taught, when at the shrine
Of the Orthyan Goddess he bade flog
The little Spartans; such as erst chastised
Our MILTON, when at College. For this act
Did BROWNRIGG swing. Harsh Laws! But time shall come,
When France shall reign, and Laws be all repealed!
The parody turns Southey's high-minded, radical, political inscription into farce, transmuting his heroic, victimised regicide into Mrs Brownrigg, a real-life murderess convicted in the 1770s for the brutal treatment of her female apprentices. Yet it simultaneously draws attention to the importance placed on inscriptive writing by Southey and his contemporaries. The satirists were, after all, attacking not just his radical politics but also his subversive appropriation of a genre.
Southey's romances and epics are the product of a period of domestic and foreign conflict and imperial expansion. His inscriptions too have an acute contemporaneity. They emerge out of and into a context in which both real and projected monuments and inscriptive writing were gaining increasing significance as means of defining and transmitting to one's contemporaries and to posterity an image (or images) of national identity. As the author of A critical review of the public buildings, statues and ornaments, in and about London and Westminster (1783) observed: “A polite people are most distinguished as such, by their building, their statues, and their inscriptions” (144) . Whilst the American William Jackson argued that in the case of George Washington, his actions, speeches and writings were a monument to his patriotism, others left nothing to chance (Jackson unpaginated). In an age that saw “the entry of the funerary monument into the public sphere”, statues were erected to all the leading military, naval and political figures of the time (Bindman 23). As J. B. Orme's The muses tribute, a monody to the memory of that most illustrious of statesmen, the Rt Hon William Pitt (1806) explained, the main centre for these statues to dead national heroes was Westminster Abbey:
[England's] grand abbey's chronologic side
Records those heroes who in conquests died;
Whose sculptur'd monuments their deeds proclaim
That serve as guides to point the road to fame …
Yet important as these new monuments were, what was written on them was equally, if not more, significant, particularly because of its ability to shape the opinions of present and future readers. Its’ potential for inspiring them to patriotic endeavours by the simple acts of reading and meditating on what was written. As Nathan Drake argued in his essay on “Inscriptive writing”, first published in his 1798 collection Literary Hours, composing and erecting public inscriptions was a national duty:
Many national advantages might be derived from the custom of erecting inscriptions to perpetuate the memory of any remarkable event, or deed. Were the efforts of the patriot thus cherished, the exertions of tyranny, cruelty and oppression, thus held up to detestation and infamy; were the spot on which any memorable struggle for the welfare or liberty of mankind had occurred, thus gratefully consecrated; were the birthplace, or former residence of departed genius, the scene of renovated art or science, thus duly recorded, fresh motives to excel in all that is laudable, powerful incentives to virtue, to patriotism, to intellectual perfection, would be acquired, and the national character, perhaps, ameliorated through the medium of emulation.Drake 81
The essay pinpoints the inscription's potential for redeeming the nation's character. For Drake, this responsible, civic-minded, patriotic, national inscription was embodied in the work of one contemporary writer - Robert Southey - whose radical inscriptions provided “an excellent specimen of what, among other moral purposes, pieces of this class should effect - the reprehension of cruelty and inordinate ambition” (Drake 82).
As Drake's essay suggests, Southey's inscriptions from the mid-late 1790s convey his radical patriotic mission both in their choice of subjects (for example, praising Wat Tyler and condemning tyrants such as Pizarro) but also in terms of the places in which they are sited. Southey, himself the product of a provincial literary culture, relocates the inscription, showing how “powerful incentives to virtue, to patriotism, to intellectual perfection” can be found in an English metropolis appropriated for the radical cause (“Wat Tyler”) but also in unlikely, un-English places like a small Spanish town (“Truxillo”) or a secluded Welsh vale (see “Inscription for a monument in the Vale of Ewias”, PW 5: 262-3). Southey’s did not lose his awareness of the inscription as a powerful weapon in the armoury of any public poet – whatever their political affiliations. The conservative Poet Laureate of the 1810s returned to it, using a sequence on the peninsular war to record great contemporary events:
“Talavera. For the Field of Battle”, RSPW 3: 135
Long in the red page
Of war, shall Talavera’s famous name
Stand forth conspicuous. While that name endures,
Bear in thy soul, O Spain, the memory
Of all thou suffered’st from perfidious France,
Of all that England in thy cause achieved.
Southey went on to write a multi-volume history of the conflict in Spain and Portugal, but his peninsular inscriptions offered their readers in a more encapsulated, digestible form a potent reminder of English power, English heroism and French treachery.
IV. The “ins and outs” of fashion
An analyst of the vicissitudes of literary history and contemporary culture, Southey himself fell victim to “fashion” for much of the twentieth century. After a period of textual and critical neglect his significance is now being fully recognised and his reputation transformed. This process is being massively aided by recent and on-going editorial work, in particular the appearance of the new five volume edition of his Poetical Works, 1793-1810 published by Pickering and Chatto in 2004. The first modern critical edition of any of Southey’s writings, it establishes a canon of his early and mid career poetry, attributing nine new published poems and several unpublished ones to him. It also represents an important step in the on-going process of re-historicising his works and rethinking his contributions to romantic period culture. Until now critics have tended to rely on either the ten volume collected Poetical Works of 1837-8 (the last lifetime edition) or M. H. Fitzgerald’s selected Oxford edition of 1909, which used the 1837-8 edition as copy-text and printed the longer poems without their notes. When it is realised that Southey was an inveterate reviser – frequently altering individual poems massively both before and after their publication – the problems inherent in relying only on these late texts become apparent. The new edition bases its copy-text upon the first published version of a poem, collating variants from all surviving manuscript and later published versions at the bottom of the page. In cases, such as Madoc, Thalaba, and Kehama, where radically different pre-publication manuscript versions exist, these are transcribed in full, thus making it possible for the reader to trace the development of an individual work from its earliest to its latest stages. For example, the first surviving draft of Madoc, dating from 1794-5, can now be read alongside the poem as it was revised in 1797-9 and revised and published in 1805. The new edition also recognises (as did romantic period readers) the importance of Southey’s own notes, in particular the lengthy annotations he provided to his epics and romances. Often cut from later nineteenth- and twentieth-century texts, these are provided in full and editorial notes used to trace them back to their sources in Southey’s reading. It thus enables future scholars to reconstitute the bodies of knowledge from which some of the central preoccupations – and central texts - of Romanticism were born.
The poet that emerges from the new edition was prolific, eclectic and above all public. His publishing career began in September 1794, when his unsigned “To the Nettle” appeared in the London newspaper the Morning Chronicle. Evidence of his participation in the sonnet revival, it is also strikingly different from the melancholic, introspective pieces by William Lisle Bowles that he and his new friend Coleridge had been reading earlier that same year. Instead it is an indication that for Southey poetry was an essentially public, confrontational medium, inseparable from his engagement with contemporary politics. His observations on the nettle are in fact a commentary on the system of “fear” and coercion used to maintain the status quo and the ease with which the powerful can be dispossessed:
PW 5: 3-4
Vile Weed, irascible! Whene’er I view
Thy horrent leaves in circling points arise,
And know, that underneath each fibre lies
The keen receptacle of venom’d dew;
And when I know, that if, with cautious fear,
I touch thy pow’r, it punishes my dread:
But if, with dauntless hand approaching near,
I grasp thee full and firm – that pow’r is dead:
Thus as, with ’sdainful thought I view thy stings –
Terrific to the coward wretch alone,
Much do I meditate on Grandeur’s throne –
The awe of Subjects, and the might of Kings!
Like thee, they punish those whom they appal;
Like thee, when firmly grasp’d, to native nothing fall.
The sonnet was written during a period of war and increasing government clampdown on radical activity and published within weeks of the fall of Robespierre, whom Southey admired. In fourteen lines, he not merely draws on the genre’s potential for political commentary but also argues for the necessity of violence in order to effect much-needed reform. It was an indicator of things to come. Although Southey did write sonnets in the Bowlesian manner attributed to him by Coleridge, he also continued to explore the political applications of the sonnet: publishing a sequence on the slave trade in 1797 and as late as March 1798 a poem “To Joseph Gerald”, the British radical transported to Australia in 1794, in the Morning Post (PW 5: 49-54, 447-8, 187).
His determination to exalt heroes and criticise tyrants continued throughout his career – though, of course, as he shifted away from his early radicalism so too his sense of who was a hero and who a tyrant altered. (See for example his squibs against Napoleon, PW 5: 405-6, 413-4, 415, 422-3.) His sense of the duty of the poet to be a social and political commentator also led him to deploy a form popular at the time though often overlooked by twentieth-century critics of Romanticism – the satirical ballad. Southey had a keenly developed sense of the absurd and was only to willing to prick the pretensions of others. For example, “St Romuald”, published in the Morning Post on 5 February 1799, fuses anti-Catholicism with an attack on the rustic superstition Southey had condemned in Wordsworth’s “Goody Blake and Harry Gill” (PW 5: 273-4). The questioning Traveller learns that the “great honour” (line 48) the villagers intended to do the holy man who lived amongst them was to murder him:
… he’ll be made a Saint of, to be sure.
Therefore, Sir, we thought it prudent to secure
His relics while we might,
And so we meant to strangle him one night.
A second ballad “The King of the Crocodiles”, published in the Morning Post on 19 July 1799, combined literary burlesque with political commentary (PW 5: 365-8). The opening stanzas, with their echoes of “The Thorn” and “The Mad Mother”, parody Wordsworth’s interest in grieving women and death:
PW 5: 365-6, lines 1-8
Now, Woman, why without your veil?
And wherefore do you look so pale?
And Woman, why do you look so sad,
And beat your breast, as you were mad?
Oh! I have lost my darling Boy,
In whom my soul had all its joy,
And I for sorrow have torn my veil,
And sorrow hath made my very heart pale.
Elsewhere in the poem Southey’s anti-Wordsworthian lyrical ballad becomes an attack on George III and his “numerous rout” of “young Prince Crocodiles”, a greedy royal family who survive by literally devouring the body politic, feeding off citizens in order to sate their appetites (lines 43-4). As the Crocodile King tells the Woman searching for her son: “I have teeth, moreover as you may see, / And I will make a meal of thee” (lines 67-8).
More savage political satire was reserved for “The Devil’s Thoughts”, co-written with Coleridge and initially published in the Morning Post on 6 September 1799 (PW 5: 451-4). The poem is a swingeing attack on Britain in the late 1790s, a literally diabolical nation in which all institutions of law, government, and religion are riven with corruption. Although a topical satire, full of allusions to people and contemporary events (for example, William Wilberforce, income tax), the poem achieved and maintained a continued popularity. (As indeed did other equally public works such as Coleridge’s “Fire, Famine and Slaughter” with its condemnation of Pitt’s policy in Ireland and the Vendée.) At one point it even became the subject of a public debate over its authorship, which was erroneously assigned to Richard Porson. The potency of the satirical ballad as a vehicle for continued, up-dated, public comment was shown in the fact that later in life Southey and Coleridge individually returned to it and reworked it on more than one occasion (PW 5: 451-2). For example, a fragmentary, unpublished late draft by Southey incorporates an attack upon another diabolical incarnation, the “Satanic School” of poets:
PW 5: 474
His [the Devil’s] Hoby boot for its excellent fit
Could never have been surpast
And the one for his cloven foot was made
Upon Lord Byrons last.
Members of the same generation as Byron, most notably Shelley in “Swellfoot the Tyrant” and “The Mask of Anarchy”, were also to discover that the genre suited their own satirical purposes.
By making available the texts (sonnets, ballads, inscriptions, epics, romances to name but a few) that made Southey one of the most controversial and important writers of his day, the new edition highlights his participation in a Romanticism that was essentially public and polemical in character rather than private and introspective. It foregrounds his engagement in vigorous public debates and political and literary controversies which were ignored by twentieth-century critics, but which are now increasingly been seen as being at the heart of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century cultural life.
V. This issue of Romanticism on the Net
The eight essays in this special issue all engage with the vigorous diversity of Southey’s work and its implications for an understanding of romantic period culture. Ian Haywood returns to Southey’s radical poetry of the 1790s, in particular to two texts that imagine the bloody destruction of a violent British state: the epic poem Joan and the play Wat Tyler. Both works are the products of an environment in which anti-jacobin propagandists associated British radicalism with unrestrained mob violence and regicide. Haywood explores how beneath Southey’s deployment of sensational tropes of political violence and atrocity lies a more complex engagement with debates about politics, force and democracy. David Chandler also engages with the value of a more nuanced historicised approach to both Southey’s early poetry and his work in general. Returning to his well-known (even infamous) critique of “The Ancient Mariner” as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity”, Chandler argues that Southey’s own critical (and personal) allegiances gave him cause to be concerned at Coleridge’s use of the modern ballad. By reading Southey’s “The Old Woman of Berkeley” (first published in his collection Poems (1799)) as an “answer” to the “problems” of “The Ancient Mariner”, his essay offers an account of the different attitudes taken by both poets to the past.
History – personal and cultural – and the writing out of that same history is also the subject of Simon Bainbridge’s essay. Concentrating on the intertextual, dialogic relationships between a series of poems written by Southey and Wordsworth between 1798-1802, he explores the different (and also strangely similar) ways in which they responded to a period of historical and vocational crisis. A literary dispute of a much more public – even vicious – kind is the subject of the next essay. Tim Fulford’s “Poetic Hells and Pacific Edens” revisits the complex interaction between Byron and Southey. The Laureate’s tussle with Byron, famous and a best-seller to boot, has been described by his most recent biographer as one of his “greatest misfortunes” (Storey 287). Certainly, Byron’s devastating parodies of Southey did much to undermine the credibility of his political poetry. Although the quarrel’s foundation in a struggle over literature’s relationship to power has long been recognised, Fulford draws timely attention to the fact that it concerned the imperial as well as the domestic sphere. Concentrating on two previously overlooked works – Byron’s The Island (1823) and Southey’s Tale of Paraguay (1825) – he argues that they are part of a contest in which each poet attempts to make their own colonialist representations of native peoples prevail over the hearts and minds of the British public. Southey’s engagement in the promotion of ideologies of nationalism and imperialism are also the subject of Carol Bolton’s essay. By examining his use of Oriental material in his annotated metrical romance Thalaba, she explores his trajectory from political radicalism to conservatism and claims the poem advocates an ideal of personal morality and probity that is portrayed as essentially “British”.
Southey’s engagement in discourses of nationalism can also be found in his prose. A historian as well as a poet, his historical writing was equally enmeshed in controversy. Indeed, Thomas Babington Macaulay’s attack on his Colloquies was arguably as damaging as Byron’s satire in the Vision of Judgment. Building on recent research on romantic period history writing, Esther Wohlgemut offers a reassessment of the Southey-Macaulay relationship, arguing that their contest over the idea of a picturesque history is part of a much larger debate about the status and nature of history taking place in post-Waterloo Britain.
History played an important part in Southey’s entanglement with the highest of all poetic genres and the two final essays offer reassessments of his achievements as an epic poet. Catherine Addison returns to Joan of Arc, the poem with which he made his name. Criticism of Southey’s controversial epic has tended to concentrate on its relationship to his politics. Yet Joan’s gender is also significant (as Bainbridge too acknowledges). Southey was, indeed, aware that his choice of a female protagonist for an epic was unconventional and keen to play up this unconventionality. Looking at the portrayal of Joan (both as an object of wonder and of revulsion and as a female spectator of scenes of violent death and mutilation) Addison explores the ways in which the solitary, displaced maiden on the battlefield, is used to advance an analysis of warfare and its repercussions. It is a critique that encompasses the politics of genre as well as those of gender. Joan was not an isolated example and Southey’s career-long engagements with the epic are traced in Herbert Tucker’s concluding essay. Seeing him as a dominant figure on the Anglophone epic poetry scene of the romantic period, Tucker explores Southey’s impact both on his contemporaries and on Victorian verse and prose narrative, on writers as diverse as Byron and George Eliot.
The essays in this special issue are evidence of and contributions to the rise of critical interest in Southey. They participate in an on-going, increasingly lively debate about this once most neglected of writers and his intersections both with his canonical contemporaries and with romantic period culture as a whole. They are, moreover, potent affirmations of the fact that Southey is vital to a re-historicised, public Romanticism in which epic, romance, politics, history, satire and travel writing become – as they were at the time – the pre-eminent genres.
Thanks to Carol Bolton, Tim Fulford and Ian Packer for their perceptive and extremely helpful comments on earlier drafts of this introduction.
Wordsworth also refused to contribute to Southey’s Annual Anthology when invited to do so by Cottle (Butler 149).
In 1798 Coleridge had defended the decision to publish the first edition of Lyrical Ballads anonymously on the grounds that “to a large number of persons … [my name] stinks” and “Wordsworth’s name is nothing”, CL 1: 412.
For Coleridge and Madoc, Pratt, “Revising the National Epic” 149-50, 160-1.
They first appeared in Southey, Letters 225 (“Truxillo”); Morning Post, 12 February 1798 (“Wat Tyler”) and 1 May 1799 (“Old Sarum”).
For the Brownrigg case, Langford 503.
See also, Yarrington passim.
By 1814, when Southey, now the Tory Poet Laureate, was erecting literary monuments to Perceval, the Prince Regent and Alexander I, Drake might have changed his mind on the efficacy of his inscriptions. See, Southey, Odes to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia, and His Majesty the King of Prussia.
For Coleridge’s portrayal of his brother-in-law as a follower of Bowles see his sonnet “To Robert Southey” sent to the latter on 17 December 1794 (CL 1: 143) and first published in the Morning Chronicle on 14 January 1795.
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- Anti-Jacobin Review 3 (1799), review of Joan of Arc (1798) and Poems (1799): 120-8.
- Anti-Jacobin Review 9 (1801), review of Pye, Alfred: 232-4, 340-7.
- Anti-Jacobin Review 10 (1801), review of Pye, Alfred: 12-21.
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- Southey, Robert, and Lovell, Robert. Poems. Bath: R. Cruttwell, 1795.
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- ---. Roderick, the Last of the Goths. London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, 1814.
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- ---. Poems. Ed. Maurice H. Fitzgerald. London: Oxford University Press, 1909.
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