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The aim of this article is to investigate Southey’s contribution to the Romantic subculture of republican and regicidal fantasy which flourished in the mid 1790s.[1] This subculture was the product of both resistance and repression. John Barrell’s exhaustive study, Imagining the King’s Death: Figurative Treason, Fantasies of Regicide, 1793-1796, argues convincingly that the controversy surrounding the treason trials of 1794, a show-case manqué in which radicals were accused of “constructive” or imagined treason, strongly influenced the investment in the creative imagination theorized by the first generation Romantic poets. Barrell shows that the Pitt government tried to erase the distinction between a purely literary or textual act of the imagination and a virtual or denotative “imagining” of regicide which was the equivalent of a purposive act or intention to act. In other words, the British state made a potentially lethal intervention into the cultural politics of the 1790s by attempting to literalize or dis-figure language, removing from the aesthetic experience the space for the free play of the expressive imagination (Barrell, Introd., chs. 1-2). The complex Romantic reconfiguration of the relations between language and politics (transformation, repression, internalization, displacement, sublimation), a cultural realignment which still challenges and inspires critics, can be seen as a riposte to this vulgar and reductive politicization of language and representation (Keen, chs. 1, 3; Andrew McGann; Whale, chs. 1-3).

In this panoptic, dystopian regime of culture, the power of language and narrative to both “imagine” radical alternative realities and to expose and transform contemporary social and political experience was merely crypto-jacobinism, a disingenuous (and disloyal) leading astray of the reader with the false promises of reform and fantasies of restored rights: poets, as Plato might declaim, were the irresponsible legislators of enlightenment. Of course, ironically, government repression was a principal cause of radical textuality. The royal proclamation of May 1792, for example, was unable to countenance the possibility that Paine’s huge popularity was based on the rational appeal of his argument. It therefore accused radical print culture of raising “groundless jealousies and discontents in the Minds of our faithful and loving subjects,” in the process ensuring a proliferation of radical textual subterfuge (qtd. in Claeys 7: 121; see also Mee).

But the crucial sensational issue was not only the ability of perfectabilist intellectuals to dismantle contemporary institutions and to paint, in Malthus’s anti-Godwinian sentiments, “captivating pictures of a happier state of society” (Malthus 68), but the inclusion in this Utopian fantasy of the agency of popular power and its ever-present concomitant, republican violence. The treason trials of 1794 were a spectacular manifestation of one of the central aims of loyalist demonology: to show that radicalism was an essentially and excessively violent ideology which had poisoned English constitutionalism with seductive, foreign notions of popular sovereignty. As Paul Keen has noted, the “excited” masses were perceived by loyalists and many liberals as being incapable of distinguishing between discourse and action: an inflammatory text, therefore, was tantamount to a call-to-arms (ch. 1).

Radicals, on the other hand, inverted this stereotype and accused the British State of “Church and King” mob-rule and unconstitutional, provocative, heavy-handed repressive measures. Indeed, the argument that the dehumanization and brutalization of tyrannical rule was a Frankensteinian guarantor of violent overthrow was used consistently to explain the popular violence of the French revolution. Mary Wollstonecraft, for example, commented that “Slaves and mobs have always indulged themselves in the same excesses, when once they broke loose from authority. The bent bow recoils with violence, when the hand is suddenly relaxed that forcibly held it” (Vindication 179); in pithier language, she wrote, “the French became suddenly all sovereigns” (Historical 6: 47). In the carnivalesque political culture of the 1790s, radicals commonly claimed for themselves the moral high ground of disinterestedness, peaceful means (only defensive violence was acceptable and constitutional), and the stewardship of English liberties. There is little doubt that antijacobin forces exaggerated the insurrectionary threat of the English radical movement; Barrell, for example, cannot find any evidence for a “real” regicidal plot (120-24), and historians are generally agreed that the “volatile” revolutionary “underground” of Spenceans, United Britons and United Irish was a “minority from within a minority of politicized working people” (Wells, “Insurrection” 555. See also Thompson, ch. 5; Emsley 66-86; Wells, Insurrection, ch. 5; Tilly, ch. 8). But that does not mean that those texts which did imagine narratives of regicide can be dismissed as merely rhetorical or theatrical gestures with little or no political value. Mark Philp has suggested that regicidal fantasy at this time had a dualistic, “experimental” political function, mediating between the “practical, tactical struggle for reform” and the need for imaginative consolation or inspiration (“Fragmented” 70-72). Philp’s formulation allows us to avoid historicist reductionism and to read radical literary texts as simultaneously participating in both the “real” and “imagined” world of politics and culture. In the rest of this article I want to consider Southey’s achievements in the context of this complex and dynamic relation between radical politics, fantasy, and literary culture.

Southey’s literary reputation has suffered unjustly but understandably from the fact that he had the rare distinction of being ridiculed in the Romantic period by both reactionaries and radicals. The extraordinary political outspokenness of Southey’s early poetry made him the predictable target of antijacobin attacks in the 1790s, while the conservatism of his later career earned him withering rebuke from the next generation of radicals, most notably in the controversy surrounding the piratical publication of Wat Tyler in 1817 (to which we will return). Yet these criticisms from opposing political camps have in common a view of the young Southey as a passionate enthusiast of reform and a poetical risk-taker. It is no coincidence that Francis Jeffrey used the occasion of a review of Southey’s Thalaba the Destroyer in 1802 to announce the arrival of a “new school of poetry” characterised by its “splenetic and idle discontent with the existing institutions of society” (Edinburgh Review, Oct. 1802; qtd. in Madden 96, 76). For Jeffrey, this newly emergent Romantic (“Lake school”) poetry is excessive and sensational in its identification with the cause of the oppressed. He describes Southey’s poems sardonically as “filled with horror and compassion at the sight of poor men spending their blood in the quarrels of princes, and brutifying their sublime capabilities in the drudgery of unremitting labour”(qtd. in Madden 76-7), but this attack actually captures nicely the radical analysis of political and social violence (warfare, enslavement, famine and high taxes) as sides of the same tyrannical coin. Jeffrey was aware that Southey was a leading “disciple” of a new type of poetic populism which attempted (foolishly, for Jeffrey) to put the victim of injustice at the centre of an accessible, overblown literary experience. [2]

From the paranoid perspective of loyalism, Southey was little better than a poetic panderer to apostate, Paineite fantasies. In 1797 The Anti-Jacobin Review published “The Friend of Humanity and the Knife Grinder” (Jerome McGann 133-4), a parody of Southey’s humanitarian poem “The Widow.” In the original poem, which appeared in Southey’s first major collection of 1797 (though written in the famine year of 1795), the figure of the wandering widow functions sentimentally as a standard radical icon, representing a feminized cultural politics of domestic and national distress: turning Burkean virtues on their head, Britain is shown as a landscape of depleted resources, moribund paternalism, and un-Christian anti-samaritanism (Jerome McGann 132-33). The destitute widow’s complaints are spurned by a passing “chariot,” pricking the polite reader’s conscience and giving the lie to loyalist and Evangelical propaganda which portrayed self-repairing, organic village communities safely immunized from the public political sphere. The Anti-Jacobin skit exposes what it considers the hypocrisy and incredulity of the radical faith in the political intelligence of the masses. Once he discovers that the knife-grinder is more interested in cadging a drink than reading Paine, the “friend of humanity” (a Southey figure) becomes furious, lashes out violently and leaves the scene “in a transport of Republican enthusiasm and universal Philanthropy” (Jerome McGann 134). The parody draws on the conservative mythology of republicanism as a misguided belief in popular sovereignty. From this perspective, republicanism is a wolf in sheep’s clothing: it represents intolerance, fanaticism and violence masquerading as enlightenment and virtue; it regards 1789 as the reincarnation of 1649, not 1688; and radical reformers are essentially violent—Gillrayan anarchists and butchers.

Ironically, it was conservative not radical culture in the 1790s which produced many of the most sensational and memorable images of “jacobin” revolutionary violence (Wood, Radical Satire, ch. 2; Brewer 46; Bindman 61), but the need to recognize the cultural power of loyalist caricature does not mean that we should ignore or underestimate the role of violent spectacle in radical writing. It is no coincidence that in Southey’s two major narratives of the 1790s, Wat Tyler (1794) and Joan of Arc (1796), the violent defeat of a brutal British state is imagined, while many of his other poems from this period portray the righteous punishment of tyrants or the martyrdom of rebels and slaves. Focusing on the signifying, Foucauldian, “mangled” body, these texts deliver a republican counter-mythology of English political history predicated on the illegitimacy of state violence. At the same time, Southey does not allow the reader the easy satisfactions of triumphalist fantasy, and in Wat Tyler, as we shall see, the moral and political ambiguities of popular power are given significant dramatic and narrative weight.

I. “Who Shall now control the Giddy Multitude?”: Wat Tyler in 1794

Kenneth Curry’s remark that Wat Tyler “would have been forgotten except for its piratical publication in 1817” goes a long way towards explaining the unjust critical neglect of this important political text of the 1790s (Curry, Southey 25). The play’s “moment” and therefore its cultural significance, has too often been historically displaced by over 20 years to the period of the postwar revival of mass radicalism. There is no denying the fact that the radical appropriation of Wat Tyler in 1817 made the text infamous and mobilized its political energies in ways that could never have been foreseen in 1794, but this should not prevent us from considering the play in its original context. I will return to the 1817 Wat Tyler, but I want to concentrate on reading the text as I assume Southey intended it to be read when he handed the manuscript to the jailed radical publishers Symonds and Ridgeway in Newgate in late 1794: as a radical republican commentary on the political climate of the treason trials (Storey 67-70).[3] Looking at Wat Tyler in this way may of course have contributed to the text’s marginalization, reducing the play to a callow exercise in unsophisticated, allegorical propaganda; Barrell, for example, gives the text only the briefest of mentions (646). In fact the play’s discursive strategies and political interventions are multiple and complex.[4]

By choosing the genre of the dramatic rather than narrative poem, Southey prioritized the enlightenment discourses of dialogue, debate and disputation over action. Moreover, the format restricted his ability to show mass political agency and placed the focus on the actions and emotions of the rebellion’s leaders, principally Tyler (the respectable artisan)[5] and John Ball (the demagogue). As Southey wrote the play in the immediate aftermath of the acquittal of Thomas Hardy (5 November 1794), it is tempting to see Tyler and Ball as imaginative transpositions of plebeian popular politicians such as Hardy and Thomas Spence. Read in this way, the text provides an ironic complement to the treason trials by “imagining” one of the most spectacular acts of insurrection in English history, the Peasant’s revolt of 1381. Wat Tyler is the spectacular reanimation of the power of the people: the poem is a retaliatory, theatrical fantasy which summons Tyler and Ball onto the stage to counter the public spectacle of the Pitt government’s tyrannical show-trial. Significantly, the play ends with a quasi-trial scene in which Ball voices republican defiance before he is led away to suffer the mangling which his 1790s descendants narrowly avoided. But the play’s success depends also on the construction of Tyler and Ball as tragic heroes who illuminate faultlines within radical ideology. By using the dramatic device of vocalized self-doubt, the text tries to explore or at least register some of the moral ambiguities of insurrectionary violence. Of course this deepening and reflection is meant to be a measure of the superiority of popular sovereignty over the devious, ruthless and naturalized violence of the monarchical state, but the moral debate also foregrounds an important element of the popular appeal of the Tyler “myth”: the unpremeditated, “chivalric” origin of the rebellion. As I hope to show, the spark which transforms Tyler from blacksmith to insurgent is not simply an anti-taxation protest but a spontaneous act of plebeian chivalry. For reasons that will be explained shortly, plebeian chivalry had become a sensational component of the radical rhetorical repertoire by November 1794, making Southey’s revival of Tyler’s story even more timely.

Almost every speech and scene in the play operates as political allegory or critique on several levels, reconfiguring, appropriating and recirculating both immediate and more generalized political discourses, texts and events, and providing the audience with a powerful brew of vicarious sensational excess and rational reflection. English political culture and history is recast into a republican combination of ruralist, Saxonist, “freeborn” popular rights and plebeianized patriarchal virtue, while monarchical government is presented as a Paineite monstrosity of duplicity and tyranny. The poem’s opening scene is a sentimental portrayal of medieval village life in which Tyler’s daughter Alice and her lover Piers are dancing and singing round the maypole, an image which connotes both the romanticized medieval organic society of English constitutionalism and the more recent liberty tree of French blithe spirit.[6] The ensuing, broody dialogue between “Hob” Carter and Tyler would also evoke (or revoke) for many readers Hannah More’s Village Politics (1793), a popular antijacobin dialogue between the wise loyalist blacksmith Jack Anvil (Tyler’s anti-type) and the gullible hothead mason Tom Hod. Before the tax-gatherers arrive, Tyler bemoans the fact that poverty is undermining his respectability and his patriarchal responsibility for his daughter. Her precarious destiny is emblematic of a decline of customary plebeian culture and, in eighteenth-century terms, the paternalist moral economy.[7] This fall from grace is given Miltonic authority when Tyler waxes lyrically that Alice is “too fair a flower / To bear the wintry wind of poverty” (Southey, Wat Tyler 8). The intentional echo of the likening of Eve to Proserpina in Paradise Lost (4: 268-70) foreshadows the sexual assault on Alice by a tax-gatherer determined to “prove” that she is of taxable age. It is this flagrant violation of the honour of the plebeian family (recalling the droit de seigneur) which spurs Tyler into killing Alice’s attacker and provides the spark for a jacquerie. In a 1790s radical context, Tyler personifies the righteous use of defensive violence—he acts as any self-respecting father would in the same circumstances, and provides the ideal subject position for his male audience to enter into a fantasy of rebellion in which political reform is the secondary rather than primary motivation. Although he regrets his “private wrong” (21), Tyler responds to the revolutionary ardour of the masses (who resemble medieval sansculottes) and agrees to become their leader. Like Hardy, Thelwall, Tooke and the other acquitted radicals of 1794, Tyler is no conspirator; his revolutionary role is only the expression of what Thelwall in a poem called the “renovating fury” of the people.[8] Having donned the mantle of leadership, Tyler sends a clear message to his followers and to his readers that political insurrection transcends rioting: “let no man dare / To plunder in the tumult” (34). This counters the conservative mythology of the lawless mob as a mindless, recidivist force incapable of restraint and rational motivation (Plotz, chs. 1-4).

But the attempted rape scene contains other submerged political references. The most obvious comparison is to the sensational passage in Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France in which the mob storm the French Queen’s bedchamber at Versailles. For Burke, this violation symbolised the monstrosity of the French revolution: “the horrid yells, and shrilling screams, and frantic dances, and infamous contumelies, and all the unutterable abominations of the furies of hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women” (Burke 122). For radicals, this scene and its overblown sentiments were ripe for subversion and appropriation.[9] In Wat Tyler, chivalry is indeed dead in so far as the ruling classes are, in Paine’s words, “cowardly assassins” (Paine 231). But it might be more accurate to say that chivalry has been displaced to the lower classes who are the true custodians of family values and sexual honour. In the propaganda wars of the mid 1790s, anti-Burkean language and sentiments were the stock-in-trade of radical discourse (Claeys, vol. 1), but I want to mention one particular flashpoint. Radicals were handed a propaganda coup when Thomas Hardy was arrested at his home in May 1794. Hardy’s wife Lydia was pregnant and in bed, but that did not stop government agents from forcing their way into her bedroom. Lydia Hardy never recovered from the shock of this experience, and she died while Hardy was still in prison. Unwittingly, the government had re-enacted an inverted version of Burke’s famous scene, and the radical press seized the opportunity to make “poor Mrs Hardy,” as she was dubbed, a sensational cause celebre.[10] In Wat Tyler the equivalent incident is revenged by a full-scale armed rebellion, a carnivalesque realization of the Burkean chivalric imperative.[11]

This allusive political “thickening” of the poem’s language continues in the characterization of John Ball, whose speech shows a number of radical discursive traces: the Spencean “underground” (“Abundant is the earth [. . .]. There is enough for all” [29]); Norman yoke constitutionalism (“Boldly demand your long-forgotten rights” [33]); and a standard radical emphasis on using peaceful means wherever possible (he asks the rebels to be merciful, though he later, importantly, waivers about the wisdom of this decision). His release from prison parallels Hardy’s acquittal, but Ball may also function as a wish-fulfilled restoration of Joseph Gerrald, the renowned martyr of the London Corresponding Society. Southey and Coleridge visited Gerrald in prison in 1794, and in a sonnet written in the same year Southey celebrated Gerrald in Miltonic terms as “One Englishman, tho’ fallen on evil days” (qtd. in Curry, The Contributions of Robert Southey 41).[12] Like Gerrald, John Ball has been “reviled—insulted” (26) in his bastille, and like Gerrald, Ball is a popular politician and (in Gramscian terms) an organic intellectual. Once Tyler is killed, Ball reflects on the merits and mistakes of the rebellion.

The tapestry of political parallels and fantasies continues in act 2, where the rebellion reaches its climax in the seizure of London. Although the story of Tyler was well known, this moment in the narrative must have touched a particularly raw nerve in the political imagination of the mid 1790s. The imaginary spectacle of London in the hands of bloody revolutionaries was soon to become a sensational set-piece of conservative propaganda in the satires of Gillray, but in Wat Tyler there is characteristic inversion of dramatic roles. The villains of this scene are not the mob but the conspiratorial court who are plotting concessions and doublecross; trickery is needed because the ruling class recognise that if the people are “United in a mass / There’s nothing can resist [them]” (36). Trickery is also about the manipulation and abuse of language by those in power, another standard radical theme of this time (Olivia Smith ix-x). When Tyler agrees to parley with the king at Smithfield, he is (literally) stabbed in the back by Walworth, who later receives a knighthood for his act. This scene is again redolent with contemporary political allusions and resonances: like the march on Versailles which brought the French king to Paris, King Richard is summoned to Smithfield by Jack Straw; Richard promises (falsely) that “The throne will always listen to petitions” (42); Tyler’s final words, “The hour of retribution is at hand,/ And tyrants tremble” (42) may even echo the famous apocalyptic finale of Richard Price’s Discourse on the Love of Our Country (1789), “Tremble all ye oppressors of the world!” (Price 196). The fact that Tyler is stabbed at this juncture could be a satirical allusion to Burke’s savage attack on Price in Reflections. But Tyler’s fate can also be seen as an agitational intervention into practical politics, a coded warning against radical triumphalism in the wake of the treason trial acquittals. At the same time, the play is clear in its depiction of the ruling class as innately devious and extremely efficient at regrouping. King Richard buys time by promising a charter of new freedoms before he unleashes terrible reprisals; Pitt’s government waited less than a year before bringing in the Two Acts of 1795 (and in light of the postwar context of the 1817 Wat Tyler, it is worth mentioning that the response of the government to the Peterloo massacre of 1819 was to pass the repressive Six Acts within a few months).

In the final, third act of the play, Southey requires his audience to consider again the moral problem of revolutionary violence. The hesitations and doubts voiced in the third act intensify the sense that the radical movement must consider afresh the merits of active resistance before the next wave of repression clamps down on freedom of organisation and expression. In Marxist terms, the political role of textuality is to bring the reader to a higher state of self-consciousness. The dramatic vehicle for this process is John Ball’s tragic realization that “I chose the milder way—perhaps I err’d” (57).

Act 3 begins with a coded reference to the anti-clerical and violent excesses of the French revolution. Ball regrets the fact that Straw has beheaded the archbishop but explains that oppression has the brutalizing effect of “Degrading ev’ry faculty by servitude” (48). With these origins,

We must not wonder then, that, like wild beasts,

When they have burst their chains, with brutal rage

They revenge them on their tyrant.


The configuration of revolutionary violence as the return of the repressed was a common liberal trope at the time, and such excesses were usually presented as a phase which would give way to more rational and virtuous action. But the trickier issue was the justification for premeditated or controlled violence used as an instrument of power or, even worse, terror. John Ball succumbs too readily to humane restraint and fails to see that the king’s offer of a “half-restitution of our rights” is merely a trap for the “half unarmed” people (57). The parallel here is with England in 1649 or France in 1793, as the king’s treachery and deceit suggests that regicide would have been the correct tactical option. Without the militant leadership of Tyler, Ball has returned the people to their pre-revolutionary benightedness:

 Who shall now control

The giddy multitude, blind to their own good,

And listening with avidity to the tale

Of courtly falsehood?


Significantly, the trope of “mangling” becomes dominant in the play’s closing moments. Ball recalls that Tyler was provoked to murder by his “mangled feelings” for his daughter’s honour (50), and Ball likens his own weak leadership to

 The weak leech,

Who, sparing to cut deep, with cruel mercy

Mangles his patient without curing him.


But there is no uncertainty about the mangling of his own body once he is captured. His fate is pronounced in chilling detail:

 you shall be hanged by the neck,

But not till you are dead—your bowels open’d—

Your heart torn out and burnt before your face—

Your traitorous head be sever’d from your body—

Your body quarter’d, and exposd upon

The city gates—a terrible example—


At least the audience or reader could breathe a sigh of relief that Hardy and his compatriots had avoided this punishment (though a toned down version—beheading after hanging—was meted out to the six Cato Street conspirators in 1820), and the play gives Ball the last word: he prophesies that the “gore-dyed throne” and the “altar of oppression” will be “consum’d amid the fire of Justice” (69).[13] Ball’s gory fate could also be seen to conform to the conventions of heroic martyrdom. Southey exploited this sensational trope numerous times in the 1790s to put across a trenchant political message. In one of his Morning Post poems entitled “May 29—Ode” he debunks this anniversary date of Charles II’s restoration in 1660 by focusing on the bodies of the regicides:

He came! Triumphantly the STUART came,

The violated grave

Gives up its mighty dead,

And CROMWELL’S corpse pollutes the common air.

VANE! HARRISON! And ye compatriot names,

Whose palpitating hearts

Reek’d in the hangman’s hand,

Whose mangled bodies fed the fowls of Heav’n!

Forgive your country! Martyr’d Englishmen!

Forgive your native land!

Heavy hath been [her] crime,

And heavy hath she found her punishment!

Curry, The Contributions of Robert Southey 62-3

In “The Death of Wallace” (published in the second volume of The Annual Anthology in 1800), the poet is an imaginary spectator at Wallace’s execution:

 What tho’ the hangman’s hand

Grasp in his living breast the heaving heart,

In the last agony, the last sick pang,

Wallace had comfort still.

lines 25-8

Taking his cue from Gray’s poem “The Bard” (1757; Odes), Southey vilifies Edward I’s imperialist conquest over the “mangled limbs” of Wales, which is in stark contrast to Wallace’s “patriotic” nationalism: “Go Edward full of glory to thy grave! / The weight of patriot blood upon thy soul” (Annual Anthology 2: 189-91; lines 38-39). Nor is the pantheon of martyrs limited to British history. In another poem from the same period Southey celebrated the bravery of a “patriot” of Holland, who was unafraid “In all the pomp of infamy to die; / Nor that his mangled limbs expos’d must rot on high” in front of “exulting multitudes” (Curry, The Contributions of Robert Southey 77-78).[14] But the “terrible example” of these mangled bodies remains a problem for the Romantic politics of sensibility, as an imaginative identification with such victims could fuel masochistic (or even sado-masochistic) fantasies. The representational risks of the graphic portrayal of violence is a theme I want to return to later in the article.

II. “An Engine of Mischief”: Wat Tyler in 1817

The piratical publication of Wat Tyler did more than merely embarrass Southey; the public controversy about the text brought back into public debate the memory of the republican 1790s, a political and cultural moment which the antijacobin policies of Pitt’s government had tried to consign to historical oblivion. By 1817 the radical movement had fully restored its most vital and conspicuous institutions—a cheap, mass-circulation press (led by Cobbett) and regular “monster” meetings—and as in 1793-4 was in the process of establishing an alternative or rival political constitution of national conventions and elections (Chartism was to do the same in the 1830s and 1840s). As in the 1790s, the government responded with sensational and hyperbolic smears, branding the radical press as incendiary, inflammatory and seditious, and justifying repressive legislation prohibiting freedom of expression. But a key discursive difference was that the 1790s was now available as a historical shorthand for revolution (implying treason and rebellion) rather than reform. As Southey put it in one of his articles for the Tory Quarterly Review:

Of all the engines of mischief which were ever yet employed for the destruction of mankind, the press is the most formidable, when perverted in its uses, as it was by the Revolutionists in France, and is at this time by the Revolutionists in England

Southey, Essays 1: 415

His description of radical leaders as “apostles of anarchy [. . .] imposing on the errors of the multitude, flattering their errors and inflaming their passions [. . .] exciting them to sedition and rebellion” (Essays 1: 328) perhaps unconsciously recalled the antijacobin denunciation of John Ball as “stirring up / The poor deluded people to rebellion” with “strange and dangerous doctrines” (68). As a counter to such distortion and abuse, the radical revival of Wat Tyler brought back into circulation not only the “Revolutionist” Southey but a text which, as we have seen, explored the moral problems of revolutionary violence. Southey claimed that Wat Tyler was unique among his early productions for its “intemperance” and “violence” (Southey, Essays 1: 16), but he ignored both the self-conscious reflection on violence in the text and the prevalence of violent imagery in many of his other republican poems of the 1790s. In 1817 Southey’s major concern, like other “alarmed” conservatives, was to prevent a “jacquerie” by arguing for a combination of immediate coercion and gradualist educational and social reforms. But in 1794 his views on revolution were more ambivalent, and he used the “jacquerie” of Wat Tyler to explore and debate the issue. His “memory” of the play in 1817 buries any serious artistic or political merit beneath an antijacobin discourse of infantilist excess: his opinions, he states, were rooted “in the heart and not in the understanding,” and if he were to write the play in 1817, he would “write as a man, not as a stripling” (Essays 1: 14-15). Coleridge echoed these sentiments in his defence of Southey in Biographia Literaria, also published in 1817. Coleridge recalled that Southey’s “political songs” were “thrown off in the playful overflow of honest joy and patriotic exultation” (Biographia 38). But the pirated editions of Wat Tyler were a stark rebuttal to this condescending depoliticization and antirepublicanism. Enhancing the textual strategies of Southey’s original, the various editions mobilized a paratextual heightening of the educative and agitational qualities of the text in the form of prefaces which included polemical and historical material. These prefaces displayed the material act of cultural appropriation, but they also contributed in important ways to the interpretative strategies available to the reader.

William Hone foregrounded this radical use of the resources of print culture in the title of his 1817 edition: Wat Tyler; A Dramatic Poem. A New Edition With a Preface Suitable to Recent Circumstances. His 23-page preface maligns Southey’s conversion to conservatism and as evidence of backsliding cites several early poems, including the inscription to the regicide Henry Marten, “The Widow,” the anti-war “The Battle of Blenhein,” and “Inscription for a Column in Smithfield Where Wat Tyler was Killed.” Hone would know that behind the latter poem (published in 1798) lay Paine’s arch suggestion that “If the Barons merited a monument to be erected in Runnymede, Tyler merits one in Smithfield” (Rights 232), but Hone implies that “recent circumstances” (the Spa Fields riots) have made the symbolic associations between this area of London and Tyler even stronger (Wat Tyler, xiv).[15] In fact Hone is somewhat disingenuous here, as the poem’s relevance for both 1798 and 1817 was its ambivalence about popular violence and its counsel of restraint. The poem argues that although “vengeance” may be meted out to tyrants,

 Here the Citizen should think

That not by tumult and mad violence

Can Peace be forc’d, and Order and Reform,

But by the calm, collected public voice

Marking our fathers’ errors, be ye wise!

Curry, The Contributions of Robert Southey 31-2

Few radical readers in 1817 would want to dissent from such a measured and enlightened position, at least in public, and the poem seems to carry considerable moral authority. But in the text of Wat Tyler, as we have seen, the reader could find a more militant and regicidal extrapolation from contemporary politics.[16] The interaction between the paratextual poems and the main text generated a new set, or new tier, of contradictory political messages and subject positions for the reader.

A similar point can be made about the way that the pirated editions brought to the fore the relation between history, politics, and popular violence. Most of the early editions—the original piracy by Sherwood, Neely and Jones, the edition by Hone, and W. T. Sherwin’s second version—included in their prefatory material the account of Tyler from Hume’s History of Great Britain (1754-62). Critics usually cite the passages on Tyler in Burke’s An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs (1791) and part 2 of Paine’s The Rights of Man (1792) as sources for Southey, but these were more likely to have acted as polemical prompts rather than sources of information (Carnall 132-136). Although the Tyler story was a folk-legend,[17] most eighteenth-century readers including Southey would more than likely have turned to Hume for historical details about the Tyler rebellion. In the passages included by Hone, Hume’s political conservatism is clear in the way he constructs Tyler and Ball as demagogic popular politicians courting “low popularity” (Wat Tyler, xviii). The last volume of the History, it can be noted, appeared during the tumultuous political turmoil of “Wilkes and Liberty,” by which time Hume was in favour of restrictions on the freedom of the press (Hume, Essays 97-8). Hume’s portrayal of Tyler is anti-heroic, debunking, antirepublican and antijacobin avant la lettre. He claims that Tyler and Straw used “feigned” plebeian names as a cover for their “outrageous violence” on the gentry and nobility (Wat Tyler, xix). There is no sympathy for Tyler’s murder during the parley as, according to Hume, Tyler was treacherously planning to kill everyone at the court except the king (Wat Tyler, xxi). Hume includes the assault on Tyler’s daughter, but as a counterweight (and anticipating Burke’s Versailles fantasy) he notes that the peasant mob “forced kisses” from the Princess of Wales (Wat Tyler, xx). Hume has most sympathy for the rebel’s “extremely reasonable” demands for the end of vassalage and the introduction of free trade, but reckons these demands were too ahead of their time and did not justify violence. Lacking a leadership by “persons of higher quality,” the rebellion deteriorated into a riot. Though Hume refuses to credit the revolt with the distinction of a true, political rebellion, he notes that the government of the day exaggerated the “delirium” of the peasants’ “first success” to justify savage reprisals (Wat Tyler, xxii-iii).

Clearly, Hume uses the authority of history to shape a conservative paradigm of the popular “disturbance.” Without “higher” leadership, the people are incapable of effective political action and act like a recidivist mob: in essence, popular direct action is pathological, unnatural, Oedipal and always self-destructive. This mythology of the unruly mob became a powerful trope of the bourgeois imagination in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and was consistently recycled in both “real” and fictional account of riots and popular violence. When Southey took up the story of Wat Tyler, therefore, he may well have wanted to use his text to counter this demonology and legitimate the revolutionary potential of popular political action in English history. There is no question of the English people lacking “higher” leaders; in fact the central dramatic tension of the play comes from the possibility that Tyler and Ball are too moral and insufficiently ruthless. Wat Tyler shows that the decision to take up arms (whether in 1381, 1794 or 1817) is never an easy one and, for those inside and outside the narrative, “mangles the feelings.”

III. Poetry and “Innuendo”: Joan of Arc

In Joan of Arc, on the other hand, the defeat of the British state is nothing less than a divine mission and a nationalist imperative (1806). The poem is as audacious and iconoclastic as Wat Tyler, which makes the reasons for the latter’s non-publication difficult to fathom. Joan of Arc appeared after the passing of the Two Acts, yet it is a flagrant attack on the war against revolutionary France. Moreover, its formal procedure is spectacularly “disloyal,” as it relocates the generic authority and heroic codes of the national epic to the French point of view. As Lynda Pratt has noted, class and gender norms are also violated by the poem: “This national English epic is geographically relocated to France, and a lower class French woman, not an aristocratic British man, becomes the embodiment of heroic virtue”; Henry V’s “inglorious acts of barbarism and treachery” are clearly meant to parallel the warmongering policies of Pitt’s government (92-5). Far from being the Shakespearean hero, Henry is a vicious invader—as the poems’s epigraph states, the epic argument is “The invader vanquish’d, by that chosen maid.” These displacements and inversions give the poem robust “jacobin” credentials, and the fact that it was well received suggests that it may have been a mistake not to publish Wat Tyler. By 1796 Southey was a committed republican; like Coleridge, he had delivered public lectures (the texts have not survived), and while in London in 1796, he moved in the Joseph Johnson circle where he seems to have embraced feminism as well as Godwinism.[18] The subversive textual strategies of Joan of Arc were readily available to the reasonably alert reader. Reviewing the poem for the Monthly Review, John Aikin noted with favourable irony, “we know not where the ingenuity of the crown lawyer would stop, were he employed to make out a list of innuendos” (qtd. in Madden 42). As with Wat Tyler, the relationship between violence and democracy is one of the text’s central concerns.

Though Joan of Arc was renowned as one of the most famous and formidable female warriors in history, Southey constructs her early life as a model of Romantic sensibility. Her religious calling to defend the nation is conceived as an extension of her natural attachment to the land and its symbolic associations with liberty and national identity. In a vein similar to the opening scenes of Wat Tyler, Joan represents plebeian, Rousseauan rural virtue. She recalls that “My soul was nurst, amid the loveliest scenes / Of unpolluted nature” (1: 105). She looks at France’s fertile plains and laments that “the great and honourable men / Have seized the earth” and allowed war to ruin it (1: 99). After witnessing men marched to war and the agonies of the women left behind, her “soul awoke” to social injustice (1: 110). Like Wat Tyler, her recourse to armed struggle is defensive and chivalric (the fact that she is a woman gives an additional twist to the use of the sentimental trope of feminized distress). Henry V’s brutal treatment of French women is the key marker of his villainy. His indifference to female suffering is not only anti-chivalric; in more contemporary terms, he is damned by his lack of sensibility. Henry’s pitilessness conforms to the conventions of contemporaneous anti-slavery and anti-war poems (including those by Southey) in which the European gaze is shown to be unmoved by appalling cruelty and suffering. Joan’s outrage is therefore the response of true sensibility—“The mother pleaded for her dying child, and they felt no remorse”; “The old and the infirm / The mother and her babes—and yet no lightning / Blasted this man” (1: 133). This textual moment is a particularly deft “innuendo,” as it conveys a regicidal fantasy of divine intervention through the naturalized politics of sensibility.

As in Wat Tyler, the expiatory violence of emancipation is contrasted with the inhumane violence of tyranny. Joan has visions of plunder, pillage, famine and massacre, and vows that “they shall perish who oppress” (1: 127). In battle she is given the awesome generic grandeur of the epic aristeia, “Flashing her flaming falchion thro’ the troops” (2: 150). She is the Amazonian, jacobin woman activist of loyalist demonology writ large. But war is only a temporary means to achieve peace and social justice. Her victory speech at the end of book 9 is addressed to “Citizens,” and she regrets that many English soldiers were “Forced or inveigled from their homes” (2: 162). In a radical inversion of the most famous speech in Shakespeare’s Henry V, she asks “after days” to recount their deeds so that “wild Oppression” will be resisted. The poem offers the reader an idealized image of the just war.

It could be argued that this republican message sits uneasily with Joan’s monarchism.[19] But the coronation scene is another astute “innuendo,” as it sentimentally transforms the monarchy into a republican institution founded on social responsibility and redistribution. As Joan places the crown on Charles’s head, she bursts into tears and offers him wise counsel: he must be a “Chief Servant of the People,” “Protect the lowly and feed the hungry ones” and not start wars. Otherwise, she warns him, he will become “A tyrant on the blood-cemented throne” / That totters beneath him” (2: 215-16) and may face the renovating fury of the people.

Southey had already shown the consequences for political rulers of ignoring such advice in The Fall of Robespierre (1794), which was co-written with Coleridge (Coleridge, Complete Works, 2: 495-517; act 1 written by Coleridge, acts 2 and 3 by Southey). Borrowing heavily from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar,[20] the poem focuses on the conspiracy to overthrow Robespierre. He has become “worse than Cromwell” (2: 511), and even his own brother is “sick of blood; my aching heart / Reviews the long, long train of hideous horrors / That still have gloom’d the rise of the Republic” (2: 498). The poem ends with a punitive and apposite image of Robespierre’s botched suicide attempt:

 He lives all mangled

By his own tremulous hand.! All gash’d and gored

He lives to taste the bitterness of death.

2: 515

This purgatorial nemesis is reworked in a sensational and spectacular fashion in the extrapolated text which emerged from Joan of Arc, “The Vision of the Maid of Orleans.”[21] The poem appeared in 1799, the year in which government repression reached its conclusion with the proscription of the London Corresponding Society. The poem is a jacobinized version of the epic journey to the underworld (possibly influenced by the use of a similar device in Walter Savage Landor’s republican 1798 allegory, Gebir), in which Joan witnesses the Dantean poetic justice meted out to tyrants, exploiters and the rich.[22] But her first challenge is the allegorical Despair, who wants her to commit suicide. As part of his attack he imagines the spectacle of her execution by the British:

 In that last hour,

When thy bruis’d breast shall heave beneath the chains

That link thee to the stake; when o’er thy form,

Exposed unmantled, the brute multitude

Shall gaze, and thou shalt hear the ribald taunt,

More painful than the circling flames that scorch

Each quivering member [. . .].

Poems, 22-3

The sadistic sexual gaze of the “brute multitude” makes this fate particularly horrific, but Southey was drawing here on a familiar discourse of atrocity which can be found in a wide range of Romantic writing: accounts of revolutions, rebellions, battles and military reprisals; anti-slavery propaganda; representations of the “savagery” of American Indians in travel writing, political tracts and literary texts; and narratives of the barbarism of colonial rule and resistance. Abolitionist writers constantly depicted the graphic flogging, torture and mutilation of slaves, even though such excessive scenes ran the risk of producing voyeuristic pleasure and sado-masochistic fantasies (note the “innuendo” of Joan’s “quivering member” in the passage cited[23]). Such voyeurism was perceived by commentators as a contradiction, fatal flaw or even a double standard within sensibility in general and the (falsely constructed) female gaze in particular. In A Vindication of the Rights of Men (1790), Wollstonecraft attacked the Burkean idea of the “infallibility of sensibility, in the fair ladies” with an arch illustration: “It is probable that some of them, after the sight of a flagellation, compose their ruffled spirits and exercise their tender feelings by the perusal of the last imported novel” (45). In his 1795 lecture on the slave trade, Coleridge attacked the “false and bastard sensibility” of the typical polite woman who “sips a beverage sweetened with human blood, even while she is weeping over the refined sorrows of Werter” (“Lectures” 2: 218-19). A possible way around this problem was to make the violent gaze a self-conscious theme in the text and therefore to provide some aesthetic distance between the mode of representation and the reader’s response (Wood, Slavery, ch. 2, and Blind Memory, ch. 5; Favret, “Flogging”; Morton “Blood Sugar”). Southey used this tactic in his anti-slavery poem “The Sailor Who Had Served in the Slave Trade” (a reworking of The Ancient Mariner). The ballad tells of a sailor who is haunted by the image of a female slave whom he was forced to flog:

 She twisted from the blows—her blood,

Her mangled flesh I see;

And still the Captain would not spare—

Oh, he was worse than me.

Poems, 112

The sailor is now doomed to “see her twisting everywhere,” but this torture is at least a signifier of his broken humanity and the reader’s pity for the sailor and his victim. But what about the sailor’s (and the reader’s) justifiable hatred of the sea-captain? In another anti-slavery poem, Southey warns “those worse than me”—those readers who, like torturers and onlookers within the poem, cannot feel compassion at the sight of tortured slave—that Dantean horrors await them in “another world” (Southey, “Poems” 4: 246). In “The Vision of the Maid of Orleans” this promise is fully indulged. The “cruel” are punished by a sadistic “fierce Daemon”:

 Well-pleased he went around,

Plunging his dagger in the hearts of some,

Or probing with a poison’d lance their breasts,

Or placing coals of fire within their wounds;

Or seizing some within his mighty grasp,

He fix’d them on a stake, and then drew back,

And laugh’d to see them writhe.


This repulsive violence is a fantasy of revenge against the sea-captain and his ilk, and it is hard not to read the description as a form of radical voyeurism, a mirror-image of the original offence. A subsequent scene offers the reader a guilt-free spectacle of expiatory mangling:

 Here are those wicked men

Who loved to exercise their tyrant power

On speechless brutes; bad husbands undergo

A long purgation here; the traffickers

In human flesh here too are disciplined.

Till by their suffering they have equall’d all

The miseries they inflicted [. . .].


But the final fantasy fulfilment of the poem does not rely solely on violent retribution. The climax of Joan’s visit to the underworld is a trip to the dome of monarchs, “the murderers of mankind”(48). This august company includes Nimrod and Caesar the “accurst liberticide” (49), but the dramatic finale is the appearance of a humbled and penitential Henry V. He confesses a wide range of crimes against humanity: his wars were “bloody victories” which “sent new herds to slaughter” and “sent abroad / murder and rape” (50-51). With other “imperial sufferers” he now awaits the time when “the whole human race” will form “one brotherhood, / one universal family of love” (50-51).[24] Joan’s greatest triumph, therefore, has been to convert Henry to republicanism. This final “innuendo” is both stunningly audacious and yet very much in line with the pragmatic programme of mainstream English radicalism: even monarchs can be saved if they embrace the ideals of liberty and fraternity.

In conclusion, there is little doubt that Southey provided actual and potential readers of the mid 1790s with a complex set of revolutionary, regicidal and republican fantasies in which the violent overthrow of “legitimacy” is imagined as both sensational and enlightened. I want to close with a fitting if ironic testimony to this achievement from one of Southey’s most trenchant critics, and one of the Romantic period’s most renowned republican writers, Hazlitt. In The Spirit of the Age (1825), Hazlitt famously lamented the political “falling off” in Southey’s career: “Wat Tyler and the Vision of Judgement are the Alpha and Omega of his disjointed career” (133). For Hazlitt, Southey and Tyler coalesce into a symbol of the lapsed revolutionary optimism of the 1790s. Hazlitt makes a similar identification between author, text and eponymous hero in relation to Joan of Arc, but here there is an unintentional play on words which reveals the lethal historical context which generated the poem—in other words, a political climate in which a text could quite literally embody the writer who could be prosecuted for treason. Hazlitt praises Joan of Arc as a text which is “full of tears and virgin-sighs and yearnings of affection after truth and good, gushing warm and crimson from the heart” (132). It was precisely this problem that Southey had to negotiate: to prevent “gushing” feelings becoming the pretext for literal bloodletting, and to avoid Wat Tyler being simultaneously his Alpha and Omega. I hope I have shown that out of this dilemma came a rich crop of subversive and still under-rated poems.