This article examines Robert Southey’s interactions with both politics and politicians in the year 1817. The publication of the sections of the Collected Letters of Robert Southey covering the period 1815-21 makes possible a much closer and more nuanced examination of how Southey responded to the controversy over the unauthorised appearance of his early radical play, Wat Tyler, and his subsequent condemnation in the House of Commons as a “renegado.” The Collected Letters make clear that Southey’s reaction to these events became entangled with his determination to gather support for his distinctive political programme, which he believed would save the country from revolution. However, Southey’s interventions in the fraught political and cultural debates of 1817 only served to cement his reputation as a particularly reactionary conservative.
In the second edition of Joan of Arc (1798) and in Roderick, The Last of the Goths (1814), Robert Southey included explanatory notes that featured excerpts from Lope de Vega’s Jerusalén conquistada (1609), an epic poem in twenty cantos based on Torquato Tasso’s Gerusalemme liberata (1581) and built around a mythified account of the Third Crusade. This article argues that, rather than being offhand allusions, those references lie at the core of a deeper literary, religious, and political interest in the figure and writings of the sixteenth-century Spanish writer. Southey’s contribution to the criticism of the so-called “Phoenix of Wits” might be difficult to assess, not least because in a period of over twenty years he went from asserting that “Lope de Vega is never sublime, seldom pathetic, and seldom natural” (CLRS 188) in a series of public letters he contributed to the Monthly Magazine in 1796, to becoming a true aficionado of this “prodigy of nature,” in 1818 celebrating his Rimas sacras (1599) as being characterised by “strains of sober piety and elevated devotion, in which a true Christian might devoutly join, and bless the man who has expressed for him so well the aspirations of hope and faith” (QR 45). Southey’s ambivalent cultural cosmopolitanism, nevertheless, meant that even when he celebrated Lope de Vega’s poetic industry, he was balanced in his praise, leaving room for harsh attacks on the “audacious instances of Romish impiety and imposture” in the Spaniard’s oeuvre (QR 44). Southey’s ambivalence towards Lope de Vega is read here in the light of his investments in all things Spanish, considering the public and private, domestic and international dimensions of his writings, and arguing that his fixation with Lope de Vega epitomises what Lynda Pratt (Contexts xxvi) has defined as the Southeyan preoccupation with a foreign “Other” that is both fascinating and repulsive.
This essay sets out to solve the strange case of the “disappearance” of the Poet Laureate, Robert Southey, in his own 1829 book of “imaginary conversations” or Colloquies with the ghost of Sir Thomas More. There is no “Southey” in the dialogue, only a figure named “Montesinos.” But since the pessimistic ghost of More evidently speaks for Southey—as readers from the Westminster Review in summer 1829 onwards have noticed—then the dialogue is strangely one-sided. If More is Southey, then “who,” as Mark Storey’s biography asks, “is Montesinos?” This essay seeks to answer Storey’s biographical question, and to put it into the wider context of Southey’s ideas about national and writerly identity, and his Romantic poetics of history. The first part explores “Montesinos” as a byword for Southey’s literary utopianism. The second part then attempts the resurrection of “Montesinos,” tracing this figure in the detail of Southey’s “Hispanist” reading and in the workings of his historical imagination. I conclude with reflections on the implications of Southey’s ‘hieroglyphic’ mode of life-writing for historicist approaches to Romantic studies today, including the ‘new counterfactualism’ and the ‘speculative revivals’ of ‘Romantic biography’.
My essay claims that Robert Southey uses Hinduism to fashion a poetics of Romantic-era technology in The Curse of Kehama (1810). In his neglected Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829), Southey compares the manufacturing system to Indian theology and ritual, a metaphor that relativizes religion and technology while implying that the Industrial Revolution amounts to a new breed of religious network. Southey next likens the emergent world order made possible by such technologies to the cosmic ambitions of Kehama, his own Indian tyrant-cum-demigod. The Colloquies thus suggests an allegorical reading of The Curse of Kehama, whereby this tale of a king bent on cosmic rule simultaneously explores how technological and imperial networks intertwine. Accordingly, I draw from metaphor theory to read the earlier Kehama as a repository of veiled comparisons and displacements through which Southey glimpses the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution. Just as Indian wealth propels the techno-imperial enterprise described in the Colloquies, Kehama’s paganism supplies the raw discursive material through which Southey fashions a poetics of manufacturing. Read alongside the Colloquies, Kehama aestheticizes the connection between imperial and technological systems, expresses the imaginative significance of twinned manufacturing novelties—the steam engine and coke smelting—and concretizes the opaque moral and poetic properties attaching to industrial power by depicting it in reference to the minutiae of Hindu religion so far as Southey understood it.
Among those affiliated with Thomas Beddoes’s Pneumatic Institution in Bristol, there were a number who poetically emphasized the hopeful attributes of scientific pursuit. Coleridge did so; Humphry Davy did in his poetry, too; Robert Southey had early on asserted the connection between scientific study and hope. Southey, however, would remark that he had undergone especially volatile responses to nitrous oxide. His sense of adventures through a material world would, in the years following his time spent at the Pneumatic Institution, become conflicted. He would, in particular, register pneumatically inflected hopes in less idealistic terms than Coleridge or Davy. Instead, Southey’s poetry has passages containing descriptions of pneumatic desires in terms of anguished bodily craving. This essay considers how Southey’s Curse of Kehama, published in 1810, locates an especially vexed sense of bodily craving in the kind of thinking about matter and air associated with the Pneumatic Institution. I examine how such physically wrenching desire relates to the form of Southey’s poem, wherein certain poetic rhythms of anticipation—iterations suggesting others still to come—operate within a more prosaic realm of conflicted, irregularly interconnected, material immanence.
This essay examines the six poems on Welsh subjects that Southey published in the Morning Post in 1798, specifically in the context of their being written during a time of political oppression. As scholars have pointed out, during this period Southey masked his poetry’s radical messages in historical or abstract terms in order to evade allegations that he was being politically subversive. But, these accounts have overlooked how in these Welsh poems Southey weaves a radical vision of Welsh history that he ultimately brings into modernity, as well as how this link to the present depends upon contemporary Welsh culture (and various English views of it). This essay focuses on how Southey’s repetition and development of key terms across the poems, such as “patriotism,” “gallantness,” and “stranger,” operate in order to unite Welsh and English people against common transhistorical forces such as “Treachery” and “Power.” A focus on such themes elevates their permanence across time and space, and also allows Southey to bring the people of Britain together through shared histories of conquest and subjugation. Finally, by repeatedly emphasizing Wales’s current pacifism despite its charged histories Southey funnels radical potential into a living community without identifying it as a potential target for repressive state measures.
This article explores how Keswick, a market town in the northern Lake District, became the locus for Southey’s development of his own poetic landscape. In particular, it argues that Southey’s representations of Keswick—the most significant tourist destination in the Romantic-era Lake District—counterpointed the development in the south Lakes of Wordsworthshire, the area around Grasmere and Ambleside that Wordsworth was explicitly claiming as his poetic ground. But, this article suggests, whereas the cultural-geographical legacies of Wordsworthshire were based on texts that advocated what Keats termed the “egotistical sublime,” Southey Country prioritised social interaction. This article explores how Southey’s Lake District was based on texts that emphasised bonds between family and friends that were firmly tied to key locations, particularly his home at Greta Hall and the waterfall at Lodore. In doing so, this article posits a new reading of Lakeland Romanticism that situates this Lake Poet at the centre of a trans-historical community.
This article explores Robert Southey’s attitudes to London, using his often negative reactions as a means of examining his construction of his identity while also employing his works as a prism through which to consider the social and representational problems that the late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century city presented for literary writers. It places Southey’s handful of London-related poems in the context of his wider oeuvre by analysing his correspondence, his Letters from England (1807), and the Colloquies (1829). Through looking at consonances with works by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edmund Burke, among others, the article shows how Southey constructed a vision of London as a place of perverted sublimity, where scale and repetition served to grind down confidence in one’s individual value, leading to sickness, disaffection and alienation. While examining fluctuations in Southey’s attitudes over time, it contends that his fear of the London mob, his distaste at urban pollution, and his disgust at the condition of the poor remained relatively constant over the course of his career, causing him to develop attitudes to the metropolis that shaped both his own later conservatism and larger Romantic ideologies that positioned cities as uncongenial environments for the comfortable operation of poetical minds.