Introduction—Southeyan Correspondences[Record]

  • Tim Fulford and
  • Matthew Sangster

…more information

  • Tim Fulford
    De Montfort University

  • Matthew Sangster
    University of Glasgow

Accounts of Robert Southey that consider his achievements over the longer term often arc towards the tragic. In her 2015 exploration of the mechanics of lasting literary fame, Those Who Write for Immortality, H. J. Jackson describes him as “a byword for posthumous failure that seems all the more pathetic—or ironic, or ludicrous—in light of his aggressive pursuit of success” (51). For Jackson, and for other critics, such as Michael Gamer, who in 2017 provided a compelling and engaging account of Southey’s “lifelong struggle to maintain a coherent authorial identity” (195), Southey spent his considerable energies in ways that proved largely to be futile when it came to the construction of an enduring position within the literary canon. However, as both Gamer and Jackson show, Southey’s complicated relationship with conventional ideals of canonicity is one of the many things that make him a fascinating figure for twenty-first-century readers and scholars. His polymathic and multiform productivity sits uncomfortably within the more restricted models of literary art that achieved dominance over the course of the nineteenth century, as Romantic paradigms derived in large part from his Lake School contemporaries, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, reshaped the cultural position of writing. However, these Romanticising paradigms are far from the only means by which we can value literary works and careers, and over the past forty years they have rightly been subjected to increasing critical scrutiny. As Jerome J. McGann’s The Romantic Ideology (1983) and Clifford Siskin’s The Historicity of Romantic Discourse (1988) have demonstrated, the retrospective construction of “Romanticism” produced historically situated standards, rather than eternal verities. Southey provides potent means for questioning these standards, offering opportunities for recovering discourses that the posthumous editorial force of Romanticisation has occluded and for studying models of creativity and influence that trace revealing alternatives to those propagated by his more canonical contemporaries. Southey himself was confident that an interest in his life and works would endure. As he put it when writing to his friend Charles Watkin Williams Wynn about the value of his memoirs in April 1812, “there can be no doubt that I shall be sufficiently talked of whenever I am gone” (CLRS 2078). However, had he been granted the ability to view his twentieth-century reception, he might have thought that for much of that period the critical conversation regarding his works was not a sufficient one. John Mullan writes that when in 1986 Marilyn Butler “devoted her inaugural lecture on appointment to the Edward VII chair of English in Cambridge to the poetry of Robert Southey … [s]ome of her new colleagues were evidently perplexed by her interest in such a subsidiary writer.” However, the following decades have seen an enormous upsurge in attention. While between 1980 and 1989 Southey appeared only forty-one times in publications indexed in the MLA International Bibliography, between 1990 and 1999 he appeared seventy-six times and between 2000 and 2009 he featured 123 times: an exact tripling relative to the 1980s. Once the articles in this special issue and other Southey-related works published during 2018 are indexed, it seems likely that twenty-first-century scholarly publications in which Southey is a noteworthy presence (255 at the time of writing) will overtake in quantity those dating from between 1910 and 1999 (278). In the introduction to her edited collection Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism (2006), Lynda Pratt credits—along with Butler—Nigel Leask’s British Romantic Writers and the East (1992), Mark Storey’s Robert Southey: A Life (1997), and Tim Fulford and Peter Kitson’s Romanticism and Colonialism (1998) with engendering a situation where “Southey has at last …