Digital Review

The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: A Romantic Circles Edition. General Editors: Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Ian Packer[Record]

  • Michael Gamer

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  • Michael Gamer
    University of Pennsylvania

Early in my years of graduate study, I had what might be called a “Robert Southey moment”—loosely defined as that instant when you become aware not only of your ignorance of Southey’s writings but also that your disregard of him is willfully, even entirely, wrong. Having encountered Southey as an undergraduate only through Byron’s withering Dedication to Don Juan, I met with a powerful counter-narrative in Marilyn Butler’s “Repossessing the Past: The Case for an Open Literary History,” a foundational essay in the Rethinking Historicism (1989) collection that also featured landmark articles by the likes of Marjorie Levinson, Paul Hamilton, and Jerome McGann. But it was Butler’s piece that charmed me most, and that sent me to the stacks to read Joan of Arc, Thalaba, Kehama, and the 1797 and 1799 collections. “Poets we have installed as canonical look more interesting individually, and far more understandable as groups,” she declared, “when we restore some of their lost peers” (64). The Southey that emerged in Butler’s manifesto was at once central to the age and key to understanding other writers. He appeared, moreover, in several guises: as surprising trendsetter, dogged adversary, and lasting influence. Here was a writer crucial to the Lyrical Ballads project and conspicuous in the longer poems of the Regency, the journalism of the post-Waterloo years, and the biographies and histories of the 1820s. Where my undergraduate years had introduced me to six major Romantic poets who seemed to have nothing to do with one another, each aloofly occupying his respective bit of Parnassus, figures like Southey—and later Bage, Barbauld, Edgeworth, Godwin, Lewis, Moore, Radcliffe, Robinson, Scott, Wollstonecraft, and countless others—promised a world of writers at once connected and contentious, a universe expanding. That sense of romanticism has only magnified for me in subsequent years. A writer of broad acquaintance and omnivorous interests, Robert Southey produced a body of correspondence which dwarfs that of most other prominent writers both in quantity and range. Among eighteenth-century and romantic-period letter writers, Southey rivals Voltaire, Horace Walpole, and Catherine the Great in the size of his correspondence. As of 2009, however, only thirty percent of his letters had been published, and these were spread over multiple editions at once out of print and hard to find. Beginning with the March 2009 release of Part One: 1791-1797, the Romantic Circles edition of The Collected Letters of Robert Southey has set out to redress this problem. In the intervening nine years, the editorial team of Lynda Pratt, Ian Packer, Tim Fulford, and Carol Bolton has published five more parts, making this by far the most ambitious Romantic Circles edition to date. As Lynda Pratt mentioned in a private exchange, a project of this scale wouldn’t be possible without the technical expertise of Laura Mandell, David Rettenmaier, and others at Romantic Circles. Especially valuable, she notes, is their help in “developing its searchability—e.g., you can click on in-text hyperlinks to key people in Southey’s life and to information about the places he was linked to (the latter are keyed into a map); indices allow you to see letters listed by their addressee, and also by the person/s mentioned in them.” While the project passed its halfway mark with the March 2017 publication of Part Six: 1819-1821, some 3,723 letters remain to be published. When completed, the edition will boast at least 7,500 letters from over 300 correspondents. It’s worth dwelling on the magnitude of this project. One might begin with the 200 archives the editors have scoured for manuscript letters, with the attendant processes of corresponding with librarians, …