This article takes a fresh look at Southey’s radical poetry of the 1790s in order to assess Southey’s mobilization of the tropes of political violence and atrocity. In the repressive antijacobin climate of the mid to late 1790s, radicalism was frequently associated with the sensational imagery of unbridled popular violence and regicide, but such propaganda misrepresented the ways in which radical authors like Southey used their texts precisely to explore and negotiate the problem of “justified” violence. The two texts I focus on are Wat Tyler and Joan of Arc, both of which imagine the bloody overthrow and destruction of a violent British state. But I show that beneath such a sensational vision (which may seem to explain why Wat Tyler was not published) is a more complex and coded engagement with the contemporaneous debate about politics, violence and democracy, including issues such as plebeian chivalry, heroic martyrdom, divine punishment, and state terror. I also argue that the furore surrounding the radical pirating of Wat Tyler in the postwar period overlooked the fact that the text offers the reader various political fantasies and discourses of violence ranging from regicide to patriarchal self-defence, sacrificial defiance and statesmanlike moral reflection. I hope to show, therefore, that a more nuanced historicist approach to Southey’s early poetry in fact yields a more polysemic hermeneutics than has been appreciated by critics from the Romantic period to the present.
Southey’s public criticism of “The Ancient Mariner” as “a Dutch attempt at German sublimity” is conventionally and all too easily dismissed as a demonstration of his limitations, both as a man and as a poet. Given Southey’s allegiance to the tradition of “German sublimity,” which he felt was epitomized in Bürger’s ballads, and which he found championed by his literary friends in Norwich, he had good grounds for concern at Coleridge’s redevelopment of the modern ballad, however. Southey’s own ballad, “The Old Woman of Berkeley,” is read here as a deliberate “answer” to the problems he found in “The Ancient Mariner,” and an attempt to reinforce the “sublime” Bürger tradition. The most important difference concerns the poets’ attitudes to the past, which to Southey is essentially dead, and in need of the poet’s “organicizing” voice (Geoffrey Hartman’s term), while to Coleridge its imaginative energy survives, and can be mediated by the poet. This difference puts Southey closer to the German brand of “Romanticism.” The issues between Southey and Coleridge here are relevant to the problems we face today as scholars approaching, sorting, and evaluating the narratives of the past.
This essay opens with a comparison of Robert Southey’s “History” and William Wordsworth’s The Prelude as poems of poetic dedication at a time of historical crisis. It argues that Southey’s text offers a manifesto for a different poetic mode to the one normally defined as Romantic. Through readings of Southey’s Joan of Arc and Wordsworth’s “The Discharged Soldier”, it examines the contrasting ways in which the two poets responded to the war with France and shows how the conflict played a major role in the shaping of their poetic identities. The writers’ different trajectories as poets are traced through an examination of their poetic dialogue from 1798 to 1802 as Southey countered what is often seen as one of the fundamental manoeuvres that characterizes the development of Wordsworthian Romanticism, the shift from a polemical humanitarian concern with suffering individuals to a psychological interest in their states of mind. Southey’s “The Sailor’s Mother” offered a reassertion of the importance of history so powerful that Wordsworth himself replied to it in a poem of the same name. Yet despite their differences, Southey’s “History” and Wordsworth’s The Prelude illustrate another crucial element of the two writers’ response to historical and vocational crisis during the war, the redefinition of poetry as a manly pursuit after its increasing feminization in the closing decades of the eighteenth century.
The subject of this article is the vicious public dispute between Southey and Byron—the well-known argument that centred on the two poets’ Visions of Judgment. Precipitated by Southey’s call for censorship of immoral literature and punishment of “Satanic” authors, the dispute was won—according to twentieth-century critics—by Byron, whose devastating parody undermined the credibility of Southey’s political poetry.
It has long been understood that the dispute was about more than personal enmity, that what was in question was literature’s relationship to power and its proper role in the body politic. What has received less attention is the fact that the dispute concerned not only the domestic scene (literature’s relationship to Church and State in Britain) but also the widening sphere of empire. It is my intention to focus on the imperial sphere in what follows so as to reveal that Southey and Byron were arguing in and for a new context. They were setting out rival models of colonialist and Orientalist poetry for an age in which empire was being expanded and imperialism redefined. These models include two long poems that scholars have hitherto failed to relate to the poets’ dispute—Byron’s The Island (1823) and Southey’s Tale of Paraguay (1825). Both these poems look different when we understand their place in the poets’ contest to make their own colonialist representations of native peoples prevail over the hearts and minds of the British public.
This article discusses the way in which Southey’s long narrative poem Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) reflected the process of his changing political position from radicalism to conservatism. My argument reveals that Southey’s use of oriental material in his poem complicated these political responses because his design was dominated by his imperialist ambitions for his own country. Southey’s representation of his young hero’s divine mission against magic, superstition and tyranny is therefore constructed in a way that discusses issues within British as well as Middle Eastern society. For instance, Southey’s depiction of Islam bifurcates into, on the one hand, a positive vision of ancient Islam—that is in fact a personal statement of his own beliefs and values—and on the other, a negative view of modern Islam as a “degraded” religion and society. It is Southey’s intention that the heroic role-model of personal morality and probity that he advocates in Thalaba (and which still operates as a device to criticize his own society, though it replaces his earlier political radicalism) be perceived as embodying ideal “British” characteristics. The supremacy of such “national” values in Southey’s text, justifies their dissemination into other cultures and societies abroad, so promoting here, as in his other works, Britain’s imperial policy abroad.
The intersection of history and literature in late-eighteenth- and early-nineteenth-century Britain has received a great deal of attention lately, and critics like Mark Phillips and Karen O’Brien have drawn attention to the ways in which Romantic historians such as Thomas Babington Macaulay drew on literary techniques and genres to create evocative and spectacular histories. But the same milieu that produced Macaulay also produced Robert Southey, whose much less discussed Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829) foregrounds another affective history in the period, one dependent on a generic intersection between history and travel writing. Part picturesque tour, part social history, and part ghost story, Colloquies figured prominently in the larger cultural debate over the question of reform in Britain, and it offers an important counterpoint to Romantic histories such as Macaulay’s. Combining history with travel writing and dream vision, Southey exploits their convergence to create a different kind of spectacular history. This generic convergence—in particular, Southey’s use of the picturesque—is central to Macaulay’s indictment of Southey’s historical methodology in his review of Colloquies. The Southey-Macaulay contest over the idea of a picturesque history is part of a larger debate that was taking place about the status of history in post-Waterloo Britain.
Critical opinion on Southey’s Joan of Arc has tended to focus on the poem’s political function. This article acknowledges Joan’s symbolic connection with Charlotte Corday and revolutionary France, but sees the poem’s principle function as belonging to a wider context. Throughout the text, Southey’s Maid is pitted not simply against the misguided English enemy but against warfare per se. The article argues that she performs this main function by being out of place, as a young woman, on a battlefield—especially in the role of military leader. It does this by invoking Shklovsky’s theory that unfamiliarity revives human perception, whereas “habitualization” erodes it. In Joan of Arc, the Maid’s unfamiliarity, or perceived inappropriateness in context, is constantly emphasized. The reader is never allowed to forget Joan’s gender, inexperience and supernatural strangeness, for they are the cause of recurrent wonder and disgust in other characters. She is routinely named as a miracle or freak of nature and her presence hence throws everything in the largely military narrative into relief, highlighting war’s cruelties and absurdities. Joan, moreover, functions not only as a passive point of reference. She is frequently the narrator’s focalizer, her estranged viewpoint inviting the reader to substitute her spontaneous horror and compassion for epic’s usual triumphalism. The narrative is full of nauseating physical details of wounding and dismemberment, as well as exhaustive accounts of the progress of grief and starvation. In fact, as the article claims, this poem strives throughout to undo the strategies that Elaine Scarry in The Body in Pain sees everywhere working to make war’s purpose of injuring disappear. Joan, unlike more “habitualized” soldiers and leaders, never loses sight of injury in any of its forms and thus her vision forces the reader to consider all the repercussions of war, both physical and psychological.
Dubious though the honour may be, if anybody dominated the anglophone epic poetry scene across the Romantic period it was Robert Southey. For forty years he was at work on one or another extended verse narrative, with topics that represented, on four continents, cultures from medieval Christendom, Islam, Hindustan, and the indigenous New World. Between the two quite different versions of Joan of Arc that he published in 1796 and 1837 appeared Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Madoc (1805), The Curse of Kehama (1810), Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), and A Tale of Paraguay (1825). Southey’s chosen themes of contest and conquest threw into high relief the profile of each culture he seized on, as in a different register did his characteristically bookish and condescending notes. Enlightened skepticism about alien systems of belief, joined to antinomian indifference to the internal logic of social patterns, disposed Southey’s epics to forms of causal overdrive that impoverish their narrative interest, even as they fulfill a whole set of now widely discredited clichés about Romantic alienation, transcendence, unstoppable will and insatiable desire. To Southey’s known importance for his Laker contemporaries, and his impact on Byron and Shelley in the next generation, may be added an extensive legacy to Victorian verse and prose narrative art: an influence that is the stranger given the extremity of his example. Action after action in Southey’s epic poems illustrates the incompatibility with heroic virtue of any course of action – i. e., any plot – that does not result in personal, national, or (at the imaginative bedrock these slighter levels imply) cosmic catastrophe.