Robert Southey, Writing and Romanticism[Notice]

  • Lynda Pratt

…plus d’informations

  • Lynda Pratt
    The University of Nottingham

In October 1800 the poet, travel-writer and polemicist Robert Southey was in Portugal. He wrote to his friend John Rickman asking him to act as his agent in negotiations for the publication of his latest poem, an oriental romance entitled Thalaba the Destroyer. Rickman was a civil servant not a poet and Southey gave him advice on which London publishers to approach (first Longman, then Arch and then Philips) and assured him that he should have no difficulties in obtaining good terms from one of them. The new poem was, he noted, eminently saleable and its author’s “name would carry it through an edition though it were worthless” (L&C 2: 121). Southey had every right to be confident about the currency of his own “name”. By 1800 he had published three collections of miscellaneous verse (Poems (1795, 1797 and 1799)), a travel book (Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal) and an epic poem (Joan of Arc). He had in addition edited two volumes of contemporary verse (the Annual Anthology) and translated the second part of Jacques Necker’s On the French Revolution. His works had been widely reviewed by the metropolitan periodical press and their literary and political radicalism had helped to make him notorious. In 1797-8 he had been named and shamed by the conservative Anti-Jacobin as the prolific leader of a “NEW SCHOOL” of seditious poets and caricatured by Gillray as a donkey-headed worshipper at the shrine of the “New Morality” (A-JWE 1: 6-7 and Anti-Jacobin Review 1: between 114-5). Southey’s attitude to his own contemporary celebrity was complex. He consciously courted a high public profile, continuing to publish poems on political subjects even in the late 1790s (for example “The English Eclogues”, “The Devil’s Thoughts” and “The King of the Crocodiles”, PW 5: 306-29, 380-4, 397-402, 426-32, 451-4, 365-8). At the same time he expressed awareness of the dangers of being publicly labelled a radical in a climate that was increasingly repressive and anti-jacobinical (L&C 1: 329). Although he was not prepared to remain silent, many of his most radical poems of the late 1790s first appeared not in volumes with his name on the title page but as anonymous (occasionally pseudonymous) contributions to London newspapers, including Daniel Stuart’s Morning Post (see MP and PW 5: passim). His attitude to the print culture in which he so vigorously participated was equally fraught. As he explained to Rickman, although his new poem, Thalaba, was guaranteed to sell: Southey was not unique amongst a younger generation of poets in criticising the “ins and outs of fashion”. His observations were sent to Rickman in the same year that William Wordsworth used the “Preface” added to the second edition of Lyrical Ballads to denounce his contemporaries’ love of “frantic novels, sickly and stupid German tragedies, and deluges of idle and extravagant stories in verse” (LB 1: xix). In their stead he offered two volumes of “Poems” that were he claimed “materially different, from those on which general approbation is at present bestowed” (1: viii). Wordsworth’s desire to reform culture also made him keen to distance himself from his peers, even collaborators such as Coleridge (for example, Wordsworth’s 1800 note to “The Thorn” LB 1: 211-4). At one point he had considered changing his collection’s name in case readers confused it with Mary Robinson’s Lyrical Tales and at his express request the 1800 edition contained no advertisements for the works of other writers (EY 298, 297; Curran, “Lyrical Tales” 18-19). Southey was equally …

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