2954. Robert Southey to Joseph Cottle [fragment], [c. 24 March 1817]

2954. Robert Southey to Joseph Cottle [fragment], [c. 24 March 1817] ⁠* 

My dear Cottle,

You will have seen by the papers, that some villain, after an interval of three and twenty years, has published my old uncle, ‘Wat Tyler.’ I have failed in attempting to obtain an injunction, because a false oath has been taken, for the purpose of defeating me. [1]  * * * *

I am glad to see, and you will be very glad to hear, that this business has called forth Coleridge, and with the recollections of old times, brought back something like old feelings. [2]  He wrote a very excellent paper on the subject in the ‘Courier,’ [3]  and I hope it will be the means of his rejoining us ere long; so good will come out evil, and the devil can do nothing but what he is permitted.

I am well in health, and as little annoyed by this rascality as it becomes me to be. The only thing that has vexed me, is the manner in which my counsel is represented in talking about my being ashamed of the work as a wicked performance! [4]  Wicked! My poor ‘old uncle’ has nothing wicked about him. It was the work of a right-honest enthusiast, as you can bear witness; of one who was as upright in his youth as he has been in his manhood, and is now in the decline of his life; who, blessed be God, has little to be ashamed before man, of any of his thoughts, words, or actions, whatever cause he may have for saying to his Maker, ‘God be merciful to me a sinner.’ [5]  God bless you, my old and affectionate friend,

Robert Southey.

I am writing a pamphlet, in the form of a letter, to Wm. Smith. [6]  Fear not, but that I shall make my own cause good, and set my foot on my enemies. This has been a wicked transaction. It can do me no other harm than the expense to which it has put me.


* MS: MS untraced; text is taken from Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (London, 1847).
Previously published: Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (London, 1847), pp. 234–235 [in part].
Dating note: Dating from Joseph Cottle to Robert Southey, 27 March 1817, which records that he had ‘just received’ a letter from Southey; see Lynda Pratt, ‘The “sad habits” of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Unpublished Letters from Joseph Cottle to Robert Southey, 1813–1817’, Review of English Studies, n.s. 55 (2004), 88.
Note on the text: Cottle is notorious for his cavalier treatment of correspondence, and it is possible that the postscript he published as part of this letter ([c. 24 March 1817]) did not belong to it, but was taken from another letter of Southey’s which does not appear to have survived but dated from late March or early April 1817. This is suggested by the postscript’s mention of Southey’s pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P., which was not begun until 26 March 1817; see Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 26 March 1817, Letter 2957. BACK

[1] Southey refers to the affair of his Jacobin drama Wat Tyler, which he had written in 1794 and sent to James Ridgway (1755–1838) and Henry Symonds (1741–1816), radical booksellers, for publication; see Robert Southey to Edith Fricker, [c. 12 January 1795], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 123. Ridgway and Symonds did not publish it and it remained in manuscript until a pirated publication, designed to embarrass the now anti-Jacobin Southey, appeared in 1817. Having taken advice from Rickman, Wynn and Turner, Southey launched a suit in Chancery in order to gain an injunction suppressing the publication, on the grounds that it breached his copyright. The case was heard on 18–19 March 1817 and, in Southey’s view, lost because of perjury in an affidavit given to the court by William Winterbotham, who swore that Southey had, when visiting Newgate prison, where Winterbotham, Ridgway and Symonds were all confined, given the manuscript of Wat Tyler and the copyright to Winterbotham and Daniel Isaac Eaton (1753–1814; DNB), to do with as they liked. Southey referred to Wat Tyler as his ‘uncle’ because of his family connections – he had three uncles with the surname ‘Tyler’. BACK

[2] Southey to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 21 March 1817 (Letter 2949): ‘I have no reason to regret the apparition of my Uncle Wat, since with the recollection of old times, it has brought back some of their feelings also’. BACK

[3] Coleridge wrote in defence of Southey in the Courier on 17, 18 and 27 March 1817 and 2 April 1817. However, he did not visit Greta Hall. BACK

[4] Southey was aggrieved at the case made by his lawyers, Sir Anthony Hart (c. 1754–1831; DNB) and Sir Lancelot Shadwell (1779–1850; DNB), as reported in e.g. Morning Post, 19 March 1817, when pleading for an injunction to stop the publication of Wat Tyler: ‘it was of the utmost importance that the dissemination of a work, professing such wicked and mischievous sentiments, both as it regarded the public welfare, and the character of the individual, who had long since disavowed the sentiments contained in it, should be immediately stopped’. BACK

[5] Luke 18: 13. BACK

[6] A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P. (1817). BACK

People mentioned