The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part Five


Part Five collects, in one place for the first time, the surviving letters written by Robert Southey between 1816 and 1818. It follows the editorial conventions described in About this Edition and contains newly transcribed, fully annotated texts of 537 letters drawn from archives in the United Kingdom, Europe and North America. Of these, 341 are published for the first time, with a further 51 published here in full for the first time.

The letters brought together in this edition begin on 2 January 1816 with an account of Southey’s latest task as Poet Laureate (the composition of a New Year’s Ode) and his progress on a topical new poem, The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo (Letter 2690). They conclude on New Year’s Eve 1818 with a letter that combines news of Southey’s family and friends in the Lake District with a description of his labours for the Quarterly Review (Letter 3227). The letters in between contain reflections on a massive variety of subjects – literary and non-literary, public and private, local and global. They make available a great deal of new information about Southey’s views on literature, politics, religion and society; his work as Poet Laureate and engagement in public life and public controversy; his relationships with his contemporaries; his domestic life in Keswick; his extended family and social networks; his extensive reading; his working practices; his prolific output of poetry and prose; and his interactions with publishers and negotiation of the literary marketplace. They reveal Southey’s agonised response to the death of his son in April 1816: ‘how large a part of my hopes & happiness will be laid in the grave with Herbert’ (Letter 2757). They show how the announcement, in autumn 1818, of Edith Southey’s eighth, and final, pregnancy only confirmed Southey in his conviction that his loss was ‘irreparable’ and the new baby could not replace ‘that incomparable boy’ (Letters 3203). They demonstrate how Southey used his influence to assist the careers of others, recruiting William Wilberforce’s help in an attempt to gain a consulship at Maranhão, Brazil, for Henry Koster (Letter 3168), for example, and providing £10 from his own purse and raising money from Samuel Rogers and Earl Spencer to fund the impoverished young poet Herbert Knowles’s studies at Cambridge University (Letters 2855, 2858, 2866, 2879 and 2887). The letters also touch on other matters of interest and concern to Southey, including tea drinking (Letter 3030); cats (Letter 3031); the impact of the 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora on the world’s climate, fauna and flora (Letter 3056); the outbreak of typhus in the town of Keswick (Letter 3115); the discovery, by one of the Southey daughters, of an ancient bronze spear head on the slopes of Skiddaw (Letter 3117); the offer of the post of Librarian at the Society of Advocates, which Southey refused (Letter 3148); the chaotic relationship between William Wilberforce and his servants (Letter 3204); and the increasing rarity of bitterns in the Lake District, a scarcity not helped by the actions of a visiting Cambridge undergraduate, who shot, killed and ate one (Letter 3033).

The 537 letters published here are proof that Southey remained a vigorous and indefatigable correspondent in mid life, even though the demands on his time were increasing apace. Part Five sees the continuation of established correspondences with friends and colleagues, including Mary Barker, Grosvenor Bedford, Andrew Bell, Joseph Cottle, John Wilson Croker, James Montgomery, John Murray, John Rickman, William Wilberforce, William Wordsworth and Charles Wynn. It provides compelling evidence of how the number and range of networks in which Southey was involved continued to expand in tandem with his personal and professional commitments. In 1817, for example, he wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool (Letter 2947). Other new correspondents in this period include the ambitious young writers Caroline Bowles, Herbert Knowles and Chauncey Hare Townshend; the churchman John Jebb; the antiquarian Dawson Turner; the American inventor Horatio Gates Spafford; and, last but not least, Samuel Rogers and Helen Maria Williams, both established figures in the literary world. Moreover, although 537 letters by Southey survive from this period, letter fragments and references within surviving letters to ones that are now lost are reminders of the selective nature of any edition such as this and of the contingencies of literary history. What we have here are the remains of a much larger output. Southey’s letters to Coleridge, Peter Elmsley, Charles Lamb, Sharon Turner and William Wordsworth exist only in part, while other correspondences have been lost entirely and can now only be glimpsed in letters sent to others.

In January 1816 Southey was forty-one years old and an established, though controversial, writer. He had been married since 1795 and fathered seven children, five of whom were still living – Edith May, Herbert, Bertha, Kate and Isabel. He had been resident at Greta Hall, on the outskirts of the market town of Keswick, since autumn 1803, though he had made occasional forays from home, touring the continent, for example, in autumn 1815. This pattern of Lake District residence punctuated by periods of travel was to continue throughout the later 1810s. His longest and most ambitious tour of the period took place in May–August 1817, when Southey journeyed through France, Switzerland, Italy, Germany and the Low Countries, accompanied by his friends, the artist Edward Nash and the landowner Humphrey Senhouse. Southey’s life was not, however, as ‘regular’ and ‘monotonous’ an existence as this might suggest (Letter 3088). His 1817 continental tour, though a private undertaking, generated public controversy over what Southey had seen – or not seen – written in the visitors’ book at Montanvert, and the resulting row over the so-called ‘Atheist’ inscription inflamed his already antagonistic relationship with Percy Shelley (Letter 3004). Moreover, family tragedy and economic changes were to make Southey’s residence at Greta Hall less than secure. The death of his nine-year-old son in April 1816 made Southey long to escape from a house and landscape haunted by the child’s presence: the ‘wound will never close while I remain’ in ‘this country’ (Letter 2757). Although he eventually decided to stay put, the bankruptcy of his landlord in 1817 and uncertainty over the future ownership of the property threatened Southey’s continued tenancy of his home (Letter 2961).

In 1816–1818 Southey was concerned – as he had been earlier in his career – with the local, national and international. His travels, documented in long letters to family and friends and in a journal, opened up new places, led to meetings with, amongst others, the writer and expert on Latin America Alexander Humboldt, and the educational reformer Johann Pestalozzi, and supplied fresh gossip about Princess Caroline, estranged wife of the Prince Regent, whose ‘infamous’ conduct bore comparison ‘in history with Messalina and Joan of Naples’ (Letter 3003). Foreign journeys also allowed Southey to indulge his book-buying habit and to enrich further the shelves of his substantial library. His letters anxiously track the progress of the volumes purchased on his 1817 tour and reveal that Southey enlisted the help of the London banker Nathan Meyer Rothschild to ensure they were safely conveyed back to Britain (Letter 3003). Moreover, even when he was at home in Keswick and hard at work, Southey was not cut off from the wider world. His voracious and wide reading in multiple languages, and his writing on a huge range of topics (from the history of Brazil to poems for his children) brought the world within the walls of his study. In the hours not spent at his desk, he socialised with prominent Keswick families, such as the Speddings of Mirehouse, and with local magnates such as the Earl of Lonsdale. In addition, Southey’s professional reputation brought an increasing stream of visitors, national and international, welcome and unwelcome, to his door. Between 1816 and 1818 these included the publishers John Murray and William Blackwood, who arrived together in Murray’s carriage. Southey could not afford such a vehicle and he commented waspishly on this as yet another indication of ‘Maximus Murray’s’ increasingly grand manner (Letter 3187). It also, of course, said much about the publisher’s financial standing and professional success. Overseas visitors included Samuel Heinrich Spiker, Librarian to the King of Prussia. Spiker, in his account of the meeting, marvelled at Southey’s library of ‘between 3 and 4000 volumes of the most select works in the Spanish and Portuguese languages, in the departments of history, statistics, and voyages, and travels’ and described ‘the pleasant evening I passed in Mr. Southey’s family, as one of the most happy sections’ of his tour of the United Kingdom. [1]  Other welcome guests included, in 1817, the factory owner and social reformer Robert Owen, ‘a very interesting personage … full of plans for the poor’, and the Harvard professor Edward Everett, the ‘most interesting person whom we have as yet seen this summer’ (Letters 2859, 2908, 3191). Southey’s letters do more than just describe these occasions and individuals. Many of the links he forged with his visitors had been initiated, and were to be sustained in the future, via letter writing. His letters are thus evidence of the central role played by correspondence in Romantic period social networking.

Southey often expressed relief when the ‘succession of company’ was over, when he could settle, as he explained in November 1817:

… to my winters work, with the probability of as few interruptions from without, as Bruin has when he rolls himself up in his cave, & trusts to his paws till the spring. (Letter 3034)

As his letters reveal, Southey was as busy as ever in 1816–1818. His literary output continued to be prolific and diverse, covering domestic and international subjects, current affairs and the recent and the distant past. He contributed regularly to the Quarterly Review and laboured on the History of Brazil, the second volume of which appeared in 1817. He produced an edition of Malory’s Morte d’ Arthur, entitled The Byrth, Lyf, and Actes of Kyng Arthur (1817), and brought out fresh editions of his long poems The Curse of Kehama and Roderick, the Last of the Goths. He continued to compose new poems, including the annual odes required of him as Poet Laureate and topical longer pieces such as The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo and The Lay of the Laureate, both published in 1816. Southey also accepted occasional commissions to write poems, including, in 1818, an epitaph for Ralph Broome, the nephew of his old friend James Burney and the novelist Fanny Burney (Letter 3070). He refused, however, numerous uninvited solicitations for verses. These included one of 1817 from an individual identified only as ‘N.T.P.’, who had importuned Southey to

… compose an acrostic for the writer to express his passion for Rebecca, a rival having lately got a head of him in consequence of having addressed some verses to the object of their affections … (Letter 3016)

‘N.T.P.’s request was accompanied by 20 shillings, which Southey gave to charity.

A high profile figure since the mid 1790s, Southey retained his appetite for controversy and, in his writings, engaged with acutely topical and contentious issues, including the need for effective censorship of the radical press, which attracted the opprobrium and ridicule of contemporaries such as Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt. His letters reflect and provide new information about the disputes in which he was embroiled. They make it possible, for example, to track in detail Southey’s reaction to the Wat Tyler furore, including his attempt to seek restitution by recourse to the law. They also refine current understanding of Southey’s reaction to being confronted, publicly, with the ghost of his radical youth. It has long been assumed that in spring 1817 Southey responded to the Wat Tyler affair by publishing a letter in the Courier on 17 March 1817. [2]  He did in fact write two letters for the newspaper: one addressed to William Smith, the radical MP who had used parliamentary privilege to attack Southey in a speech delivered in the House of Commons on 14 March 1817 (Letter 2943), and a second letter addressed to the Courier’s editor (Letter 2946). They were sent by Southey to Charles Wynn, on 17 and 19 March respectively, with instructions to forward them to the Courier (Letters 2944 and 2948). However, as revealed here for the first time, Wynn was away and did not receive the letters and Southey’s instructions until his return. By then public interest had moved on and the moment for publishing either or both in a newspaper had passed. Neither letter appeared in the Courier. Instead, Southey reworked both into his pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, which appeared at the end of April 1817. New light, too, is cast here on the controversial memorandum sent by Southey to Lord Liverpool (dated 19 March 1817), which advocated the suppression of the radical press. It has hitherto never been published in full and we restore here a final paragraph omitted in the previously published version (Letter 2947). This reveals that Southey urged the Prime Minister both to censor the press, and to implement Robert Owen’s plans to tackle unemployment. It thus complicates understanding of Southey’s mid-life politics, suggesting that he was far from being a straightforward reactionary, however much he proclaimed his detestation of radicals and Whigs. By shedding fresh light on these and other controversies, the letters we publish here demonstrate that although the years 1816–1818 were important ones in Southey’s career and impacted on his longer-term reputation, they are yet to be fully documented or completely understood.

While writing to the moment – be it to the Prime Minister, to newspapers or in the pages of the Quarterly Review – remained important to Southey, he also had an eye ever on posterity. In an unpublished draft of A Letter to William Smith, he described himself in the third person and predicted how generations to come would perceive him as one who ‘in an age of personality … abstained from satire’ (Letter 2966). Many of his contemporaries would have disagreed. Yet confidence in his posthumous fame led Southey to plan for the future. In 1816–1818 he continued work on earlier uncompleted writings such as a sequence of inscriptions on the Peninsular War, and the longer poems A Tale of Paraguay, and ‘Oliver Newman’. He also laid the foundations for a series of major projects that he believed would underpin his reputation. These included a biography of John Wesley, which emerged out of an 1817 essay for the short-lived conservative journal the Correspondent; a full-scale History of the Peninsular War, for which Southey both sought out and was offered the papers of a series of eminent participants; and a project, inspired by Boethius, that mixed verse and ‘prose … in colloquy between Sir T More & Meipsum’, and which eventually became Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829) (Letter 3042). The quest for fame sometimes took a wrong turn. Other projects planned in this period – notably a ‘desultory poem in blank verse’ occasioned by the death of his son – were never finished (Letter 2969). The letters published here provide fresh evidence on how these and other writings did or did not come about and the reasons for this.

Key to Southey’s career in 1816–1818 was the importance that he placed upon his role as a writer and on the capacity of his poetry and prose to influence public life for the better, as he thought, both in the present and the future. This belief had been given fresh impetus by his appointment in 1813 as Poet Laureate and his determination to revitalise the post. The Laureateship had precipitated Southey’s return not just to poetry but to verses that engaged explicitly (rather than, as previously, in a coded fashion) with current affairs. This impacted on obviously topical pieces such as The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo and The Lay of the Laureate (written to celebrate the marriage of the Princess Charlotte). It also inflected his other writings. As he explained, the ‘main object’ of his Boethian-inspired, poetry-prose hybrid was ‘to show that we are rapidly approaching a crisis in society’ (Letter 3042). His prose, too, was galvanised and shaped by a similar preoccupation. He was, he explained, in writing on issues of current public concern for the Quarterly Review, ‘giving my whole time and thought to these great subjects’ in order to ‘take the lead in preparing & informing the public’ (Letter 3066).

However, Southey did not have things his own way and contemporaries did not always agree with the information he wished to put before them. His ambitions for the Poet Laureateship were consistently thwarted by attacks from all sides and by the compromises forced on him. These included being obliged to continue producing annual odes, though he had taken the post in the belief that this custom had been abolished. His hatred of the task and growing overall discontent with the Poet Laureateship was encapsulated in the description of his New Year’s Ode for January 1819, on the death of Queen Charlotte, as ‘fitter to be bum-fiddled’ (Letter 3221). Such relative powerlessness was also reflected in the titles given to Southey’s published works. In 1815–1816 he wanted to use ‘Belle-Alliance’, ‘anything but Waterloo’, in the title of his new, battlefield-visit poem in an attempt to expose the self-serving actions of the Duke of Wellington, who had given ‘the name of Waterloo … to the battle … in a spirit of the lowest & vilest jealousy’.  [3]  Politically well-connected friends and acquaintances cautioned against this, concerned that using the Prussian name for the battle would offend Wellington and lead to trouble. Southey eventually, not without considerable protest, caved in and the volume duly appeared in 1816 as The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo.

Southey made a great deal of noise in his correspondence about wishing to publicly expose and humiliate individuals, such as William Smith, Henry Brougham, Leigh Hunt, Francis Jeffrey and the Duke of Wellington, whom he detested. Yet, in practice, his polemics were often moderated. William Gifford, for example, censored many of Southey’s contributions to the Quarterly Review, a practice Southey loathed, railed against and was powerless to do anything about. Friends, whose advice Southey often asked, accepted and acted on, also impacted on his writing, though Southey tended to take their interventions with a grace not reserved for Gifford and his ilk. ‘I would’, he informed one of his oldest friends, Charles Wynn

… take reproof from you as a dog does blows from his master; – which same dog if he were struck by a stranger would make his teeth meet in the calf of his leg. (Letter 2976)

It was friends who, in 1817, urged him to remove any reference to duelling from A Letter to William Smith, on the grounds that Smith might be provoked to challenge the Poet Laureate (e.g. Letter 2976). Southey acted on their advice. The following year he began work on a public letter, a ‘Tender epistle’, prompted by Henry Brougham’s attack from the hustings on both himself and Wordsworth. Southey’s plan was to chastise publicly ‘a man who has … slandered me in the face of my neighbours’ and to expose him ‘as he deserves to be exposed’ (Letter 3167). Friends again dissuaded him. The ‘epistle’ was abandoned and remained unpublished until 1821 when sections – with Brougham’s name removed – appeared in the second edition of the Laureate ode Carmen Triumphale. [4]  Southey’s letters thus reveal a significant difference between what he proclaimed he would do and what he actually ended up publishing. In so doing, they show how even the most combative of writers had to negotiate the transition of their writings into a hostile, potentially fatal, public sphere.

The letters we publish here make available important new information about Southey’s writing life and his intersections with contemporaries drawn from many different walks of life, including literature, politics and religion. They show his career in progress, reveal that it was more complex than has previously been thought, and provide compelling evidence about how his works were shaped and reshaped by external pressures that he could not always control or defeat. They thus refine our understanding both of Southey and of the ways in which individual writers came to terms with the complex and contentious culture of the late 1810s.


[1] Samuel Heinrich Spiker (1786–1858), Travels in England, Wales, and Scotland in the Year 1816, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, pp. 270, 272. BACK

[2] This belief almost certainly arose because of Cuthbert Southey’s handling of the letter to the Editor of the Courier, which he misdated 17 March 1817 (see Letter 2946 of our edition). Cuthbert published this in the main run of letters dealing with the furore over Wat Tyler and while he did not explicitly indicate the letter had appeared in the Courier, he did not say it had not. See Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, 6 vols (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 252–255. BACK

[3] See Southey to Thomas Southey, 17 December 1815, The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part Four, Letter 2684. BACK

[4] See Southey, Carmen Triumphale, For the Commencement of the Year 1814, 2nd edn (London, 1821), pp. 45–53. BACK