The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part One

Part One is the first-ever collected edition of the letters written during the earliest period of Southey’s career. It begins with Southey as a rebellious pupil at Westminster School and ends with him attempting to balance his writing life with the legal career forced on him by his patron, Charles Wynn. Part One follows the editorial conventions described in About this Edition and publishes newly transcribed, annotated texts of all the surviving letters written by him between 1791 and 1797, bringing together in one place correspondence scattered between 28 archives in North America and the United Kingdom. Part One comprises 280 letters, of which 92 are published for the first time, and 68 are published in full for the first time. In addition, 6 letters that appeared pseudonymously in the Monthly Magazine are here newly attributed to Southey.

Southey’s surviving letters from 1791-1797 are written to some 25 extremely diverse individuals, some familiar from literary history, others not. They include friends from childhood (John James Morgan, Charles Danvers, Sarah and Edith Fricker); from school (Grosvenor Charles Bedford and Charles Watkin Williams Wynn); from university (John Horseman); and from professional life (John Aikin and William Owen Pughe). Some correspondents – such as Charles Collins –would rapidly disappear from Southey’s orbit; others (notably Bedford and Wynn) would remain lifelong friends. A third group, including Joseph Cottle and Robert Lovell, are reminders of the inevitable overlap in the letters between his personal and professional, private and public lives. The letters Southey sent to Cottle, who from 1795 was simultaneously his friend and his publisher, combine gossip about mutual acquaintances with literary business, returning proofing corrections, detailing financial concerns, and complaining about incompetent printers. They also provide evidence of his response to other writers, including his admiration for Bowles and Sayers and his reaction to controversial novels like Matthew Lewis’s The Monk: ‘I do not think the Monk can be praised too highly, or blamed too severely’ (Letter 195). Further, though different, less personal, evidence of Southey’s engagement in a cultural public sphere can be seen in the letters he contributed from 1796 to the pages of the newly-founded Monthly Magazine. Some signed, others pseudonymous, these reveal that from the very earliest stages of his career Southey disseminated his views on larger national stages, participating in wider, sometimes highly controversial, debates.

The correspondence on Spanish and Portuguese literature, Chatterton, the Welsh language and the treatment of English prisoners of war, sent by Southey to the Monthly Magazine in 1796 and 1797 may, in fact, not have been his first appearance in the metropolitan periodical press. Letter 124 suggests that he sent earlier, politically driven correspondence signed with the republican pseudonym ‘Harrington’ to the short-lived London radical newspaper The Telegraph. The absence of any surviving copies of the newspaper from the period in question makes it impossible to prove his claim. The traces of these earlier, radical, public communications draws attention to another feature of the letters published here: that Southey’s surviving correspondence provides important information about the letters that have not come down to us. ‘Missing’ letters revealed by Part One of include those from Southey to Joseph Cottle between late 1794 and November 1795; any correspondence exchanged before 1798 by Southey and the metropolitan radical George Dyer; and all of Southey’s letters to his parents, to his fellow Pantisocrat George Burnett, [1]  to the radical surgeon Anthony Carlisle, [2]  to Robert Allen (who introduced him to Coleridge in 1794), and to the would-be emigrant Robert Favell. [3] 

The most conspicuous absences are the letters sent by Southey to two key individuals in his early literary career: Coleridge and Robert Lovell. Coleridge and Southey met in Oxford in summer 1794 and subsequently corresponded. Whilst several of Coleridge’s letters to Southey from 1794-1797 survive, only one from Southey to Coleridge has come down to us, and that only in the fragmentary version published by Cuthbert Southey (Letter 229.1).  [4]  The result is an imbalance of information. Coleridge’s letters to Southey give us his views on crucial events such as the collapse of Pantisocracy, making a powerful case for Southey as ‘lost to Virtue’, as ‘one who had fallen back into the Ranks’. [5]  This incomplete correspondence has led to assumptions that Coleridge was the more energetic partner in the enterprise, and that he was badly let down. The latter’s lost replies might have shown another, equally compelling, side to the argument. The one-sided nature of the surviving letters also impacts on our sense of Southey as a writer. Coleridge’s letters create an image of Southey that has proved, until recently, to be surprisingly resiliant and unquestioned:

You sate down and wrote – I used to saunter about and think what I should write. And we ought to appreciate our comparative Industry by the quantum of mental exertion, not the particular mode of it. By the number of Thoughts collected, not by the number of Lines, thro’ which these Thoughts are diffused. [6] 

Coleridge constructs an image of Southey’s writing as prolix, unreflective, radically different and, by implication, inferior to his own. His rhetoric was calculatedly one-sided, designed to suit his own agenda, to combat his own fears and demons. Yet his relationship with Southey was a two-way exchange between equals – something that the absence of Southey’s replies makes it easy to overlook. We can use Coleridge’s part of the correspondence to guess at what Southey had said or written, but we cannot be certain. The most detailed picture of Southey’s views on Coleridge in the mid 1790s has to emerge, then, not from the intimacy and immediacy of their one-to-one exchanges, but from what Southey had to say in letters to others. It is here that we can map his movement from enchantment to disillusionment. We can follow his excitement at meeting ‘one whom I very much esteem & admire’ (Letter 94), ‘a man of the first genius & abilities, & ... my friend’ (Letter 100). As relationships between the two soured, we can also chart Southey’s growing disillusionment and determination to sever their connections, including creative links. We learn of his decision to ‘expunge every line of Coleridges ... all he wrote not all he claims’ from the second edition of Joan of Arc (Letter 148). We also discover that by 1797 Southey had reached a point where he could describe Coleridge as

one who has neither the feelings nor habits of honest independance, & who always indulges himself careless of consequences ... it is not possible to think too highly[MS torn] Coleridges abilities, or too despicably of him in every other character. (Letter 250)

His opinion was not to alter radically in the coming years.

Another less familiar, but equally central literary relationship of the 1790s can also only be glimpsed in part: that between Southey and Robert Lovell. The two Bristol-born poets met in late 1793, introduced by their mutual friends the Fricker sisters. (Lovell, like Southey and Coleridge, was to marry one of the Frickers.) Their relationship was ended by Lovell’s premature and sudden death in 1796. Only a tiny fraction of what was probably a substantial correspondence survives, consisting of one complete (Letter 85) and one fragmentary letter (Letter 147) from Southey to Lovell; none from Lovell to Southey is extant. This gap in the correspondence means that it is easy to underestimate the importance of their friendship. The letters published here – both those sent to Lovell and those written about him – allow his importance to Southey, particularly in the period 1793-4, to emerge for the first time. Letter 85, the only complete one from Southey to Lovell extant, offers a tantalising glimpse of their friendship. Lovell emerges as a sharer in Southey’s politics and literary ambition, someone with whom he could exchange political news, a recently completed radical elegy ‘To the Exiled Patriots’, a series of sonnets and information about projected works, including the earliest summary of the Welsh-American epic Madoc. Lovell’s importance to Southey as a man of ‘very great abilities’, one who ‘writes well’ (Letter 73), emerges from other letters. It was Lovell who Southey praised in late 1793 as:

... a poet in some walks I do not know his equal — in the plaintive & soft kinds — elegy & sonnet for instance but this is not his only merit — epistles & various other species he has handled with peculiar delicacy. I do not scruple to say that for elegance & simplicity of versification I know no Author in our language that surpasses him. most probably we shall soon publish together. (Letter 76)

Lovell was, to Southey, more than an example of a good, modern poet. His presence seems to have spurred on Southey’s own literary ambitions. At the time of their meeting Lovell’s career was slightly more advanced – he was author of the soon-to-be-published Bristol, a Satire – whereas Southey was barely recovering from the debacle of The Flagellant and the bankruptcy and death of his father. In 1794 it was Lovell who was pivotal in helping Southey establish links with publishers and booksellers in Bath and Bristol. It was Lovell who accompanied Southey to Bath on a visit to Richard Cruttwell, in order to ask him he if would publish their joint collection. [7]  Moreover it was that ‘clever young man’ Lovell, who later in the same year, went to see Joseph Cottle and attempted to convert the publisher to Pantisocracy. [8]  According to Cottle’s later account, Lovell seized the opportunity to read aloud from ‘the MS. poems of his two unknown friends, which at once established their genius in my estimation’. [9]  The ‘two ... friends’ were Southey and Coleridge; within weeks Lovell had brought them to Cottle’s shop and a crucial relationship in early Romanticism had been forged, one which led directly to the publication of Southey’s Joan of Arc, to Coleridge’s collections of 1796 and 1797 and – eventually – to Lyrical Ballads.

Southey’s creative partnership with Lovell was short-lived but important, a precursor to his more troubled relationship with Coleridge. The arrival of Coleridge in Bristol in summer 1794 marked a turning-point, and Lovell’s position as Southey’s first-choice collaborator was gradually eroded. His increasing lack of status was demonstrated in Coleridge and Southey’s decision to exclude his one-act contribution from the topical drama The Fall of Robespierre. Coleridge was openly critical of Lovell’s abilities, informing Southey that he had ‘no taste – or simplicity of feeling’. [10]  In turn, Lovell did his best to undermine Coleridge’s standing, telling Southey that Coleridge had claimed a substantial share in writing Joan of Arc (1796) (Letters 148 and 149). On hearing of his death in May 1796, Southey recorded that Lovell ‘had sunk much in my esteem’ (Letter 156). However, as his correspondence shows, in the coming years Southey tried to secure the financial positions of his widow and child, proposing a memorial edition, including his poems in the Annual Anthology (1799) and Specimens of the Later English Poets, and negotiating with Lovell’s family (for example, Letter 155). In spite of Southey’s growing disenchantment with Lovell, the evidence provided here indicates that at least in 1793-1794 Lovell was a crucial figure in making Southey realise his ambitions.

Lovell’s death in 1796 was but one of a series of losses. The years 1791-1797 were turbulent, as well as formative, for Southey. The letters published in Part One cover traumatic experiences such as his expulsion from Westminster School in 1792 and failure to gain admission to Christ Church, Oxford; the imprisonment of his father, for a friend’s debt, and his subsequent release and death; and Southey’s struggle between duty to his family, who expected him to follow a suitable profession, and his desire to be a poet. Key personal events in this period include his total estrangement from his formidable maiden aunt Elizabeth Tyler, who disapproved of Southey’s relationship with Edith Fricker; his secret marriage to Edith in November 1795; his first visit to Spain and Portugal in 1795-1796; his friendship and alienation from Coleridge; the appearance of his earliest publications (including Poems (1795) and Joan of Arc (1796)); and the beginning in 1797 of his legal studies. The letters show Southey’s development into an adult and reveal patterns of behaviour that were to dominate his later life. In 1791 Southey was a boy, dependent on the financial good will of his bachelor uncle (Herbert Hill), by 1797 he was a married man, increasingly assuming the financial burdens of an extended family.

As the letters disclose, Southey was unsettled personally and professionally during 1791-1797. After the debacle of The Flagellant and his expulsion from school, he was shunned by erstwhile friends as if, he later explained, he were a ‘scabby sheep’. [11]  The extreme sense of emotional dislocation engendered by this and by the near-disintegration of his family was matched by geographical rootlessness. The surviving letters from 1791-1797 reveal the beginning of a series of moves and relocations – particularly in the West Country and London - that only ceased when Southey and his family moved, reluctantly at first, to Greta Hall on the outskirts of Keswick in 1803. Southey’s lack of a settled home is balanced in his correspondence by friendship. The letters published here show the forging of lifelong connections with Grosvenor Charles Bedford, Charles Watkin Williams Wynn and Joseph Cottle. They chart the progress of an intense, but brief, relationship with Edmund Seward (who died suddenly in 1795), and trace the origins of his equally influential - but more troubled - relationship with Coleridge.

Southey’s letters map his personal and domestic upheaval onto a period of political turbulence. They provide crucial new insights into his early radicalism, and responses to major contemporary events such as the executions of Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, the outbreak and progress of the war between England and France, and the repressive regime of William Pitt. They also make available fresh information about his friendships with individuals who did not share his radical beliefs, notably the rotten-borough monger Thomas Phillipps Lamb and Southey’s well-connected patron Charles Wynn, nephew of the foreign secretary Lord Grenville. A would-be poet from his earliest youth, it is not surprising that Southey’s political views translated into verse. The letters published here provide important poetic manifestations of his radicalism. Southey’s hatred of penal laws can be seen in the earliest surviving version of the ‘Botany-Bay Eclogue’ ‘Elinor’ (Letter 127); his love of political protest in ‘The Soldier’s Wife’ and the sonnet ‘Poor Wanderer of the Night!’ (Letter 127); his hatred of tyranny in the monodrama ‘Aristodemus’ (Letter 92); his disdain for the ‘spaniel fool’ ‘Man’, who ‘crouches down & licks his tyrants hand/ And courts oppression’ in ‘To a College Cat’ (Letter 181); and his rediscovery of the political inscription in ‘For a Column at Truxillo’ (Letter 170). The letters also draw attention to new additions to the Southey canon. They highlight the radical poems he published in newspapers: including ‘a seditious ode in the ludicrous stile addressed to the Cannibals’ which appeared under the republican pseudonym ‘Caius Gracchus’ (Letter 162).

As the sonnets, eclogues, monodramas, elegies, epic fragments and hundreds of lines of political and humorous verse sent to friends suggest, the letters published here show the coming into being of a literary career marked by eclecticism and experimentation. In 1791, Southey was a schoolboy versifier and imitator on a large scale. The classical models favoured at Westminster jostle for space in his correspondence with adaptations of Pope, Gray and Shenstone. However, as he moves beyond school and university days, classical allusions and adaptations fall away, and are replaced by other models, including Bowles and Akenside, and a significant new interest in comparative, post-Renaissance and contemporary European literature. Southey’s first visit to Spain and Portugal in 1795-1796 emerges from his surviving correspondence as a turning-point. It allowed him to acquire two new languages (he became fluent in Spanish and Portuguese) and opened up to him new cultural territories. Southey’s linguistic and cultural encounter with the Iberian Peninsula was to shape the remainder of his working life. It mapped out textual lands that he was to colonise and exploit throughout his career, as poet, historian and translator. In so doing, it laid the foundations of Southey’s interest in international cultures and his participation in – and shaping of – British Romanticism as a globalised enterprise.

As well as providing important information about Southey’s developing literary preoccupations, the letters also contain significant new details on the writing and publication of Poems (1795), Joan of Arc (1796), Poems (1797), Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), and his magazine and newspaper contributions. They allow us to date individual poems and collections more precisely and to learn more about the process of composition and revision. We discover that Southey routinely circulated drafts of his poems to close friends, including Grosvenor Charles Bedford and Robert Lovell, and that he also distributed writings by other members of his circle, including poems by Coleridge (Letter 96). Moreover, we learn that from the earliest stages of his career, Southey was a concerned professional, haggling over terms with and complaining about the work of slow and careless printers and typesetters (for example, Letter 278). He cared about the physical appearance of his writing, and was interested in the aesthetics of publication. He took an interest in typography and the quality of paper, and had special large copies of his works struck off for friends by Cottle (Letter 252). He also had a strong visual sense. Convinced that ‘if a mans loves prints you have an excellent clue to his character’, Southey’s room at Balliol was adorned with engravings of the mythical Theban queen Niobe, the ‘Ruins of Rome’, the Byzantine general Belisarius, unfairly imprisoned by the Emperor Justinian, and Charles James Fox, a more contemporary political hero (Letter 189). He was well-acquainted with the works of the leading book illustrators and engravers of the time and was keen to have his earliest publications illustrated, suggesting Philippe Jacques de Loutherbourg be approached for a frontispiece to the first edition of Joan of Arc (Letter 132). The expense involved in commissioning artists proved prohibitive, and the illustrated editions did not materialise.

Southey’s published works were, though, to be illuminated in another way: by notes derived from his wide reading in world literatures. The letters published here shed light on his practice of annotation. They manifest in embryonic form the delight in antiquarian excavation and the collection of anecdotal information that were to be refined throughout his writing life, in particular in the notes to Joan of Arc, Madoc, Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), The Curse of Kehama (1810) and Roderick, The Last of the Goths (1814). Letters 196 and 197 provide ‘authentic’ accounts of Southey’s visit to Aveline’s Hole, a cavern full of skeletons discovered near Burrington Combe, Somerset. In true antiquarian spirit, Letter 196 requests the readers of the Monthly Magazine write back, to ‘inform me, at what period these modes of sepulture were common’. Others record anecdotes about Richard Glover (Letter 179), or engage in public debates on the Welsh language (Letters 175, 185, 194). The letters also allow us for the first time to trace Southey’s reading, the researches that laid the foundations of his published writings. They show him buying books, often rare Spanish and Portuguese volumes, for his own growing collection (for example, Letters 229 and 240) and making use of libraries close to hand. The private collections he used included some ‘curious books’ belonging to the scandalous Lady Strathmore, Eleanor Bowes, caricatured by Gillray in c.1786 as suckling her cats in preference to her son (Letter 237). Other encounters were less esoteric. Here is Southey’s response to a visit to Dr Williams’s Library in London, 1797. His reason for going there was to hunt out books he regarded as essential for his revisions to the second edition of Joan of Arc:

a hackney coach horse turned into a field of grass falls not more eagerly to a breakfast which lasts the whole day, than I attacked the fol old folios so respectably covered with dust. I begin to like dirty rotten binding, & whenever I get among books pass by the gilt coxcombs & yet disturb the spiders. — But you shall hear what I have got ... there are more treasures in this library — & I go there again on Monday next. (Letter 278)

His account gives a sense of the excitement he found in research and of the prodigious labours that went into the notes that adorned many of his poems.

This first part of The Collected Letters of Robert Southey therefore makes available important new information about the early career, relationships and opinions of a writer who was to become one of the most controversial, high-profile and important figures in Romantic period culture. In doing so, it presses Southey’s claims as an author crucial to an understanding of the Romantic period and of the discourses of Romanticism – as a correspondent and commentator on the times, as an initiator of new genres, and as a participant in regional, national and global cultures.


[1] For evidence of the Southey-Burnett correspondence see Letter 266, ‘I hear from him [Burnett] frequently.’ BACK

[2] See Letter 260, ‘Give my love to Carlisle & tell him I never received the letter he mentions relative to poor Mary Godwin!’ BACK

[3] For evidence of the correspondences with Allen and Favell see: an unpublished letter from Allen to Southey, 23 April 1795, National Library of Scotland, MS 2528, fols 2-3; an undated, [c. 1794-1795?], letter from Favell to Southey, National Library of Scotland, MS 2529, fol. 45. BACK

[4] For Coleridge’s letters to Southey from 1794-1797, see Earl Leslie Griggs (ed.), The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 6 vols (1956-1971), I, pp. 82-90; 97-100; 101-106; 109-110; 112-120; 121-124; 132-143; 145-150; 157-159; 163-173; 248; 290-292; 332-337; 345-346; 358-359. [Hereafter Griggs.] BACK

[5] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey, [13] November 1795, Griggs, I, pp. 163, 166. BACK

[6] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey, [13] November 1795, Griggs, I, p. 172. BACK

[7] Cruttwell was also the publisher of William Lisle Bowles, to whom he related the visit, see William Lisle Bowles, Scenes and Shadows of Days Departed; a Narrative, Accompanied with Poems of Youth and Some Other Poems of Melancholy and Fancy In the Journey of Life from Youth to Age (London, 1837), p. xlv. BACK

[8] Joseph Cottle, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey (London, 1847), p. 2. [Hereafter Reminiscences.] BACK

[9] Reminiscences, p. 4. BACK

[10] Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Robert Southey, 11 December 1794, Griggs, I, p. 134. BACK

[11] Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 11 April 1805, Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), I, p. 381. BACK