1. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part Four

Introduction by Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt

Part Four collects together in one place for the first time the surviving letters written by Southey between 1810 and 1815. The letters we publish here commence in January 1810 with Southey returning proofing corrections for the Edinburgh Annual Register (Letter 1729). They end on 28 December 1815 with a letter to Henry Koster that juxtaposes a description of Christmas in Keswick with Southey’s on-going labours on three major projects, The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo, The History of Brazil and The History of the Peninsular War (Letter 2689). Part Four follows the editorial conventions described in About this Edition, bringing together in one place correspondence scattered between archives in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australasia and North and South America. It comprises newly transcribed, fully annotated texts of 969 letters. Of these, 585 are published for the first time, with a further 94 published here in full for the first time.

Southey’s correspondence was characterised by its extent and its diversity. The letters in Part Four were written to nearly ninety individuals from a wide spectrum of society and engage with regional, national and international affairs. They range from bibliographical information sent to Lord Holland, who shared Southey’s passion for Hispanic culture and allowed him to use his extensive library, to playful epistles to the Southey children (Letters 1812 and 2304). Part Four sees the continuation of long-established correspondences, such as those with Mary Barker, Grosvenor Bedford, Joseph Cottle, John Rickman and Charles Wynn. It also bears witness to the start of a series of important new epistolary relationships, including ones with the educationalist Andrew Bell, the politician and man of letters John Wilson Croker, the poet and journalist James Montgomery and the abolitionist and evangelical William Wilberforce. Although over 900 letters survive from this period, letter fragments and references within surviving letters to ones that have been lost are reminders of the selective nature of what has come down to us and of the contingencies of literary history. They bear witness that what we have is part, but not all, of a much larger output. Southey’s letters to, for example, Manuel Abella, Coleridge, Peter Elmsley, Charles Lamb, and Sharon Turner exist only in part; whilst some correspondences have been lost entirely and can now only be glimpsed in letters sent to other people.

In January 1810 Southey was thirty-five years old. He had been married for fifteen years and had fathered five children, three of whom were still living. Two more daughters – Kate and Isabel – were born in 1811 and 1812. The rootlessness and displacement of his early life, when he had moved frequently between London and South West England, were in the past. By 1810 he had been living at Greta Hall, on the outskirts of the market town of Keswick, since autumn 1803. Although he made occasional forays from the Lakes, most notably on extended visits to London in autumn 1813 and to the continent in autumn 1815, where he toured the battlefield of Waterloo, Southey spent most of the period covered by Part Four labouring in his study. Geographically distant from both London and the South West, where he had forged his literary career, Southey’s Lake District home was not isolated or cut off from the rest of the world. He was by 1810 increasingly embedded in local society: socialising not just with fellow writers such as Wordsworth and Charles Lloyd, but also with local landowners and worthies, such as the Senhouses, Speddings and Stangers. He was later to add the Cumbrian magnate the Earl of Lonsdale to his list. Moreover, his established professional reputation meant that numerous literary and non-literary visitors from Britain and elsewhere also found their way to his door. Some were welcome, others less so, and one brought Southey face to face with his own younger self. In early 1812 Shelley, who was staying in Keswick, visited Greta Hall. Southey, who recounted the younger man’s history at length to friends, was struck by their strange kinship. Shelley, he told Grosvenor Bedford, ‘acts upon me as my own Ghost would do’ and was ‘just what I was in 1794’ (Letter 2012).

Personal contact was one thing, but, as his letters show, Southey also maintained touch with the wider world via newspapers and by reading and reviewing recently published books, the latter often lent to him by friends, acquaintances and the metropolitan-based publisher John Murray. Southey remained interested in and attentive to a huge range of subjects – literature, politics, religion, education, and social reform, to name but a few. For example, he followed the progress of the allies’ campaigns against Bonaparte, and mapped the careers of poetry-writing contemporaries and rivals, tracking with some interest the decline in popularity of Walter Scott’s poems (Letters 2208, 2215). Moreover, the global reach of Southey’s own research and writing led to some surprising exchanges between Keswick and the outside world. On more than one occasion he was sent or requested unpublished accounts written by individuals who had witnessed at first hand recent events in the Iberian Peninsula or Spanish America, using these to inform his essays in the Edinburgh Annual Register. These included a manuscript journal kept by the British merchant Thomas Kinder who had been present in the Rio de la Plata during the revolution of 1808–1810 (Letter 2163). At other times, he was sent unsolicited copies of the rare volumes needed for his history writing. In 1812, for example, Southey received a parcel from Frederick Lindeman, the British consul in Bahia, Brazil. It contained a copy of Anchieta’s Arte de Grammatica, which Southey had listed amongst the books he would love to acquire in the preface to the first volume of his History of Brazil, published in 1810. The Conde dos Arcos, the Governor General and the Director of the newly founded public library at Bahia had learned of this and sent the copy of Anchieta to Southey via the diplomat Lindeman. Southey used the book for the second and third volumes of his Brazilian history and kept it. In return, he sent the Conde dos Arcos a specially bound copy of the 1805 quarto of his Welsh-American epic Madoc: ‘as a specimen of fine typography, & in proof of the sense I entertain of their liberality’ to ‘an English & heretical author’ (Letters 2137, 2143). Part Four allows this exchange of books, manuscripts and information – Anchieta sent to Keswick and Madoc to Brazil – to be tracked for the first time. It thus enhances our understanding of the circulation of material objects and abstract ideas and also reinforces the global, as well as provincial and national, composition of intellectual networks in the early nineteenth century. Southey’s letters show Romantic period international exchange in action and bear witness to the transmission of knowledge and information between individuals of different cultural, political and religious backgrounds and sympathies.

Southey was, then, far from alone during the long days and nights he spent working in his Lakeland library. His letters, sent to correspondents in the United Kingdom, Spain, Portugal, France, Holland, Brussels, North America and Brazil, are testimony to his inveterate and adept use of correspondence networks and indeed of the postal system itself. In the 1810s he continued his practice of exploiting the franking privileges of Parliamentary friends and associates, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and even used contacts in the post office to get the charges on heavy parcels reduced. On one notable occasion, he lost his temper when Charles Stuart, the British consul in Lisbon, sent a copy of Calado’s Valeroso Lucideno from Portugal to the London offices of Longman, Southey’s publisher, asking him to forward it to Keswick. The book was extremely heavy and the postal charge was correspondingly large, sixteen guineas. Longman, who as the recipient was expected to pay the fee on Southey’s behalf, protested and contacted Francis Freeling, head of the British postal service. Freeling, an old friend of Southey’s, stretched ‘the laws of the office to the utmost’ and had the charge reduced to just one guinea. In spite of benefitting from this rule bending, Southey was displeased, grumbling that ‘I am thus to pay for the use of a book the prime cost of which cannot exceed half a moidore. I hope Mr Stuart manages the affairs of two nations better than he has done mine’ (Letter 1914). Part Four thus demonstrates the crucial roles played by the postal service and the exchange of letters, books and manuscripts in promoting and sustaining Romantic intellectual networks.

Part Four covers 1810–1815, a key period in Southey’s career. It is, however, one that has yet to be fully documented or fully understood. His output over these six years was, even by his own standards, prodigious and diverse and the letters published here provide new information on how those works came into being. During this time Southey produced hundreds of pages of reviews for the Quarterly; yearly chronicles of contemporary world events for the Edinburgh Annual Register; a history of Brazil; a biography of Horatio Nelson; a volume championing the educational theory and practice of the Reverend Andrew Bell, pioneer of the Madras system; odes on current affairs; inscriptions on the war in the Iberian Peninsular; an epic set in Visigothic Spain; a Hindu romance; an Omniana of miscellaneous information and anecdote drawn from his and Coleridge’s commonplace books; and an anonymously published defence of Sir George Barlow, a colonial official at Madras. Some of his labours caused Southey greater trouble than others. His writing for the Quarterly Review brought him into direct conflict with government policy and into a fierce dispute with the Duke of Wellington (Letter 2671). Whilst his work for the Edinburgh Annual Register, for which he wrote the historical section covering the years 1808–1811, absorbed far more of his time than he had originally intended, precipitated increasingly querulous exchanges with John Ballantyne, the ‘Shuffler’ who published the Register, and led to an unwise investment which cost Southey £209, money he could ill afford to lose (Letters 2212, 2284).

Often one hated but essential literary task generated another – sometimes more pleasurable – one or led to a new direction in Southey’s writing. For example, his work for the Register obliged him to engage directly with contemporary events in the United Kingdom, mainland Europe, and the rest of the world. It thus marked a change from his earlier history writing, which had chronicled early modern Brazil and medieval Portugal. Although Southey increasingly loathed his work for the Register, his turn to and investment in the contemporary, allowed him in the early-mid 1810s to lay the foundations for a series of major new prose works. These included a three volume History of the Peninsular War (published in 1823–1832), which relied heavily on Southey’s Register accounts, a Book of the Church (published in 1824) and two planned, but unexecuted, histories ‘of the World’ and ‘of the age of George III’ (Letter 2238).

Yet prose was not Southey’s only outlet. He remained, in Byron’s ambiguous phrase, an ‘entire man of letters’.  [1]  Indeed, these years saw him return to poetry with renewed vigour and enthusiasm. Between 1810–1815 Southey published two new long poems: The Curse of Kehama (1810) and Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814). The latter went into three editions in the eighteen months after its publication, making it the fastest selling of his epics and romances. He did not neglect his earlier writings. Between 1810–1815 he revised Joan of Arc for a fourth edition, and Thalaba the Destroyer and Madoc for third editions and issued a three-volume collection of his selected, self-styled Minor Poems. He also invested significant amounts of time in new poetic projects. ‘Oliver Newman’, a romance set in seventeenth-century New England against the backdrop of King Phillips’ War, followed Southey’s earlier pattern of deploying historical settings. Other initiatives echoed the shift in his history writing. As the letters published here reveal, during 1810–1815 poetry became for Southey a way of recording contemporary events. His productions included a Carmen Triumphale celebrating the defeat of Bonaparte in 1813; a series of three Congratulatory Odes, which commemorated the 1814 visit to Britain of Alexander I of Russia and Frederick William of Prussia; an ode cautioning those who counselled ‘peace at this momentous hour’; an ode reflecting on the 1812–1814 war between the United Kingdom and the United States of America; a Carmen Nuptiale, initially intended for the marriage of Princess Charlotte of Wales to the Prince of Orange, and later revised to celebrate her union with Leopold of Saxe Coburg; and The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo, which combined an account of Southey’s visit to the battlefield with a dream-vision exhorting his countrymen to ‘pursue the course of righteousness’.  [2]  In addition, another major, though never-completed, poetic project of the period was ‘a series of inscriptions, recording the achievements of our army in the Peninsula, — triumphal for the battles won and fortresses taken, and monumental for the more distinguished persons who have fallen’ (Letter 2345). It is important to recognise that this direct poetic investment in current affairs was a major new departure for Southey. It was a movement away from the allegorisation of contemporary politics in his longer poems, including Kehama and Roderick, and in his earlier shorter works. Whilst the shift echoed that occurring in Southey’s history writing, it was also motivated by a very specific cause – his appointment as Poet Laureate in autumn 1813.

Southey’s acceptance of the Poet Laureateship in autumn 1813 and the consequences and repercussions of that action loom large in Part Four.  [3]  The invitation came after Walter Scott had rejected the post and recommended Southey for it, even though he was ‘uncertain if … [Southey] would like it’ (Letter 2299). Southey himself was unsure if he would like it, but he took it anyway. He assumed the Laureateship at a low point in its history. The status of the office and its previous holder Henry James Pye were neatly encapsulated in ‘A Pun’, published in late 1813:

Our Poet Laureat lived so long,
He dream’d at last he should not die;
Till, deaf to all his powers of song,
Death put a finger in the Pie.  [4] 

Southey would not have dissented from this, sharing his contemporaries’ view that the Laureateship had long ‘ranked proverbially high’ in the list of ‘departments, in which a sleepy torpor seemed established by precedent’.  [5]  Indeed, when he was offered the post he said he would accept it only if its terms and conditions could be changed. Moreover, he did so in language that would have disqualified him from many twenty-first century appointment processes: ‘certain it is’, he told Croker, ‘that the office could give’ no credit ‘to me’ (Letter 2298). Southey’s sense of the post as problematic and potentially degrading did not abate. Shortly after accepting the Laureateship he wrote to John King, a medical friend from his Bristol days. ‘You will’, he told King, ‘please to congratulate, & not condole with me’ (Letter 2303). It was a sentiment repeated to others: ‘you know me well enough to smile at the apprehensions of anyone who fears I may degraded myself’ (Letter 3235); and ‘Your feelings respecting this appointment will very soon be changed. In me, of all men, it would have been at once gross folly & rank cowardice to have refused it’ (Letter 2329). When Southey took on the Laureateship in autumn 1813 he was, then, a man with a mission. He intended to do something with the post, to ‘make’ it ‘an honour’, ‘for such it will be to him who shall be thought worthy to wear it after me’. He was also aware that he was taking it at a time of ‘great events’, at a particularly crucial moment in national and international history (Letter 2307).

Assuming the Laureateship marked a decisive moment in Southey’s career. It generated a series of official and semi-official poems on current affairs, including his first Laureate ode Carmen Triumphale, published in book form by Longman in January 1814. However, it proved to be more problematic and damaging than he had allowed for. The transformation of the former radical into a government hireling attracted the censure, and satire, of contemporaries. His political opponents saw Southey as an odd choice and took a gleeful, and discomforting, pleasure in the disjunction between the old radical poet and the new Laureate. Hazlitt, for example, cautioned that ‘To have been the poet of the people, may not render Mr. Southey less a court favourite; and one of his old Sonnets to Liberty must give a peculiar zest to his new Birth-day Odes’.  [6]  He also drew attention to the ‘inconsistency between some of Mr. Southey’s former writings, and his becoming the hired panegyrist of the court’.  [7]  Others expressed their concerns in verse. In the anonymously published ‘Robert Southey, the Poet Laureat. A Rhapsody in Four Parts’, the new Laureate was condemned by characters of his own invention: Joan of Arc, Thalaba, Madoc and Kehama:

‘Southey is the Laureat now,’
Exclaims the Maid of Arc …
Her cheek’s carnation fled,
To see the laureated crown
Upon her Poet’s head,
Which CIBBER and which PYE adorn’d,
Which noble GRAY contemn’d and scorn’d;
And, which, who wear, must never more
On wings of Freedom proudly soar,
But creep, confin’d in chains below,
Like captive whelm’d beneath his foe;
And – such, ill-fated Slavery’s lot –
Whether they like it, or like not,
Must adulation breathe alone,
In strains by Flattery bestow’d,
Thro’ Birth-day or thro’ New Year’s Ode,
E’en tho’ a NERO fill the throne.  [8] 

Southey expected to be attacked by his political opponents, what he did not anticipate was the official reaction to his productions. When in 1814 he described the process of writing the annual odes demanded of the Laureate as an ‘odeous job’, he was not joking (Letter 2521). The actual composition of his Laureate poems proved to be an extremely fraught process, one that revealed the difficulties, ambiguities and limitations of his position.

At the time he accepted the Laureateship Southey believed he had brokered an unprecedented, though unwritten, agreement that he would be allowed ‘to write upon great events, or … be silent, according as the spirit moved’ (Letter 2298). It soon emerged that no such agreement had been reached and that he was expected to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors and produce at least annual New Year odes. As he embarked on writing such poems it further became clear that his post brought with it official responsibilities and that far from being free to write ‘as the spirit moved’, he was in fact circumscribed. What those responsibilities and restrictions were was initially brought home to him in late 1813 when he sat down to compose his first Laureate poem. This was a New Year’s ode, whose theme was ‘down with the Tyrant’ (Bonaparte) and ‘Vengeance’ for his victims. Happily pursuing his theme, Southey’s draft ode concluded with three stanzas that called on the French to rise up and assassinate Bonaparte and by so doing ‘Take vengeance’ for themselves and for mankind. This was, of course, against the policy of the British government. Southey was forced to cut the offending stanzas from the final version of the ode published as Carmen Triumphale in January 1814. He was enraged by the intervention and by the censoring of his poem, so much so that he privately renamed it the ‘Carmen Castratum’ (Letter 2355). Furious he may have been, but he still made the required changes. This was not a unique occurrence. One year later Southey was told he must cut out complimentary references to George Washington from his New Year’s ode for 1815 as these were seen as highly inappropriate and unpatriotic at a time when Britain was at war with America (Letter 2531).  [9]  This edition makes it possible to track the development of Southey’s Laureate poems via the early versions, enforced revisions and comments on those revisions he sent to friends. Moreover, it shows how the choices he made in autumn 1813 involved him in a series of disputes and exchanges that impacted massively, and negatively, on his short and longer-term reputation. The letters published here make it possible to map for the first time how and why those choices were made, how those disputes were ignited, and how Southey responded to them. In so doing they show how his high hopes of the Laureateship foundered on the rocks of reality and thus provide new insight into the relationship between Romantic writers and the public sphere.


[1] Quoted in Lionel Madden (ed.), Robert Southey: The Critical Heritage (London, 1972), p. 105. BACK

[2] ‘The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo’, Part II, line 336; Robert Southey, Later Poetical Works, gen. eds Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt, 4 vols (London, 2012), III, p. 373. BACK

[3] For a full account of events see Lynda Pratt’s introduction to Later Poetical Works, III, pp. xi–xxviii. BACK

[4] Mirror of Fashion (13 September 1813). BACK

[5] British Review, 6 (November 1815), 287–8. BACK

[6] Morning Chronicle (18 September 1813). BACK

[7] Morning Chronicle (20 September 1813). BACK

[8] Morning Chronicle (28 September 1813). BACK

[9] For full accounts of the compositional histories of Carmen Triumphale and the New Year’s ode for 1815 see Ian Packer and Lynda Pratt’s introductions to both poems, Later Poetical Works, III, pp. 1–14, 77–82. BACK