Introduction, Part VI

1. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part Six


Part Six collects together, in one place, for the first time, the surviving letters written by Robert Southey between 1819 and 1821. It follows the editorial conventions described in About this Edition and presents newly transcribed, fully annotated texts of 546 letters written by Southey in this three year period; 314 letters are published here for the first time and an additional 76 are published here in full for the first time.

The letters brought together in this edition commence on 1 January 1819 with Southey the Poet Laureate in forceful mood, condemning as fit only to be ‘bum-fiddled’ his latest New Year’s Ode and promising to return to his public quarrel with the politician Henry Brougham (Letter 3228). Part Six concludes with two letters that reveal other aspects of Southey’s temperament, career and interests: his mid-life turn – or possibly return – to retrospection, and his desire to write a biography of George Fox, the controversial founder of the Society of Friends (Quakers) (Letters 3772 and 3773). The letters in between – those authored from early January 1819 to late December 1821 – cover a uniquely diverse range of subjects, including: local, national and international culture, politics, religion and society; textual production and exchange; and family life, friendships and feuds. They deal also with: alterations to the Lake District landscape by over-zealous clergymen and absentee landlords (Letters 3707 and 3411); the early careers of Sara Coleridge (Southey’s niece) and other ambitious authors; and the efforts of Lady Isabella King and her supporters to improve the lives of distressed gentlewomen (Letter 3333). They include Southey's controversial ideas for treating men who acted ‘unlawfully (especially in mobs)’ as wild ‘beasts’, ‘if they cannot be taken & pounded with little difficulty … no questions [should be] asked if they are put to death upon the spot’ (Letter 3721). They provide information on actual and potential modes of transport, such as the new-fangled ‘German Horse’, a predecessor of the bicycle, and the rhinoceros (Letters 3260 and 3754); lottery tickets bought with the aim of winning a ‘castle in Bohemia’ (Letter 3727), an activity that provides an unexpected link between Southey and Byron; and an error in an expensively produced map of Brazil that turned the settlement name ‘Silves’ into ‘St Ives’ (Letter 3281). The correspondence also includes accounts of dining on locally caught rat, which tasted ‘more like roasted-pig than any thing else’, and Lake District owl, best served ‘boiled & smothered with onions’, and of drinking a bottle of tokay that had once belonged to Stanislaw II August, the King of Poland (Letters 3289, 3747 and 3722). It has lots to say too about the antics of the Zombi and other members of the exotically named feline population of Southey’s home, Greta Hall (Letter 3662).

The 546 letters published here bear testimony to the tremendous vigour and immense labour that underpinned Southey’s correspondence in middle age. In the years 1819–1821, a still-growing network of correspondents ensured that he continued to receive a host of letters – some welcome, others not. Replying to them was a formidable commitment and as Southey himself admitted, ‘letter writing … consumes far too great a portion of my time’ (Letter 3516). The surviving letters show his ability both to tailor correspondence to its recipient and to extract any information he required from them. In 1819–1821, the physician Henry Herbert Southey was sent explicit descriptions of the health of the assorted members of Southey’s household and asked to diagnose their ailments (for example, Letters 3324 and 3676). In contrast, the London-based Grosvenor Bedford was given instructions to pay bills and purchase household goods from shops, and reminded to ask for a discount (Letters 3424 and 3587).

Part Six sees the continuation of long-established, personal correspondences with Grosvenor Bedford, John Rickman and Charles Wynn, among others. It also confirms that Southey’s habit of sending public letters to newspapers did not abate in middle age. In 1819, for example, he intervened in the controversy following the ‘Peterloo’ Massacre by dispatching letters to two local newspapers, the Cumberland Pacquet (Letter 3370) and the Westmorland Gazette (Letter 3381). Published under the pseudonyms ‘AB’ and ‘VINDEX’ respectively, these supported the magistrates’ actions in Manchester and called for curbs on the radical press. Indeed, Southey’s belief that he had the right to participate in public life and that his opinions were listened to only grew in the late 1810s. He corresponded increasingly with influential individuals, including Sir Robert Harry Inglis and William Wilberforce, and used his letters to record both his meetings with eminent figures and what they had to say to him. ‘You will’, he informed Neville White in 1820, ‘be glad to hear that Lord Liverpool … when I met him at Mr. Canning’s’, said that the Life of Wesley ‘could not fail of doing a great deal of good’ (Letter 3507). At the time, Liverpool was the Prime Minister and Canning was President of the Board of Control.

Political engagement, and the networking and name-dropping that came with it, was one aspect of Southey’s life, his role as a leading author another. In 1819–1821, Southey continued to correspond with important figures in the literary and publishing worlds, including James Hogg, Walter Savage Landor, John Murray, Thomas Longman, Walter Scott and William Wordsworth. In addition, these years marked the gradual intensification of his exchange of letters with a new generation of ambitious authors who sought his advice and his patronage, including Bernard Barton, Caroline Bowles, Ebenezer Elliott and Chauncy Hare Townshend. Other correspondents in the period 1819–1821 indicate his range of interests and contacts, including Isaac D’Israeli, the Earl of Lonsdale, Mary Anne Watts Hughes, George Ticknor, David Laing, Edward Hawke Locker, Percy Shelley, William Shield (Master of the King’s Music), Baron de Sorsum (the translator of Roderick into French), and Christopher Wordsworth. In addition, letter fragments and references to correspondence that no longer survives are reminders of the inevitable selectiveness of any ‘Collected Letters’. Part Six thus contains the remnants, substantial though those are, of an even larger output, traces of letters that have been lost in the two centuries since their composition and evidence of other relationships that may, or may not, have been of significance to Southey as he entered mid-life and mid-career.

By January 1819, the forty-three-year-old Southey had established a name for himself as a significant, prolific writer who worked across a number of genres: poetry and prose; history and commentary on current affairs; biography and travelogue; translation and original composition. He had fathered seven children (four of whom were still living), and his wife was heavily pregnant with their eighth (and last) child, Charles Cuthbert, born 24 February 1819 (Letters 3250–3253). Since autumn 1803, the Southeys had rented Greta Hall, on the outskirts of the Lake District market town of Keswick. The property was also home to Edith Southey’s sisters Mary Lovell and Sarah Coleridge, to the latter’s daughter, Sara, and to Elizabeth Wilson, the elderly housekeeper. Life at Greta Hall had, by 1819, fallen into a fairly regular routine. The warmer summer months were the ‘idle season’, punctuated by ‘a series of interruptions’ (Letter 3333). They saw a stream of friends and tourists beating their way to the house, and Southey and his family occasionally leaving it on visits to Lake District neighbours. The latter included members of the landed classes, such as the Earl of Lonsdale, who supplied Southey with game for his table, and Humphrey Senhouse, whose home at Netherhall provided ‘sea bathing’, a ‘beneficial’ ‘Change of air’ and plenty of ‘good books’ for Southey to devour (Letters 3761 and 3710). As winter set in, the front door bell was ‘seldom disturbed’, and Southey retreated to his desk and to the labour demanded of a professional writer (Letter 3452).

Southey’s life had its set rhythms and routines, but these were not immune to subtle changes in wider society. A notable development in the late 1810s, for example, was the increasing number of Cambridge undergraduates entertained at Greta Hall. The young men were, Southey noted, following ‘a late fashion’ and visiting the Lakes ‘in flights to study during the long vacation’ (Letter 3715). This was itself a sign of the increasing seriousness with which ambitious young men were taking the demands of the mathematics-dominated Cambridge degree course. Southey’s letters record their visits and the strange appellation given to them by the locals – ‘Cathedrals’ – the result of ‘a comical confusion, first between Collegian & College, & then between College & Cathedral’. This led to some amusing incidents, such as when an undergraduate who ‘lodged at Clarke the Gardners’ was sent a bill addressed to ‘Mr Clarke’s Cathedral’ (Letter 3715).

Southey’s letters reveal the relish with which he related anecdotes about his guests. However, the exchange cut both ways and some of his visitors had their say about him, publishing accounts of their meetings. They included Samuel Heinrich Spiker, Librarian to the King of Prussia, whose recollections of his 1816 visit to Greta Hall appeared in an English translation in 1820. [1]  Not all such tales were to be relied on. January 1819 saw the publication of ‘Letters from the Lakes’ ‘Translated from the German of Philip Kempferhausen’. The second of these purported to describe a visit to Greta Hall and the Poet Laureate, ‘a man at all times master of himself’, who ‘sees before him a series of duties which high intellect alone can perform’. [2]  Southey, informed of this by a friend, suspected from the first that the account could not be ‘genuine’ (Letter 3243). His suspicions were later confirmed. The writer was not a German tourist, but the Scot John Wilson, who had derived his information at second hand, constructed a fantasy of intimacy from it and made it available to a wider audience (Letter 3255). This was, moreover, evidence of a public appetite for personality and personal revelation to which Southey himself adopted an increasingly ambivalent attitude.

Although Southey’s established reputation, extensive correspondence and vast library brought the world – welcome or not – within the walls of Greta Hall, he continued to make the occasional extended visit from home. From August to September 1819 he toured Scotland with John Rickman and Thomas Telford, who were travelling as part of their work for the government Commissions charged with building the Caledonian Canal and new roads and bridges in the Highlands. The trip allowed Southey to buy rare books in Edinburgh; to see ‘some of the greatest works which were ever undertaken by any Government for the improvement of its dominions’; to be made ‘an honorary member of the Literary Society of – Banff’; and to lose a night’s sleep thanks to an initiation ceremony conducted in the room above his bedchamber by the ‘Free masons of Nairn’ (Letter 3350). It also led to some rather nerve-racking encounters with local doctors, when an ‘excrescence’ on his scalp ‘became troublesome the day … [he] left Edinburgh, & suppurated shortly after’ (Letter 3352). Southey consulted a number of medical men in Perth, Aberdeen and Inverness to varying effect, and Telford, who was sharing a room with him, was given the unpleasant task of dressing the wound every ‘morning & evening’ (Letters 3352 and 3350). Southey’s correspondence reveals that although he sometimes made light of his condition, nicknaming the ‘excrescence’ ‘Skiddaw’, after the Lake District mountain, at other times, he was ‘perplexed & uneasy’, wishing he ‘were either at home, or in London’ (Letter 3346). Significantly, although he kept some correspondents informed of ‘Skiddaw’s’ progress, he gave ‘no intimation’ in his ‘letters home’ to his wife and family, presumably because he did not want to worry them (Letter 3349).

A second major trip of the period was made between April and June 1820, when Southey visited his old friends Wynn (at Llangedwin) and Wade Browne (at Ludlow) before heading to London and the south of England. He arrived in the capital too late for one appointment (dinner at the Royal Academy); nevertheless the plethora of engagements that ensued was ‘such indeed as almost to make me dizzy’ (Letter 3478). The frenetic pace was captured in a letter to his wife, describing ‘how my time has been past’:

Friday last I breakfasted with Miss Wordsworth at her brothers, & dined at Marianne’s – a large party. Saturday at Harry Inglis’s where I slept. Sunday Mrs Gonnes. Monday breakfasted with Turner dined with Kenyon & met Coleridge & Derwent there. Tuesday breakfast with Henry Robinson, – walked to Wapping to see the sister of Elton Hamond, dined with the Imperial General. Wednesday breakfasted with Dr Ashburner to meet Rex & his daughter Zoe, – but they had been called off the evening before. however I met D Jardine & his wife. – then to the Levee with Wynn, then to dinner at Murraylemagnes. Thursday breakfast with Dr Wordsworth, worked all the morning in the Lambeth library, dinner with a large uncomfortable party at Mrs Vardons. This morning worked again at Lambeth, & now must dress to dine with D’Israeli.

My dinner engagements stand thus – tomorrow Rickman, – Sunday G.C.B. Monday Sir George B. Tuesday at home. Wednesday with Harrys friend Mrs Cookson. Thursday Mr Butler. Friday Wilber Saturday Sunday Monday Richmond. Tuesday Courtenay. Wednesday Mr Bill. Thursday _______. Friday D Jardine, – & on Saturday if I receive the answer which I hope for from Bunbury I go for Cambridge. (Letter 3481)

This exhaustive, and exhausting, list provides invaluable information about the larger circles within which Southey was moving and contributes to a more refined sense of how Romantic period social networking functioned. Southey’s letters also provide important insights into more intimate, enclosed spaces and sets of relationships, including the dynamics of the extended family that lived together at Greta Hall, known to some as the ‘Aunt hill’. During his 1820 journey from home, Southey – styling himself ‘comical Pappa’ – wrote home regularly to his younger daughters, Bertha, Kate and Isabel, providing vignettes of people he had met and of his own ‘ell-ell-deeing’, the grand occasion during which he ‘was made a Doctor of Laws at Oxford’, and promising to return laden with prosaic, but vital, items such as toys, books and jars of pickle (Letters 3499 and 3483).

Southey’s visit to Oxford after an absence of ‘six-and-twenty years’ gave him a fund of amusing anecdotes, a certain pride at his honorary degree, and abundant memories of his own youth and of those friends from his university days who were now ‘in their graves’ (Letters 3507). Southey believed in ghosts, ‘that the spirits of the dead have sometimes been permitted <to> appear’ (Letter 3256). By 1819, his own ‘dead’ included friends, his parents, several siblings and three of his own children. In the three years covered by Part Six he became increasingly concerned with ageing and prone to speculating about his own potential longevity, or lack of longevity. Comments such as ‘if it please God that I should live & preserve my faculties so long’, ‘if it please God that I live ten years & continue to do well’ and ‘If I live to bring out my own history of Portugal’ punctuate his letters (Letters 3305, 3560 and 3745). The need to keep in good health, and the fear that he might not, was not just the concern of a man in his forties. It was also grounded in financial necessity, in the knowledge that ‘the greater part of my yearly expences must still be supplied by the years labour, & is therefore wholly contingent upon the continuance of health, eye sight & the use of my faculties, – either of which may fail me at any moment’ (Letter 3237). With an eye on the future, Southey had taken out a life assurance policy that he hoped would mitigate the impact of his demise on his family. [3]  However, for a moment in 1819–1820 the possibility opened up that this might not be necessary and that his financial status might change for the better. The death of John Southey Somerville, a third cousin whom Southey had never met, raised the prospect of Southey inheriting a number of properties in Somerset that had once belonged to his and Somerville’s relative, John Cannon Southey. This hope was short-lived. Somerville died in October 1819, and by late March 1820 Southey had received legal advice that any court case he might bring was hopeless (Letter 3458). Southey, who had already ‘twice been disinherited of an ample property’, when his two wealthy paternal uncles had died and left nothing to him, found himself once again ‘frustrated’ (Letter 3560). This had implications for his career. As Southey admitted, gaining the Somerville properties would have allowed him ‘never more [to] write a single line with a view to profit’ (Letter 3384). Not obtaining them ensured that the Poet Laureate remained tied to his desk.

The detailed investigations into his family history prompted by Somerville’s death, and the possibility of a lawsuit and an inheritance had an unexpected result. Southey decided to ‘live again in remembrance with the dead’ and in July 1820 began the first of a series of long letters setting out his own and his family’s histories. These autobiographical writings provide a unique and invaluable record, one whose accuracy Southey tried to improve by taking advice from his elderly aunt, Mary Southey, who had known many of the individuals and lived through some of the events he described (Letter 3526). The autobiographical letters also had another purpose. They looked forward as well as back in an attempt to secure a different kind of legacy to himself and his heirs. Southey did not usually make copies of his correspondence. These were different. With an eye upon their ‘post-obit value’, Southey made a copy of them which he kept ‘among … [his] papers’, as a document on which a future biographer could draw (Letter 3561).

The movement to personal and familial retrospect found in the autobiographical letters is one side of Southey’s vast and complex correspondence. At the same time as he was writing detailed accounts of long dead ancestors, he retained a close interest in public affairs, and he continued to comment on developments in politics and society extensively through his letters and his published writings, particularly in the pages of the Quarterly Review. His message did not change from the views he had powerfully expressed in the immediate post-war period of 1816–1818: the country was undergoing fundamental changes and was threatened by revolutionary outbreaks that would plunge it into chaos and a new dark age. However, as his correspondence shows, in 1819–1821 his ever-expanding network of local and national contacts drew him into more active support of the State’s institutions. When his neighbour, William Calvert, brought him an address to the Prince Regent that local Whigs were circulating to protest about the local authorities’ actions over the ‘Peterloo’ Massacre, Southey responded by drafting a conservative counter-address, attacking the Whigs and demanding censorship of the radical press. The address won the support of Lord Lonsdale, the Lake District’s most powerful landowner and government supporter, even though it was not proceeded with when other government supporters protested it was too extreme in its views (Letters 3361, 3364, 3366, and 3385).

At the national level, Southey’s correspondence charts his continuing interactions with political figures such as William Wilberforce and John Wilson Croker. Increasingly, as these letters show, Southey felt no inhibitions about bombarding them in private with his advice, especially about the need to curb the radical press, as well as addressing national politics in his Laureate odes. He also began to meet some of the Church of England’s bishops. William Howley, the Bishop of London, for example, visited Southey in 1819 after the two men had corresponded over Southey’s attempt to help his friend Henry Koster find a chaplain for the expatriate community at Pernambuco, Brazil. Moreover, the Anglican hierarchy believed that Southey’s criticism of the founder of Methodism in his Life of Wesley had ‘rendered an important service’ and increasingly saw Southey as a useful public defender of the Church’s privileged role in national life (Letter 3484). Young men on the threshold of a career in the Church were particularly numerous among Southey’s summer visitors in the Lakes and he was increasingly identified as an Anglican sage for his times. Jeremy Bentham even parodied him as ‘St Southey’ (Letter 3419).

Southey’s relationship with the monarchy also became closer in these years. He had only met George IV once – in 1813 – and he had always been careful not to heap unctuous praise on the King in his Laureate poems. However, his brother, Henry Herbert Southey, was a close friend of Sir William Knighton, the King’s physician and, effectively, his private secretary. In 1821 Knighton presented Southey’s A Vision of Judgement to the King, and Southey received glowing reports of the monarch’s views of a highly controversial and experimental production (Letter 3661). Southey also developed a violent antipathy to ‘the modern Messalina’, George IV’s estranged wife, Caroline of Brunswick, and supported the government’s attempt to dissolve the royal couple’s marriage in 1820–1821 (Letter 3524). Southey undoubtedly disliked Caroline’s association with radicals and Whigs, but his views were also coloured by the lurid gossip Landor had fed him about her activities in Italy (Letter 3579). He refused to light his windows in Keswick on the night of 15 November 1820 to celebrate the withdrawal of the government’s proposals against Caroline, determined if necessary to confront an enraged radical crowd, though in the event the night passed off peacefully (Letter 3593). Southey’s actions were a sign of his increasing sympathy for the King as a beleaguered object of radical hostility and his own willingness to ‘wear the Kings colours’ and publicly identify himself with the conservative totems of Crown as well as Church (Letter 3587). They thus anticipate many of the works on Church and State he was to write and publish in the 1820s.

As his letters reveal, in 1819–1821 Southey remained as busy and engaged with the literary world as he had ever been. He continued to be involved in disputes with contemporaries whose views he did not share, including Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, Shelley, Byron and Cobbett. His correspondence sheds new light on these feuds, on the gradations of wickedness he assigned to individual authors (Shelley’s ‘obscure’ poetry made him less ‘flagitious’ than Byron, Letter 3611) and on his advocacy of censorship of the press. It makes it possible, for example, to track how Southey discovered that Byron’s Don Juan had been ‘prefaced with a very hostile dedication to me’, a dedication that Murray had suppressed (Letter 3338). Not all younger writers saw Southey in such a negative light. Many, indeed, sought out his guidance and patronage. They included Bernard Barton (whom Southey advised on how to write an appropriate dedication to George IV), Caroline Bowles (to whom he sent advice on publishing), and John Abraham Heraud (whose unpublished writings Southey read). In turn, these younger poets made public their indebtedness to Southey, Heraud, for example, lauding him as a ‘Prolific Mind – spontaneous Muse – bright Star’. [4] 

Southey himself continued to be a prolific author and, indeed, expressed the hope that he would ‘add many volumes’ to the shelves and ‘do good service both to the Church and State’ (Letters 3560 and 3507). In 1819–1821 he published a third, and final, volume of his History of Brazil (1819), a two-volume Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820), an introduction to William Westall’s Views of the Lake and of the Vale of Keswick (1820), a second edition of his early Laureate poems Carmen Triumphale and Congratulatory Odes (1821), a prose account of The Expedition of Orsua (1821) and several unsigned articles in the Quarterly Review. He also worked on a three-volume History of the Peninsular War (1823–1832), a two-volume Book of the Church (1824), a two-volume Sir Thomas More: or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829) and a poem set in seventeenth-century New England, ‘Oliver Newman’. In his capacity as Poet Laureate he wrote New Year’s Odes for 1820, 1821 and 1822, Birthday Odes for the new King’s official birthday in 1820 and 1821, and a poem in hexameters prompted by the death of George III, A Vision of Judgement (1821).

The letters shed important new light on these writings, showing their origins, their development and (in some cases) their progress to publication and beyond. They also allow for a more refined understanding of Southey’s methods and responses when faced with a potentially tricky situation. In 1820 he published a Life of Wesley. This was, as Southey had expected, controversial. It also generated a great deal of new correspondence, some of it extremely hostile. Southey found himself, for example, defending his portrayal of Moravians in the Life against accusations of bias (Letter 3491). One correspondent gave Southey access to some new, potentially inflammatory information about Wesley’s ‘character’ (Letter 3596). This took the form of a copy of a letter supposedly sent to Wesley by one of his female followers, Elizabeth Briggs,

… remonstrating with him upon the improper liberties which he had taken with her, – it is in a strain of the warmest affection, & the most unbounded reverence; & yet at the same time shows that she was a virtuous woman, & was alarmed at his conduct. He must then have been about sixty five years of age. (Letter 3603)

Although the Dean of Worcester, who had sent him the copy of Miss Briggs’s letter, attested to its authenticity, Southey needed more proof before he could include it in a second edition of the Life. He wrote to Glocester Wilson, the owner of the incriminating document, and discovered that Wilson did not possess the original manuscript, but only ‘a copy of it given by Mrs Wesley to his mother’ (Letter 3596). Lacking the degree of authentication he needed and harbouring a lingering suspicion that the letter was not from Miss Briggs, but rather forged by Wesley’s estranged wife, Southey decided against publishing it (Letter 3626).

Southey lived at a time when public interest in the lives of individuals was on the rise. Although he could – and did – protest about intrusion into his own private life, he loved ‘the rich veins of gossip and garrulity’ (Letter 3526). He was, moreover, not averse to including personal information about others in his own works – for example, in his 1813 biography of Horatio Nelson. However, the Wesley–Briggs incident, recovered here for the first time, says much about the principles and methods that governed his work as a biographer and the priority he placed upon authenticating his sources before committing information to the public sphere. It also provides a tantalising link between Southey’s belief in the necessity for press censorship, given the susceptibility of the public to believing all they read, and his refusal as a biographer to further corrupt the minds of his readers with unverified information.

As well as shedding new light on the practice of someone already recognised as an important Romantic period biographer, Southey’s correspondence has much to say about areas of his writing life that are much less familiar, or, indeed, not known at all. These include a planned edition of the writings of the suicide Elton Hamond that was abandoned on the grounds that it would be dangerous to send ‘abroad opinions which no antidote can prevent from infecting minds predisposed to … receive the … morbid matter’ (Letter 3443). Other potential projects revealed here include a second volume of Letters from England, a ‘life of Warren Hastings’, a biography of Oliver Cromwell, a ‘Life of George Fox, upon the scale of that of Wesley’, and ‘the Moral & Literary History of England’ (Letters 3237, 3521, 3675 and 3521). Southey prophesied the latter would become his ‘favourite work (Letter 3521). He was wrong because it, like the second volume of Letters from England, and the lives of Hastings, Fox and Cromwell, was never written.

Some of Southey’s unknown or overlooked works of the late 1810s and early 1820s did make it beyond the drawing board. They include a privately commissioned biography of the wealthy wine merchant, philanthropist and educationalist David Pike Watts, composed at the ‘desire’ of his daughter and heiress Mary Watts-Russell ‘for her children, & perhaps for private circulation’ (Letter 3544). (It did not, in fact, appear in print until 1841, when it was privately published.) This was not the first such project Southey had undertaken. In 1813 he had written a defence of Sir George Barlow’s conduct while Governor of Madras. Commissioned by Barlow’s brother, William, this had been published anonymously. [5]  Southey’s motivation for taking on the life of David Pike Watts was purely financial: the project was to bring in £400. However, this particular venture into the economy of commission and private publication caused Southey considerable embarrassment when a bill of exchange for the wrong amount (£500 rather than the £400 agreed as payment for the volume) was erroneously presented to Mary Watts-Russell’s bank. The bank refused to pay it, and Southey, whose ‘character’ was thus ‘brought into question’, had to act quickly, asking Andrew Bell to intervene on his behalf and plead his case (Letter 3555). It was a warning of the perils of writing to a private commission and of the fragile nature of reputation.

The economics of publishing were, indeed, to the fore in 1819–1821. As his letters show, Southey was increasingly conscious of the declining sales of his most financially successful poem, Roderick, and of how crucial those had been in sustaining him and his dependants (Letter 3371). He even tried to increase the readership for earlier works such as Thalaba the Destroyer by encouraging Longman to try the ‘experiment’ of publishing them in ‘a small cheap form’ (Letter 3426). Longman did not take the bait. Southey’s attempt to drum up interest in his older works was underpinned by the awareness that he was not getting as good a deal for new poetical works as other contemporaries. He compared, for example, the £1,500 Longman offered for a ‘long poem which has been long in hand’ with the £3,000 given by the same publisher to Tom Moore (Letter 3560). Southey’s worries about needing to earn as much as possible were exacerbated by an anxious wife, young children and ceaseless demands from his extended family, especially his brother Tom, a former naval officer who was now an unsuccessful farmer. Tom was ‘a heavy burthen, & a sore grief’, and his waistline and brood of ‘absolute Killcrops’ (Southey’s nieces and nephews) were expanding at the expense of the Poet Laureate, or so the latter felt (Letters 3498 and 3319). Southey’s only hope was that Tom and his family would ‘leave the kingdom, & remove … to the Cape’ (Letter 3498). They did not oblige him.

The need – actual or perceived – for money underpinned Southey’s formidable work ethic and his decision to take on more projects than he could possibly complete (see, for example, Letter 3745). It also made him tenacious in his attempts to protect his name and to ensure that others did not benefit from it. Such efforts had, of course, extra piquancy after the debacle over Wat Tyler, the best-selling play from whose pirated publication in 1817 Southey had earned not one penny. In 1820 he went on the offensive against a new book, Authentic Memoirs of Our Late Venerable and Beloved Monarch, George the Third, whose supposed author was one ‘Robert Southy, Esq.’. Advertisements for this urged members of the public to ‘order Southys Life of the King to avoid imposition’ (Letter 3434). Southey was enraged. He investigated the possibility of legal action and also sent a paragraph about the matter to a local newspaper, the Westmorland Gazette, where the following appeared on 12 February 1820:

Some memoirs of the late King are now publishing in sixpenny numbers, and stated on the cover to be written by Robert Southy, Esq., with this farther notice, “observe to order Southy’s Life of the King to avoid imposition.” We are authorized to assure our readers that this is an impudent imposition; in which Mr. Southey’s name is used for the purpose of deceiving country purchasers, and misspelled in the hope that the fraudulent publisher may be enabled to evade the law. Other newspapers, we trust will insert this notice as an act of justice to the individual on whose reputation the fraud is practiced; and as one means of checking a species of swindling which is now become frequent. [6] 

The fraudster’s attempt to cash in played on the idea that, as Poet Laureate, Southey might well be expected to write something upon the death of the King. (It also called on public awareness of Southey as a biographer, at a point when his Life of Wesley was also being advertised.) George III’s death had, in fact, caused Southey some anxiety, because it opened up the prospect of his having to do more to earn the Poet Laureate’s salary. His Laureateship was, he noted, ‘not … a sinecure’ (Letter 3582). As well as the New Year’s ode he had produced on an annual basis since late 1813, Southey feared that ‘Alas the [King’s] birth days will now be kept’, and that he would be expected to write something for them (Letter 3448). In practice, this did not happen. Southey wrote just two birthday poems for George IV, in 1820 and 1821, and neither of these was performed at court. In addition, although George IV’s Coronation on 19 July 1821 was notable for its extravagant pageantry, it was not commemorated in verse by the King’s poet. Southey’s ideas for a Coronation ode went no further than some notebook jottings. Instead, as his correspondence reveals, as 1820 and 1821 progressed, he increasingly developed plans for a poem that emerged out of the death of George III – A Vision of Judgement, published in March 1821. This new work, he claimed, would ‘attract some notice’ and ‘provoke some abuse’; exactly how much ‘abuse’ Southey was to discover later (Letter 3582).

Southey’s letters provide important new information about the development and publication of, and the initial response to, one of the most controversial and damaging of his poetical works. They also reveal tantalising connections between the poet of 1821 and the poet of the 1790s. A Vision’s use of English hexameters, for example, harked back to some of Southey’s earlier metrical experiments and plans for a poem on ‘The Deluge … for which I formed a plan drawn from the state of the present world, … to have been executed in hexameters as far back as the year 1799’ (Letter 3653). Although Southey claimed that his correspondent would be ‘struck by this coincidence’ between A Vision and the unwritten poem on the Flood, there was one important difference between them. The earlier poem was, as the notes for it in Southey’s Common-Place Book make clear, intended to engage with ‘the present world’ in a coded, rather than an explicit, fashion. [7]  As such, it followed the pattern of Southey’s poetry of the 1790s and 1800s. A Vision took the opposite tack, dealing directly with contemporary events and engaging explicitly in contemporary controversies. It was therefore a large-scale and public consolidation of Southey’s mid-career turn to the present. Moreover, it was produced and published at a time when Southey regarded society as imperilled as never before by the productions of the radical press whose suppression he urged. This edition makes it possible for the first time to trace how and why these shifts in Southey’s poetry and opinions happened, and how and why A Vision of Judgement and other writings either came into being or were abandoned for good.


[1] Samuel Heinrich Spiker, Travels through England, Wales, & Scotland, in the Year 1816, 2 vols (London, 1820), I, pp. 269–272. BACK

[2] Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 4 (January 1819), 400–404 (403). BACK

[3] See Michael Gamer, ‘Laureate Policy’, The Wordsworth Circle, 42 (2011), 42–45. BACK

[4] John Abraham Heraud, The Legend of St Loy, with Other Poems (London, 1820), p. 223. BACK

[5] An Exposure of the Misrepresentations and Calumnies in Mr Marsh’s Review of Sir George Barlow’s Administration at Madras. By the Relatives of Sir George Barlow (1813). BACK

[6] Westmorland Gazette, 12 February 1820. BACK

[7] Common-Place Book, ed. John Wood Warter, 4 series (London, 1849–1850), IV, pp. 2–3. BACK