General Introduction

General Introduction

Robert Southey was born in Bristol in 1774 and died at his home on the outskirts of Keswick in 1843. The son of a bankrupt linen-draper, he was educated at Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford, which he left without taking a degree. He published his first collection of poems in 1795 and in 1813 became Poet Laureate, a post he held until his death. Southey was a prolific and influential poet, essayist, historian, travel-writer, biographer, translator and polemicist, a dominant and controversial figure in British culture from the mid-1790s through to the mid-1830s. His highly experimental poetry, including the Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), paved the way for writers such as Byron, Shelley, Thomas Moore and – later in the nineteenth century – Browning and Tennyson. His essays, histories and reviews articulated the issues confronting a period dominated by nascent imperialism and industrialisation, and his biographies, including the best-selling The Life of Nelson (1813), participated in and helped to form a culture increasingly concerned with celebrity. Southey was, throughout his career, someone his contemporaries found impossible to ignore. His ambition and ability were widely acknowledged, with Madoc (1805) praised as ‘the second heroic production in the English language’, the first being Paradise Lost. [1]  Yet Southey was also the butt of satire and invective, his politics, poetry and prose attacked by opponents as diverse the Anti-Jacobin, Byron, Hazlitt and Macaulay. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey makes available for the first time complete, annotated, fully-searchable texts of all of the surviving correspondence of this complex individual. In so doing, it allows us to look anew at the writer described by Byron as ‘the only existing entire man of letters’. [2] 

Southey’s Letters

Writing letters was an important part of Southey’s life. It was an activity that linked the youthful radical leader of the ‘New School’ with the older conservative Poet Laureate. Between 1791 and 1839 he corresponded with leading figures in cultural, political, and religious life in Britain, Europe and North America. About 7000 of his letters are extant, and of these just under 3000 have never before been published. The surviving manuscripts are dispersed amongst over 200 individual, international archives: letters can be found in New York, London, Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), and Tomsk (Siberia), testimony both to the global reach of his correspondence and to Southey as an active participant in cosmopolitan, international cultural exchange.

The surviving letters written by Southey between 1791 and 1839 are immensely varied. They range from short notes of a couple of lines to huge epistles of several thousand words. Several early letters are entirely or largely in verse, whilst letters from all periods of his career include transcripts of his poems and other writings. Southey was a talented modern linguist: fluent in French, Spanish and Portuguese, and able to read German and Dutch. Most of his surviving letters are in English. However, a handful of letters written in French and Portuguese, and the liberal scattering throughout the correspondence of foreign languages, are evidence of his internationalism, his involvement in and shaping of a global Romanticism.

Southey’s earliest surviving letter dates from 1791, his last from 1839. In 1791 he was sixteen years old, a pupil at Westminster School in the heart of London. Southey’s time at Westminster brought him into contact with boys from radically different backgrounds, scions of rich, powerful families. The first letter in this edition provides evidence of the elite circles into which school friendships drew the young Southey. It was sent in 1791 to Thomas Phillipps Lamb, the father of a fellow Westminster pupil, Thomas Davis Lamb. Written in the aftermath of a vacation visit to the Lambs home in the Sussex town of Rye, the letter testifies to both Southey’s high regard for his hosts and the relative ease with which he was assimilated into a wealthy, politically influential, family. It is also evidence of the complexity of his connections. In 1791, Southey was a discontented schoolboy, eager to rebel against the established order. In contrast, Thomas Phillipps Lamb, his correspondent, was an establishment figure, MP for the town of Rye and supporter of the Prime Minister, William Pitt.

Southey’s final extant letter, to be published in Part Twelve of this edition, also looks back to his youth – and to the enduring nature of some of his earliest friendships. It was sent on 6 September 1839 to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, younger brother of a Baronet and scion of an Anglo-Welsh, Whig political dynasty. Southey and Wynn had been friends since their schooldays at Westminster. This final letter is a poignant close to Southey’s epistolary career. Brief, written in an uncharacteristic, poorly-formed hand and accompanied by an apologetic note from his second wife Caroline, it provides eloquent testimony to the dementia that made letter writing or letter reading impossible for the final years of Southey’s life. [3]  Its confusion is shared by other late letters, including one to the poet and civil servant Henry Taylor, which part-way through forgets the name and gender of its addressee and concludes with a salutation to Bertha, Southey’s daughter. [4]  No letters survive after late 1839 and by the time he died on 21 March 1843, Southey had long been dead to his correspondents.

The abrupt, tragic closing down of his correspondence in 1839 only throws into sharper relief the vitality and diversity of a lifetime of communication. Southey’s correspondents reflect his eclecticism and internationalism. They included family, friends, fellow writers, publishers, review editors, landlords, antiquarians, scientists, politicians, bishops, wine-merchants, people he had never met and – at times to his great irritation – autograph hunters. He exchanged letters and debated crucial issues of the day with prominent, sometimes equally controversial, figures, including: William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson, Humphry Davy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, William Taylor, Percy Shelley, Walter Savage Landor, John Rickman, George Ticknor, Walter Scott, James Montgomery, Robert Bloomfield, Bernard Barton, Sir Robert Peel and the factory reformer Lord Shaftesbury. An active admirer of Mary Wollstonecraft and promoter of female literary endeavours, Southey corresponded with many women writers, including Caroline Bowles (who became his second wife), Anna Seward, Anna Eliza Bray, Margaret Holford Hodson, Maria Gowan Brooks, Mary Anne Watts Hughes, Amelia Opie, Mary Hays, and, most notoriously, Charlotte Brontë. Southey was a busy man, and the wide range of men and women he found the time to write to indicates what might be described as the promiscuous nature of his correspondence – his ability to write a letter to virtually anyone and everyone, on virtually every subject. It is also compelling evidence of the diversity of Romantic period letter-writing.

Southey wrote to individuals from very different walks of life and unsurprisingly the subject matter of his letters is extremely varied. It covers his domestic and professional lives, local matters and international affairs. It includes complaints about a difficult younger brother, tough financial negotiations with a publisher, regional events in Bristol or Keswick, and details of atrocities committed in Spain and Portugal during the Peninsular War. The letters give us access to the whole gamut of Southey’s experience, as we see him live through and respond to years of domestic, local, national and international upheaval. Here, for example, is Southey writing in December 1831 on the dangers to national well-being of a cholera epidemic:

What I look to with most apprehension is the moral effect that this pestilence may produce when it gets to such places as Carlisle, - still more in Manchester & other such wherever there are such tremendous assemblages of human creatures in the most loathsome <& pitiable> condition both as to their state of body & of mind. It will spread far more rapidly among them, than it has done at Sunderland; & in former visitations of pestilence – we know xx that the populace, seeing death before their eyes, & by that present fear emancipated from all fear of human laws, have broken loose, set about plundering, & taken their full swing in excesses of every kind. [5] 

We see here the moralist and polemicist, the preacher against the evils of modernity and the sickness spread by industrialisation, urbanisation and democracy, a Southey familiar to the readers of both his Colloquies and his essays in the Quarterly Review. This is the man condemned by Macaulay as possessing in extraordinary measure ‘the faculty of believing without a reason, and the faculty of hating without a provocation.’ [6]  Yet Southey is, as David Simpson has recently observed, fundamentally more ‘elusive’ and less given to ‘wholeness’ than his peers. [7]  The stern moraliser is just one side of a complex character. Other letters disclose a playful friend or fond, anxious parent. Here is Southey writing in 1803 about his delight in his first child, born after nearly seven years of marriage:

Margaret in spite of a snub snout is grown out of her ugliness. & has as good a face as one could wish for a child of 7 months. take my last poems upon her. N.B. I call them all Effusions of a Father.

D.D. stands for Daughter Drivel

M.S. for Margaret Snivel. [8] 

And here, is his anguished response, only some 4 months later, to Margaret’s death from hydrocephalus:

all is over & poor Margaret in heaven ... I have forced myself to great & unremitting exertions but the blow has gone to my very heart, & made me often think those the happiest who have none but themselves to care for. [9] 

Margaret’s death was a milestone. Southey and his wife immediately left their house in Bristol for Greta Hall, Keswick, then occupied by Edith’s sister Sara, her husband Samuel Taylor Coleridge and their three children. It was to become the Southeys’ home for the remainder of their lives. In exchanging Bristol for the Lakes, Southey left behind the city in which he had been born and spent much of his first three decades, a city which by 1803 had become a spectral place, haunted by the ghosts of a dead daughter, mother, cousin and father, and by the monitory shade of Thomas Chatterton, summoned up by the teenaged Southey in ‘Bristol Church-Yard’, one of his earliest surviving poems. [10]  In heading for the Lake District, Southey also left the city and the wider geographical region which had been at the very centre of his literary life, both as subject and as professional hub for his dealings with other writers, publishers, printers and booksellers. He literally put himself on the road to being tagged by his contemporaries as a member of the ‘Lake’ school.

Southey’s correspondence brings him into sharper focus. It charts his reading, maps his changing views on politics and society, and describes his activities as a professional man of letters, including drafts of poems and prose works. The letters published here contain important evidence of the labour involved in writing. They remind us that extensive planning, research and writing lay behind many of Southey’s published works and contain ideas for ambitious projects (such as a tragedy on the martyrdom of Joan of Arc, poems on all the major world religions and multi-volume history of Portugal) that never materialised. As his ‘cholera’ letter of 1831 reveals, in his private and public lives, Southey rarely pulled his punches. The letters contain violent denunciations of opponents, including Byron and Hazlitt, and a disturbingly detailed description of Shelley’s corpse, washed ashore in Italy. It was, Southey noted, ‘much mutilated ... [t]he fish had half devoured it’. [11] 

Southey as a Letter Writer

Southey’s peripatetic early life ensured that he did not establish regular habits of letter writing. He seems to have adapted the composition of letters to suit his circumstances, writing both in solitude and in company and, on occasions, jointly composing a letter with a family member or friend. This irregularity did not last. After his move to Keswick in 1803, letter writing became a more regularised, solitary occupation, pursued in Southey’s study at Greta Hall. Yet the impossibility of entirely separating his correspondence from the rest of the household is witnessed by the traces left, on the manuscripts that survive, by other people and other aspects of his life. These include playful deletions or insertions in the hand of his first wife Edith; and even the paw-prints of a kitten walking over a letter before the ink had dried. Southey was, fortunately for the kitten, very fond of cats, in a letter of 1801 decrying the nefarious conduct of a ‘Cat eater’, a man who had recently devoured ‘a large Tom Cat alive’. [12] 

Southey’s prophecy that ‘Letter-writing is a favourite amusement with the young; as men grow older they find less leisure for it ... [and] their inclination for it ceases also’ was not fulfilled. [13]  His correspondence increased alongside his reputation and keeping up with it had to be fitted in alongside his work as poet, reviewer, biographer and provider for an extended family. In his middle and later years, letter writing was reserved for the end of the day. As Thomas De Quincey, who had seen the Poet Laureate at close quarters, recorded:

... generally speaking, he closed his literary toils at dinner [‘about half after five or six’]; the whole of the hours after that meal being dedicated to his correspondence ... At that period, the post ... reached Keswick about six or seven in the evening. And so pointedly regular was Southey in all his habits, that, short as the time was, all letters were answered on the same evening which brought them. [14] 

The manuscripts of his letters bear inevitable traces of these evening sessions: those from the 1820s and 1830s are often written in a cramped hand and stained by wax or tallow from dripping candles.

In spite of the pressure of time, Southey took great pains over what was an important channel of communication with friends, family and professional associates. This was a quality recognised by Thackeray, who praised the ‘goodness and purity’ of Southey’s ‘private letters’. [15]  Yet it is important to remember that Southey was the product of an epistolary culture and that for him letter writing had private and public, domestic and professional dimensions. His letters could be private documents, sent to friends and family and intended to be read by the recipient and perhaps a close family circle. Yet they could also be public texts, available for wider consumption. From the outset of his career, Southey was keen to ‘correspond with the world’. [16]  He wrote to newspapers and periodicals, sometimes, though not always, adopting a pseudonym, and commenting on politics and culture. His signed newspaper letters could spark public controversy. In 1799, for example, he became entangled in a debate with Sir Herbert Croft over the latter’s exploitation of the papers of Thomas Chatterton. On 5 January 1822, he took on an even more formidable opponent, Byron, in the pages of The Courier. His advice to Byron ‘When he attacks me again let it be in rhyme’, did not quite have the effect intended. [17]  Byron took it, writing and publishing The Vision of Judgment (1822), with its indictment of Southey as the bard who ‘Had turn’d his coat – and would have turn’d his skin’. [18] 

For Southey, though, the public letter was not just restricted to ephemeral publications such as periodicals and newspapers. His first published prose work, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), exploited the public, literary potential of correspondence. It made use of letters Southey had written to friends during his time in the Iberian peninsula, blurring the boundaries between private and public correspondence. [19]  Letters Written During a Short Residence went into two revised editions, in 1799 and 1808, though Southey’s plan to write a sequel based on his second visit to Portugal in 1800-1801 came to nothing. In 1807 he returned to the epistolary travel book in a slightly different guise, publishing Letters from England under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Letters from England, which tapped into literary fashion, and into a culture keen to consume correspondence, was one of Southey’s best-selling publications.

As he grew older, Southey’s sense of his own letters, including those intended only for private consumption, as potentially public documents and as an integral part of his legacy to posterity increased. It was a complex realisation. It could provide him with the – somewhat self-righteous – solace that his political and cultural judgements would be vindicated in the long term. As Southey explained to Caroline Bowles, his correspondence with Shelley would, when published, expose Byron and his biographer Thomas Medwin as ‘impudent’ liars. [20]  Yet his letters, especially their potential for manipulation by the unscrupulous, could also be a cause of anxiety.

Southey was well aware of his contemporaries’ fascination with the lives of others, acknowledging that anyone who wanted to keep their private life private was fighting a losing battle and that ‘in these days nothing can be kept from the joint demands of cupidity and curiosity’. [21]  Yet his own relationship to this culture of consumption was deeply ambiguous. He was, after all, both a ‘personality’ and an editor of the correspondence of others. In particular, his work on a biography and edition of William Cowper, brought him face to face with how a writer’s correspondence could be manipulated. Southey was proud that his life of Cowper had made extensive use of the poet’s ‘unpublished letters’ and in so doing ‘brought much to life which Hayley was not allowed to make known, and of which none of his biographers knew any thing’. He not merely published new information about Cowper, he also reinstated passages in individual letters that had ‘formerly been withheld’. [22]  Yet any sense of him as a modern scholarly editor needs to be tempered with the realisation that Southey believed not everything in a writer’s life could be revealed – that some information needed to be suppressed and that editorial intervention was necessary. In the case of Cowper, this included correspondence relating to the poet’s belief that he was an androgyne. [23] 

Southey lived long enough to be in the potentially uncomfortable position of having both his own private letters and letters written to or about him appear in print during his own lifetime. In the 1830s, his concerns surfaced over the handling of the correspondence and literary remains of Coleridge, who had died in 1834. Southey knew that Coleridge had frequently attacked him in letters, both to himself and to others. The possible publication of Coleridge’s correspondence was therefore of considerable concern to him. He cautioned Coleridgean memoirists such as Joseph Cottle against publishing all they knew and also kept in reserve copies of Coleridge’s letters and his own to use ‘for my own vindication’ if the need arose. [24]  His ultimate powerlessness in the case of Coleridge was reflected in the treatment meted out to other Southeyan correspondences. In 1838 Robert and Samuel Wilberforce published a life of their father, which contained tactlessly edited versions of Southey’s letters to the abolitionist. [25]  The Poet Laureate was not amused. As he explained to Henry Crabb Robinson:

So little consideration is shewn in publications of this kind, that no one knows what mischief may arise from trusting any letters out of his own keeping. The Wilberforces have printed an extract from a letter of mine to their father in which the last Vicar of this place is spoken of in terms of great disparagement. His daughters are our next door neighbours, and we are of necessity and of good will also upon neighbourly terms with them. Now they will be very much wounded if they happen to see this book, which but for this circumstance, I should as a matter of course have lent them – yet it is hardly possible that they should not see it. And tho I have said nothing but what was perfectly true, they will be very much wounded, and I am as much annoyed as I can allow myself to be by any thing in which I do not feel myself to blame. [26] 

As his reaction to the Wilberforces’ book reveals, by the late 1830s, Southey was aware that it was impossible to control the public’s appetite for consuming his life and letters. He resolved to manage his own posterity. In the case of his poems, Southey took charge , ‘setting ... [his literary] house in order’ and publishing a ten-volume collected edition. [27]  His letters presented a different dilemma. The future editing and publication of his massive correspondence was entrusted to a friend and disciple, the poet and civil servant Henry Taylor, whom Southey named as his literary executor and official biographer. The intention was that Taylor would supervise the construction of Southey’s posthumous reputation, collecting letters and recollections from family and friends and writing an authorized life. However, all this careful planning came to nothing. On 4 June 1839 Southey married Caroline Bowles. Shortly afterwards, his health, which had been declining for some time, completely collapsed. As a result, a train of events was set in motion that ruined these well-laid plans, wrecking Southey’s attempts to manage his posterity.

About earlier editions

Southey’s union with Bowles proved to be extremely controversial, splitting his children and friends into bitterly opposed factions. Hostilities did not cease with the Poet Laureate’s death on 21 March 1843. In the period immediately following, the feuding between the pro- and anti-Bowles camps intensified to an extent that Henry Taylor’s position soon became untenable. Having tried and failed to get cooperation from the warring factions, Taylor resigned his post. With his departure went any plans for an official life of the late Poet Laureate. [28]  The result was textual chaos: competing editions of poetry, prose and correspondence produced by family members who were often not on speaking terms with one another. The poetical remains were divided between Southey’s son-in-law Herbert Hill and widow. In 1845 Hill published an edition of the unfinished North American tale Oliver Newman and Other Poems, which pointedly failed to mention the second Mrs Southey. Caroline Bowles responded with Robin Hood: A Fragment (1847), emphasising her ‘intellectual union’ with the late Poet Laureate. [29]  The mammoth task of collecting, selecting and publishing the surviving letters split along similarly factional lines: divided between John Wood Warter, Southey’s son-in-law and Bowles’s chief supporter, and Cuthbert Southey, the Poet Laureate’s only surviving son and bastion of the anti-Bowles faction.

In 1849-1850, Cuthbert published a six volume Life and Correspondence of his father, linking selections from Southey’s letters with a biographical commentary. It is a highly problematic edition. Cuthbert not only misdated many letters, but in order to sanitise what he believed to be the less palatable aspects of his father’s career and opinions, he, as was customary practice at the time, censored his source materials. His silent deletions covered Southey’s private and public lives, his views on politics and on literature. For example, he passed over Southey’s marriage to Bowles, whom Cuthbert loathed, and removed personal observations about friends and family, including incautious comments on the ‘crazy humours’ of Charles Lamb and a description of Wordworth’s letter to Mathetes as ‘a ... <mouthful> of moonshine’. [30]  He also silently removed passages indicative of political extremism, censoring both Southey’s earlier radicalism and his later unguarded comments against the freedom of the press. A letter to John Rickman of 11 February 1806 was published by Cuthbert without its opening paragraph, describing Southey’s response to the death in office of the Prime Minister and the proposal to erect a public monument to him:

If it had pleased God to send William Pitt to the Devil in the year 1790 – but better late than never. And so the wise people of England are going to record their own infatuation upon marble – as if paper & printers-ink would not sufficiently preserve the memory of it to posterity! [31] 

Cuthbert similarly glossed over cultural politics, omitting a description of the ‘lyer’ Byron and his sharking biographer Thomas Medwin from a letter of 1824: ‘In his Lordship there were the motives of envy, hatred & malice at work. Evil passions possessed him. But this fellow [ie. Medwin] has no other impulse than the desire of gain’. [32] 

Cuthbert’s edition is partial in other ways. Circumscribed by the family feud, he had access only to a fraction of the voluminous surviving correspondence, and could see only the letters sent to individuals who were on his side of the dispute. This meant that whilst he was able to call on letters sent to John Rickman, Sharon Turner, Walter Scott, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and the family of Henry Kirke White, he could not use those to other important figures in Southey’s life and career such as Charles Danvers, John King, Mary Barker and Anna Eliza Bray. The result was an incomplete sense of the range of Southey’s contacts – the sense of a part rather than a whole life.

The same problem also affected a second, rival edition: John Wood Warter’s four-volume Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, published in 1856. Warter was able to draw upon some of the major correspondences that Cuthbert had been refused access to, including those with Danvers and Mary Barker. Warter’s edition did not overlap with Cuthbert’s, rather it set out to be different: providing a completely new selection of Southey letters, minus any of Cuthbert’s biographical interpolations. By the time he came to work on the Selections, Warter was, in fact, an old hand at editing Southey, having produced editions in 1847 of the final two volumes of The Doctor and in 1849-1850 of the Common-Place Books. His experience showed. His text is, as a rule, more accurate and reliable than Cuthbert’s. However, this does not mean that he reproduced everything he saw on the manuscript page. Even Warter was capable of editorial intervention and he made countless minor, cosmetic changes to Southey’s prose, altering punctuation and word order at will. More seriously, he occasionally - and silently - removed passages from letters. Most of his omissions were connected to family matters, or to persons still living. A letter of 25 October 1834 was published without a section describing the mental health of Southey’s first wife, Edith, then confined in The Retreat at York:

The accounts from York are hopeful. But a considerable time must elapse before bodily functions which have been very long deranged can be set right by any curative treatment. xxx such treatment being necessarily slow in producing any perceptible effect. [33] 

The omission was not surprising, given that Warter was married to Edith’s eldest daughter. Nevertheless, it undermined the textual integrity of Southey’s original letter.

Warter was a vocal and capable supporter of Caroline Bowles. He inherited her papers after her death in 1854 and his commitment to her reputation was such that he planned to edit a selection of the correspondence exchanged by her and Southey. [34]  He died before this could be completed, and the project was taken up by Edward Dowden, author of the biography of Southey in the ‘English Men of Letters’ series. In 1881 Dowden published a selected edition of The Correspondence of Robert Southey and Caroline Anne Bowles, some 199 letters exchanged between April 1818 and January 1838. A further five letters between Southey and Shelley were included in an Appendix. Dowden’s edition is unique, as the only attempt so far to see a Southeyan correspondence in the round by publishing both sides. It also made a case for Bowles’s own writing as ‘worthy of remembrance’ and for the importance to Southey of their creative exchange.  [35]  Dowden was, though, highly selective. He included about ‘half’ of the surviving letters and displayed sensitivity to surviving participants in the family feud by excluding entirely any letters exchanged during the controversial period of Southey and Bowles’s courtship and engagement. It was not that he had no letters to select from – evidence of the letters Southey wrote to Bowles during this key period in their relationship can be found in an account sent by Bowles to Anna Eliza Bray – but rather that he chose not to include any. [36] 

The publication of Southey’s correspondence was not limited to the editions of Cuthbert, Warter or Dowden. From the mid-nineteenth century onwards, individual or groups of Southey letters appeared on a fairly regular basis, scattered amongst autobiographies, biographies, memoirs and accounts of his contemporaries, including Charlotte Brontë, Anna Eliza Bray, Humphry Davy, Charles Lloyd, James Montgomery, Henry Taylor, William Taylor and Alaric Watts. Letters, or fragments of letters, also found their way into the footnotes of editions of the letters of Coleridge. [37] 

This dispersal of the published correspondence continued into the twentieth century. The importance of the letters of Southey’s direct contemporaries Coleridge and Wordsworth was recognised and enshrined with the appearance of major scholarly editions. There was, however, no attempt to do the same for Southey and to publish all his correspondence in one place. This does not mean that the letters were neglected entirely, rather that Southey’s liminal position in the twentieth century Romantic canon was seen not as justifying a collected edition. Instead, letters continued to appear in scattered publications. In 1960 Adolfo Cabral included 63 letters in his edition of Southey’s Journals of a Residence in Portugal 1800-1801 and a Visit to France 1838. Only 22 of these had previously been unpublished, the remaining 41 were reprinted directly from the problematic editions of Cuthbert Southey and Warter. A more substantial attempt to fill in the blanks left by unpublished or bowdlerised letters was made in 1965, when Kenneth Curry published a two-volume New Letters of Robert Southey. This comprised 497 letters covering Southey’s entire writing life – beginning in 1792 and ending in 1838. It included both letters published for the first time and complete versions of ones previously censored by interventionist editors such as Joseph Cottle or Cuthbert Southey. Curry, the leading Southey scholar of the mid-twentieth century, also stated the case for the centrality of the correspondence for an understanding of the man and his writing, arguing ‘it is there that [one] will find the whole range of Southey’s life and career’. [38]  Another new edition followed in 1976, when Charles Ramos edited a group of 170 letters sent by Southey to his friend John May. Both Curry and Ramos’s editions added to knowledge of Southey, but they were also both highly selective. Ramos used only the collection of letters from Southey to May held in the University of Texas, Austin, and not the parts of their correspondence scattered in other archives throughout the world. Curry, meanwhile, admitted that at least 2000 Southey letters still remained unpublished and that several hundreds more were available only in unreliable texts.  [39]  This selectivity was undoubtedly dictated by Southey’s non-canonical status and it continued for the remainder of the twentieth century. In the three decades since the publication of Ramos, further letters have appeared in isolated journal articles, including essays by Lynda Pratt, Elisa Beshero-Bondar, and Martine Braekman. [40]  The extent and importance of surviving, unpublished letters by Southey has also been highlighted in the biographies by Mark Storey and W. A. Speck.  [41] 

In the past decade Southey’s reputation has been revolutionised. His centrality to a complex, international Romantic period culture has been recognised by critics including Marilyn Butler, Nigel Leask, Nicholas Roe, David Simpson, Dan White, Tim Fulford, Carol Bolton and Lynda Pratt. [42]  Alongside the stirrings of this Southeyan critical renaissance has come the acknowledgement of the need for scholarly editions of Southey’s poetry, prose and correspondence. Those editions are now being produced and it is becoming once more possible to read him. The nine-volume Poetical Works is helping to revolutionise understanding of Southey the poet. [43]  We hope that the Collected Letters will do the same for the correspondence. The letters published here restore wholeness to this most fragmented of Romantic period writers, providing accurate texts of letters that were previously unpublished or available only in censored versions. Taken individually and as a whole, the letters reveal a more complete picture of Southey’s life, literary relationships, opinions on politics and society and development as a writer. Southey emerges from his correspondence as a consummate – even an ‘entire’ – man of letters, intimately involved in the culture of his time. The Collected Letters therefore both contributes to what can be called the new Southey criticism and provides the primary material by which future scholars can take that criticism in important fresh directions.


[1] Anon., untitled review, Imperial Review, 5 (1805), 465–73; reprinted in Robert Southey: the Critical Heritage, ed. Lionel Madden (London, 1972), pp. 104–105 (p. 105). BACK

[2] Byron, Journal, 22 November 1813; reprinted in Madden, p. 157. BACK

[3] Robert Southey and Caroline Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 6 September 1839¸ National Library of Wales, MS 4813D. BACK

[4] Robert Southey to Henry Taylor, 27 July 1839¸ Bodleian Library, Oxford, Eng Lett d. 9, fol. 206. BACK

[5] Robert Southey to Margaret Holford Hodson, 23 December 1831, Huntington Library, HM 2895. BACK

[6] Review of Sir Thomas More; or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829), in Edinburgh Review, 50 (January 1830), 528. BACK

[7] David Simpson, ‘Locating Southey’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 41.4 (2008), 566. BACK

[8] Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 3 April 1803; see Part 2, Letter 770. BACK

[9] Robert Southey to Thomas Southey, 29 August [1803]; see Part 2, Letter 832. BACK

[10] Bodleian Library, Oxford, MS Eng. Poet. e. 10. BACK

[11] Southey to Bernard Barton, 26 November 1822, Kenneth Curry (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (London and New York, 1965), II, p. 240. [Hereafter New Letters.] BACK

[12] Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, [29 September 1801]; see Part 2, Letter 609. BACK

[13] Robert Southey to J. N. White, 22 January 1808; see Part 3, Letter 1418. BACK

[14] ‘Lake Reminiscences, from 1807 to 1830. By the English Opium-Eater. No. IV. – William Wordsworth and Robert Southey’, Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine, 6 (July 1839), 458. BACK

[15] ‘The Four Georges. Sketches of Manners, Morals, Court, and Town Life. IV. George the Fourth’, Cornhill Magazine, 2 (October 1860), 401–2. BACK

[16] Southey to Horace Walpole Bedford, 12 June 1796, see Part 1, Letter 160. BACK

[17] Robert Southey to the Editor of The Courier, 5 January 1822, in Charles Cuthbert Southey (ed.), Life and Correspondence, V, pp. 349-354 (esp. p. 354). [Hereafter Life and Correspondence.] For unpublished drafts of this letter see Huntington Library, HM 6655. BACK

[18] Byron, The Vision of Judgment (1822), Stanza xcvii, line 8. BACK

[19] For example, compare Robert Southey to Joseph Cottle, [February-March 1796?], Part 1, Letter 148, with Robert Southey, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (Bristol, 1797), pp. 317, 368-370. BACK

[20] Robert Southey to Caroline Bowles, 26 November 1824, Edward Dowden (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881), p. 75. [Hereafter Dowden.] BACK

[21] Robert Southey to Joseph Cottle, 30 September 1836, New Letters, II, p. 457. BACK

[22] Robert Southey to William Peachey, 16 May 1836, New Letters, II, p. 454. Not all of Southey’s contemporaries agreed with his treatment of Cowper. An anonymous reviewer in The Christian Observer, 429 (1837), p. 610 described his ‘detailed account of Cowper’s attempted suicide’ as ‘revolting’ and accused Southey of lacking ‘good taste and right feeling’ and ‘thinking of little but of literature and entertainment’. BACK

[23] Robert Southey to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, 6 November 1835, New Letters, II, pp. 430–431. BACK

[24] Robert Southey to Joseph Cottle, 26 February 1836, New Letters, II, pp. 442-443. See also, Lynda Pratt, ‘The Media of Friends or Foes? Unpublished Letters from Joseph Cottle to Robert Southey, 1834-1837’, Modern Language Review, 98 (2003), 545-562. BACK

[25] R.I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Life of William Wilberforce (London, 1838). BACK

[26] Robert Southey to Henry Crabb Robinson, 17 June 1838, New Letters, II, pp. 475-476. BACK

[27] Robert Southey to Mrs Septimus Hodson, 1 March 1837, New Letters, II, p. 466. BACK

[28] For the impact of family feuding on Southey’s posthumous remains and his reputation see Lynda Pratt, ‘Family Misfortunes? The Posthumous Editing of Robert Southey’, in Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism, ed. Lynda Pratt (Aldershot, 2006), pp. 219-238. BACK

[29] Caroline Southey and Robert Southey, Robin Hood: A Fragment (London, 1847), p. viii. BACK

[30] Robert Southey to John Rickman, 17-21 January 1810; see Part 4, Letter 1734. BACK

[31] See Part 3, Letter 1155. BACK

[32] Robert Southey to John Rickman, 9 November 1824, Huntington Library, HM RS 454. BACK

[33] Robert Southey to John Rickman, 25 October 1834, Huntington Library, HM RS 674. BACK

[34] John Wood Warter (ed.), Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey, 4 vols (London, 1856), I, p. [v]. BACK

[35] Dowden, p. xiii. BACK

[36] Bowles’ account survives only as a copy in another hand, West Sussex Record Office, Bray Papers, Box 3, ‘Copy of Autobiographical Narrative of Mrs. Southey’. BACK

[37] For example, Elizabeth Gaskell, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857); John A. Kempe (ed.), Autobiography of Anna Eliza Bray (1884); John Davy (ed.), Fragmentary Remains, Literary and Scientific, of Sir Humphry Davy, Bart. (1858); E. V. Lucas, Charles Lamb and the Lloyds (1898); J. Holland and J. Everett (eds), Memoirs of the Life and Writings of James Montgomery (1854-1856); Henry Taylor, Autobiography (1885); J. W. Robberds (ed.), A Memoir of the Life and Writings of the Late William Taylor of Norwich (1843); Alaric Watts, A Narrative of His Life (1884); and E. H. Coleridge (ed.), Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1895). BACK

[38] New Letters, I, p. [xi]. BACK

[39] Kenneth Curry, ‘The Published Letters of Robert Southey: A Checklist’, Bulletin of the New York Public Library, 71.1 (1967), pp. 158-164. BACK

[40] See for example, Elisa Beshero-Bondar, ‘Nine New Letters of Robert Southey’, The Wordsworth Circle, 30.1 (1999), 47-55; Lynda Pratt, ‘The Pantisocratic Origins of Robert Southey’s Madoc: An Unpublished Letter’, Notes and Queries, 46.1 (1999), 34-39; Martine Braekman, ‘An Unpublished Philanthropic letter by Robert Southey’, Notes and Queries, 51.2 (2004), 144-146. BACK

[41] Mark Storey, Robert Southey: A Life (1997); and W. A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (2006). BACK

[42] Marilyn Butler, ‘Repossessing the Past: The Case for an Open Literary History’, in Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History, eds. Marjorie Levinson et al (Oxford, 1989), pp. 64-84; Nigel Leask, British Romantic Writers and the East: Anxieties of Empire (1992); Nicholas Roe, The Politics of Nature: William Wordsworth and Some Contemporaries (2nd ed. 2002); David Simpson, ‘Locating Southey’, Eighteenth-Century Studies, 41.4 (2008), 566-568; Daniel E. White, Early Romanticism and Religious Dissent (2006); Tim Fulford, Romantic Indians: Native Americans, British Literature, and Transatlantic Culture 1756-1830 (2006); Carol Bolton, Writing the Empire: Robert Southey and Romantic Colonialism (2007); Lynda Pratt (ed.), Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism (2007). BACK

[43] Robert Southey: Poetical Works, 1793-1810, gen. ed. Lynda Pratt, 5 vols (London, 2004); and Robert Southey Later Poetical Works, 1811-1838, gen. eds Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt, 4 vols (London, 2012). BACK