Session 5A: Romanticism and the News

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5A. Romanticism and the News

Jonathan Mulrooney (Boston): "Hazlitt the Reporter"
Kim Wheatley (William and Mary): "A Fresh Look at the Wat Tyler Controversy"
Richard Matlak (Holy Cross): "Wordsworth and the Publicity over his Brother's Death at Sea"

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"A Fresh Look at the Wat Tyler Controversy"
Kim Wheatley
William and Mary

My paper will examine the furor over the near simultaneous appearance (in February 1817) of Robert Southey's reactionary anonymous "Parliamentary Reform" essay in the October 1816 issue of the Quarterly Review, and the unauthorized publication of Southey's early republican drama, Wat Tyler (1794). The coincidence provoked a number of spirited attacks on Southey by his political enemies, including an article by Hazlitt and two by Leigh Hunt (all in the Examiner), and equally vehement defenses by his supporters, including four articles by Coleridge in the Courier. Southey was attacked by William Smith in a debate in the House of Commons on March 14, 1817, and responded in a letter to the Courier and a separate pamphlet, A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M. P. (published in April 1817), in which he claimed that "my name has served in London for the very shuttle-cock of discussion. My celebrity has for a time eclipsed that of Mr. Hunt the Orator, and may perhaps have impeded the rising reputation of Toby, the Sapient Pig" (12). Southey's "shuttlecock" metaphor invites us to see this war of words between conservative and reformist writers as a game, a form of print warfare fought (to mix the metaphor) with paper bullets, and therefore an episode to be approached in cultural rather than in narrowly political terms.

The controversy foregrounds issues such as tensions between celebrity and anonymity, and the dynamics of attack and reprisal, as well as theorizations of apostasy, encompassing the quintessentially Romantic question of whether (as Hazlitt points out in one of his attacks, quoting Wordsworth) the child is indeed father of the man. It also underlines the connection between politics and entertainment. This connection was not itself new in an age of political caricature, squibs and satire, but I would argue that the Wat Tyler controversy participates in an important shift that took place in the Regency period -- a shift from the savage vituperation and name-calling characteristic of "slashing" reviews and political rhetoric to more elaborate, quasi-literary (almost novelistic) personal attacks and self-defenses, which can be seen to intersect with Romantic biography. This shift is decisively marked later in 1817 by the arrival on the literary scene of Blackwood's Magazine and its violent yet playful reviews, and by the dialogue between Coleridge's Biographia Literaria and its reception (including a memorable attack on Coleridge by Blackwood's).

Although Southey and his opponents and defenders tended to perceive their exchanges in terms of victory or defeat, I am more interested in seeing the controversy as a collaboration that mingles political argument with the self-conscious creation of fictional characters. In this scenario, William Smith the Member of Parliament, with "the Quarterly Review in one pocket, and Wat Tyler in the other" (Southey's Letter, 2), jostles with the self-proclaimed "Bard immortal" (in The Changeling [1817], an anonymous poem), with "Dr. Paracelsus Broadhum Coleridge" (in Hunt's "Death and Funeral of the Late Mr. Southey"), with the obsequious "Murrain" (the publisher John Murray) and the ghost of Southey (in Hunt's "Extraordinary Case of the Late Mr. Southey"), and with Thomas Love Peacock's Mr. Feathernest (another fictional version of Southey) in his topical novel Melincourt (1817), as well as with Southey's own self-representations. The episode therefore transcends partisan wrangling to turn into an ongoing sideshow in which Southey's inconsistencies and the terms of his self-vindication are exploited for comic effect. Wittingly and unwittingly, Southey himself and his defenders and detractors collectively mourn "the late Mr. Southey" and celebrate a new development in what Southey refers to as the "age of personality" (Letter, 45).

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Last updated May 31, 1999
by Kathleen McConnell