The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part Three

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The Collected Letters of Robert Southey Part 3

1. The Collected Letters of Robert Southey: Part Three

Introduction by Tim Fulford and Carol Bolton

Part Three is the first-ever collected edition of the surviving letters written by Southey between 1804 and 1809. The letters published here begin with Southey writing to his brother with a draft of his epic poem Madoc; they end on New Year’s Eve 1809, with him discussing Coleridge’s The Friend and his own new writing in the Quarterly Review and The Curse of Kehama (published in 1810). Part Three follows the editorial conventions described in ‘About this Edition’ and publishes newly transcribed, fully annotated texts, bringing together in one place correspondence scattered between archives in North and South America and the United Kingdom. It comprises 850 letters, many of which are published for the first time or published in full for the first time.

The letters in Part Three were sent to over 50 very diverse individuals including friends from childhood and school (Charles Danvers, Grosvenor Charles Bedford and Charles Watkin Williams Wynn), from university (Nicholas Lightfoot), from radical youth (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) and from professional life (Joseph Cottle and Daniel Stuart). The years 1804–1809 saw the consolidation of important relationships and correspondences, notably with the statistician John Rickman, the translator William Taylor, and the writer Mary Barker. New correspondences of lasting significance were begun: with Neville White, brother of Henry Kirke White, leading to Southey’s editing of Henry’s Remains; with Matilda Betham, who would paint Southey’s and his family’s portraits in London and Keswick; with Anna Seward, who would support his poetry in the press and to whom he would make an hilarious visit; with Walter Savage Landor, whose enthusiasm for his poetry inspired him to return to writing verse in The Curse of Kehama and Roderick Last of the Goths (1814); with Walter Scott, whose good offices led Southey to a new career writing for the Quarterly Review and the Edinburgh Annual Register, and to the Laureateship.

Writing for the journals produced much official correspondence: Part Three shows the beginnings of Southey’s relationships with his editor William Gifford, and his publishers John Murray and James Ballantyne. It also reveals him as an advisor of other writers: his reputation, if not his remuneration, was beginning to burgeon and he found himself sought out for advice by budding poets. Letters to Ebenezer Elliott show Southey’s pragmatic support of a young writer in whom he recognised talent.

The six years covered by Part Three were a time of gradual settlement into a way of life and a home. In the beginning of 1804 Southey was newly resident at Greta Hall, Keswick, which Coleridge had just left. By the end of 1809 he was an established family man there, with three children and many friendships – including the anti-slavery campaigner Thomas Clarkson, his old acolyte Charles Lloyd (in Ambleside), the landowner Humphrey Senhouse and Wordsworth, whose poetry he came to value very highly, even while bemused by his personal vanity. But it was not until 1807 that he had ceased hankering to move south – perhaps to Bristol or Bath, or to Portugal – and accepted that the Lake District would remain his home. By then he had established a pattern of intense literary work during the winter months, and fellwalking and boating in the summer. Visits to friends in London and Bristol punctuated the ‘bookmaking’ routine biennially. Constantly short of money in these years, and having to provide for Coleridge’s family and for Robert Lovell’s widow, child and mother, Southey drove his pen with unending determination. Each day was divided: verse writing came before breakfast because it paid too little to be done during the day, which was devoted to more lucrative work – writing reviews, translating medieval chronicles and romances, compiling anthologies, editing literary remains and labouring on his large-scale histories of Portugal and Brazil. After a break for dinner, letters were written in the evening, and were vital links to the world of literary gossip and publishing opportunities in London and Edinburgh. Southey used them to propose new literary schemes and to forge alliances; he also depended on them to maintain friendships that sustained him financially: both John May and Wynn loaned and gave him much needed money. With sales of his poems meagre, and rates for reviewing in London journals low, it was only when the opportunities to write for the Quarterly Review and Edinburgh Annual Register arose that financial security seemed possible.

Southey’s output in these years was phenomenal: two epic poems, two translations of medieval books, an anthology, two travel narratives, an edition of another writer’s works, the first volume of a major history, new revised editions of his poems, and over a hundred reviews and articles. He sent these works in manuscript through the post, availing himself of Wynn’s and Rickman’s parliamentary privileges to frank mail gratis. With these friends, he discussed his changing political views: by 1809 the once Jacobinical, pro-French Revolution radical was arguing that no peace with France was possible until Napoleon was overthrown. His pro-war politics were defined by his sympathy for the people of Portugal and Spain, where he had twice lived, in their struggle to liberate themselves from French imperial rule. It led him to despise the Whigs who argued for peace and to refuse to write for their main journal – the Edinburgh Review. Yet at the same time the ministry’s toadying to the corrupt princes and pusillanimity over sending soldiers to fight in Europe left him disgusted at the Tories: in 1808 he was alienated from all parties and declared that either a reform must happen, or revolution would occur. Given this revulsion at political infighting and corruption, it is bewildering to see him accepting a pension from the government in 1807, and in 1809 requesting Tory power-brokers, whose influence he had formerly resented, to gain him a sinecure. Poverty was a motive, as was a desire for recognition that remained unfulfilled when his books were badly reviewed, but Southey believed, inexplicably, that his independence would not be compromised. Gradually however, it was compromised: although in late 1808 he wrote to several friends declaring that he would stop writing for the Quarterly if it toed the government line, he remained a contributor even when the editor cut his trenchant criticisms of church and state from his contributions. Reporting plaintively to friends the hand-writing of excised passages back into the margins of his own copies of the journal was his limited response to these editorial interventions.

Journalism changed Southey in the years 1804–1809; it did not, however, define him. Encouraged by Landor, he returned to epic poetry; inspired by his uncle, he took on himself the mantle of historian of Portugal and Brazil, perceiving his poems and histories as great works on which posterity would judge him. Journalism compromised his independence, but it supported him and his families, allowing him to pursue the higher callings of poet and historian. If this was a sometimes uneasy and divided conception of himself as a writer, it motivated him to pursue these callings with great thoroughness. The History of Brazil emerged from meticulous research in Spanish, Portuguese and Latin sources, carried on assiduously from 1806 onwards – and bringing books galore to Greta Hall by mail coach, ship and wagon. The correspondence of these years reveals Southey as a bibliophile in the making, assembling a fine collection of rare books and manuscripts on Iberia and its colonies; books he read thoroughly but also loved as objects.

By 1809, established in his study with its commanding view of Borrowdale, Derwentwater and the Newlands valley, surrounded by his library, harnessed to his multiple literary endeavours, supported by the families for whom he provided, he was a man at the centre of a world of his own making. If it seemed marginal to outsiders – a remote country retreat – to him it was a place of strength from which, by dint of his correspondence, his immense industry could influence both the present and the future. The coming years, in which his reputation reached its peak, would prove him at least partially right. They would see him develop influential networks of communication, as his reputation as a poet and journalist made him a public figure. Aspiring young authors (Elliott and Kirke White) depended on his advice and support, and experienced literary figures (Scott, Richard Duppa and Taylor) respected his archival knowledge, his expertise on Hispanic literature, and his ambitious works of historiography. At the hub of his literary operations in Keswick, and through an ever-growing network of correspondence, Southey was never cut off from the wider world around him. Yet the peace and stability of his home enabled his productive engagement in many literary forms and subjects of interest. The letters he wrote during the early years of the nineteenth-century see him forging relationships with politicians, social reformers, writers and publishers. His opinions on colonial ventures, the social problems created by industrialisation, events in the war with France, were just some of the topics that he tested his ideas on privately in his correspondence, and expanded on publicly, in books and review articles.

Southey’s networking abilities have had consequences for the modern period in more ways than through his own publication of poems, histories and biographies. Tracing the transfer of information from private letters to the public sphere reveals unexpected consequences. For instance, Southey was persistent in seeking information on the West Indian plantocracy from his sailor brother, which frequently appeared in his review articles. The material Thomas gleaned from his Caribbean voyages became the subject of a book by him that was eventually seen through the press by Southey in 1827. Another enthusiasm that is mentioned frequently in the correspondence during these years is medieval romance. The publication of Amadis of Gaul (1803) corrected the historical records in asserting that the source for this work was Portuguese, and he disseminated this belief in his letters to fellow authors and the pages of the Monthly Magazine. It was his reputation in this field that led to the discovery through one of his correspondents of a previously unlocated, fifteenth-century metrical manuscript. Purchased through his connections with Scott, this is now housed in the archives of the National Library of Scotland.

Reading the letters, the only medium of communication available to Southey and his contemporaries, reinforces our understanding of the processes by which knowledge circulated in the Romantic period. It also reveals the increasing influence of middle-class morality as he became more settled in his profession, and reflects the values of like-minded members of his circle. Commenting on topical issues, Southey’s letters report his strong feelings on Catholic reform, and the mutual disgust of many at the corrupt practices of notable figures such as Lord Melville and the Duke of York. They also remind us of how events that had national consequences were viewed outside the centres of power in Westminster. The speed at which such information is communicated and commented on in Southey’s correspondence, belies assumptions that those in the provinces were isolated from the metropolis, or that geographical remoteness inculcated political apathy.

Correspondence may have been Southey’s lifeline and network of influence, but it was fragile. Letters got lost, or never arrived – even in his own time. He discovered that messages his brother Tom threw overboard in bottles were as likely to reach him as his letters to Tom, sent by post, were to arrive at his ship. And although inland post was reliable, many correspondents of this period did not keep Southey’s letters. Although over 800 survive, references within surviving letters to ones now lost remind us of the fragile, selective nature of what has come down to us. It is clear from this edition, that some important correspondences now exist only in part, or not at all, notably with Coleridge, George Dyer, Stuart, Cottle and Charles Lamb. Nevertheless, we are able to present here previously unpublished letters containing assessments of such luminaries as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Scott and Davy. Southey’s understanding of the writing of his peers and his centrality to Romantic literary culture are both on display as never before.


Published @ RC

August 2013