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Wat Tyler, a Dramatic Poem by Robert Southey Electronic Edition Edited by Matt Hill

Historical Documentation Concerning the Radical Piracy of Wat Tyler

Southey's Letters

Excerpts from Southey’s letters from The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, The Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey, M.A., Ed., Harper & Brothers, New York, 1851.

To Grosvenor C. Bedford, Esq. Keswick, February 15, 1817
To Messrs. Longman and Co. Keswick, February 15, 1817
To Grosvenor C. Bedford, Esq. February 19, 1817
To Sharon Turner, Esq. Keswick, February 24, 1817
To the Rev. Herbert Hill Keswick, February 24, 1817
To the Editor of The Courier In The Courier, March 17, 1817
To Humphrey Senhouse, Esq. Keswick, Mar. 22, 1817


Other Documents Concerning the Radical Piracy of Wat Tyler

Excerpt from William Smith's Speech House of Commons, March 14, 1817
Southey's Response 1817



Southey's Letters Concerning Wat Tyler

To Grosvenor C. Bedford, Esq.

“I wrote to Wynn last night to consult him about Wat Tyler, telling him all the circumstances, and desiring him, if it be best to procure an injunction, to send the letter to Turner, and desire him to act for me. Three-and-twenty years ago the MS. was put into Ridgeway’s hands, who promised to publish it then (anonymously, unless I am very much mistaken), and from that time to this I never heard of it. There was no other copy in existence except the original scrawl, which is now lying up stairs in an old trunk full of papers. I wish the attorney-general would prosecute the publisher for sedition; this I really should enjoy. Happy are they who have no worse sins of their youth to rise in judgment against them.”


To Messrs. Longman and Co.

“There is, unluckily, a very sufficient reason for not disclaiming Wat Tyler—which is, that I wrote it three-and-twenty years ago.

“It was the work, or rather the sport, of a week in the summer of 1794. Poor Lovel took it to London and put it into Ridgeway’s hands, who was then in Newgate. Some weeks afterward I went to London and saw Ridgeway about it; Symonds was with him, and they agreed to publish it (I believe, or rather I am sure, the publication was to have been anonymous), and what remuneration I was to have was left to themselves, as dependent upon the sale. This was the substance of  our conversation, for nothing but words passed between us. From that time till the present, I never heard of the work: they, of course, upon better judgment, thought it better left alone; and I, with the carelessness of a man who has never thought of consequences, made no inquiry for the manuscript. How it has got to the press, or by whose means, I know not.

“The motive for publication is sufficiently plain. But the editor, whoever he may be, has very much mistaken his man. At those times and at that age, and in the circumstances wherein I was placed, it was just as natural that I should be a Republican, and as proper, as that now, with the same feelings, the same principles, and the same integrity, when three-and-twenty years have added so much to the experience of mankind, as well as matured my own individual intellect, I should think revolution the greatest of all calamities, and believe that the best way of ameliorating the condition of the people is through the established institutions of the country.

“The booksellers must be disreputable men, or they would not have published a work under such circumstances. I just feel sufficient anger to wish that they may be prosecuted for sedition.”


To Grosvenor C. Bedford, Esq.

“I was more vexed than I ought to have been about this publication of Wat Tyler; for, though I shook off the first thoughts, or, rather, immediately began to consider it in the right point of view as a thing utterly unimportant, still there was an uneasiness working like yeast in my abdomen, and my sleep was disturbed by it for two nights; by that time it had spent itself, and I should think nothing more about it if it were not necessary to determine how to act. Wynn will find the thing more full of fire and brimstone, perhaps, than he imagines; and yet, perhaps, the wiser way will be not to notice it, but let it pass as a squib. Indeed, I could laugh about it with any person who was disposed to laugh with me. I shall hear from him again tomorrow, and probably shall receive a letter from Turner by the same post. Turner has a cool, clear head; I have very little doubt that they will coincide in their opinion, and, be it what it may, I shall act accordingly.”


To Sharon Turner, Esq.

“My brother has written to dissuade me strongly from proceeding in this business. My own opinion is, that if I do not act now, the men who have published the work will compel me to do so at last, by inserting my name in such a manner as to render the measure unavoidable. Indeed it was inserted as a paragraph in the Chronicle, which I suppose they paid for as an advertisement. Therefore I think it best to take the short and open course, believing that in most cases such courses are best. However, I have sent Harry’s letter to Wynn, and if his arguments convince him, have desired him to let you know.... I suppose there can be no doubt of obtaining the injunction.”


To the Rev. Herbert Hill

“I learn from today’s Courier that Brougham attacked me in the House of Commons. I hope this affair will give no friend of mine any more vexation than it does me. Immediately upon seeing the book advertised, I wrote to Wynn and to Turner, giving them the whole facts, and proposing to obtain an injunction in Chancery. How they will determine I do not know. Perhaps as Brougham has thus given full publicity to the thing, they may not think it advisable to proceed, but let it rest, considering it, as it really is, of no importance. Men of this stamp, who live in the perpetual fever of faction, are as little capable of disturbing my tranquility as they are of understanding it.”


To the Editor of The Courier

“Sir, “Allow me a place in your columns for my ‘last words’ concerning Wat Tyler.

“In the year 1794, this manuscript was placed by a friend of mine (long since deceased) in Mr. Ridgeway’s hands. Being shortly afterward myself in London for a few days, I called on Mr. Ridgeway, in Newgate, and he and Mr. Symonds agreed to publish it. I understood that they had changed their intention, because no proof-sheet was sent to me, and, acquiescing readily in their cooler opinion, made no inquiry concerning it. More than two years elapsed before I revisited London; and then, if I had thought of the manuscript, it would have appeared a thing of too little consequence to take the trouble of claiming it for the mere purpose of throwing it behind the fire. That it might be published surreptitiously at any future time, was a wickedness of which I never dreamed.

“To these facts I have made oath. Mr.Winterbottom, a Dissenting minister, has sworn, on the contrary, that Messrs. Ridgeway and Symonds having declined the publication, it was undertaken by himself and Daniel Isaac Eaton; that I gave them the copy as their own property, and gave them moreover a fraternal embrace, in gratitude for their gracious acceptance of it; and that he, the said Winterbottom, verily believed he had a right now, after an interval of three-and-twenty years, to publish it as his own.

“My recollection is perfectly distinct, notwithstanding the lapse of time; and it was likely to be so, as I was never, on any other occasion, within the walls of Newgate. The work had been delivered to Mr. Ridgeway; it was for him that I inquired, and into his apartments that I was shown. There I saw Mr. Symonds, and there I saw Mr. Winterbottom also, whom I knew to be a Dissenting minister. I never saw Daniel Isaac Eaton in my life; and as for the story of the embrace, every person who knows my disposition and manners will at once perceive it to be an impudent falsehood. Two other persons came into the room while I was there; the name of the one was Lloyd—I believe he had been an officer in the army; that of the other was Barrow. I remembered him a bishop’s boy at Westminster. I left the room with an assurance that Messrs. Ridgeway and Symonds were to be the publishers; in what way Winterbottom might be connected with them, I neither knew nor cared, and Eaton I never saw. There is no earthly balance in which oaths can be weighed against each other; but character is something in the scale; and it is perfectly in character that the man who has published Wat Tyler under the present circumstances, should swear—as Mr. Winterbottom has sworn.

“Thus much concerning the facts. As to the work itself, I am desirous that my feelings should neither be misrepresented nor misunderstood. It contains the statement of opinions which I have long outgrown, and which are stated more broadly because of this dramatic form. Were there a sentiment or an expression which bordered upon irreligion or impurity, I should look upon it with shame and contrition; but I can feel neither for opinions of universal equality, taken up as they were conscientiously in early youth, acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, and left behind me in the same straightforward course as I advanced in years. The piece was written when such opinions, or rather such hopes and fears, were confined to a very small number of the educated classes; when those who were deemed Republicans were exposed to personal danger from the populace; and when a spirit of anti-Jacobinism prevailed, which I cannot characterize better than by saying that it was as blind and intolerant as the Jacobinism of the present day. The times have changed. Had it been published surreptitiously under any other circumstances, I should have suffered it to take its course, in full confidence that it would do no harm, and would be speedily forgotten as it deserved. The present state of things, which is such as to make it doubtful whether the publisher be not as much actuated by public mischief as by private malignity, rendered it my duty to appeal for justice, and stop the circulation of what no man had a right to publish. And this I did, not as one ashamed and penitent for having expressed crude opinions and warm feelings in his youth (feelings right in themselves, and wrong only in their direction), but as a man whose life has been such that it may set slander at defiance, and who is unremittingly endeavoring to deserve well of his country and of mankind.”


To Humphrey Senhouse, Esq.

“You see I am flourishing as much in the newspapers as Joanna Southcote did before her expected accouchement; and I have not flourished in Chancery, because a Presbyterian parson has made oath that I gave the MSS. to him and to another person whom I never saw in my life. There is no standing against perjury, and therefore it is useless to pursue the affair into a court of law. I have addressed two brief letters to William Smith in the Courier, and there the matter will end on my part, unless he replies to them. In the second of those letters you will see the history of Wat Tyler, as far as it was needful to state it. There was no occasion for stating that about a year after it was written I thought of making a serious historical drama upon the same subject, which would have been on the side of the mob in its main feelings, but in a very different way; and indeed, under the same circumstances, I should have brained a tax-gatherer just as he did. The refaccimento proceeded only some fifty or threescore lines, of which I only remember this short passage, part of it having been transplanted into Madoc. Someone has been saying, a plague on time! in reference to Tyler’s gloomy state of mind, to which he replies,

"'Gently on man doth gentle Nature lay
The weight of years; and even when over-laden
He little likes to lay the burden down.
A plauge on care, I say, that makes the heart
Grow old before its time.'"

“Had it been continued, it might have stood beside Joan of Arc, and perhaps I should have become a dramatic writer. But Joan of Arc left me no time for it then, and it was dismissed, as I supposed, forever from my thoughts. I hear that in consequence of this affair and of the effect which that paper in the Quarterly produced, Murray has printed two thousand additional copies of the number; and yet the paper has been dismally mutilated of its best passages and of some essential parts. I shall have a second part in the next number to follow up the blow.”


Other Documents Concerning the Radical Piracy of Wat Tyler

An Excerpt from William Smith’s speech in the House of Commons, March 14, 1817 (Hansard’s Parliamentary Debates, vol. xxxvii, p. 1088) in The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, The Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey, M.A., Ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851.

“The honorable member then adverted to that tergiversation of principle which the career of political individuals so often presented. He was far from supposing that a man who set out in life with the profession of certain sentiments, was bound to conclude life with them. He thought there might be many occasions in which a change of opinion, when that change was unattended by any personal advantages, when it appeared entirely disinterested, might be the result of sincere conviction. But what he most detested, what most filled him with disgust, was the settled, determined malignity of a renegade. He had read in a publication (the Quarterly Review), certainly entitled to much respect from its general literary excellences, though he differed from it in its principles, a passage alluding to the recent disturbances, which passage was as follows: ‘When the man of free opinions commences professor of moral and political philosophy for the benefit of the public, the fables of old credulity are then verified: his very breath becomes venomous, and every page which he sends abroad carries with it poison to the unsuspicious reader. We have shown, on a former occasion, how men of this description are acting upon the public, and have examined in what manner a large part of the people have been prepared for the virus with which they inoculate them. The dangers arising from such a state of things are now fully apparent, and the designs of the incendiaries, which have for some years been proclaimed so plainly, that they ought, long ere this, to have been prevented, are now manifested by overt acts.’

“With the permission of the House, he would read an extract from a poem recently published, to which, he supposed, the above writer alluded (or, at least, to productions of a similar kind), as constituting a part of the virus with which the public mind had been infected:

"'My brethren, these are truths, and weighty ones:
Ye are all equal: nature made ye so.
Equality is your birth-right: when I gaze
On the proud palace, and behold one man
In the blood-purpled robes of royalty,
Feasting at ease, and lording over millions;
Then turn me to the hut of poverty,
And see the wretched laborer, worn with toil,
Divide his scanty morsel with his infants,
I sicken, and, indignant at the sight,
Blush for the patience of humanity.'"

“He could read many other passages from these works equally strong on both sides; but, if they were written by the same person, he should like to know from the honorable and learned gentleman opposite why no proceedings had been instituted against the author. The poem Wat Tyler appeared to him to be the most seditious book that ever was written; its author did not stop short of exhorting to general anarchy; he vilified kings, priests and nobles, and was for universal suffrage and perfect equality. The Spencean plan could not be compared with it: that miserable and ridiculous performance did not attempt to employ any arguments; but the author of Wat Tyler constantly appealed to the passions, and in a style which the author, at that time, he supposed, conceived to be eloquence. Why, then, had not those who thought it necessary to suspend the Habeas Corpus Act taken notice of this poem? why had they not discovered the author of that seditious publication, and visited him with the penalties of the law? The work was not published secretly, it was not handed about in the darkness of night, but openly and publicly sold in the face of day. It was at this time to be purchased at almost every bookseller’s shop in London: it was now exposed for sale in a bookseller’s shop in Pall Mall, who styled himself bookseller to one or two of the royal family. He borrowed the copy from which he had just read the extract from an honorable friend of his, who bought it in the usual way; and, therefore, he supposed there could be no difficulty in finding out the party that wrote it. He had heard, that when a man by the name of Winterbottom was, some years ago confined in Newgate, the manuscript had been sent to him, with liberty to print it for his own advantage, if he thought proper; but that man, it appeared, did not like to risk the publication, and therefore it was now first issued into the world. It must remain with the government and their legal advisers to take what step they might deem most advisable to repress the seditious work and punish its author. In bringing it under the notice of the House, he had merely spoken in defense of his constituents, who had been most grossly calumniated, and he thought that what he had said would go very far to exculpate them. But he wished to take this bull by the horns.”


Excerpt from Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P., from Robert Southey, Esq., in The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, The Rev Charles Cuthbert Southey, M.A., Ed. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1851.


“Sir,—You are represented in the newspapers as having entered, during an important discussion in Parliament, into a comparison between certain passages in the Quarterly Review, and the opinions which were held by the author of Wat Tyler three-and-twenty years ago.... My name, indeed, was not mentioned; but that I was the person whom you intended, was notorious to all who heard you.... As to Wat Tyler. Now, Sir, though you are not acquainted with the full history of this notable production, yet you could not have been ignorant that the author whom you attacked at such unfair advantage was the aggrieved and not the offending person. You knew that this poem had been written very many years ago, in his early youth. You knew that a copy of it had been surreptitiously obtained and made public by some skulking scoundrel, who had found booksellers not more honorable than himself to undertake the publication. You knew that it was published without the writer’s knowledge, for the avowed purpose of insulting him, and with hopes of injuring him, if possible. You knew that the transaction bore upon its face every trace of baseness and malignity. You knew that it must have been effected either by robbery or by breach of trust....Wat Tyler is full of errors, but they are the errors of youth and ignorance; they bear no indication of an ungenerous spirit or of a malevolent heart.

“For the book itself, I deny that it is a seditious performance; for it places in the mouths of the personages who are introduced nothing more than a correct statement of their real principles. That it is a mischievous publication, I know, the errors which it contains being especially dangerous at this time. Therefore I came forward to avow it, to claim it as my own property, which had never been alienated, and to suppress it. And I am desirous that my motives in thus acting should not be misunderstood. The piece was written under the influence of opinions which I have long since outgrown, and repeatedly disclaimed, for which I have never affected to feel either shame or contrition; they were taken up conscientiously in early youth, they were acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, and they were left behind in the same straightforward course as I advanced in years. It was written when Republicanism was confined to a very small number of the educated classes; when those who were known to entertain such opinions were exposed to personal danger from the populace; and when a spirit of anti-Jacobinism was predominant, which I cannot characterize more truly than by saying that it was as unjust and intolerant , though not quite as ferocious, as the Jacobinism of the present day. Had the poem been published during any quiet state of the public mind, the act of dishonesty in the publisher would have been the same; but I should have left it unnoticed, in full confidence that it would have been forgotten as speedily as it deserved. But in these times it was incumbent upon me to come forward as I have done. It became me to disclaim whatever had been erroneous and intemperate in my former opinions, as frankly and fearlessly as I once maintained them. And this I did, not as one who felt himself in any degree disgraced by the exposure of the crude and misdirected feelings of his youth (feelings right in themselves, and wrong only in their direction), but as one whom no considerations have ever deterred from doing what he believed to be his duty.

“When, therefore, Mr. William Smith informed the House of Commons that the author of Wat Tyler no longer thinks upon certain points as he did in his youth, he informed that legislative assembly of nothing more than what the author has shown during very many years in the course of his writings—that while events have been moving on upon the great theater of human affairs, his intellect has not been stationary. But when the Member for Norwich asserts (as he is said to have asserted) that I impute evil motives to men merely for holding now the same doctrines which I myself formerly professed, and when he charges me (as he is said to have charged me) with the malignity and baseness of a renegade, the assertion and the charge are as false as the language in which they are conveyed is coarse and insulting.

“Upon this subject I must be heard further. The Edinburgh Review has spoken somewhere of those vindictive and jealous writings in which Mr.Southey has brought forward his claims to the approbation of the public. This is one of those passages for which the editor of that review has merited an abatement in heraldry, no such writing ever having been written; and indeed, by other like assertions of equal veracity, the gentleman has richly entitled himself to bear a gore sinister tenne in his escutcheon. Few authors have obtruded themselves upon the public in their individual character less than I have done. My books have been sent into the world with no other introduction than an explanatory Preface as brief as possible, arrogating nothing, vindicating nothing; and then they have been left to their fate . . . .

“In my youth, when my stock of knowledge consisted of such an acquaintance with Greek and Roman history as is acquired in the course of a regular scholastic education—when my heart was full of poetry and romance, and Lucian and Akenside were at my tongue’s end, I fell into the political opinions which the French Revolution was then scattering throughout Europe; and following these opinions with ardor wherever they led, I soon perceived the inequalities of rank were a light evil compared to the inequalities of property, and these more fearful distinctions which the want of moral and intellectual culture occasions between man and man. At that time and with those opinions, or rather feelings (for their root was in the heart and not in the understanding), I wrote Wat Tyler as one who was impatient of ‘all the oppressions that are done under the sun.’ The subject was injudiciously chosen, and it was treated as might be expected by a youth of twenty, in such times, who regarded only one side of the question. There is no other misrepresentation. The sentiments of the historical characters are correctly stated. Were I now to dramatize the same story, there would be much to add, but little to alter. I should not express these sentiments less strongly, but I should oppose to them more enlarged views of the nature of man and the progress of society. I should set forth with equal force the oppressions of the feudal system, the excesses of the insurgents, and the treachery of the government; and hold up the errors and crimes which were then committed as a warning for this and for future ages. I should write as a man, not as a stripling; with the same heart and the same desires, but with a ripened understanding and competent stores of knowledge.”

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August 2004