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Charles Cuthbert Southey:
The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey


Vol. I Contents
Early Life: I
Early Life: II
Early Life: III
Early Life: IV
Early Life: V
Early Life: VI
Early Life: VII
Early Life: VIII
Early Life: IX
Early Life: X
Early Life: XI
Early Life: XII
Early Life: XIII
Early Life: XIV
Early Life: XV
Early Life: XVI
Early Life: XVII
Ch. I. 1791-93
Ch. II. 1794
Ch. III. 1794-95
Ch. IV. 1796
Ch. V. 1797
Vol. II Contents
Ch. VI. 1799-1800
Ch. VII. 1800-1801
Ch. VIII. 1801
Ch. IX. 1802-03
Ch. X. 1804
Ch. XI. 1804-1805
Vol. III Contents
Ch. XII. 1806
Ch. XIII. 1807
Ch. XIV. 1808
Ch. XV. 1809
Ch. XVI. 1810-1811
Ch. XVII. 1812
Vol. IV Contents
Ch. XVIII. 1813
Ch. XIX. 1814-1815
Ch. XX. 1815-1816
Ch. XXI. 1816
Ch. XXII. 1817
Ch. XXIII. 1818
Ch. XXIV. 1818-1819
Vol. IV Appendix
Vol. V Contents
Ch. XXV. 1820-1821
Ch. XXVI. 1821
Ch. XXVII. 1822-1823
Ch. XXVIII. 1824-1825
Ch. XXIX. 1825-1826
Ch. XXX. 1826-1827
Ch. XXXI. 1827-1828
Vol. V Appendix
Vol. VI Contents
Ch. XXXII. 1829
Ch. XXXIII. 1830
Ch. XXXIV. 1830-1831
Ch. XXXV. 1832-1834
Ch. XXXVI. 1834-1836
Ch. XXXVII. 1836-1837
Ch. XXXVIII. 1837-1843
Vol. VI Appendix

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Robert Southey's mutations puzzled his contemporaries: liberals chided him as a political opportunist while conservatives regarded him suspiciously as an unreliable ally; he himself believed that he had changed his ideas with respect to means but had always been consistent about ends. None of these characterizations seem quite satisfactory: Southey wrote for bread but his political transformation antedated his government connections; he was a loyal when it mattered but never a party-man; if not always a friend of liberty he was a consistent hater of tyranny. Competing accounts about the life of the laureate raised interest in the six-volume life and letters edited by his son published in 1849-50.
The book changed few minds. The published letters show Southey consistent in his dislike for Roman Catholicism but inconsistent in his attitude towards monarchy. The private correspondence indicates that the laureate's private utterances were consistent with his public statements, but manifests the same perplexing combinations of loathing and empathy, cultural bigotry and intellectual curiosity. The inflated self-regard his contemporaries mocked is very apparent, but also the kindness and humanity that had always made Southey an amiable character. There was no lack of new information in the biography, but no new or different narrative to explain these contradictions.
Indeed, the Life and Correspondence is much more “correspondence” than “life”; it lacks the design Thomas Moore and John Gibson Lockhart imparted to their celebrated biographies of Byron and Scott. Cuthbert Southey (1819-1888), in 1849 an unbeneficed clergyman, was too young to have remembered many of the events recounted and so leaves his father tell his own story. The correspondence provides a good record of what Southey was doing and thinking over the course of his long life, but with the exception of the opening autobiographical fragment, not much else. We learn much about the week-to-week life of the professional writer but little about the sources of the opinions he held so strongly.
Lives and letters were undertaken with three objects in mind: to commemorate their subject, to set the historical record straight, and to turn a profit, usually for a family member or close friend. Southey composed letters with posthumous publication in mind, intending them as a record of his life and a legacy for his children. Cuthbert Southey leaves the usual testimonials to the subject's character and writings (like so much else) to Southey himself. This was honesty of a sort, but not the best way to show his father to advantage. He makes unobtrusive excisions and suppressions that dampen the poet's more extreme views though the resulting portrait was still quite recognizable.
With respect to setting the record straight, Cuthbert Southey did useful things. No previous laureate had been subjected to the degree of abuse directed at Robert Southey by the Liberal press. He was usually prudent enough not to respond to such “personality,” relying on the posthumous publication of his letters for vindication. Cuthbert Southey is able to demonstrate that his father was not obsessed by Byron, that on more than one occasion he refused lucrative offers to become a writer-for-hire, and that he would have nothing to do with those who did, like Theodore Hook and William Maginn. He prints a list of his father's contributions to the Quarterly Review and letters indicating that Southey was not only innocent of vindictive criticism but disapproved of it as practiced by his associates.
In other respects the editor fails badly. One would not expect Cuthbert Southey to be frank about Coleridge, but it is awkward that he would suddenly disappear with no word of explanation. That Robert Southey was supporting three, sometimes four, of the Fricker sisters was hardly something to be reticent about even if the poet himself makes little of it: if, as the editor suggests, financial worries literally drove his mother to distraction he ought to have explained the full extent of her anxieties. It is left to the reader to infer connections between Southey's unhappy childhood and the extravagant charity he later displayed to unhappy families and vulnerable young men. It is clear from the autobiographical fragment that Southey regarded relationships in his extended family as the mainspring of his life and character, but his biographer leaves the matter wrapped in the obscurity where it yet remains.
The thoroughgoing lack of annotation and occasional misdated letters suggest that Cuthbert Southey was unable or unwilling to do the research required to write a biography. This situation likely resulted from the third object object of writing lives and letters, which was to make a profit. In his preface Cuthbert Southey mentions his father's failure to appoint a literary executor and claims the office as the family's representative. This is less than candid. The poet had designated Henry Taylor as his executor and carefully prepared him for the task of writing his life. When the Southey family quarreled over the legacy (a family tradition it seems) Taylor resigned and the papers were divided among the surviving children.
The result was two collections of letters—one edited by Cuthbert Southey and the other by his brother-in-law John William Warter—and no proper biography. To estimate the consequences of this one has only to recall the importance of Moore and Lockhart to Byron and Scott. Southey was their peer, or nearly so, as a letter writer, and in even more need of a compelling story to make sense of his life and keep his memory green. How Taylor might have managed this we cannot know, though readers of The Doctor, or for that matter Southey's own autobiographical fragment, can imagine narrative possibilities as yet unexplored by Southey biographers.
For all its limitations, the Life and Correspondence is hardly a complete failure. Cuthbert Southey had access to the prime correspondence in the letters to Bedford, Coleridge, Scott, Landor, and Henry Taylor, as well as the autobiographical letters to May—in addition to what could be gleaned from the already-published correspondence with Cottle and Taylor of Norwich. The chief gaps, so far as making sense of things was concerned, were the correspondence with Southey's publishers, Longman and Murray, and his editors, Gifford and Lockhart. Even so, Cuthbert Southey is able to supply a richly detailed account of the working life of a nineteenth-century man of letters. The later volumes, for which he had memories to draw upon, improve markedly and his own sparse biographical contributions are attractive enough.
In my own editorial labors, limited to identifying persons and titles, I have particularly benefited from the research of Kenneth Curry in New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (1965) and from the Collected Letters of Robert Southey edited by Linda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Ian Packer, a monumental work of scholarship that bids fair to put Southey studies on a new footing. For the first time, readers will have access to accurate texts representing the full breadth and extent of Southey's correspondence. This will, at last, render Cuthbert Southey's edition largely obsolete.
Not entirely, for it is important to examine the life of a writer through various lenses, including those afforded by the much-abused life-and-letters genre. No scholarly correspondence project can (or should) strive to present a life as though it were a novel. But there is something to be said for narrative immersion, and even a second-best life-and-letters volume can bring a life to life when its letters are as vibrant as those of Robert Southey. An avid collector and reader of anecdotes and saints' lives, he appreciated the value of biography even in its less respectable forms.

David Hill Radcliffe