Stuart Andrews, Robert Southey: History, Politics, Religion

By Ryan, Robert M. | Wordsworth Circle, Autumn 2012 | Go to article overview

Stuart Andrews, Robert Southey: History, Politics, Religion


Ryan, Robert M., Wordsworth Circle


Stuart Andrews, Robert Southey: History, Politics, Religion

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) xvii + 250 $85.00

Michael Tomko, British Romanticism and the Catholic Question: Religion, History and National Identity, 1778-1829

(Palgrave Macmillan, 2011) xii + 224 $84.00

"The Catholic Question" was a persistent and usually passionate debate about relieving Roman Catholics of civil disabilities that had been imposed on them by the Penal Laws of the 17th century, a debate that intensified between the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 and the Catholic Emancipation act of 1829--the years of the Romantic period in literature. The public policy issue was complicated by deep-rooted prejudice against "Romish superstition" with a history going back to Mary Tudor's persecution of Protestants and the series of "popish plots," real or imagined, that followed. A more serious complication was the problem of Ireland. Following the rebellions of 1798, an Act of Union dissolved the Dublin parliament, raising the question of how five million Irish Catholics could be admitted to full participation in the political life of a united kingdom. The dispute thus involved a legal and cultural struggle over religious difference, historical grievances, and the very definition of "Britishness." Michael Tomko's British Romanticism and the Catholic Question and Stuart Andrews' Robert Southey: History, Politics, Religion, the two books under consideration, make the case that the Catholic Question played a more central role in the culture of the Romantic period than previous literary historians have noticed. Tomko addresses the impact of the controversy on imaginative literature while Andrews provides a vivid clarification of the issues at the heart of the conflict and the passions that drove one writer's lifelong obsession with the threat he thought Roman Catholicism posed to Britain's survival as a Protestant nation.

After he became Poet Laureate in 1813, Southey wrote little verse, devoting his creative energies to historical and argumentative prose. He was a conscientious and energetic historian, as his biographies of Wesley and Nelson still demonstrate, but the prose that Andrews examines here mainly concerned the dispute on the Catholic Question, in which he was a committed partisan. In a series of books, articles, and reviews, the debate became the primary concern of his life as an author. He engaged in acrimonious public quarrels with two able and prominent defenders of Catholic rights, John Milner and Charles Butler. In his Book of the Church (1824) Southey's admiration of the Church of England necessitated invidious comparisons with "the errors, corruptions and crimes" of the pernicious "Romish Church" (as he almost always called it). Milner's Strictures on the Poet Laureate's Book of the Church (1824), responded in kind to what he thought was a tissue of vituperation and fanaticism, whose author "raves through the history of many centuries, in abusing and calumniating the common source of Christianity, in order to court the heads of the present Establishment, under pretence of vindicating it" (121). Butler's Book of the Roman Catholic Church (1825) similarly argued that Southey's book was "calculated to revive past animosities, to inflame prejudice, to perpetuate discord" (119).

Southey responded to his critics in Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1826), with still more rancorous attacks on the "idolatrous and superstitious" Church of Rome, and in a later publication wrote, "Throughout papal Christendom there has been substituted for Christianity a mass of corruption which nauseates the understanding" (184). In various writings he ridiculed transubstantiation, indulgences, belief in purgatory, veneration of Mary and the saints, and the authority of the Pope. He thought that auricular confession by absolving sin encouraged more of it; he found priestly celibacy repugnant; and he entertained gothic visions of innocent girls being shut up convents, forced to practice idolatry, denied meat on Fridays, and encouraged to indulge in self-flagellation. …

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