Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Media of Friends or Foes? Unpublished Letters from Joseph Cottle to Robert Southey, 1834-1837

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Media of Friends or Foes? Unpublished Letters from Joseph Cottle to Robert Southey, 1834-1837

Article excerpt

On 29 April 1837 Joseph Cottle sent a copy of his recently published Early Recollections: Chiefly Relating to the Late Samuel Taylor Coleridge, to William Wordsworth. In an accompanying letter, he justified including his old associate in the memoir:

In a work of this nature, I could not well help introducing your name, occasionally, but it has ever been with respect, and such as I hope will merit your cordial approbation. Had I possessed the privilege of living in your vicinity, you might, in a personal conference, have favoured me with some useful suggestions, both as to additions and omissions. It may not still be wholly unavailing to receive from you any remarks which might be suggested to your mind, in the perusal [...] May I be permitted to ask, also, whether you think I have been too full of my disclosures respecting our friend Coleridge? (1)

Cottle was aware that his latest publication would be controversial. Indeed, even before the two volumes appeared, his decision to publish had brought him into conflict with the Coleridge family. (2) Sending the Early Recollections to Wordsworth could, then, have been an attempt to elicit much-needed support and approbation from a figure who was both famous in his own right and whose professional and personal connections with Coleridge spanned nearly forty years. Moreover, as Cottle dared to observe, he and Wordsworth were also linked by their relationships with 'our friend Coleridge'. However, he had misjudged Wordsworth's friendship and the situation. The latter rejected the opportunity to offer 'judgement upon your book or any other upon the life of Coleridge' and expressed his disapproval of the vogue for biographies of the recently deceased: 'I cannot bear that the Public should be made Confidants of several friendships and affections almost as soon as one or both of the partners are laid in their graves' (LY, p. 443). However, as this article will reveal, Wordsworth was not the first person approached by Cottle in his efforts to legitimize his biographical enterprise. From the very earliest days of the project, he had sought the advice of another of Coleridge's oldest acquaintances, Robert Southey.

Between October 1834 and April 1837 Cottle sent Southey a series of detailed letters. His side of the correspondence (now reproduced here for the first time) charts the hardening of his resolve to write his own memoir, rather than drawing up a biographical memorandum for use by the Coleridge estate. (3) It also reveals Cottle's complex attitude to Coleridge at precisely the time he was working on the Early Recollections. Although he admired Coleridge's many talents, he was resentful that the Biographia Literaria (1817) had overlooked Cottle's contribution to his early career. With its combination of what one reviewer of the Early Recollections distinguished as Cottle's 'excellent qualities as [...] a good Christian' and gossip, the correspondence includes potentially damaging material not used in his published volumes. (4) Moreover, it highlights other relationships: the fraught, embittered connections between the Laureate and Coleridge and the superficially equable alliance between Cottle and Southey.

Coleridge died on 25 July 1834. Within months, possibly prompted by the steady trickle of unauthorized memoirs, his literary executors turned their attention to the vexed issue of how the 'principal circumstances of [...] [his] life may be correctly recorded' (Gibbs, p. 209). (5) Although they were reluctant to embark on what Sara Coleridge described as 'a regular History of my Father's life', evidence suggests that there was an attempt to pull together his surviving papers and also to persuade some of his friends to write down their reminiscences (Gibbs, p. 210). (6) For example, in September 1834 Sara's husband, Henry Nelson Coleridge, wrote to Thomas Poole, encouraging him 'to devote an hour or so a day till you have drawn up a story of what you know of your friend from first to last' (Gibbs, p. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.