Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Southey on Coleridge: Bristol Letters, 1799-1803

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Southey on Coleridge: Bristol Letters, 1799-1803

Article excerpt

Southey was a Bristol Poet before he was a Lake Poet. He was born in Bristol, and christened in Bristol; he brought Coleridge to Bristol and (like Coleridge) married a Bristol girl. Like Coleridge too, he borrowed books from the Bristol subscription library and lectured in Bristol--and inhaled gases at Beddoes's Pneumatic Institution. And in the year he left Bristol for the Lake District, he and Cottle published a three-volume edition of the works of Thomas Chatterton, the Bristol boy-poet.

Not all the letters from these Bristol years were written from Bristol, but the Southeys rented a house in Westbury-on-Trym (now a suburb of Bristol) from the summer of 1798 until the lease ran out in June, 1799. Southey then lodged for a further few weeks with his Bristol Unitarian friend, Charles Danvers, and his mother at Kingsdown where he finished Madoc and started Thalaba (RSPW 3: 4). Southey and Coleridge had been estranged since the autumn of 1795, over the collapse of their Pan-tisocratic project. So Danvers must have been surprised when Southey wrote from Nether Stowey in August, 1799, "at the same table with Coleridge." Southey continues; "I know not whether you will be equally surprized to hear that Lloyd reported as many unfavourable accounts of me to Coleridge--as he did of Coleridge to me--and manufactured conversation s & speeches wholly out of his brain." Southey describes how he had now been for "some days, wholly immersed in conversation. [I]n one point of view Coleridge and I are bad companions for each other, without being talkative, I am conversational, the hours slip away & the ink dries upon the pen in my hand" (RSCL 2: 428; SL 1: 78-9).

Southey's first surviving letter to Coleridge in 1799 was from Exeter on October 3 (RSCL 2: 440; L&C 2: 26-9). Apart from three months spent in Bristol in 1800, Southey would be away from the city, successively in Lisbon, Dublin and London, until May, 1802--when he returned, "heartily rejoiced at leaving London" (RSCL 2: 679). He would finally move from Bristol in September, 1803, when he and Edith sought solace in the Lake District following the death of their infant daughter.

Southey's correspondence with Coleridge has long been accessible. So it is hardly surprising that the second part of the four-part Romantic Circles edition of Southey's correspondence (posted online in 2011) reveals only three previously unpublished letters among the twenty-two dating from the years 1799-1803. The most intriguing of five letters written to Coleridge at the end of 1799 is dated December 5. First published in the electronic edition, Southey's letter quotes a criticism of Coleridge published in Beauties of the Anti-Jacobin--a 1799 reprint of excerpts from the Anti-Jacobin or Weekly Examiner of 1797 to 1798. The offensive footnote reads:

""[H]e has quitted England, become a citizen of the world, left his little ones fatherless & his wife destitute." Southey tells Coleridge that "this is a libel of the worst kind" and advises him to prosecute the publishers: "[P]unishment they deserve--& the damages will not be unacceptable to you. [D]o not reject this idea hastily--consult with your London friends, & with some lawyer of talents" (RSCL 2: 459). It is unwise to rely on personal letters as hard evidence--even when written by the plain-speaking Southey. But in this case there is luckily corroboration in Southey's letter to John May, written from Bristol three weeks later and also missing from the main printed collections. Repeating the objectionable words from the Anti-Jacobin, Southey assures May that Coleridge is "about to prosecute" the offending journal (RSCL 2: 470).

Southey would later censure Coleridge in very similar terms to those used by the Anti-Jacobin, but the remaining seventeen letters addressed to Coleridge in the next four years--from January, 1800, to December, 1803--are generally cordial. Southey apdy begins the new year by responding to Coleridge's proposal (Griggs 1: 554) for a history of Jacobinism. …

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