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  • Romantic Professionalism in 1800: Robert Southey, Herbert Croft, and the Letters and Legacy of Thomas Chatterton
  • Brian Goldberg

One cannot establish a science of classification without establishing a science of the struggle over classifications and without taking into account the position occupied, in this struggle for the power of knowledge . . . by each of the agents in it, whether they be ordinary individuals, exposed to the vicissitudes of everyday symbolic struggle, or authorized (and full-time) professionals, which includes all those who speak or write about social classes.

—Pierre Bourdieu, “Social Space and the Genesis of Classes”1

The talk of ministering to the higher wants and more refined pleasures of the species, being both more dignified and more agreeable than that of supplying their vulgar necessities, multitudes are induced to undertake [literature] without any great preparation; and the substantial business of life is defrauded of much valuable labour, while the elegant arts are injured by a crowd of injudicious pretenders. . . . Shoemakers and tailors astonish the world with plans for reforming the constitution, and with effusions of relative and social feeling.

—The Edinburgh Review, April, 18032


During the 1790s, Robert Southey was famous as a radical poet and known as Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s partner in the scheme to establish a utopian “pantisocracy” on the banks of the Susquehanna River. In a later, antipodean incarnation, Southey would come to be known as Lord Byron’s “Tory Ultrajulian,” the aging fellow-apostate of Wordsworth and Coleridge and the laureate defender of Church and Crown. But Southey was never simply a party poet. He was also, as Byron observed, the “only existing entire man of letters,” the only practicing poet who did not have “some [other] pursuits annexed to [his] authorship.” 3 Whatever the vagaries of his shifting political agenda, Southey was always defined by his literary vocation. He depended on it for his living and for his social standing. In the winter [End Page 681] of 1799–1800, his youthful radicalism fading behind him and the laureateship still thirteen years in the future, Southey began to attempt, in an ad hoc and tactical way, to devise a workable “professionalism” for himself and for other writers. He could not do so without either appropriating or disposing of the older, “established” forms of status and affiliation that were necessarily hostile to his emerging professional project.

As Southey reflected on the possibilities of such professionalism, two literary careers confronted him which challenged his ambitions. The first was that of Thomas Chatterton. Chatterton was universally familiar to writers of Southey’s time as the brilliant forger of the supposedly ancient Rowley poems, but more significantly, he was famous as the youthful, impoverished suicide whose fatally dismissive treatment at the hands of the literary marketplace was emblematic of “the miseries of literature.” This neglect and Chatterton’s consequent penury and suicidal despondence worked on the imaginations and anxieties of late-eighteenth-century poets and typified for them the perils of the literary career. In “Resolution and Independence,” for instance, Wordsworth represented Chatterton’s “despondency and madness” as the potential fate of all poets, and Coleridge’s “Monody on the Death of Chatterton” lamented the cruelty of the British reading audience and its treatment of the young poet of Bristol.

In addition to Chatterton, Southey was also faced with a less widely known figure, the Reverend Herbert Croft. Croft, an Anglican priest and man-of-letters, combined entrepreneurial literary endeavors with an ongoing (if perpetually frustrated) search for preferment within the Church. Croft’s literary projects included a never-completed revision of Samuel Johnson’s dictionary, a tract against “treason” sparked by the Gordon Riots, and an epistolary novel, Love and Madness, that detailed a widely-known love affair which ended in murder. 4 An impoverished baronet as well as a priest, Croft was the type and form of the establishment writer: dependent on the patronage of the Church and the support of a gentlemanly readership, Croft perceived his interests as directly tied to the fate of the landed oligarchy. While Chatterton thus stood, for Southey, as the writer-without-means, the poor sexton’s son who meets his doom when he pins his hopes on...

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