- Locating Southey
Is Robert Southey, his hour come round at last, finally slouching toward canonic status among the great Romantics? Recent years have seen a minor flurry of books and articles about him, the most important of which is the magnificent (albeit unaffordable) five-volume edition of the early works published by Pickering under the general editorship of Lynda Pratt and presenting for the first time carefully edited and annotated texts of Thalaba the Destroyer, Madoc, and The Curse of Kehama as well as of the shorter lyric poetry. Further volumes are in preparation. Then there are the letters, reedited and massively expanded by the researches of Lynda Pratt and Tim Fulford, which will appear in electronic form only (they would apparently fill some thirty printed volumes and are therefore impossible to place with a print publisher). A recent biography by Mark Storey and a growing number of critical essays by various hands suggest that Southey, who was in his time one of the most productive and charismatic of all the Romantics, might at last be coming into focus as a major writer.
But the obstacles are still formidable. Southey was immensely productive, but unlike Coleridge his thematically and formally dispersed writings have not been taken up by influential scholars, and his editors have not been the object of Bollingen Foundation support. Many of his most widely read books were not conventionally literary: he wrote enormous biographies of Wesley and Nelson, a [End Page 565] history of Brazil, and various volumes on political and ecclesiastical subjects. And the very preoccupations in our contemporary critical climate that make him interesting at all also render him opaque and complex. He is fascinated with empire and the colonial enterprise, but in terms that render him on first inspection rather repellent to today’s critics. Like Wordsworth and above all Coleridge, he is deemed to have turned from a youthful radicalism to a grumpy middle-aged Toryism, but he did not write The Prelude or “The Ancient Mariner,” so it is harder to make excuses for or look away from his turn to orthodoxy. For 150 years Southey has been remembered largely as the object of some of Byron’s most cutting satire or at best as the author of “The Cataract of Lodore.” His work has attracted very little popularity and a minimum of critical imagination. These two books are, to the best of my knowledge, the first singly authored studies for thirty years to be devoted wholly to a critical (rather than biographical) reckoning with Southey’s writings, and in those thirty years criticism has changed a lot. Concerns about history and empire have bathed Southey in a modest limelight, though he is not yet in the spotlight.
History and empire are indeed, roughly speaking, the respective preoccupations of the two books reviewed here. But their images of Southey could almost be of two different writers. Bolton (an English professor) deals extensively with the poetry, whereas Craig barely discusses it; and Craig (a historian) pays detailed attention to the books that Bolton passes over or invokes occasionally as back-up citations. Bolton offers an account of the early poetry, based on the available new edition, as it addresses the debate about slavery and the interactions (missionary as well as imperial) with the cultures of North America, the South Pacific, Arabia, and India. Craig’s book provides detailed discussions of Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler, along with the History of Brazil, the Letters from England, and Sir Thomas More, with its supplementary citations taken largely from the other theological and historical books. It is no criticism to say that putting together these two critical studies does not produce a “whole” vision of judgment of this most under-read and elusive writer. Southey is not an author given to wholeness: he baffles where he most satisfies, and only a few readers...