2953. Robert Southey to [William Wilberforce] [begun before and concluded on] 23 March 1817

2953. Robert Southey to [William Wilberforce] [begun before and concluded on] 23 March 1817 ⁠* 

My dear Sir

In the year 1794 & in the 20th- year of my age, I wrote Wat Tyler. [1]  It was immediately taken to London by poor Lovell (afterwards my brother-in law) & put into Ridgeways hands. Soon afterwards (a few weeks) I went to London myself <for a few days> & saw Ridgeway in Newgate; & was informed that he & Symonds would publish it. [2]  They never informed me that they afterwards changed their opinion, & I never enquired concerning it; – first because my heart as well as my mind was fully employed; secondly because I perfectly acquiesced in the fitness of suppressing it, & lastly because I considered it unworthy a farther thought. – Had I been in town I might perhaps have xx reclaimed the mss, but not going there till the year 1797, [3]  I reckoned it among the follies of my youth, & was contented to forget it. My youth has no worse follies with which to reproach me. – I was then a republican & a leveller; & stated such principles broadly in this dialogue, – the hasty overflow of my spirits, in xxx two or three mornings. – My counsel have done me more wrong than my enemies. I feel no shame respecting the work, – I acknowledge no wickedness in it. I was a boy, who wrote as he felt & he <as he> believed in his ignorance, & inexperience; & I was as ready to dare all danger in promulgating those opinions then, as I am in counteracting them now. [4] 

Upon seeing the work announced I lost no time in making oath to the circumstances, & applying for an injunction. [5]  The xxx delay which has intervened has not been my fault; & my sole object in so doing was xxxxxxx to acknowledge the work, & secure my (that I might not seem to be ashamed of it) & stop its sale because I know how mischievous it is at this time. I have been defeated by perjury. Winterbottom, a dissenting Minister, has sworn that I gave the book to him & to D. I. Eaton, & gave them a fraternal embrace when they agreed promised to publish it. [6]  I gave the book to no person, but was to have had a share of the profits. The persons who engaged to publish it were Ridgeway & Symonds. Winterbottom was in the room, – D I Eaton I never saw in my life, – & as for fraternal embraces; – if you knew me my dear Sir, you might as soon expect to see my dancing a hornpipe upon the stage now as believe that at any part of my life I could play the fool in this manner way, – so utterly discordant is it to my constitutional habits & manners.

I have addressed two letters to Wm Smith, which if they are not disapproved by my old friend Charles Wynn will appear in the Courier. [7]  The provocation [8]  will excuse their warmth, & indeed demanded it. To proceed farther in legal courses, would only <draw> upon me fresh expences; & of vexation I should not speak as regarding myself, – for I have felt too many real afflictions, to be sensible of such unkindnesses hurt by any arrows which malice can direct against me. But if xx it be any satisfaction to Mr Wm Smith, he may be told that he has made my wife ill. It is well for him & for me that I xx know the wickedness of duelling; How is it that the spirit of faction can have thus possessed him! – Had I ever concealed my sentiments, or attempted to conceal them? Because I was a republican, or rather as I called myself a pantisocrat, at the time Wat Tyler was written I had abandoned all my prospects in life for the purpose of going to the wilds of America. Those same opinions are expressed in poems which I have never felt a wish to alter, – because I never was ashamed of having in such times & such circumstances xxxxxx formed vain imaginations of a new system of society, – or rather as I then believed of restoring the system of Xtian society. I have merely affixed to those pieces the date of the year when they were written, – & left others which accompany them to explain that as the author grew older, he grew wiser also. [9]  So far have I carried this feeling that I have not even suppressed a poem upon public worship Sunday morning, because erroneous as it is in feeling, the feeling is not such as will make any person of sense reproach the man who could thus feel in his youth. [10]  Nor would I have sought to suppress Wat Tyler, had not the verses which I xxxx wrote when the mob were ferocious in their loyalty, & the spirit of Anti Jacobinism was reigning in full vigour of intolerance, – appeared to myself most <become most> mischievous <now> when the sentiments – long since discarded by men of my stamp & class in society, have been taken up by the rabble, & are threatening the utter overthrow of xxxxx xxxxx xxx xxxxxx <all our institutions>. I heartily condemn the piece, – because the principles which it contains are misapplied, & put in a mischievous form, – if addressed to a mob prepared for them, which they were not when written. They could then have been injurious only to myself. My feeling would be very different, if there were any thing irreligious or licentious there, xxxxx there was no error from the heart; – – & when I pray for forgiveness of my sins – the political aberrations of my youth have never been reckond among them.

Believe me I feel very sensibly the kindness of your letter, – & to show how I feel it I could find in my heart to give you a brief sketch of my Pilgrimage in this perilous world, & lay open not only the outward circumstances, but the inner man. It is my intention, whenever I can afford time, to do this at length for posthumous publication; – but when this season of leisure may arrive, or whether it will ever be allowed me – who can tell?

If no unforeseen evil should occur to prevent my purpose, I shall arrive in London on Thursday the 17th of next month. – It will give me great pleasure to see Lord Calthorpe, [11]  – & also if I should find Lady Olivia [12]  in town.

Believe me my dear Sir

with great respect

yrs faithfully & thankfully

Robert Southey

23 March 1817. Keswick.


* Endorsement: Rob Southey on his/ ungenerous treatment/ in Case of Wat Tyler
MS: Princeton University Library, Robert H. Taylor Collection, Box 17, Folder 27. ALS; 4p.
Previously published: R. I. Wilberforce and S. Wilberforce, The Correspondence of William Wilberforce, 2 vols (London, 1840), II, pp. 362–366 [dated 23 March]. BACK

[1] Wat Tyler had been published without Southey’s consent in February 1817. BACK

[2] James Ridgway (1755–1838), radical publisher. Southey had visited him in Newgate Prison on 12 January 1795 to arrange publication of Wat Tyler; see Southey to Edith Fricker [c. 12 January 1795], The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Part One, Letter 123. Ridgway shared his rooms at Newgate with his fellow-publisher Henry Symonds (1741–1816), and William Winterbotham. Ridgway and Symonds had been imprisoned for four years in 1793 for publishing Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791–1792), but continued to publish works from Newgate, including Winterbotham’s An Historical, Geographical, Commercial, and Philosophical View of the American United States (1795). BACK

[3] Southey had returned to London in February 1797 to embark on his legal studies at Gray’s Inn. BACK

[4] Southey’s claim for an injunction against the publishers of Wat Tyler was denied on 18–19 March 1817, on the grounds that he had not clearly established his copyright to the work. But Southey was particularly aggrieved at the case made by his lawyers, Sir Anthony Hart (c. 1754–1831; DNB) and Sir Lancelot Shadwell (1779–1850; DNB), as reported in e.g. Morning Post, 19 March 1817, ‘it was of the utmost importance that the dissemination of a work, professing such wicked and mischievous sentiments, both as it regarded the public welfare, and the character of the individual, who had long since disavowed the sentiments contained in it, should be immediately stopped’. BACK

[5] As part of his legal action, Southey had gone to Cockermouth on 8 March 1817 to swear an affidavit before a Master of Chancery. BACK

[6] Daniel Isaac Eaton (1753–1814; DNB), radical publisher. Winterbotham claimed in his affidavit that when Southey had visited Newgate in January 1795 he had given the manuscript of Wat Tyler to Eaton and Winterbotham, and surrendered his copyright to them. BACK

[7] Southey had written two letters which he originally hoped to publish in the Courier: Southey to William Smith, 17 March 1817 (Letter 2943) and Southey to the Editor of the Courier [19 March 1817] (Letter 2946). These two letters were sent to Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, on 17 and 19 March 1817 (Letters 2944 and 2948), for him to approve and forward to the newspaper. In the event, Wynn’s absence from home led to a delay in his receiving the letters. By the time he did so, the public debate had moved on and Southey therefore decided not to publish them in the Courier, but instead to incorporate them into his pamphlet A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P. (1817). BACK

[8] Smith had denounced Southey in the House of Commons on 14 March 1817 during the debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill, condemning ‘the settled, determined malignity of a renegado’ and comparing Southey’s arguments against radical views in the Quarterly Review, 16 (October 1816), 227 with those expressed in Wat Tyler (1817), Act 2, lines 103–112. BACK

[9] A rather misleading statement: Southey had first added dates of composition to his shorter poems in Poems (1799), published when he was still a radical. The datings marked his poetical, rather than his political or religious, development. BACK

[10] Southey’s ‘Written on Sunday Morning’, Poems (Bristol, 1797), pp. 129–131 and reprinted in subsequent collections of his shorter works, including Minor Poems (1815). It was an explicitly non-Christian poem that acquired the date ‘1795’ in Poems, 2 vols (Bristol, 1799), I, p. 60. BACK

[11] George Gough-Calthorpe, 3rd Baron Calthorpe (1787–1851). He controlled one seat at Bramber, for which Wilberforce was returned as MP 1812–1825. BACK

[12] Lady Olivia Sparrow (c. 1778–1863), daughter of the Irish peer Arthur Acheson, 1st Earl of Gosford (c. 1745–1807). She had married Robert Sparrow (1773–1805) on 14 March 1797. BACK

People mentioned

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Keswick (mentioned 1 time)