Critical Reception

The Critical Reception
of Robert Southey's Wat Tyler

(Click to see the text of reviews written by William Hone and William Hazlitt).

  1. In the aftermath of Wat Tyler's publication in 1817, Robert Southey argued that his dramatic poem was, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than a piece of juvenilia. Had his "youthful drama" been published in 1794, the year of its composition, he contended, it would have died a timely and obscure death:
    The verses of a boy, of which he thought no more than of his school-exercises, and which, had they been published when they were written, would have passed without notice to the family vault, have not only been perused by the Lord Chancellor, in his judicial office, but have been twice produced in parliament for the edification of the legislature. (Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P., Rpt. in Essays II. 13)
    Published anonymously, it is possible Southey's poem would have quietly found its way to obscurity amidst the outpouring of revolutionary writing of the day. Between 1789 and 1799, at least four hundred and fifty plays were written, translated, or produced that invoked the idea of revolution or revolt (Manogue, Critical Edition, v). Yet one cannot underestimate the attraction of linking an existing and outspoken Poet Laureate with a text like Wat Tyler. While Southey clearly never intended for his name to appear on the title page, a 1794 publication in no way would have lessened the impact made in 1817 by publishing the work under Southey's name. Southey's play having been published earlier would have changed the copyright issues attending his request for an injunction; but even so, an 1817 publication with autograph manuscript standing behind it as proof could not have failed to cause a stir.

  2. The sensation surrounding the publication of Southey's dramatic poem—registered nicely in contemporary reviews by William Hone and William Hazlitt—finally compelled Southey to speak publically. Reviews could be shrugged off with seeming indifference; but when the Hon. William Smith, M.P. of Norwich, spoke against Southey in in parliamentary debate, Southey was forced to respond.

  3. Rising to speak during the debate on the Seditious Meetings Bill on 14 March 1817, Smith had theatrically produced from one pocket a copy of Wat Tyler; from his other pocket, he pulled out the October 1816 Quarterly Review, with the page marked at Southey's article on parliamentary reform. After reading an excerpt from each, Smith then magisterially concluded: "It must remain with the government, and their legal advisers, to take what steps they might deem most advisable to repress this seditious work, and punish its author" (qtd. in Hansard's 1092).

  4. As Southey notes in the Letter, Smith had not been the first member of parliament to bring the Wat Tyler issue onto the House floor. Less than three weeks earlier on 25 February 1817, Henry Peter Brougham (popularly known as the Baron of Brougham and Vaux and one of the founders of the Edinburgh Review) had roundly criticized Southey's "un-Laureate-like poem." Southey scholar F. T. Hoadley has since suggested that it was Brougham who put Smith up to the second parliamentary use of the example of Southey's apostasy, since Southey had ignored the newspaper reports of Brougham's original attack. Given Southey's history of antagonism toward the Edinburgh Review, it is not difficult to imagine a scenario where Edinburgh editors worked behind the political scenes to make sure that Southey would be held up to public scorn as a turncoat and a renegado.[1]

  5. Smith's attack on what came to be known as "The Wat Tyler"—the phrase representing not only Southey's dramatic poem but also the entire scandal of Southey's apostasy—finally provoked Southey to public action. At the urging of his friend and defender Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, Southey rewrote two letters he had planned to send to the Tory Courier and instead published a pamphlet, entitled A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P (1817), addressing each of Smith's attacks against him. If anything, however, Southey's Letter only made matters worse by providing the British press with further fodder for commentary and satire. Further published defenses of Southey, furthermore, insured that Wat Tyler remained in the dailies, weeklies, monthlies, and quarterlies for several more months.

  6. Even as Southey and his lawyers moved in Chancery for an injunction against the continued publication of his dramatic poem, two letters in support of Southey by his friend (and, many argued, fellow apostate) Samuel Taylor Coleridge were published in the Courier. Coleridge's foray into the controversy was as much an attack on Smith as it was a defense of Southey, and sought to contrast the M.P.'s partisan attack to Southey's respect for his own office of Laureate:
    Mr. Southey has the audacity to regard the Laureateship as an honour. This is an offence of the highest and most provoking kind. Those who hate the government in Church and State naturally enough wish to make all public offices disgraceful, and, in particular, they attempt to render those ridiculous, which are merely of an elegant nature and ornamental to the crown. Mr. Southey has the courage to hold one of these, evidently for the sake of honour, not for the gain; and this it is which exasperates his opponents. (Essays 942)
    The continued attacks on, and defenses of, Southey made the issue of Southey's apostasy an issue of public and private speculation. Noting Coleridge's unfortunate decision to place in bold relief the figure of Southey the political appointee, Dorothy Wordsworth sized up the situation with her usual frankness: "If I were in Southey's place I sho[uld] be far more afraid of my injudicious defen[ders] than my open enemies. Coleridge...has taken up the Cudgels; and of injudicious defenders he is surely the Master Leader...He does nothing in simplicity, and his praise is to me quite disgusting—his praise of the 'Man' Southey in contradistinction to the 'Boy' who wrote 'Wat Tyler'" (Wordsworth 379-380). This contradistinction between the "stripling bard" and Southey the "Man" and Poet Laureate would quickly become additional fodder for parody. When Hazlitt in The Examiner of 9 March 1817 invites Southey the Quarterly reviewer to "enter an injunction against the latter [Southey the dramatic poet] as a bastard and impostor," we are seeing Romantic print politics at their most partisan and brilliantly energetic.

  7. Apparent to attacker and defender alike was just how much the publication of Wat Tyler had undermined Southey's literary authority—so much so that the nature of this authority became itself a subject of debate. What Southey's foes understood too well was that the Poet Laureate's authority came from the Crown rather than from any public consensus of poetic merit. Before assuming the office in 1813, Southey had never enjoyed enormous popularity, but he nevertheless was respected and well-known as the author of two editions of Poems (1797 and 1799), of Thalaba (1801), Madoc (1805), and The Curse of Kehama (1811), and of several prose histories, including Letters from England (1807), Chronicle of the Cid (1808), and The History of Brazil (1810). Southey had even attempted in his first years as Poet Laureate to preserve his status as Poet rather than as versifier-for-hire by stating that he would only write on public events when genuinely inspired to do so. His steady output as an outspoken member of the Tory press, however, soon caused his opponents to note a widening gap between his political and poetical authority—suggesting that without royal backing Southey would have no authority, and no claim to the title of "Poet," at all. The publication of Wat Tyler, in effect, made such arguments too obvious to ignore by suggesting that all poetical merit lay in a former, radical version of Southey that no longer existed.

  8. Thus we find the radical publisher William Hone in his Reformists' Register on 22 February 1817 ironically referring to Southey as "a gentleman of credit and renown, and, until he became Poet Laureate, a Poet." Hone's suggestion here is that a poet cannot serve two masters, and that in writing for King George III and his ministers Southey had abandoned the Muse. Such arguments are most famously taken up by Byron in the "Dedication" to Don Juan (1818), where Southey is referred to as an "epic renegade" and as "a Poet—Poet Laureate." This slipping from "Poet" to "Poet Laureate" typifies Byron's usual mode of satirizing Southey—where, by constantly calling attention to Southey's shifting politics, Byron presents Southey as having either a negative identity, or (even worse) no identity at all:
    [H]e is—I will not say what—but I wish he was something else—I hate all intolerance—but most the intolerance of Apostasy—& the wretched vehemence with which a miserable creature who has contradicted himself—lies to his own heart—& endeavours to establish his sincerity by proving himself a rascal—not for changing his opinions—but for persecuting those who are of less malleable matter... (220)
    In Don Juan, Byron's refusal to speak openly on the matter of Wat Tyler becomes its own oeuvre of satire, one that cemented Southey's subsequent position in literary history at renegado.[2]
  9. For all the journalistic furor surrounding Wat Tyler, Southey's dramatic poem was produced only once in England, in July of 1817, at Whittington, sandwiched between a comedy and a musical farce.[3]  Southey's son Cuthbert, in his Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, quotes a letter sent to his father, along with a copy of the playbill, shortly after the play's alleged performance. Signed "Jack Straw," the letter refers back to the minor character of Jack Straw in Wat Tyler, here raised, like Southey's drama, from the grave:

    Your truly patriotic and enlightened poem of Wat Tyler was last night presented to a most respectable and crowded audience here, with cordial applause; nor was there a soul in the theatre but as cordially lamented the sudden deterioration of your principles, intellectual and moral, whatever might have been the cause thereof. (qtd. in Manogue, 23).
    What Cuthbert Southey does not tell us—the reaction of his father to the letter, received as the Wat Tyler scandal had begun to die down—we can only imagine. But it nonetheless concludes on a characteristically ironic note a controversy that forced Romantic writers to look back on their former selves, while at the same time insisting that such former selves be held accountable for what they had chosen to become.


1. Marilyn Butler describes the Quarterly Review, for which Southey acted regularly as a contributing editor, as conducting between 1814 and 1822 "a comprehensive campaign on behalf of conservative, Christian and family values, pursuing this with great rigor and pertinacity into most areas of current print culture. Where Jeffrey [editing the Edinburgh Review] had mocked at a populist style in Wordsworth, the individual highbrow poet, the Quarterly hunted down 'infidel,' irreligious, or sexually explicit subject-matter in texts of all kinds" (141). To some extent, we can read the attack on Southey and his Wat Tyler as part of an ongoing battle between Whig and Tory factions, represented by the Edinburgh and the Quarterly, respectively.

2. See the dedication to Don Juan, and Byron's send-up of Southey's Vision of Judgement in his own "A Vision of Judgment."

3. Ralph Anthony Manogue discusses the difficulty of tracing this production, suspecting it to be fictitious based on the evidence that none of England's Whittingtons were large enough to support a theatre. Nevertheless, he does presents a reproduction of an advertisement for the play from an 1899 English tour guide. See "Robert Southey's Wat Tyler," 22.