Thousands of letters written by the controversial Poet Laureate Robert Southey (1774-1843) are to be published in full and for the first time on a free access website. Once complete The Collected Letters of Robert Southey will contain some 7,000 letters penned between 1791 and 1839.
This major new edition, which will be complete in 2014, is being undertaken by a team of internationally acknowledged experts led by Dr Lynda Pratt from the School of English Studies at The University of Nottingham. As well as establishing a unique resource, this project provides a radical reassessment of a writer recently described as the ‘missing link’ in British Romanticism.
The ‘Collected Letters’ commenced in 2006 and is currently funded by a Resource Enhancement Grant of over £360,000 from the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Dr Pratt and her fellow researchers have trawled the manuscripts of 215 archives dispersed throughout the world, from Brazil to Siberia. As well as bringing to light hundreds of new letters by Southey, their research has uncovered other important finds, including the medical records of his first wife, Edith, (who was committed to an asylum) and a new Southey portrait.
In his own lifetime Southey was a highly contentious figure: a polemical poet, essayist, biographer and historian, whose youthful support for the French Revolution mutated into reactionary Toryism. An enthusiastic supporter of the radical feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, he once urged Charlotte Brontë against embarking on a literary career. Southey was an antagonist of Lord Byron and Percy Shelley; a direct contemporary and rival of his fellow ‘Lake Poets’ Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth; and the correspondent of campaigners such as William Wilberforce. A prolific author, his works included a best-selling biography of Nelson and the fairy tale ‘The Three Bears’. Yet although Southey was someone contemporaries found it absolutely impossible to ignore, his reputation was eclipsed in the latter half of the nineteenth century and he has only very recently started to attract scholarly attention.
Part One of the ‘Collected Letters’, published online earlier this year, contained 280 freshly transcribed and annotated letters, 92 of these published for the first time. Part Two, due for publication later this year, will provide online texts of a further 584 letters, 183 of these are previously unpublished and a further 140 have never been published in full. These include several newly discovered letters to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of ‘The Ancient Mariner’; and Southey’s correspondence with the scientist Humphry Davy (inventor of the Davy lamp). Both individually and as a whole the letters provide crucial new insights into literature, politics and society in the Romantic period.
The ‘Collected Letters’ are available on a free access website and are therefore available to all. Hosted by the scholarly collective ‘Romantic Circles’, at the University of Maryland, they can be found at —
Dr Pratt, whose research into Robert Southey dates back to her DPhil at Oxford University, said: “When I did my doctorate there was very little to read about Robert Southey and what there was was incredibly negative. Although Byron described Southey as ‘our only … entire man of letters’ his significance for our understanding of Romantic period writing, culture and politics is only just emerging. The work we are doing on the ‘Collected Letters’ will allow research on both Southey and British Romanticism to develop in exciting new directions.
“We are really excited that the letters are available on a free-access website. It means they are accessible to as wide as possible an audience. It also fits well with our broader aim of opening up and democratising this most exciting period of British literature.”
Dr Pratt has a distinguished track record in editing Southey. She was general editor of a five volume edition of his early-mid career poetry (published by Pickering and Chatto in 2004), awarded an Honorary Mention in the Modern Language Association of America Biennial prize for a Distinguished Scholarly Edition.
The ‘Collected Letters’ brings together experts from four East Midlands Universities. Dr Pratt’s co-general editors are Tim Fulford, Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University, and Dr Ian Packer, Reader in Modern History at the University of Lincoln. Editors of individual volumes of the project include Dr Carol Bolton, Lecturer in English at Loughborough University, and Professor Bill Speck, Special Professor in the School of English Studies, The University of Nottingham.
Credit: The letter from Southey to Anna Seward on the July 4 1808, is from the Newstead Abbey Roe-Byron Collection RB K116. It has been reproduced with kind permission of Nottingham City Museums and Galleries: Newstead Abbey.
Credit: The sketch of Southey by ‘R.A.B.’, has been reproduced with kind permission of Special Collections, University of Victoria Libraries, British Columbia, Canada.
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