How Robert Southey avoided getting “Cancelled”

By Stephen Basdeo

The following is an adaptation of some of the material in my book The Life and Legend of a Rebel Leader: Wat Tyler (2018).

You’re an up-and-coming writer, artist, musician, or actor. Things are going well until someone uncovers a slightly questionable tweet from when you were younger. All hell breaks loose and a Twitter storm ensues. Suddenly you find yourself having to apologise for past views; book contracts and other means of livelihood are terminated. Or perhaps you’re an established figure who dared to disagree with certain aspects of, say, a prevailing ideology.

(We can of course argue that ‘cancel culture’ isn’t real; I take the view, however, that it is a historical phenomenon, much like what happened in the 1840s to William Harrison Ainsworth).

If it happens, you’re not the first to experience this and you won’t be the last. In fact, ‘cancel culture’—which depends on a mass media—can be found as far back as 1817. Yet the case of the one-time radical and later Poet Laureate Robert Southey’s life, perhaps, offers a few tips on how to resist a media storm.

During the late eighteenth century many leading Romantic poets were inspired by the French Revolution.[i] Young Robert Southey (1774–1843) shared this enthusiasm for all things revolutionary. Southey was born in Bristol and lived with his aunt until the age of seven. She appears to have had a profound effect upon the young aspiring poet, for it was she who encouraged his cultural pursuits from a young age. In November 1792, he was enrolled at Balliol College, Oxford. It was here that his fondness for the works of Thomas Paine and the ideals of the French Revolution found expression.[ii] The youngster, imbued with revolutionary zeal, in 1794, Southey began writing Wat Tyler; a Dramatic Poem in Three Acts, which retold the story of England’s first revolutionary Wat Tyler (d.1381) who led a revolt against the poll tax.

The Death of Wat Tyler from Froissart’s chronicles (personal collection)

In Southey’s poem, the oppressive government of medieval England was a proxy for the reactionary British government of the eighteenth century and its persecution of radicals, a sample of which is below:

Hob. Curse on these taxes – one succeeds another –

Our ministers, panders of a King’s will –

Drain all our wealth away – waste it in revels –

And lure, or force away our boys, who should be,

The props of our old age! – To fill their armies

And feed the crows of France! Year follows year,

And still we madly prosecute the war –

Draining our wealth – distressing our poor peasants –

Slaughtering our youths – and all to crown our chiefs.[iii]

Although the historical Wat Tyler was killed by William Walworth, Southey left his readers with a glimmer of hope. Despite the oppression faced by the peasants of fourteenth-century England,

The distant hour must come,

When it shall blaze with sun-surpassing splendour,

And the dark mists of prejudice and falsehood

Fade in its strong effulgence. Flattery’s incense

No more shall shadow round the gore-dyed throne;

The altar of oppression fed with rites,

More savage than the priests of Moloch taught,

Shall be consum’d amid the fire of justice;

The ray of truth shall emanate around,

And the whole world will be lighted.[iv]

By the time that Southey was writing, the ‘light’ of revolution had already shined in America and in France. Soon it would shine in Britain too, so Southey thought in his youth at least.

My copy of Southey’s Wat Tyler (1817)

The story of what happened next with Southey’s play is quite amusing. He never actually published it in 1794, but left the manuscript in the hands of his brother-in-law. He instructed his relative to give the poem to the radical publisher, Samuel Ridgeway. But Ridgeway in 1794 was in Newgate gaol on charges of sedition. Although he eventually received the manuscript, for whatever reason Ridgeway decided not to publish it.

What happened to the manuscript in the decade or so afterward scholars are not quite sure. But by the 1810s Southey was a changed man, for as time wore on he became ever more conservative, and the older Southey gave his wholehearted support to the Tory party who opposed any form of political reform or extension of voting rights.

In 1813, Southey was even appointed as the Prince Regent’s Poet Laureate. The position of Poet Laureate means that that its incumbent has to shower the monarchy and the ruling classes with praise. So the former radical poet, Southey, was now an establishment figure, with a job for life and a pension.

The Quarterly Review — one of the main literary and political journals of the nineteenth century

What would Southey’s former radical friends say about him? Would it not be embarrassing for the Poet Laureate if his play was leaked to the press? Well, that is exactly what happened.

Southey had probably forgotten about the manuscript entirely and because he never registered the poem with the official Stationers back in 1794, the work was technically out-of-copyright. Radical publishers, therefore, decided to embarrass Southey by printing Wat Tyler especially because Southey had written an article in The Quarterly Review in 1817, in which he criticised reformers’ demands for the extension of the franchise—the man who so zealously upheld the ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité in his youth had now declared himself publicly as a reactionary.

Within days Wat Tyler was available for purchase, having been printed by William Hone (1780–1842) and John Fairburn (1789–1854).[v] Hone made sure to include the following snipe at Southey on the title page to his edition:

Come, listen to a TALE OF TIMES OF OLD! —

Come, for ye know me – I am he who sung

The “MAID OF ARC,” and I am he who fram’d

Of “THALABA” the wild and wondrous song.

SOUTHEY!

And I was once like this!

Twenty years

Have wrought strange alteration.

SOUTHEY![vi]

Twenty years had indeed ‘wrought strange alteration’ in Southey’s political outlook. He was mocked in the public sphere. The following is typical of several satirical poems published in newspapers at the time:

Why could’st [sic] not thou, Wat Tyler, rest

Within the confines of thy peaceful chest?

With Joan of Arc thy still reposing sister,

Why rise, thy poor poetic sire to pester?

See, how thy presence cuts him to the core;

Bob is not what he was in days of yore;

O! for another Walworth with a thwack,

To lay, thee blacksmith, flat upon thy back.

[…]

Robert, adieu, for all our laughter,

Do not discard thy Muses’ new found daughter,

With all defects, she’s something pretty rather,

At least she’s prettier than her present father.

Her errors were not of the heart, but head,

A troubled stream from a pure fountain fed;

No hireling then, no pensioner to praise,

Nor envying Pye, his sherry and his bays.[vii]

(The allusions to Joan of Arc and Thalaba being some of Southey’s other plays). A reviewer in The Monthly Review argued that while no one can be faulted for changing their political opinions as they progress through life, Southey’s vehement anti-reform stance, and criticism of many of his former colleagues, simply makes him a hypocrite:

At the same time, [Southey] must equally admit the privilege of others to judge of the wisdom of his change; and of the motives which, as far as the world can perceive them, may have operated to produce it. In spite, also, of the almost universality of the fact that proselytes are intemperate defenders of their new faith, and illiberal antagonists of any who hold that which they have forsaken, the calm and candid spectator will not fail to censure this intemperance, and to denounce his illiberality.[viii]

The opposition Whig MP William Smith took a slightly more serious tone. Reading out excerpts from Wat Tyler and The Quarterly Review in Parliament, he branded Southey a shameless renegade, and said that the play was seditious.[ix]

Southey was now being assailed by Whigs, radicals, and even some Tories began criticising him.

But Southey refused to apologise.

Southey responded with an open letter which was published in a variety of newspapers. He denied that Wat Tyler was in any way seditious and that furthermore,

The piece was written under the influence of opinions which I have long since outgrown, and repeatedly disclaimed, but for which I have never affected to feel either shame or contrition; they were taken up conscientiously in early youth, they were acted upon in disregard of all worldly considerations, and they were left behind in the same straight-forward course.[x]

In his letter, Southey further argues that when one reads Wat Tyler the most ‘seditious’ sentiments in it are

an enthusiastic love of liberty, a detestation of tyranny wherever it exists.[xi]

In fairness to Southey, these were not particularly seditious sentiments at the time. Most English people living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries would have argued that they too prized the idea of political liberty. A love of freedom, to take one example, is the very reason why England had opposed the establishment of a police force during the eighteenth century (Organised systems of law enforcement were something that the absolute monarchies of Europe had to keep their subjects in line, and the idea of a police force was viewed as being totally incompatible with the political ideology of freedom-loving Englishmen).

In his Apology, Southey also called out his conservative critics’ hypocrisy. He warned that the root cause of any seditious activity in the country is inequality and the political elites’ insensitivity to the needs of the poor:

Let us not deceive ourselves. We are far from that state in which anything resembling equality would be possible; but we are arrived at that state in which the extremes of inequality are become intolerable. They are too dangerous, as well as too monstrous, to be borne much longer. Plans, which would have led to the utmost horrors of insurrection, have been prevented by the Government, and by the enactment of strong but necessary laws. Let it not, however, be supposed that the disease is healed, because the ulcer may skin over […] The government must better the condition of the populace; and the first thing necessary is to prevent it from being worsened.[xii]

Southey may have discarded the revolutionary ideals of his youth, but this does not mean that he thought that nothing should be done to better the condition of the poor.

The end of the Napoleonic Wars brought a trade depression and unemployment. The government was forced to step in and passed Poor Employment Act in 1817—in the year Wat Tyler was published—which commissioned a number of public infrastructure projects to provide employment to the poor. The price of food was also kept artificially high by the Corn Laws. In consequence of this, there were several riots.

As Southey pointed out, conservatives had bigger problems than the publication of his juvenile republican musings, and there were certainly more firebrand revolutionary writings widely available during the nineteenth century due to the government’s seemingly relaxed attitude to press. In actual fact, the government was not relaxed about the free press at all and attempted to suppress the radical press on a number of occasions throughout the nineteenth century. As William Hone in The Political House that Jack Built (1819) said, the government attempted to restrain the press

By soldiers or tax.[xiii]

Had Southey’s play been published when it was first written back in 1794, it is likely that it would not have had the same impact. There were literally hundreds of pro-revolutionary writings written in England during the early years of the French Revolution, and it would have likely faded into obscurity.[xiv]

It would have been easier for Southey to apologise for his youthful anti-government and radical views. But he refused—why should he apologise for having changed his minds. Instead of even admitting that his critics had valid criticisms of himself, he hit back at them and called out their hypocrisy. It was all very well for radicals, Whigs, and conservatives to have a hissy fit over some youthful writings, but there were more pressing problems to deal with than a twenty-year old play.

Southey remained as Poet Laureate until he died in 1843. The attempted ‘Cancellation’ of Southey didn’t harm his career. In fact, Southey’s Wat Tyler became a source of inspiration for radicals, Chartists, and socialists until the end of the nineteenth century. The moral of the story, perhaps, is to never apologise for views which were once sincerely, but in hindsight mistakenly, held. And one must always point out your detractors’ hypocrisy–the attempted destruction of your career isn’t a “debate”, it’s a character assassination, so don’t play by the rules of normal debating.


[i] See Carl B. Cone, The English Jacobins: Reformers in Late 18th Century England (New Brunswick: Transaction, 1968).

[ii] He was also a pioneering medievalist, being the author the first Robin Hood novel ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791). Citation: Robert Southey, ‘Harold; or, The Castle of Morford’ (1791). Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 21 (Summary Catalogue 31777); this Robin Hood novel currently remains unpublished. It bears all the hallmarks of Southey’s early radicalism; Robin Hood is a revolutionary freedom fighter; Richard I is a reformist King who detests the Catholic Church.

[iii] Robert Southey, ‘Wat Tyler; A Dramatic Poem in Three Acts’ Sherwin’s Weekly Political Register (London: T. Sherwin [n.d.] c.1817), pp. 2-3.

[iv] Southey, ‘Wat Tyler’, p. 11.

[v] An excellent history of the publication of Southey’s Wat Tyler is given on the following website: Matthew Hill & Neil Fraistat, Romantic Circles: A Refereed Scholarly Website Devoted to the Study of Romantic-Period Literature and Culture, University of Maryland [Internet <https://www.rc.umd.edu/editions/wattyler/> Accessed 3 November 2016].

[vi] Robert Southey, Wat Tyler; a Dramatic Poem in Three Acts (London: W. Hone, 1817), p. 1.

[vii] ‘Wat Tyler’ The Bury and Norwich Post: Or, Suffolk, Norfolk, Essex, Cambridge, and Ely Advertiser 9 April 1817, p. 1.

[viii] ‘Art. X: Wat Tyler’, The Monthly Review, or, Literary Journal March 1817, pp. 313-317 (p.314).

[ix] Jean Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, The Yearbook of English Studies: The French Revolution in English Vol. 19 (1989), pp. 181-196 (p.181).

[x] Robert Southey, ‘Mr. Southey’s Apology for his “Wat Tyler”’, The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle May 1817, p. 389.

[xi] Southey, ‘Mr. Southey’s Apology for his “Wat Tyler”’, p. 389.

[xii] Southey, ‘Mr. Southey’s Apology for his “Wat Tyler”’, p. 390.

[xiii] William Hone, The Political House that Jack Built (London: Printed for W. Hone, 1819), p. 7.

[xiv] Raimond, ‘Southey’s Early Writings and the Revolution’, p. 181.

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