02nd June 2021

Book in Focus

The Lake Poets in Prose

Connecting Threads

By Stuart Andrews

The Road to CSP

My first book was written when I was a young schoolmaster in Midland Britain and was intended for A-Level pupils and first-year university students. Its title was Eighteenth Century Europe: The 1680s to 1815, but it included the impact of the American Revolution on European politics. Later, in the first issue of Symbiosis (April, 1997), and now republished as the first chapter of The Lake Poets in Prose, I set the Lake Poets’ much ridiculed Susquehanna scheme amid contemporary European enthusiasm for emigration to America.

When I became a headmaster in my 30s, I pursued the transatlantic theme in the articles I wrote for the monthly periodical History Today. As such, after I took early retirement, it was hardly surprising that the first book of my retirement years was The Rediscovery of America: Transatlantic Cross-currents in an Age of Revolution (1998). My growing interest in the Lake Poets was foreshadowed in the penultimate chapter, “Poets’ Utopia: Coleridge, Southey and the Susquehanna”.

During my retirement, four more books were published, all focusing on the historical background of the Lake Poets, and each with substantial index-entries for at least one of them. The four titles are: The British Periodical Press and the French Revolution 1789-99 (2000), Unitarian Radicalism; Political Rhetoric 1770-1814 (2003), Irish Rebellion: Protestant Polemic 1798-1900 (2006), and Robert Southey: History, Politics, Religion (2011). While writing those titles, I regularly delivered papers at the biennial Coleridge Conference in Somerset, all of which appear in The Lake Poets in Prose.

Most of my research was carried out at Bristol Central Reference Library, next door to the Cathedral. Apart from holding the borrowing registers recording the titles that Coleridge and Southey took out in the 1790s, the library contains a significant part of Southey’s personal library. In one sense, the publication of my book on Southey was ill-timed: it appeared just when a large number of Southey letters, missing from the Victorian and 20th-century collections, were appearing online. However, if the timing made my Southey less useful, it triggered an invitation from New Books Online (now Review 19) to review parts 2 to 6 of the online collection. Edited by Tim Fulford and Lynda Pratt, and assisted by editors for specific parts, the completeness of this digital collection enabled me to create a formidable catalogue of letter-topics and to focus in my future articles on previously unpublished letters.

The first of my articles for The Wordsworth Circle appeared in Winter 2011: “Southey, St Dominic and Battering the Walls of Babylon”, now with a shorter title as Chapter 10 in The Lake Poets in Prose. That article was not dependent on newly released correspondence, but relied on Southey’s anti-Catholic reviews published in three numbers of the Quarterly Review (vols. 6, 22, 32). By contrast, another TWC article which appears in my new book (Chapter 8, “Coleridge, Southey and Press Freedom 1816-1821”) cites numerous key letters missing from the previous collections. My TWC articles on Wordsworth first appeared in the Winter issues of 2013 and 2014 (“Wordsworth, Southey and the English Church” and “Wordsworth, Southey, Coleridge: Their Iberian Spring”), and are presented in Chapters 11 and 6 of the book. All three poets also appear in my Romanticism article for April 2017 (“Pilgrimage to Waterloo: Lake Poets and the Duke”), now Chapter 7.

How did this collection of disparate conference papers, and articles from four different literary journals, coalesce into a book? The answer is: by coincidence and by accident. Shortly before the first UK COVID lockdown in March 2020, I was engaged in creating a Coleridge Archive at the Wells & Mendip Museum, where I am Honorary Librarian. The centrepiece was to be some 20 volumes from my personal library, together with my long runs of the Coleridge Bulletin and The Wordsworth Circle. The collection would also include copies of all my published articles and unpublished conference papers on Coleridge—all retained in typescript—and a number of articles and papers from other Coleridge scholars. I hoped to encourage other Coleridgean colleagues similarly to lodge copies of their unpublished or published papers with the Archive so as to augment those already received.

In the process, I had sorted through my conference papers and selected those that focus wholly or partly on Coleridge. I identified 14 that would eventually feature in my (as yet uncontemplated) book on the Lake Poets. It was at this point that I received an email from CSP asking whether I had a book in prospect. I was tempted to give a negative response, but I decided to offer an ‘anthology’ of my conference papers and journal articles written over a period of 25 years. To my surprise, I was invited to submit a proposal and, to my even greater astonishment in May 2020, was offered a contract. The Lake Poets in Prose: Connecting Threads was published on 14 April 2021.

A Summary of the Book

The three poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge and Southey—in spite of their being linked to the Lakes, all became famous as poets while in the West Country. Wordsworth’s stay in Dorset and Somerset lasted barely five years—from 1795 to late 1798—before he and Dorothy returned to their native Westmoreland. Coleridge and Southey, who both married Bristol girls, were born and bred in South-West England. However, by 1803, both had joined the Wordsworths in the Lakes.

None of them, however, could survive as poets without other ways of earning what Coleridge called “bread and cheese”. Wordsworth held the post of Inspector of Stamps for Westmoreland, while Coleridge was saved from becoming a Unitarian minister by an annuity of £150 from the Wedgwood family. Both Southey and Coleridge relied on their earnings from journalism: Coleridge wrote for the Morning Chronicle, Morning Post and Evening Courier, while Southey (from 1809) would be paid the huge sum of £100 for his 30-page reviews in the Quarterly. That is a significant amount of prose, quite apart from personal correspondence, which in Southey’s case has reached 3773 extant letters from the 1790s to 1821—with another 17 years to go before he succumbed to dementia.

Both Coleridge and Southey defended the Anglican Church during the 30 years between the Irish Act of Union and the passing of Catholic Emancipation, while Wordsworth (besides writing verse on the history of the English Church) wrote a long pamphlet attacking British conduct of the war against Napoleon in Spain and Portugal. Southey was himself no mean historian, with major histories of both Brazil and the Peninsular War—and a life of John Wesley.

Readers of The Lake Poets in Prose need to remember that most of the 18 chapters were originally published in literary journals and were written over a period of 25 years. The book’s main divisions are: “Transatlantic Contexts”, “Poets and Revolution”, “Poets and Religion”, “Bristol and Beyond”, and an epilogue on “Wordsworth and Methodism”. Strict chronological sequence should not be expected.

Stuart Andrews read History at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he held a college scholarship and obtained first class honours. For most of his school-mastering career, he taught History and English Literature to university-entrance standards. Taking early retirement in the West Country, he turned to the prose works of the Lake Poets—who were Bristol and Somerset poets first. He has written a number of books on the historical background of the French revolutionary wars, on the post-war economic depression, and on the threat that Catholic Ireland posed to the Established Church.

The Lake Poets in Prose: Connecting Threads is available now in Hardback. Enter the code PROMO25 at the checkout for a 25% discount.