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Southey and Ireland

Cartoon of Bob SoutheyThe drawing A Slap at Slop and the Bridge-Street Gang by George Cruikshank appears as in William Hone's satire. A cartoon of Bob Southey shows as a scorpion that "destroys itself with its own poison," likely referring to Southey's changing politics, and his embarrassment at Wat Tyler.
Poet Laureate Robert Southey may be more famous for his politics than his literary work. Having drastically changed his viewpoint from the young radical author of Wat Tyler to the royal sympathizer of his later years, he came under attack from many of the second generation Romantics. Interestingly, Southey's later political affiliations and general distaste for the French Revolution and all things continental informed a harshly colonial attitude toward Ireland.

Southey viewed the predominantly Catholic Irish as a threat to England. Several of his essays, written between 1809 and 1828, warned against allowing religious freedom (particularly the establishment of monasteries) by equating Catholicism with political radicalism. Because he felt that Catholics took orders from the Pope (allied with Napoleon after the restoration of Catholic authority in France) as a higher authority than the English King, he promoted Irish exclusion from the Army and Navy, and advocated tight border control and restriction of travel between England and Ireland. While suppression and mistreatment of the Irish was by no means a new idea or practice, Southey's invocation of foreign lands and other colonies was indeed a new kind of logic which informed it.

Southey compared Catholic rites to the rituals of "pagan" peoples in the British colonies, and suggested that the Irish were as "savage" as many African kings. Southey played upon the general populace's perceptions of the colonies to depict the Irish, part of Great Britain itself, as a drastically different, primitive, and dangerous "Other" for the advancement of his domestic political goals.

Jody Dunville

Select Bibliography

Fulford, Tim. "Races, Places, Peoples, 1800-30." in Romanticism and Colonialism: Writing and Empire 1780-1830.
      Tim Fulford and Peter J. Kitson, eds. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1998. Print.