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IN May 1838 Wordsworth was concerned that two recent publications might lead readers to believe that he had been--along with Coleridge, Southey, and Lamb--a paid writer for the Morning Post. On 17 May he wrote to his friend Daniel Stuart, who had been editor and proprietor of both the Morning Post and the evening Courier, to ask whether Stuart had any evidence or remembrance of payment for the few pieces of verse and prose that he had contributed to those papers. Wordsworth's letter contains a valuable, if incomplete, survey of his contributions to newspapers, including 'one article which I was induced to publish in a London newspaper, when Southey and Byron were at war'.(1) This article of 1821-2 has never been identified, despite an extensive search by W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser, who naturally wished to include it in their edition of Wordsworth's Prose Works, but were able to find only a brief 'corroborating allusion' in the Literary Gazette of 19 January 1822.(2)
In view of Wordsworth's admission that he published such an article, there can, I think, be little or no doubt that he was the author of a long letter to the editor of the Courier signed 'Vindex' that appeared on the evening of 9 January 1822 under the heading 'Lord Byron and Mr. Southey'. Written in response to Byron's attack on Southey in the Appendix to The Two Foscari, the letter offers a 're-touching' of Byron's portraits of himself and Southey, especially with respect to the 'moral merits' of the two parties. Not only do the views expressed in the letter coincide with Wordsworth's opinions of Byron and Southey, but it is clear from internal evidence that 'Vindex' was a close friend of Southey's, capable of writing knowledgeably about the Laureate's 'private affairs'. Southey is known to have consulted Wordsworth before replying to Byron's attack, and it is evident that Vindex's letter was intended to prepare the way for Southey's public letter dated 5 January 1822, which was published, just two days later, in the Courier of 11 January, under the heading 'Mr. Southey's Reply to Lord Byron'. Indeed, it seems amazing that Wordsworth's contribution to the quarrel between Byron and Southey should have remained so long unrecognized in so obvious a place.
The bitter public controversy between Byron and Southey in 1821-2 can best be seen as an episode in the larger literary, political, and personal quarrel between Byron and the 'Lake Poets'.(3) Byron had entered the literary world at a time when Wordsworth's reputation was at a low ebb, and he had contributed to the poor reception of Poems, in Two Volumes (1807) by reviewing them rather condescendingly in the Monthly Literary Recreations for July 1807. This anonymous review was soon followed by the much more memorable satire on Southey, Wordsworth, and Coleridge in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). Although Byron had himself been stung by the article on his Hours of Idleness (1807) in the Edinburgh Review for January 1808, his linking of the three poets and his treatment of 'The simple Wordsworth' as 'the dull disciple' of Southey's 'school' are clearly reminiscent of Francis Jeffrey's treatment of the 'new school of poetry'.(4) Early in 1812 Byron suppressed English Bards and Scotch Reviewers, and during his years of fame he not only met Wordsworth and Southey on terms of outward courtesy in London literary society but also made special efforts to help Coleridge by giving him [pounds]100 upon hearing of his financial difficulties and by recommending him to his own publisher, John Murray.(5) However, with the publication of The Excursion in 1814, Wordsworth became a much more formidable rival to Byron as a poet, and over the next few years the younger poet became increasingly resistant to claims being made for Wordsworth's greatness--often at the expense of Pope. Byron seems to have been particularly incensed by Leigh Hunt's homage to Wordsworth in the notes to The Feast of the Poets (1814, rev. 1815) and the Preface to Foliage; or, Poems Original and Translated (1818), against which he registered strong demurrals in letters to Hunt himself on 30 October 1815 and to Thomas Moore on 1 June 1818.(6)
Meanwhile, the growing political conservatism of the 'Lake Poets' put them on a collision course with Byron, especially after Southey became Poet Laureate and Wordsworth became Distributor of Stamps for Westmorland in 1813, thus openly allying themselves with the Tory government. The Laureateship made Southey a lightning rod for radical satirists, and the surreptitious publication of his juvenile republican drama Wat Tyler in February 1817 was a serious embarrassment at a time when he was writing articles for the Quarterly Review advocating vigorous government suppression of seditious publications.(7) While neither Byron nor Wordsworth played any public role in the ensuing controversy, their reactions were characteristically opposed. Like William Smith, the MP for Norwich who attacked Southey in Parliament on 14 March, Byron was disgusted by the Laureate's posture in the Wat Tyler affair not so much on account of his inconsistency as on account of his intolerance--as he explained to John Murray in a letter of 9 May 1817:
Southey's Wat Tyler is rather awkward--but the Goddess Nemesis has done well-- . . . I hate all intolerance--but most the intolerance of Apostacy--& 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--it is no disgrace for Mr. Southey to have written Wat Tyler--& afterwards to have written his birthday or Victory Odes (I speak only of their politics) but it is something for which I have no words for this man to have endeavoured to bring to the stake (for such he would do) men who think as he thought--& for no reason but because they think so still, when he has found it convenient to think otherwise.(8)
Wordsworth, for his part, seems to have approved of Southey's dangerous complacency in the face of public abuse--judging from the sympathetic description of his friend's state of mind in a letter to Benjamin Robert Haydon of 7 April 1817:
Perhaps some of Southey's friends may think that his tranquillity is disturbed by the late and present attacks upon him--not a jot--Bating inward sorrow for the loss of his only son he is cheerful as a Lark, and happy as the day. Prosperous in his literary undertakings, admired by his friends, in good health, and honoured by a large portion of the Public, and as he thinks infinitely the wisest and best part of the Public, busily employed from morning to night, and capable from his talents of punishing those who act unjustly towards him, what cause has he to be disturbed. I left him the other day, preparing a rod for Mr Wm Smith.(9)
Although he thought A Letter to William Smith, Esq., M.P. 'completely triumphant', Wordsworth was not altogether satisfied with Southey's pamphlet, as he confided to Henry Crabb Robinson on 24 June 1817: 'It is too hastily executed and wants some passages of searching admonition to ministers both for their benefit, and to blunt the force of a charge which his enemies will bring against the author of being too obsequious to the throne the aristocracy [sic], and to persons in office, or in plain terms of being a Tool of Power.'(10)
Even without a personal motive, Byron would no doubt have satirized the 'Lake Poets' in Don Juan--both for their political backsliding and for their disparagement of Pope.(11) But some time before beginning the poem on 3 July 1818, he heard from an unidentified informant that Southey, on his return from Switzerland in August 1817, had circulated rumours that Byron and Shelley 'had formed a League of Incest' with Mary Godwin and Claire Clairmont the previous summer at Geneva. It was this scandalmongering--Byron told John Cam Hobhouse in a letter of 11 November 1818--that prompted him to write 'a dedication in verse . . . to Bob Southey--bitter as necessary'.(12) Again alluding to the Dedication in a letter to John Murray on the 24th, he remarked: 'I have given it to Master Southey, and he shall have more before I have done with him.'(13) Wordsworth came in for his share of abuse not only in the Dedication to Don Juan but in a prose Preface parodying his note on 'The Thorn' in the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). However, the Preface was left unfinished, while the Dedication was eventually suppressed when Byron resolved to publish the first two cantos anonymously--telling Murray on 6 May 1819: 'I won't attack the dog so fiercely without putting my name.'(14) Although there were passing references to Wordsworth and Southey in Canto I, published on 15 July 1819, the most sustained attack on Southey and the other 'Lakers' in Don Juan came in connection with the 'trimmer' poet who sings 'The Isles of Greece' in Canto III, which was written in the autumn of 1819 but not published until 8 August 1821. In the mean time, a review of the first two cantos of Don Juan prompted Byron to respond with 'Some Observations upon an Article in Blackwood's Magazine, No. XXIX, August, 1819', dated 15 March 1820; but this pamphlet, which included further attacks on Southey and Wordsworth, also remained unpublished until after Byron's death.(15) Thus, Byron, for all his anger over Southey's calumnies, was remarkably slow in making his resentment public.
By the time the first two cantos of Don Juan were published, Southey had learned of the Dedication; …