The enduring fame of Wordsworth’s collaboration with Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Lyrical Ballads has ensured that Wordsworth’s friendship with Coleridge is a well-known aspect of his biography. In fact, it was just one of many important literary and artistic friendships that helped to shape Wordsworth’s Romantic circle. Of particular note is Wordsworth’s lengthy friendship with fellow Laker Robert Southey, England’s poet laureate from 1813 to his death in 1843.
Wordsworth met Southey and Coleridge in 1795, a time when all three poets were caught up in republican sentiment. Wordsworth’s initial friendship with Southey was not without setbacks: notably, Southey’s less-than generous review of Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth was offended at the idea that the review might hurt sales of the book—a matter that concerned him greatly as a struggling poet. Writing to printer Joseph Cottle in 1799, Wordsworth exclaimed:
“Southey’s review I have seen. He knew that I published those poems for money and money alone. He knew that money was of importance to me. If he could not conscientiously have spoken differently of the volume, he ought to have declined the task of reviewing it.
The bulk of the poems he has described as destitute of merit. Am I recompensed for this by vague praises of my talents? I care little for the praise of any other professional critic, but as it may help me to pudding…”
Nevertheless, Southey would grow to be a close associate of Wordsworth, especially after he moved to Keswick in the Lake District in 1802. Neighborly association promoted renewed affections. In 1805, when Wordsworth’s older brother John passed away, Southey wrote to console him:
“I scarcely know what to say to you after this thunderstroke–nor whether I ought to say anything. Only–whenever you feel or fancy yourself in a state to derive any advantage from company–I will come over to you–or do you come here. It has been my custom when in affliction to force myself to mental exertion, a difficult thing, but possible,–but it made my sleep dreadful.–for grief, as far as it is a bodily feeling, like disease will have its course.”
At Southey’s own death in 1843, Southey’s friends, including Wordsworth, undertook a project to erect a memorial tablet at Crosthwaite Church. Subscribers were solicited to fund the project and Wordsworth was asked to write an inscription. Each subscriber would receive a lithographed broadside depicting the tablet as a memorial. Additionally, the inscription, titled “Sacred to the Memory of Robert Southey,” was set in letterpress to be sold as an additional fund-raising effort. The fund-raising proved so successful that the tablet was upgraded to a monument: a marble effigy of Southey lying recumbent on a raised platform.
In addition to the letterpress and lithograph broadsides printed in 1843 and 1844, Wordsworth’s inscription was later reproduced by an unknown printer as a small bifolium, probably as a keepsake or souvenir for tourists visiting the Lake District and Crosthwaite Church. The only known surviving witness to this version of the poem is sewn into a guidebook to the Lake District, now in the RBC, formerly owned by Mary Ann Brenchly of Wanlass How, Ambleside. Brenchly visited Crosthwaite Church some time after 1848 and recorded her observations on the monument on the blank sides of the bifolium, along with two pages of additional notes on her travels tipped in using straight pins.