‘THE MOST SEDITIOUS BOOK THAT EVER WAS WRITTEN’

Wat Tyler. A dramatic poem …

London, Sherwood, Neeley and Jones, 1817.

8vo, pp. xi, [1], 70, with a half-title; a very good copy, uncut, in polished calf by Rivière; ownership inscription to half-title of the reformist politician Sir Benjamin Hobhouse (father of Byron’s friend John Cam Hobhouse); booklabel of Viscount Monsell (Conservative chief whip).

£400

Approximately:
US $523€443

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Wat Tyler. A dramatic poem …

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First edition of Southey’s republican verse drama, written at Oxford in three days in 1794. The manuscript had been left with Thomas Spence in prison for possible publication, but Spence had misgivings. Many years later ‘a mischievous publisher obtained a copy … and printed it. The publication was enormously successful, and was acutely embarrassing to a poet laureate, although he defended himself forcefully’, arguing ‘that his basic convictions had never changed’ (ODNB).

Southey failed to obtain a Chancery objection to stop publication, on the reactionary decision of Lord Eldon that ‘as it was a mischievous work and contrary to the public welfare, there could be no property in it’, and since therefore Southey could not establish the text as his ‘property’ he might not enjoin its circulation and sale: ‘a person cannot recover in damages for a work which is in its nature calculated to do an injury to the public’. Piracy then followed piracy (although the replacement, in the second issue of this edition, of the quotations from Southey by quotations from Shakespeare may result from the Chancery judgement), and Southey was led to believe (incredibly) that sixty thousand unauthorized copies were eventually sold. The first issue of the first edition, with mocking quotations from Southey himself on the title-page, is however comparatively rare.

Tinker 1963; Simmons, Southey, pp. 158-161.

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