Robert Southey and the Cats of Greta Hall

Greta Hall in Keswick by Johann Jacob Weber, 1843.
Greta Hall in Keswick by Johann Jacob Weber, 1843.

Born of humble origins in 1774, Robert Southey went on to become Poet Laureate of England from 1813 until his death in 1843.  A contemporary of 19th century Romantic poets like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he was an incredibly prolific writer, both of poetry and of prose.  He was also a great lover of cats, as evidenced in his vast correspondence with friends and family.

In The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (1850), Southey’s son, Charles, who edited the volume, writes of his father’s fondness for cats.  Their home at Greta Hall in Keswick (also home to the family of Samuel Taylor Coleridge) was home to many cats over the years, cats whose names exhibited the full breadth of Southey’s creativity.  According to his son:

“He rejoiced in bestowing upon them the strangest appellations; and it was not a little amusing to see a kitten answer to the name of some Italian singer or Indian chief, or hero of a German fairy tale, and often names and titles were heaped one upon another, till the possessor, unconscious of the honour conveyed, used to ‘set up his eyes and look’ in wonderment.”

Robert Southey by John James Masquerier, 1799.
Robert Southey by John James Masquerier, 1799.

Southey’s friend, Grosvenor Bedford, had “an equal liking for the feline race” and the two often exchanged letters about their favorites.  In 1833, Southey wrote a particular letter to Bedford alerting him to the death of one of “the greatest.”  The letter is a wonderful example of not only Southey’s great love for cats, but also his humor and creativity.  The letter reads:

“To Grosvenor C. Bedford, Esq.

“Keswick, May 18, 1833.

“My dear G.,

“…Alas, Grosvenor, this day poor old Rumpel was found dead, after as long and happy a life as cat could wish for, if cats form wishes on that subject.

“His full titles were: —

“The Most Noble the Archduke Rumpelstiltzchen, Marquis Macbum, Earl Tomlemagne, Baron Raticide, Waowhler, and Skaratch.

“There should be a court mourning in Catland, and if the Dragon wear a black ribbon round his neck, or a band of crape à la militaire round one of the fore paws, it will be but a becoming mark of respect.

“As we have no catacombs here, he is to be decently interred in the orchard, and cat-mint planted on his grave.  Poor creature, it is well that he has thus come to his end after he had become an object of pity.  I believe we are each and all, servants included, more sorry for his loss, or rather more affected by it, than any one of us would like to confess.

“I should not have written to you at present, had it not been to notify this event…

“God bless you!                                                                     

“R. S.”

Robert Southey is buried at Crosthwaite Church in Keswick.  Greta Hall, once the gathering place of such literary luminaries as Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Sir Walter Scott, is now a Lake District Bed and Breakfast.  If you are at all curious, you may view it HERE.

<emGreta Hall and Keswick Bridge by William Westall, 1840.
Greta Hall and Keswick Bridge by William Westall, 1840.

Thus concludes another of my Friday features on Animals in Literature and History.  If you are interested in adopting a “Most Noble the Archduke Rumpelstiltzchen” of your own, I encourage you to use the following sites as resources:

Alley Cat Rescue, Inc. (United States)

The Cats Protection League (United Kingdom)

Mimi Matthews is the USA Today bestselling author of The Matrimonial Advertisement, The Pug Who Bit Napoleon, and A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law.

Sources

Southey, Robert.  Southey, Charles. Ed.  The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey.  Vol. VI.  London: Longman, Brown, Green, & Longmans: 1850.

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Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago

Good man. And h’rrrrm, we have titles for ours too.. albeit not as extensive. like Linnie, aka Linus the Prince of Daftness and King of Kisses, and Rebel, Princess of Wails, Mistress Golden Eyes.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Us too! That’s what appealed to me about his letter. Growing up, our cats had more aliases than career criminals ;)

Jenny Haddon
Jenny Haddon
5 years ago

Ah, that’s lovely. I shall re-read Southey with more interest than he got from me at school.

Shall definitely consider hijacking Earl Tomlemagne for my piratical Tom Kydd. He’s getting to the age when he should be settling down.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Jenny Haddon

Glad you liked it, Jenny! I was happy to see that there was some literary precedent to creative naming :)

Anne Seebaldt
Anne Seebaldt
5 years ago

Very interesting tale. Not as familiar with him as Keats. Shall have to reconsider that!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Anne Seebaldt

Glad you liked it, Anne :)

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

And certainly beats such of my fictional beasts as Corinthian Tom, the Terror of the Kitchen…

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Corinthian Tom reminds me of Pierce Egan :)

Angelyn
Angelyn
5 years ago

Baron Raticide! How delightful… Ours is just called Kitty.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Angelyn

His cat’s different titles were so descriptive!

Lucy
Lucy
5 years ago

The first think I remember about Southey was the letter he wrote in reply to Charlotte Bronte telling her writing wasn’t for women, so it’s nice to see a different side of him! :) http://www.bl.uk/collection-items/letter-from-robert-southey-to-charlotte-bronte-12-march-1837

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Lucy

Ugh! It is disappointing to read sexist commentary from important literary figures of the past. I try to put it in the context of the time, but it is really hard :( Like you, I’m glad – at least – that he was so kind toward cats. Though I admit, there were a few grim cat stories amongst his letters and writings that made me a bit uncomfortable.

Lucy
Lucy
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

You’re right, context is definitely the key, the times and attitudes he was brought up in (ditto some of the things that have came out of my grandmother’s mouth!). I also think some of these letters are a little like the Facebook posts and Tweets of today, people change and to have our comments recorded for eternity alarms me, so I’m happy to cut them some slack ;)

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Lucy

I totally agree, Lucy. That is one difficulty with history – trying to determine the character of some historical individual from a few letters or a book or two they wrote. People are always changing their views and maturing as human beings (I hope!) and it is impossible to get a fully accurate picture.

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

He should of course have said that Charlotte Bronte’s writing wasn’t for anyone who didn’t have a strong stomach and who liked the 19th century equivalent of videonasties. Presumably he felt that females needed protecting from it. It did ought to come with an 18 sticker and a warning that it isn’t very nice.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Charlotte and Emily were definitely not your traditional female novelists. I am heavily biased in their favor – Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite love stories ever – but I can see how their stories might have shocked a male writer of the day. Incidentally, I have a Bronte comic to this effect (about Emily and Charlotte as compared to Ann). I can’t post it in the comments, but will tweet it.

Sarah Waldock
Sarah Waldock
5 years ago
Reply to  Mimi Matthews

heh, you know my prejudices. Loathe all the characters in both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre, at least, don’t loathe Jane, but wish she’d grow a backbone.
Re literary cats, I have a cat called Worrals; she was Biggles until she turned out to be a girl, and then became the female counterpart of that aviator. Why? she has big white flying goggles.

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago
Reply to  Sarah Waldock

Love the names! And I love when cats (or dogs) have a natural, funny pattern in their coat like glasses or a little mustache. I saw one cat with a perfect heart on his side.

mcclellandjulie
mcclellandjulie
5 years ago

As a lover of felines, I have always tried to be creative when naming them, and now I have some new ideas! From Softy Turner (I was a toddler), Jassy (Norah Lofts), and Fritz E Zivik; to Miss Otis and Mr Bean (RIP, love of my life).

On a side note, Mr Southey was who Phoebe Marlowe’s parents were visiting in “The Quiet Gentleman.”

Thanks again, Mimi!

Mimi Matthews
Mimi Matthews
5 years ago

Glad you enjoyed it, Julie! Love your choice in cat names. And good catch on the Georgette Heyer connection. I pride myself on my knowledge of Heyer miscellany, but I confess, I had totally forgotten that one :)

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