Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Cottle, Joseph

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COTTLE, JOSEPH (1770–1853), bookseller and author, born in 1770, was the brother of Amos Cottle [q. v.] He did not, like his brother, enjoy a classical education, but was for two years at the school of Mr. Richard Henderson, and received some instruction from his son John, who, though writing nothing, afterwards passed for a prodigy at Oxford. Henderson took great notice of Cottle, advised him to become a bookseller, and so stimulated his love of reading that before he was twenty-one he had read more than a thousand volumes of the best English literature. He set up in business in 1791. In 1794 he made, through Robert Lovell, the acquaintance of Coleridge and Southey, then in Bristol and preparing for emigration to America [see Coleridge, Samuel Taylor]. Cottle, having himself a small volume of poems in the press, warmed towards the young poets, and surprised them by the liberality of his proposals. Coleridge had been offered in London six guineas for the copyright of his poems. Cottle offered thirty, and the same sum to Southey, further proposing to give the latter fifty guineas for his ‘Joan of Arc,’ which he would publish in quarto, allowing the author fifty copies for himself. He also assisted in making arrangements for the lectures delivered on behalf of pantisocracy. He facilitated Coleridge's marriage by the promise of a guinea and a half for every hundred lines of poetry he might produce after the completion of the volume already contracted for. This eventually appeared in April 1796. ‘Joan of Arc’ was published in the same year. Cottle next undertook the publication of Coleridge's periodical, ‘The Watchman,’ the expense of which was chiefly borne by him. He was shortly afterwards introduced by Coleridge to Wordsworth, and the acquaintance resulted in the publication of the two poets' ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in the autumn of 1798. In the following year Cottle retired from business as a bookseller. He certainly could not have made a fortune by publishing the works of the Lake poets, but his means must have been good, for he shortly afterwards produced several volumes of his own. ‘Malvern Hills’ was published in 1798, ‘John the Baptist, a Poem,’ in 1801, ‘Alfred, an Epic Poem,’ in the same year, ‘The Fall of Cambria’ in 1809, ‘Messiah’ in 1815. These pieces attracted sufficient attention to expose him to the sarcasm of Byron, whose lines would probably have been forgotten if Cottle had not pilloried himself in a more effectual manner. ‘You are,’ wrote Southey when he heard, in 1836, that Cottle was preparing his reminiscences, ‘keeping up your habitual preparation for an enduring inheritance.’ He certainly did succeed in immortalising himself as the most typical example of the moral and religious Philistine. His acquaintance with Coleridge, interrupted by the latter's departure from Somersetshire, had been resumed on two or three occasions; he had been the channel of conveying to him De Quincey's munificent gift of 300l.; and when in 1814 and 1815 Coleridge's fortunes had sunk to the lowest ebb by his indulgence in opium, Cottle had addressed to him some very well intended if not very judiciously worded remonstrances, which had extorted contrite and agonised replies. Writing a little later, in his ‘Biographia Literaria,’ Coleridge alludes to Cottle as ‘a friend from whom I never received any advice that was not wise, or a remonstrance that was not gentle and affectionate.’ In spite of the strongest remonstrances from Poole and Gillman, vanity and self-righteousness together induced Cottle, in his ‘Early Recollections, chiefly relating to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’ (1837), not only to enumerate all his own little generosities to Coleridge and Southey, but to enter into the painful details of Coleridge's opium infatuation, printing his own letters and the answers. The unworthiness of such conduct is even aggravated by an attempt to represent it as the fulfilment of an injunction of Coleridge's own, wrung from him by the extremity of mental and bodily anguish. Cottle erred from sheer obtuseness and want of moral delicacy, and hurt himself much more than Coleridge, whose failings would have become sufficiently known from other sources, while even Cottle's poems would have given a very inadequate idea of his stupidity without his memoirs. ‘The confusion in Cottle's “Recollections” is greater than any one would think possible,’ says Southey. It may be added that the book is very inaccurate in its dates, and that the documents quoted are seriously garbled. Reprehensible and in some parts absurd, it is, however, by no means dull, and besides its curious and valuable particulars of the early literary career of Coleridge and Southey, has notices of other interesting persons, otherwise little known, such as Robert Lovell and William Gilbert. It is embellished by youthful portraits of Coleridge, Southey, Wordsworth, and Charles Lamb. A second edition with some alterations and additions was published in 1847 under the title of ‘Reminiscences of Coleridge and Southey.’ Cottle died at Fairfield House, Bristol, 7 June 1853. The appendix to the fourth edition of his ‘Malvern Hills’ (1829) contains several prose essays by him, including an account of his tutor Henderson, a discussion of the authenticity of the Rowley poems, and a description of the Oreston Caves, near Plymouth, and the fossils found therein. His correspondence with Haslewood on the Rowley MSS. is preserved in the British Museum.

[Cottle's Recollections and appendix to Malvern Hills; Lives of Coleridge; Southey's Life and Correspondence; Warter's Selections from Southey's Letters.]

R. G.