Robert Southey (1774-1843) by Pieter Vandyke (1729-1799), 1795. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Robert Southey
Born August 12 1774(1774-Template:MONTHNUMBER-12)
Bristol, England
Died March 21 1843(1843-Template:MONTHNUMBER-21) (aged 68)
London, England
Occupation Poet
Literary movement Romanticism

Robert Southey (12 August 1774 - 21 March 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic school, a member of the Lake Poets, and Poet Laureate for 30 years.

Life[edit | edit source]

Overview[edit | edit source]

Southey was the son of an unsuccessful linen-draper in Bristol, where he was born. He was sent to Westminster School, and in 1792 went to Oxford. His friendship with Coleridge began in 1794, and with him he joined in the scheme of a "pantisocracy." In 1795 he married his 1st wife, Edith Fricker, and became the brother-in-law of Coleridge. Shortly afterwards he visited Spain, and in 1800 Portugal, and laid the foundations of his thorough knowledge of the history and literature of the Peninsula. Between these 2 periods of foreign travel he had attempted the study of law, which proved entirely uncongenial; and in 1803 he settled at Greta Hall, Keswick, to which neighborhood the Coleridges had also come. Here he set himself to a course of indefatigable literary toil which only ended with his life. Thalaba had appeared in 1801, and there followed Madoc (1805), The Curse of Kehama (1810), Roderic, the Last of the Goths (1814), and A Vision of Judgment (1821); and in prose a History of Brazil, Lives of Nelson (1813), Wesley (1820), and Bunyan (1830), The Book of the Church (1824), History of the Peninsular War (1823-32), Naval History, and The Doctor (1834-37). In addition to this vast amount of work he had been from 1808 a constant contributor to the Quarterly Review. In 1839 when he was failing both in body and mind he married Caroline Ann Bowles, who had for 20 years been his intimate friend, and by whom his few remaining years were soothed. Like Wordsworth and Coleridge, Southey began life as a democratic visionary, and was strongly influenced by the French Revolution, but gradually cooled down into a pronounced Tory. He was himself greater and better than any of his works, his life being a noble record of devotion to duty and unselfish benevolence. He held the office of Poet Laureate from 1813, and had a pension from Government. He declined a baronetcy.[1]

Although his fame tends to be eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey's verse enjoys enduring popularity. Southey was also a prolific letter writer, literary scholar, essay writer, historian, and biographer. His biographies include the life and works of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell, and Horatio Nelson. The last has rarely been out of print since its publication in 1813. He was also a renowned Portuguese and Spanish scholar, translating a number of works into English and writing both a History of Brazil and a History of the Peninsular War. Perhaps his most enduring literary contribution is the children's classic, The Story of the Three Bears, which first saw print in 1834 in Southey's prose collection, The Doctor.

Youth and education[edit | edit source]

Southey was born at 9 Wine Street, Bristol, on 12 August 1774.[2] His father, Robert Southey, an unsuccessful linendraper, had married a Miss Margaret Hill in 1772.[3]

When be was 3, Southey passed into the care of Miss Elizabeth Tyler, his mother's half-sister, at Bath, where most of his childhood was spent. She was a whimsical and despotic person, of whose household he has left an amusing account in the fragment of autobiography written in a series of letters to his friend John May.[3]

Before Southey was 8 he had read Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, while his love of romance was fostered by the reading of Hoole's translations of Tasso and Ariosto, and of The Faerie Queene.[3]

In 1788 he was entered at Westminster school. After 4 years there he was privately expelled by Dr William Vincent (1739-1815), for an essay against flogging which he contributed to a school magazine called The Flagellant. At Westminster he made friends with 2 boys who proved faithful and helpful to him through life; Charles Watkyn Williams Wynn and Grosvenor Bedford.[3]

Southey's uncle, Rev. Herbert Hill, chaplain of the British factory at Lisbon, who had paid for his education at Westminster, determined to send him to Oxford with a view to his taking holy orders, but the news of his escapade at Westminster had preceded him, and he was refused at Christ Church. Finally he was admitted at Balliol, where he matriculated on 3 November 1792, and took up his residence in the following January. His father had died soon after his matriculation.[3]

At Oxford he lived a life apart, and gained little or nothing from the university, except a liking for swimming and a knowledge of Epictetus. In the vacation of 1793 Southey's enthusiasm for the French Revolution found vent in the writing of an epic poem, Joan of Arc, published in 1796 by Joseph Cottle, the Bristol bookseller.[3]

Coleridge and literary career[edit | edit source]

In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then on a visit to Oxford, was introduced to Southey, and filled his head with dreams of an American utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna. The members of the "pantisocracy" were to earn their living by tilling the soil, while their wives cared for the house and children.[3]

Coleridge and Southey soon met again at Bristol, and with Robert Lovell developed the emigration scheme. Lovell had married Mary Fricker, whose sister Sara married Coleridge, and Southey now became engaged to a 3rd sister, Edith. Miss Tyler, however, would have none of "pantisocracy" and "aspheterism," and drove Southey from her house. To raise the necessary funds for the enterprise Coleridge and he turned to lecturing and journalism.[3]

Cottle generously gave Southey £50 for Joan of Arc; and, with Coleridge and Lovell, Southey had dashed off the drama, printed as the work of Coleridge, on The Fall of Robespierre. A volume of Poems by R. Southey and R. Lovell was also published by Cottle in 1795.[3]

Southey's uncle, Rev. Hill, now desired him to go with him to Portugal. Before he started for Corunna he was married secretly, on 14 November 1795, to Edith Fricker. On his return to England his marriage was acknowledged, and he and his wife had lodgings for some time at Bristol. He was urged to undertake a profession, but the Church was closed to him by the Unitarian views he then held, and medicine was distasteful to him. He was entered at Gray's Inn in February 1797, and made a serious attempt at legal study, but with small results.[3]

At the end of 1797 his friend Wynn began an allowance of £160 a year, which was continued until 1806, when Southey relinquished it on Wynn's marriage. His Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal were printed by Cottle in 1797, and in 1797-1799 appeared 2 volumes of Minor Poems from the same press. In 1798 he paid a visit to Norwich, where he met Frank Sayers and William Taylor, with whose translations from the German he was already acquainted. He then took a cottage for himself and his wife at Westbury near Bristol, and afterwards at Burton in Hampshire.[3]

At Burton he was seized with a nervous fever which had been threatening for some time. He moved to Bristol, and after preparing for the press his edition of the works of Thomas Chatterton, undertaken for the relief of the poet's sister and her child, he sailed in 1800 for Portugal, where he began to accumulate materials for his history of Portugal. He also had brought with him the opening 6 books of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), and the remaining 6 were completed at Cintra. The unrhymed, irregular meter of the poem was borrowed from Sayers.[3]

Greta Hall[edit | edit source]

In 1801 the Southeys returned to England, and at the invitation of Coleridge, who held out as an inducement the society of Wordsworth, they visited Keswick. After a short experience as private secretary to Isaac Corry, chancellor of the exchequer for Ireland, Southey in 1803 took up his residence at Greta Hall, Keswick, which he and his family shared from then on with the Coleridges and Mrs. Lovell. His love of books filled Greta Hall with a library of over 14,000 volumes. He possessed many valuable MSS., and a collection of Portuguese authorities probably unique in England.[3]

After 1809, when Coleridge left his family, the whole household was dependent on Southey's exertions. His nervous temperament suffered under the strain, and he found relief in keeping different kinds of work on hand at the same time, in turning from the History of Portugal to poetry. Madoc and Metrical Tales, and other poems appeared in 1805, The Curse of Kehama in 1810, Roderick, the last of the Goths, in 1814.[3]

This constant application was lightened by a happy family life. Southey was devoted to his children, and was hospitable to the many friends and even strangers who found their way to Keswick. His friendship for Coleridge was qualified by a natural appreciation of his failings, the results of which fell heavily on his own shoulders, and he had a great admiration for Wordsworth, although their relations were never close. He met Walter Savage Landor in 1808, and their mutual admiration and affection lasted until Southey's death.[3]

In 1808, Southey used the pseudonym Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella to write Letters From England, an account of a tour of the country supposedly from a foreigner's perspective. The book is said to contain a more accurate picture of English ways at the beginning of the 19th century than exists anywhere else.[4]

From the establishment of the Tory Quarterly Review Southey, whose revolutionary opinions had changed, was among its most regular and useful writers. He supported Church and State, opposed parliamentary reform, Roman Catholic emancipation, and free trade. He did not cease, however, to advocate measures for the immediate amelioration of the condition of the poor. With William Gifford, his editor, he was never on very good terms, and would have nothing to do with his harsh criticisms on living authors. His relations with Gifford's successors, Sir J.T. Coleridge and Lockhart, were not much better.[5]

In 1813 the Poet Laureateship became vacant on the death of Pye. The post was offered to Scott, who refused'it and secured it for Southey.[5]

In 1817 the unauthorized publication of an early poem on Wat Tyler, full of his youthful republican enthusiasm, brought many attacks on Southey.[5] One of his most savage critics was William Hazlitt. In his portrait of Southey, in The Spirit of the Age, he wrote: "He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded with an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy." Southey largely ignored his critics but was forced to defend himself when William Smith, a member of Parliament, rose in the House of Commons on 14 March to attack him. In a spirited response Southey wrote an open letter to the MP, in which he explained that he had always aimed at lessening human misery and bettering the condition of all the lower classes and that he had only changed in respect of “the means by which that amelioration was to be effected”.[6] As he put it, “that as he learnt to understand the institutions of his country, he learnt to appreciate them rightly, to love, and to revere, and to defend them.”[6]

He was also engaged in a bitter controversy with Byron, whose 1st attack on the "ballad-monger" Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers nevertheless did not prevent them from meeting on friendly terms. Southey makes little reference to Byron in his letters, but Byron asserts (Letters and Journals, ed. Prothero, iv. 271) that he was responsible for scandal spread about himself and Shelley. In this frame of mind, due as much to personal anger as to natural antipathy to Southey's principles, Byron dedicated Don Juan to the laureate, in what he himself called "good, simple, savage verse" In the introduction to his Vision of Judgment (1821) Southey inserted a homily on the "Satanic School" of poetry, unmistakably directed at Byron, who replied in the satire of the same name. The unfortunate controversy was renewed even after Byron's death, in consequence of a passage in Medwin's Conversations of Lord Byron.[5]

Meanwhile the household at Greta Hall was growing smaller. Southey's eldest son, Herbert, died in 1816, and a favorite daughter in 1826; Sara Coleridge married in 1829; in 1834 his eldest 'daughter, Edith, also married; and in the same year. Mrs. Southey, whose health had long given cause for anxiety, became insane. She died in 1837, and Southey went abroad the next year with Henry Crabb Robinson and others.[5]

In 1839 he married his friend Caroline Bowles. But his memory was failing, and his mental powers gradually left him.[5] He died on 21 March 1843, at Greta Hall, and was buried 24 March in the churchyard of St. Kentigens Church, Keswick, England.[2]

Writing[edit | edit source]

Verse[edit | edit source]

The amount of Southey's work in literature is enormous. His collected verse, with its explanatory notes, fills 10 volumes; his prose occupies about 40. But his greatest enterprises, his history of Portugal and his account of the monastic orders, were left uncompleted, and this, in some sense, is typical of Southey's whole achievement in the world of letters; there is always some- thing unsatisfying, disappointing, about him. This is most true of his efforts in verse.[5]

In his childhood Southey fell in with Tasso, Tasso led him to Ariosto, and Ariosto to Spenser. These luxuriantly imaginative poets captivated the boy; and Southey mistook his youthful enthusiasm for an abiding inspiration. His inspiration was not genuinely imaginative.[5]

Southey, quite early in life, resolved to write a series of epics on the chief religions of the world; it is not surprising that the too-ambitious poet failed. His failure is 2-fold: he was wanting in artistic power and in poetic sympathy. When his epics are not wildly impossible they are incurably dull; and a man is not fit to write epics on the religions of the world when he can say of the prophet who has satisfied the gravest races of mankind, Mahomet was "far more remarkable for audacious profligacy than for any intellectual endowments."[5]

Southey's age was bounded, and had little sympathy for anything beyond itself and its own narrow interests; it was violently Tory, narrowly Protestant, defiantly English. And in his verse Southey truthfully reflects the feeling of his age. In the shorter pieces Southey's commonplace asserts itself, and if that does not meet us we find his bondage to his generation. This bondage is quite abject in The Vision of Judgment: Southey's heavenly personages are British Philistines from Old Sarum, magnified but not transformed, engaged in endless placid adoration of an infinite George III. For this complaisance he was held up to ridicule by Byron, who wrote his own Vision of Judgment by way of parody.[5]

Some of Southey's subjects, "The Poet's Pilgrimage" for instance, he would have treated delightfully in prose; others, like the "Botany Bay Eclogues," "Songs to American Indians," "The Pig," "The Dancing Bear," should never have been written. Of his ballads and metrical tales many have passed into familiar use as poems for the young. Among these are "The Inchcape Rock," "Lord William," "The Battle of Blenheim," the ballad on Bishop Hatto, and "The Well of St. Keyne."[5]

Prose[edit | edit source]

Southey was not in the highest sense of the word a poet; but if we turn from his verse to his prose we are in a different world ; there Southey is a master in his art, who works at ease with grace and skill. " Southey's prose is perfect," said Byron; and, if we do not stretch the " perfect," or take it to mean the supreme perfection of the very greatest masters of style, Byron was right.[5]

In prose the real Southey emerges from his conventionality. His interest and his curiosity are unbounded as his Common-Place Book will prove; his stores of learning are at his readers' service, as in The Doctor, a rambling miscellany, valued by many readers beyond his other work. For biography he had a real genius. The Life of Nelson (2 volumes, 1813), which has become a model of the short life, arose out of an article contributed to the Quarterly Review. He contributed another excellent biography to his edition of the Works of William, Cowper (15 volumes, 1833-1837), and his Life of Wesley, and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (2 volumes, 1820) is only less famous than his Life of Nelson.[5]

Southey's love of romance appears in various volumes: Amadis of Gaul (4 volumes, 1803); Palmerin of England (1807); Chronicle of the Cid (1808), and The byrth, lyf and actes of King Arthur (1817).[5]

But the truest Southey is in his Letters: the loyal, gallant, tender-hearted, faithful man that he was is revealed in them. Southey's fame will not rest, as he supposed, on his verse; all his faults are in that – all his own weakness and all the false taste of his age. But his prose assures him a high place in English literature, though not a place in the 1st rank even of prose writers.[5]

Miscellaneous[edit | edit source]

As a prolific writer and commentator, Southey introduced or popularized a number of words into the English language. The term 'autobiography', for example, was first used by Southey in 1809 in the Quarterly Review in which he predicted an 'epidemical rage for autobiography', which indeed has continued to the present day. Southey is also credited with penning the popular children's nursery rhyme What are Little Boys Made of? around 1820.

His other works are: Specimens of English Poets (3 vols., 1807); Letters from England by Don Manuel Espriella (3 vols., 1807), purporting to be a Spaniard's impressions of England ; an edition of the Remains of Henry Kirke White (2 vols., 1807) ; Omniana or Horae Otiosiores (2 vols., 1812) ; Odes to . . . the Prince Regent . . . (18 14); Carmen Triumphale . . . and Carmina Aulica . . . (1814); Minor Poems . . . (181$); Lay of the Laureate (1816), an epithalamium for the Princess Charlotte; The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816); Wat Tyler: a dramatic poem (1817); Letter to William Smith Esq., M.P. (1817), on the occasion of stric- tures made in the House of Commons on Wat Tyler; History of Brazil (3 vols., 1810, 1817, 1819) ; Expedition of Orsua and the Crimes of Aguirre (1821); A Book of the Church (2 vols., 1824) ; A Tale of Paraguay (1825); Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae, Letters to C. Butler, Esq., comprising essays on the Romish Religion and vindicating the Book of the Church (1826) ; History of the Peninsular War (3 vols., 1823, 1824, 1832); " Lives of uneducated Poets," prefixed to verses by John Jones (1829); All for Love and The Pilgrim to Compostella (1829) ; Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (2 vols., 1829); Life of John Bunyan, prefixed to an edition (1830) of the Pilgrim's Progress; Select Works of British Poets from Chaucer to Jonson, edited with biographical notices . , . (1831) Essays Moral and Political . . . now first collected (2 vols., 1832); Lives of the Admirals, with an introductory view of the Naval History of England, forming 5 vols. (1833-1840) of Lardner's Cabinet Cyclo- paedia; The Doctor (7 vols., 1834-1847), the last two volumes being edited by his son-in-law, the Rev. J. Wood Warter; Common-Place Book (4th series, 1849-1851), edited by the same; Oliver Newman; a New England Tale (unfinished), with other poetical remains (1845), edited by the Rev. H. Hill.[5]

A collected edition of his Poetical Works (10 volumes, 1837-1838) was followed by a 1-volume edition in 1847. Southey's letters were edited by his son Charles Cuthbert Southey as The Life and Correspondence of the late Robert Southey (6 volumes, 1849-1850); further selections were published in Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey (4 volumes, 1856), edited by J.W. Warter; and The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles. To which are added: Correspondence with Shelley, and Southey's Dreams (1881), wedited, with an introduction, by Dowden. An excellent selection from his whole correspondence, edited by John Dennis, as Robert Southey: The story of his life written in his letters (Boston, Massachusetts, 1887), was reprinted in Bohn's Standard Library (1894). .[5]

Critical introduction[edit | edit source]

In the year 1837, 2 years before his brain softened and his mind went to ruin, Southey superintended a collective edition of his poems in 10 volumes. Of his 5 narrative poems, Joan of Arc, written at 19 years of age (1793-1794), was, in his own just estimation, the least worthy to succeed; and yet it gave him what he calls a "Baxter’s shove into his right place in the world."

Thalaba came next, "the wild and wondrous song," delightful in its kind, as a Tale of the Arabian Nights is delightful; but wanting, as all stories in which supernatural agencies play a leading part must be, in a particular sort of charm,— that which results from a sense of art exercised in the fulfilment of a law. For when the law of Nature is set aside, the poet’s fancy may "wander at its own sweet will." To a poem thus lawless in its incidents and accidents, Southey thought that a rythmic structure of blank verse almost equally lawless was appropriate. He does not deny that regular blank verse is superior; he says of it in a preface,— "Take it in all its gradations, from the elaborate rhythm of Milton, down to its loosest structure in the early dramatists, I believe there is no measure comparable to it, either in our own or in any other language, for might, and majesty, and flexibility and compass." But for Thalaba he prefers a blank verse of his own, in which the decasyllabic rule is renounced, and the lines, following a spontaneous melody, divide themselves into every variety of length, with the ordinary iambic cadence interrupted from time to time by some trochaic or dactylic movement, springing up as a pleasant surprise:—

  Years of his youth, how rapidly ye fled
          In that beloved solitude!
Is the morn fair and doth the freshening breeze
      Flow with cool current o’er his cheek?
    Lo! underneath the broad-leaved sycamore
            With lids half closed he lies,
            Dreaming of days to come.
                         -Book III. 17.

Southey in his school-days at Westminster had conceived the design of founding a poem on each of the more important mythologies known to the world. Thalaba was founded on the Muslim, and Kehama followed, founded on the Hindu. Kehama was begun in 1801-1802, resumed in 1806, and completed in 1809. For Kehama he had less expectation of success, inasmuch as it rambles farther still beyond the range of human sympathies. It had an advantage, however, of which he seems to have been unconscious,— that of being in rhyme. This he valued by its cost to himself, which was apparently next to nothing; he says in a letter to me that "rhyme suggests more thoughts than it baulks;" but it is to rhyme probably that the greater success of Kehama was owing.

Madoc had been written before Kehama was begun; but mistaking it in those days for the greatest poem he should ever write, he laid it aside till he should have time to reconstruct and in great part to rewrite it; and it was not published till 1805. It has the merit of a varied melody and an easy, fluent and graceful narrative diction; but of his long poems it was the least successful.

Roderick was the most successful. Perhaps the moral grandeur of the theme may have given it that pre-eminence, as much as its tragic interests. The subjugation, for a season, of a whole people, resulting from a single and momentary sin of the passions,— what may be charitably called a casualty of sin,— on the part of an otherwise virtuous sovereign,— the slaughter of the Christians by the Moors in the 8 days’ fight on the banks of Chrysus,— the unknown and almost unwilling escape of the King when the battle was over,— his deep remorse and self-inflicted penance of years in a solitary hermitage whilst supposed to have been killed,— the dream in which his mother appeared to him and bade him to go forth and deliver his country from the Moors,— his departure and encounter with Adosinda, sole survivor of the massacre of Auria,— her story and the passion for revenge, both personal and patriotic, with which it inspired him,— are all sublimely conceived and admirably told. Scarcely less so are his adventures when, wasted by austerities and in the habit of a priest, he passed through the country on his mission, meeting many old friends, but known for the man he was only by his dog,— his ultimate triumph over the Moors in the battle in which, on the inadvertent utterance of his once familiar war-cry, he was enthusiastically recognized by his army,— and thereupon his instant disappearance, whither no one knew, till, after the lapse of some centuries, a humble tomb was discovered within a hermitage in the neighborhood of Viseu with his name inscribed upon it. In the versification, Southey has availed himself with singular skill of names belonging to 3 languages, Spanish, Moorish and Gothic, to vary his rhythmic effects. The picturesque element enters largely into Roderick; and in poems of such length, descriptions of natural scenery are invaluable as resting-places. Rest from action and passion,— rest even from intellectual effort,— cannot be dispensed with after prolonged strains in a mood of emotion or exaltation; nor is it to be obtained in any better way than by occupying the mind’s eye with natural beauty and its ear with the gentle melodies by which it is most aptly accompanied. This exercise of art is nowhere more conspicuous than in Roderick.

Of minor poems Southey wrote many more than he had any desire to write. And how he came to write them is easily explained. In his early youth he says he "often walked the streets for want of a dinner, not having eighteen pence for the ordinary nor bread and cheese at his lodgings."[7] After 21 years of age he had a family to provide for, as well as certain relatives whom he could not allow to suffer. Under such circumstances, much as it may have been his desire to write only from impulse and aspiration, it was his duty to write for money too.

In his earlier years minor poems were marketable; a large proportion of his ballads and metrical tales were written for the Morning Post at a guinea a week; and when they were republished in a book, it was still for money. There was no humiliation in this, and he knew that there was none. When he found his means again failing in 1807, he writes that, if necessary, he will seek more review employment, write in more magazines, and scribble verses for the newspapers; adding, "as long as I can keep half my time for labours worthy of myself and of posterity I shall not feel debased by sacrificing the other, however unworthily it may be employed."

And the fact is that, laborious and exuberant as he was, the great works which he was always longing and preparing, and in his sanguine heart hoping, to accomplish,— the history of Portugal, the history of English Literature, and the history of the Monastic Orders,— were postponed again and again and for ever.

As time passed on, his poetry, whether written for the market or not, became less saleable; and in 1820 he writes to Landor,— "My poems hang on hand. I want no monitor to tell me it is time to leave off. I shall force myself to finish what I have begun, and then — good night. Had circumstances favoured I might have done more in this way, and better. But I have done enough to be remembered among poets, though my proper place will be among the historians, if I live to complete the works upon yonder shelves:" — which most unhappily he did not.

Every generation has a pet poet or 2 of its own; and the generation which had now arisen worshipped a Muse instinct with amorous or personal passion,— a Muse of a very different order from Southey’s. That was not the way he went; but in his own way and in some of his poems — certainly in Roderick — passion, though governed and severe, and couchant, as it were, in the language of reserve, is by no means wanting; and it would be a mistake to assume that, because he was of a happy and cheerful temperament, he was a stranger to imaginative emotion. Of poetic passion there was enough and to spare in his nature, though he took no pleasure in it, or none which he could afford to indulge. But along with this there was an imaginative vehemence and power partaking of passion, which, on 1 occasion at least, he did not care to keep within the bounds of his "intellectual regimen."

He had a passionate hatred of Bonaparte, growing out of moral as well as political and patriotic feelings, and no doubt exasperated by the antagonism of those who fell down in worship before the wonders of his success; and on an occasion on which Southey and Byron met, Bonaparte was spoken of; and when Byron gave some indications of the dazzled eye, Southey replied that Bonaparte was "a mean tyrant." But his meanness was by no means the worst part of him. Some of his political murders, secret or avowed, were regarded by Southey (justly, may it not be said?) as private and personal crimes for which it was right that, when circumstances rendered it possible, he should be made to answer with his life. He writes to Landor (9th March 1814),— "For five years I have been preaching the policy, the duty, the necessity, of declaring Bonaparte under the ban of human nature." These feelings and opinions gave birth to the "Ode written during the Negociations for Peace in 1814"; and since Milton’s immortal imprecation,—

‘Avenge, oh Lord, thy slaughtered Saints whose bones
Lie scattered on the Alpine mountains cold’….

there has been no occasional poem equal to it in grandeur and power. Nor any indeed equal to it in art; witness the expressive change of tone and temper when, at the 5th line of the 3rd stanza, the denunciations are arrested for a few moments, and a vision arises of what the tyrant’s career might have been had he chosen the better part.

Occasional poems on great public events are very rarely great poems. The facts are too strong for the imaginative effects, and take the place of them. But there is another of Southey’s,— that on the death of the Princess Charlotte,— with the grace and beauty of which no facts could compete.

Of the minor poems other than occasional, the varieties are too numerous to be even so much as indicated here; but some of them are examples of the humor, sometimes light and playful, sometimes grotesque, which was strongly characteristic of Southey. Humor is an element which cannot but widen the field of a poet’s imagination, though it has been utterly wanting in some of our greatest poets,— in Wordsworth and Coleridge, as well as in Milton. It is commonly and perhaps correctly said to be the gift of a gloomy rather than of a cheerful temperament; and no doubt the humour which breaks through the clouds is the most enlarging and enriching. This was not Southey’s kind; but his had a charm of its own. Much of it belonged to his daily life, and it was often out of this that it found its way into his poetry. His life was a singular combination of gaiety with steady industry and laborious research.

As to the place and rank to be assigned to Southey amongst the poetic souls of our literature, the time has hardly yet arrived for forming a judgment. "Do not ask yourself," he says in a letter to Ebenezer Elliott, "what are the causes of the failure or success of your contemporaries; their failure or success is not determined yet; a generation, an age, a century, will not suffice to determine it."[8]

Southey’s belief in his own posthumous renown has led some persons to call him conceited. In his youth he was sanguine and presumptuous; in his after-life sanguine and confident; at no time of life was he ever vain. He took great delight in his own works. Why should he not? Southey in a letter to Grosvenor Bedford (Feb. 12, 1809) says,— "Young lady never felt more desirous to see herself in a new ball-dress than I do to see my own performances in print…. There are a great many philosophical reasons for this fancy of mine, and one of the best of all reasons is, that I hold it good to make everything a pleasure which it is possible to make so." And in a letter to me (April 13, 1829) 20 years later, he illustrates the same principle by a story of a Spaniard he had known who "always put on his spectacles when he was about to eat cherries, that they might look the bigger and more tempting."

He was not in the habit of guarding himself against misconstruction. Except on rare occasions,— such as Lord Byron’s invectives in the press or those of W. Smith in the House of Commons,— he left his character to take care of itself. He had a high opinion, especially in his earlier years, of his powers. He believed too in the high and permanent place which some portion of his work would take in the literature of his country. If they succeed, the world is the better; if they fail, it is no worse.

Whatever tendency to excess there may have been on Southey’s part in the estimate of his own works will be found to prevail quite as much in his estimate of the works of his friends, or indeed of many other works, old and new, which he approved and admired. In a letter to me of October 1829, he writes,— "A greater poet than Wordsworth there never has been nor ever will be." And if he expected for himself a larger measure of attention from posterity than may now seem likely to be accorded him, it should be remembered, that though as long as his mind lasted he "lived laborious days" for the sake of his family and of others whom, in the generosity of his heart, he helped to support, yet all the labours of all the days did not enable him to do more than make preparations for the 3 great works which it was the object and ambition of his life to accomplish.

Of what he did accomplish, a portion will not soon be forgotten. There were greater poets in his generation, and there were men of a deeper and more far-reaching philosophic faculty; but take him for all in all,— his ardent and genial piety, his moral strength, the magnitude and variety of his powers, the field which he covered in literature, and the beauty of his life,— it may be said of him, justly and with no straining of the truth, that of all his contemporaries he was the greatest man.[9]

Critical reputation[edit | edit source]

Though the name of Southey still bulks somewhat largely in the history of our literature, his works, with a few exceptions, are now little read, and those of them (his longer poems, Thalaba and Kehama) on which he himself based his hopes of lasting fame, least of all. To this result their length, remoteness from living interests, and the impression that their often splendid diction is rather eloquence than true poetry, have contributed. Some of his shorter poems, e.g., "The Holly Tree," and "The Battle of Blenheim," still live, but his fame now rests on his vigorous prose and especially on his classic Life of Nelson.[1]

Recognition[edit | edit source]

A government pension of some £160 was secured for him in 1807, increased to £300 in 1835.[5]

In 1813 Southey was appointed Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom, a position he held until his death in 1843.[10]

A monument to Southey's memory was erected in St. Kentigens Church, with an inscription by Wordsworth.[5]

There is a mural monument, with bust, to Southey in Poets' Corner, Westminster Abbey.[11]

Southey's poem "His Books" was included in the Oxford Book of English Verse, 1250-1900.[12]

His Life of Nelson was adapted for the screen in the 1926 British film, Nelson.

In popular culture[edit | edit source]

Southey figures in 4 of Landor's Imaginary Conversations, 2 of which are between Southey and Porson, and 2 between Southey and Landor.[5]

Publications[edit | edit source]

Poetry[edit | edit source]

Plays[edit | edit source]

Non-fiction[edit | edit source]

Juvenile[edit | edit source]

  • The Three Bears. New York: McLoughlin Bros., 1886
    • (illustrated by William Moyers). New York: 1949
    • (illustrated by Norman Messenger). London: Dorling Kindersley, 1998; New York: DK Ink, 1998.
  • The Cataract of Lodore: A poem (illustrated by Mordecai Gerstein). New York: Dial Books for Young Readers, 1991.

Translated[edit | edit source]

Edited[edit | edit source]

  • The Annual Anthology. Bristol, UK: Biggs, for T.N. Longman & O. Rees, London, 1799-1800.
  • Thomas Chatterton, Works (edited with Joseph Cottle). (3 volumes), Bristol, UK: Biggs and Cottle, for T.N. Longman & O. Rees, 1803.
  • Specimens of the Later English Poets: With preliminary notices. (3 volumes), London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, & Orme, 1807. Volume I, Volume II, Volume III.
  • Henry Kirke White, Remains. London: Vernor, Hood, & Sharp, 1807.

Letters and journals[edit | edit source]


The Poety of Robert Southey - An Introduction

Except where noted, bibliographical information courtesy WorldCat.[13]

Poems by Robert Southey[edit | edit source]

  1. The Battle of Blenheim

See also[edit | edit source]

Preceded by
Henry James Pye
Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
William Wordsworth

References[edit | edit source]


Winter by Robert Southey

  • Carnall, Geoffrey, Writers and Their Works: Robert Southey, (Longman Group Ltd: London 1971)
  •  Chisholm, Hugh, ed (1911). "Southey, Robert". Encyclopædia Britannica. 25 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 511-512. . Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  • Low, Dennis, The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.
  • Madden, John Lionel, Robert Southey: The critical heritage. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.
  • Pratt, Lynda, ed. Robert Southey, Poetical Works, 1793-1810. (5 volumes), London: Pickering & Chatto, 2004)
  • Simmons, Jack, Southey. Kennikat: Washington, 1945.
  • Speck, W.A. Robert Southey: Entire man of letters. Yale University Press, 2006.

Notes[edit | edit source]

  1. 1.0 1.1 John William Cousin, "Southey, Robert," A Short Biographical Dictionary of English Literature. London: Dent / New York: Dutton, 1910, 350-351. Wikisource, Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Robert Southey 1774-1843, 1820 Settler Genealogies and other information. Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 Britannica 1911, 25, 511.
  4. Robert Southey in Radical Reformers, Cotton Times
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 5.12 5.13 5.14 5.15 5.16 5.17 5.18 5.19 Britannica 1911, 25, 512.
  6. 6.0 6.1 Speck 2006, 172.
  7. Letter to G. Bedford.
  8. Life and Letters, vol. iv. Jan. 30, 1819.
  9. from Sir Henry Taylor, "Critical Introduction: Robert Southey (1774–1843)," The English Poets: Selections with critical introductions (edited by Thomas Humphry Ward). New York & London: Macmillan, 1880-1918. Web, Mar. 3, 2018.
  10. Robert Southey, Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica Inc. Web, Nov. 21, 2013.
  11. Robert Southey, People, History, Westminster Abbey. Web, July 12, 2016.
  12. "His Books," Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900 (edited by Arthur Quiller-Couch). Oxford, UK: Clarendon, 1919)., Web, May 6, 2012.
  13. Search results = au:Robert Southey, WorldCat, OCLC Online Computer Library Center Inc. Web, Nov. 20, 2013.

External links[edit | edit source]

Audio / video

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain, the 1911 Edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica. Original article is at Southey, Robert

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