A contemporary of the great poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, Robert Southey (1774-1843) is one of the best known of the unread poets; that is, his name is better known than the work he produced. While his work leans towards the introspection, skepticism, and symbolism that characterize the period, Southey never fully came to fruition as a Romantic poet.
While Southey may not have been a potential Wordsworth or Coleridge, the talent he did posses was not given the concentration of time and energy poetry demands to mature. Because of Southey's financial and personal commitments to his family, he chose to write articles, pamphlets, tales, and light pieces as well as poetry, all within very constricting time limits: "verse took turn and turn about with history, politics, and reviewing: the four last epics were almost entirely written before breakfast, " quips Simmons in his 1948 biography of Southey. This versatility did, however, foster the development of a distinct and admirable prose style.
Comments on His Work
Southey's poetry was first published in 1795 in Poems; containing The Retrospect, Odes, Sonnets, Elegies, &c. By Robert Lovell and Robert Southey, of Balliol College, Oxford, which included 21 poems by Southey and 11 by Lovell. His first poem of merit, "Joan of Arc, " was published in 1796. The fresh style had a strong appeal to the prevailing Romantic tastes, but to this day is not considered a great work. According to Simmons' bio, Wordsworth once opined that Southey's poetry "does not give anything which impresses the mind strongly and is recollected in solitude." Nonetheless, Southey enjoyed a viable public career as a poet which led to his appointment as Poet Laureate in 1813.
The practice of writing poetry, combined with the time constraints of production, engendered Southey's concise style of prose which has been described as vigorous, direct, unassuming, crisp, and as Simmons quotes one critic, "the style of a man who writes swiftly and voluminously, and who has discovered the true economy of a clear mind and a clean pen." Southey himself is quoted by Simmons as saying, "[t]o write poetry is the best preparation for writing prose. The versemaker gets the habit of weighing the meanings and qualities of words, until he comes to know, as if by intuition, what particular word will best fit into the sentence." Consequently, Southey played a great part in loosening up the English language. At the end of the eighteenth century, the imitators of Burke, Gibbon, and Johnson had twisted the language into elaborate, superfluous styles. Southey's prose offered elegant precision. This fresh voice suited the newly industrialized England, and his work, though sometimes politically challenging, was well received. He gained a respectable reputation in his time and many scholars and critics believe he is certainly worth examining as a contemporary study.
Unfortunately, Southey is often remembered because of his association with Wordsworth and Coleridge or as the ardent young reformer who is corrupted and turns conservative in Byron's "Vision of Judgment." His works are still read but often without knowing who wrote them. The Story of the Three Bears is one of his more popular tales. The Battle of Blenheim and The Inchcape Rock are almost considered mere folklore. His Life of Nelson is still is known but not for the vitality of the writing. Other works of Southey include: Book of the Church, a popular ecclesiastical history of England published in 1824, The History of Brazil, published in three volumes, A Tale of Paraguay, Lives of the British Admirals, and many collections of poetry. He is also known for his letters.
Robert Southey was born on the 12th of August, 1774 in Bristol, England. Though both his parents had descended from respectable families of the county of Somerset, his father was unsuccessful in business as a linen draper in the city of Bristol. At the age of two, young Southey was sent to live in Bath with his mother's unmarried half-sister, Elizabeth Tyler. Tyler is often characterized as a strong-willed woman who dominated Southey's parents as effectively as she dominated him. Not only strict but also eccentric, his aunt prohibited her young ward from playing outside lest he dirty himself or his clothing. Luckily, he was occasionally afforded the opportunity to escape to his grandmother's farm in Bedminster where he was allowed to play in the garden.
Tyler, who had a great passion for plays and actors, took her nephew first to the theater when he was four and often thereafter. Perhaps the greatest gift Tyler gave to Southey was this early indoctrination to the arts. The Bristol stage was frequently honored by great actors of the day, and they often became visitors at Tyler's home. When in public or receiving guests, Tyler's appearance and manners were those of the well-bred lady. Otherwise, she spent most of her time in the kitchen wearing only rags or bedclothes. She did encourage Southey to read and provided him with the complete set of fashionable children's books published by John Newberry. By the time he was eight, he had even read Shakespeare.
Southey's writing endeavors began as early as the age of nine with a continuation of Ariosto's Orlando, written in heroic couplets. Soon after, however, a reading of Bysshe's Art of Poetry introduced him to the versatility of blank verse. Continuing his poetic interests, he had by the time he was 15 written three cantos continuing Spencer's Faerie Queen.
School and the Conception of Pantisocracy
When Southey was 13, his maternal uncle, the Reverend Herbert Hill, decided to fund the education of his promising nephew. On April 1, 1788, Southey was entered at Westminster, with an eye towards Christ Church College at Oxford, since Hill thought Southey might become a minister. Westminster was then still one of the two leading public schools in England, rivaled only by Eton.
The rivalry included competing satirical newspapers. The publishers of The Microcosm from Eton were countered by a group at Westminster with a paper called The Trifler. Southey made an attempt to contribute to The Trifler, sending in a poem on the death of his infant sister, but this was rejected. In 1792 he and his friends started a second Westminster paper, to emulate The Trifler. He didn't actually contribute to their new publication, entitled The Flagellant, until its fifth issue, when he wrote an attack on corporal punishment in the school under the pseudonym "Gualbertus." In the article, Southey asserted that "whosoever floggeth, that is, performeth the will of Satan, committeth an abomination; to him therefore [and] to all the consumers of birch as to priests of Lucifer." School officials found the subversive attitude of the article outside the parameters of tolerance as "it advertised to the world that forces of anarchy and irreligion had secured a foothold." Southey was consequently expelled.
In 1793, the Reverend Hill again attempted to provide for Southey's education by entering him at Balliol College, Oxford. A year later, his friend Robert Allen introduced Southey to Coleridge. These young idealists shared political opinions which questioned the ethics of the Church and Christianity, as well as the established social order of England. Together with Burnett, Seward, and Robert Lovell, they conceptualized a plan to start a settlement in America run on egalitarian principles which they coined a "pantisocratic" society. Southey felt that the university system was out of date and merely perpetuated established opinions rather than educating its students. At the end of summer term in 1794, he returned to Bristol, without finishing his degree.
In Bristol, Southey and Coleridge began publishing and holding public lectures to earn money for the impending emigration. The Southey family were close friends to the Fricker family and during this time in Bristol, Southey became engaged to Edith Fricker. Lovell had already married her sister, Mary, and Coleridge married a third sister, Sara. When Southey's aunt heard of his engagement and his plans for a Pantisocracy, she rejected him for the rest of her life. Increased financial obligations and ideological differences eventually led the young group of Pantisocrats to abandon their plans.
Settling Into a Life of Letters and Family
In 1795, the Reverend Hill invited Southey to accompany him to Portugal. His uncle was hoping to distract Southey's interest from Edith Fricker, to give him time away from his angry aunt, and to convince Southey to enter the ministry. Southey accepted the invitation to please his family and to pass time until he had enough money to provide for a wife. However, Southey secretly married Edith the morning he and his uncle began their trip.
While in Portugal, Southey developed a life-long interest in Portuguese and Spanish History. He also developed a contempt for the Roman Catholic Church upon seeing the social inequities and the morals of the ruling class in Lisbon. And, though he still disliked government, he came to appreciate the benefits of being English when compared to the squalor that he experienced abroad. After six months in Lisbon, he returned to Bristol and to his wife, and then went on to London to study law with the blessing and funding of his uncle, but never finished his studies.
Southey went to Portugal again in 1800 hoping the climate would improve his and Edith's poor health. He took advantage of the time to collect information and begin writing the History of Portugal. Upon returning to England in 1801, he obtained an appointment of Private Secretary to the Chancellor of the Exchequer in Ireland, which would divide his time between London and Ireland. He was not satisfied with the position and began to feel the need to settle down: his mother had recently died; Edith was pregnant with their first child; and Coleridge was soliciting advice on his failing marriage. Southey resigned from his new position within a few months and redirected himself towards his family.
The Coleridges had rented an estate named Greta Hall and, in 1803, Southey and Edith joined them. The household also included their landlord, the widowed Mrs. Lovell, the three Coleridge children, and their nurse. Fortunately, Joan of Arc was giving Southey something of a literary reputation and he got enough of his writing published that he was able to provide for his large and growing family. By 1810, Southey had fully converted from young revolutionary poet to embrace the established order as an outspoken Tory. He felt that the industrial revolution had made people callously inhumane and he was firmly opposed to children working in factories, which he likened to a form of slavery. Southey was honored, in 1813, with the appointment of Poet Laureate on the recommendation of Sir Walter Scott, who had declined the Laureateship.
Southey spent 30 pleasant years with Edith at Greta Hall, but was greatly distressed when she suffered a nervous breakdown. She went to an asylum, returned home, fell ill, and died in 1837. Two years later, at age 65, Southey married Caroline Anne Bowles, a poet 12 years his junior who enjoyed some renown. Within a month of their marriage, his own mental faculties began to deteriorate. He continued to read and contentedly participate in daily activities, but persistent bouts of confusion prevented him from writing. He failed to recognize his friends and neglected to reply to their letters. In February 1843, Southey suffered an apoplectic seizure and died just over a month later on March 21, 1843. He was buried in Crosswaithe Churchyard, where Edith and the three children who had preceded him had been buried.
Further Reading on Robert Southey
Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest, Robert Southey, Twayne Publishers, 1977.
Carnall, Geoffrey, Robert Southey, Longmans, Green & Co., Ltd., 1964.
Cottle, Joseph, Reminiscences of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey, Wiley and Putnam, 1847.
Simmons, Jack, Southey, Yale University Press, 1948.
Southey, Robert, The Poetical Works of Robert Southey with a Memoir, Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., c. 1845