We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Robert Southey (1774–1843), by Henry Edridge, 1804 Robert Southey (1774–1843), by Henry Edridge, 1804
Southey, Robert (1774–1843), poet and reviewer, was born in Wine Street, Bristol, on 12 August 1774. He was the second son of Robert Southey (1745–1792), a linen draper descended from a family of Somerset woollen manufacturers and farmers. Robert the elder was not successful in business, and in 1792 became bankrupt. The poet's mother, Margaret (1752–1802), daughter of Edward and Margaret Hill, belonged to a higher social class: minor gentry from Herefordshire and Somerset. Her brother, Herbert Hill, was chaplain to the British factory in Porto, Portugal, and was an important influence on Robert during his adolescence and young manhood. But it was Margaret's half-sister Elizabeth Tyler who took responsibility for Robert in his childhood: he lived with her almost exclusively until the age of seven, and even after that she exerted a dominating authority. She lived in Bath, thus distancing herself from her socially inferior relatives in Bristol, and took pains to keep the boy away from playmates and the usual activities of childhood. In compensation she had a passion for the theatre which she allowed Robert to share: he saw his first play at the age of four, and was early seized with the ambition to write plays himself.

Education and early writings

The informal autobiography that Southey wrote in letters to a friend between 1820 and 1825 vividly conjures up his varied experiences of repression and bullying. The picture he gives of the schools he attended (a dame-school, two grammar schools in Bristol, and a boarding-school at Corston) is one of incompetence and brutality, though he felt that the years at his second grammar school, while unprofitable, were not unhappy. He early took to the writing of poetry, his first effort, at the age of nine or ten, being a sequel to the Orlando Furioso. Subsequent projects included historical epics, heroic epistles, a satire, some translations, and a play about the Trojan war. At the outset he thus displayed the versatility which was to mark the whole of his literary career. His reading, too, was immense. He particularly admired the great romantic epics of Ariosto, Tasso, and Spenser.

In 1788 Southey's uncle Herbert Hill had him entered at Westminster School, with a view to gaining admission to Oxford University and so to a career in the church. Here again he had to suffer the bullying and brutality of the kind experienced at his earlier schools, but he also made lasting friendships, recorded in a mass of carefully preserved correspondence. One of these friends was Charles Watkin Williams Wynn, who came from a prominent whig family in Wales. In due course he was sufficiently affluent to help Southey with a modest annuity, and in 1808 sufficiently influential to replace this with a government pension. Southey's other close friend, Grosvenor Charles Bedford, lived near London, and his family's collection of modern books was available to Southey when he visited. Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, and Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther combined to unsettle his religious beliefs, and to produce the subversive state of mind that led to his expulsion from the school. He and his friends produced a periodical after the manner of The Spectator and The Rambler, entitled The Flagellant, and at the end of March 1792 Southey contributed an attack on corporal punishment as an invention of the devil. This was too much for Dr Vincent, the headmaster, who not only expelled Southey forthwith but also warned Christ Church, the Oxford college where he expected to be enrolled, that he was an undesirable character.

Although Dr Vincent had done his best to protect Oxford from Southey's malign influence, Balliol College took a more relaxed view, and he matriculated there in November 1792, coming into residence in the following January. In the months after his expulsion from Westminster his state of mind fluctuated between near despair and exhilaration. He was encouraged by the way in which the ideas of Paine and the power of the French Revolution seemed to be triumphing over the corrupt old order, but the political atmosphere changed abruptly at the end of the year with the prospect of war between France and Britain. Southey remained faithful to his radicalism, but it was an anxious fidelity. His insecurity was heightened by his father's bankruptcy and death in the autumn of 1792.

At Balliol College, Southey found little to stimulate him, apart from some congenial new friends, notably another prospective ordinand, Edmund Seward, whose austere Christian stoicism was to be a lifelong influence. But Southey's own rejection of orthodoxy made him increasingly resistant to the idea of becoming a clergyman, and he evidently put a good deal more energy into his literary projects than into his studies. It was in 1793 that he wrote the first version of Joan of Arc, a democratic epic that celebrated a woman who was also an enemy of England. Still, he could not make a living by such outrageous challenges to convention, and by the end of 1793 he decided that he would have to make a career for himself in medicine. (His younger brother became a physician.) But sessions in the dissecting-room disgusted and disenchanted him, and he then wondered if he might follow Grosvenor Bedford into government service in the exchequer. He soon discovered that his reputation as a republican put this out of the question.

Pantisocracy

In despair Southey's thoughts turned to emigration, an idea which was the more attractive since he found himself in love with a Bristol seamstress, Edith Fricker (1774–1837), and wanted to marry her. And then in June 1794 visited Oxford and was introduced to Southey. They took to each other at once, gave each other confidence in their speculations, and by the following month had devised the scheme of pantisocracy—the establishment of an egalitarian settlement in North America. Southey was mainly responsible for persuading people to join the enterprise. He recruited members of his family and a number of his friends, including Edith Fricker and her sisters. Coleridge provided most of the theory underpinning the project, and confirmed his commitment by marrying Edith's younger sister Sara.

Southey had been reading William Godwin's recently published treatise Political Justice. Its faith in the inevitable triumph of a society based on reason attracted him, as did the role which Godwin saw literature playing in this desirable process. Pantisocracy would provide a foretaste of this triumph, and it gave him ‘new life, new hope, new energy’. All the faculties of his mind, he said, were dilated (letter of 12 Oct 1794, New Letters, 1.81–2). He left Oxford and spent the next year and a quarter in the west of England, much of it in the animating company of Coleridge. While planning emigration the two men gave ingeniously subversive public lectures. Their conversation, too, seems to have been downright audacious. They collaborated in writing a verse play on the death of Robespierre, and Southey composed a similar piece on Wat Tyler, who he supposed (thinking of his aunt) might be one of his forebears. It was at this time that he wrote his ‘Botany Bay Eclogues’, exposing the injustices of the English legal system, and the experiments in classical metres (‘The Soldier's Wife’, ‘The Widow’) so mercilessly parodied by George Canning in The Anti-Jacobin.

But the exhilaration of this period could not be sustained. Pantisocracy failed because Southey and Coleridge lacked the money even to travel to Pennsylvania, let alone establish their settlement. Southey himself was in increased financial difficulties because Miss Tyler had cast him off when she learned of the emigration plan and the engagement to a seamstress. As time went on, too, Coleridge's flamboyant radicalism, coupled with his less stable temperament, created tensions which led to an estrangement. Southey's uncle in Portugal helpfully invited his nephew to spend some months in that country, and he left Bristol for Lisbon on 19 November 1795, having secretly married Edith Fricker on the 14th. She took up residence in the family of Joseph Cottle, the bookseller who had agreed to publish Joan of Arc and who later proved to be exceedingly generous in his assistance to both Southey and Coleridge.

Portugal and beginnings of literary career

Southey's stay in Spain and Portugal lasted from mid-December to early May in the year following. He visited Madrid, but spent most of his time in and around Lisbon. He obtained a good grounding in both Spanish and Portuguese, but was repelled by his encounter with the Roman Catholic church, a repulsion that proved permanent. In spite of this, and his disgust at the lack of cleanliness that he encountered, Southey enjoyed himself on this visit, an enjoyment manifest in Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), a miscellany of verse and prose which proved quite popular and soon went into a second edition.

On his return to England, Southey and Edith began their married life in lodgings, and he embarked on his career as a professional writer. He worked on his Spanish and Portuguese Letters, wrote poetry for the Monthly Magazine, enjoyed the favourable reception that Joan of Arc received in the reviews, and, thus encouraged, went on with his next epic projects, Madoc and (somewhat later, though published first, in 1801) the Arabian tale Thalaba the Destroyer. Joan of Arc, though it had been innovative in subject, was traditional in its blank verse form. But Thalaba was written in an irregular metre that Southey had learned from Frank Sayers's Dramatic Sketches of Northern Mythology. It illustrated some aspects of Islam as Southey understood it, commending the virtues of endurance and faithfulness. The poem at its best suggests an irrepressible buoyancy, as in the hero's journey in the little boat downstream, where:
The flowing current furrow'd round
The water-lily's floating leaf
(11.34, Poems, 107)
Southey at this time needed all the resilience he could command, as his circumstances remained disquietingly unsettled. The annuity from Wynn had been offered on the understanding that Southey would study law, so when the first instalment was paid early in 1797 he moved to London and was admitted a member of Gray's Inn. But London suited neither Southey nor Edith, and after some intermediate moves they settled for a few months in Burton in Hampshire, where he made another new friend who became important to him in later years. This was John Rickman, soon to become secretary to the speaker of the House of Commons, and organizer of Britain's first census in 1801. In the next two and a half years Southey was often on the move, staying sometimes in London but more often in various parts of the south and west of England, finding indeed some sense of permanence in Martin Hall, the house he rented in Westbury-on-Trym, near Bristol, from mid-1798 to mid-1799. Throughout this time he was studying law, but devoting more and more time to literature. He had a contract to send poetry to the Morning Post, which led to his writing some of his most characteristic short lyrics. Here he showed, like Wordsworth, how far the language of the middle and lower classes was adapted to poetry. His work has less vitality, and is more conventional, than that of his rivals, which may account for his notoriously depreciatory assessment of Lyrical Ballads in the Critical Review.

Although this was a productive period, its unsettled restlessness weakened Southey's health, and made a visit to a warmer climate desirable. Once again help came from his uncle in Portugal, and he and Edith spent over a year there. By now he had conceived an ambitious project to write a history of Portugal, and he took every opportunity to collect materials, forming the nucleus of his remarkable collection of books in Spanish and Portuguese. This became a lifelong preoccupation, though the only part published was his History of Brazil (1810–19). His health much improved, he returned to England in July 1801.

Southey's friend Rickman now put him in the way of a post in the government of Ireland, recently reorganized under the Act of Union. He accepted the position of secretary to Isaac Corry, the chancellor of the exchequer there, and spent a fortnight in Dublin in October 1801. But there was no work to be done, and no prospect of any apart from serving as a tutor to Corry's son. So he resigned, the more confidently because he could already feel that his literary reputation, even notoriety, was well established. Thus, when the newly founded and instantly influential Edinburgh Review wanted to attack poetic innovation, it was by way of reviewing Thalaba (1801). Then, too, he had some unusual qualifications: in particular, his knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese, which enabled him to undertake moderately well-paid translation work, notably of Amadis of Gaul (1803), after the original by Vasco Lobeira. He was recruited by Arthur Aikin to deal with a wide range of topics for his Annual Review, and for several years this periodical was an important source of income for him.

The move to Keswick

Southey passed the winter of 1801–2 in London. It was an unhappy time, as his mother died at the beginning of January, and Edith's health was poor. In May he and Edith returned to Bristol, where in August their first child, Margaret, was born. It now became more pressing for them to find a settled residence, and Coleridge, already occupying Greta Hall in Keswick in the Lake District, urged the couple to join him and Sara there. Southey was at first unwilling because he mistrusted the climate, but when Margaret died in her first year he thought it best for Edith to be with her sister, and they moved to Keswick. It was to be the Southey home for forty years.

Coleridge's marriage had long been under severe strain, and a few months after the Southeys' arrival he left for Malta in quest of a place in the government there. Southey thus had the responsibility of looking after Coleridge's wife and three children as well as his own. In 1803 Southey, with Joseph Cottle, brought out an edition of Chatterton's poems for the benefit of the poet's family. He later performed the same service for Henry Kirke White in 1807. A second daughter, Edith May, was born to the Southeys in 1804, a son, Herbert, in 1806, then four more daughters, Emma, Bertha, Katharine, and Isabel, and, last of all, a second son, Charles Cuthbert. Southey took great pleasure in his family. As he put it in one of his last books, the rambling miscellany published as The Doctor, ‘a house is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment, unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising six weeks’ (chap. 130, 4.328). Few things distressed him more than the mistreatment of children, and in the same work he deplores the wanton, wicked suffering too often inflicted on them out of obduracy, caprice, stupidity, malignity, cupidity, and cruelty. He made sure that Greta Hall was a good place for young people, and the boisterous good humour that is one of the most attractive features of his work was evidently fostered by his home life. It enabled him to compose the one work of his which has proved unquestionably enduring (admittedly now in a range of corrupted texts), his magnificent version of the story of the Three Bears. Perhaps one might also add the flamboyant evocation of the cataract of Lodore:
curling and whirling and purling and twirling,
And thumping and plumping and bumping and jumping,
And dashing and flashing and splashing and clashing.
(Poems, 349)
Settled in Keswick, Southey came to know the Wordsworths well, at first because of their association with Coleridge, but soon, living as they did not far away in Grasmere, out of neighbourly sympathy. Through the Wordsworths he was introduced to the young Thomas De Quincey, whose vivid memories of the lake poets were later to cause great resentment. In 1805 he met Walter Scott and liked him very much, finding his conservative political outlook increasingly congenial. From the time of Southey's withdrawal from the pantisocracy scheme, his radical enthusiasm had weakened, but there were considerable fluctuations in his political sentiments. Until perhaps 1808 or 1809 he liked to think of himself as a Jacobin. Certainly many of the poems he wrote for the Morning Post in 1798 are emphatically subversive. He always insisted on free and fearless thinking in religious matters. He never modified his disparagement of William Pitt, whose war policy he abominated. In 1807 he and Wordsworth shocked De Quincey with their cheerfully irreverent republican views (De Quincey, 204–5). With the breakdown in 1803 of the brief peace of Amiens, however, he adopted the traditional British hostility to the French with enthusiasm. The hostility reached a climax in 1808 when the French invaded his beloved Spain and Portugal. From then onwards he saw the war as a crusade, and those who opposed it as little better than traitors. His most ambitious publication during this period was Madoc (1805), a long narrative celebrating the civilizing mission of virtuous Europeans in overcoming an inhumane culture in Mexico. He attached particular importance to this poem, regarding his previous work as exercises to prepare him for its composition. ‘I looked to this’, he wrote in a draft preface (prudently discarded) ‘as the monument to perpetuate my memory’ (Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, MS 221.1). The indifference of the reading public on this occasion disappointed him.

Southey's state of mind in his first years at Greta Hall emerges clearly from Letters from England (1807), the supposed work of an imaginary Spanish traveller, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. The temper is generally relaxed, but he finds some aspects of English life alarming, particularly in its industrial and commercial expansion. He compares commerce to a witch who has cast a baleful spell on the entire population, tainting every aspect of society. There is too much wealth and too much poverty. Only a taxation policy aimed at breaking down great properties might serve to break the enchantment. The theme of sinister magic is one to which Southey recurs in his poetry, and in this respect he may have spoken to a rather pervasive anxiety at the time. Meanwhile his work as a translator of Portuguese and Spanish came to fruition in Palmerin of England (1807) and Chronicle of the Cid (1808), a skilful fusion of several sources.

Southey would have given up writing his own poetry altogether had it not been for Walter Savage Landor, whom he met in 1808. Landor offered to subsidize the publication of any future epics, an encouragement which prompted Southey to continue writing his next major poem, The Curse of Kehama (1810). This was a romance, like Thalaba in irregular verse, taking Hinduism as a background to a story of resilient endurance. The invulnerability of the hero, Ladurlad, profoundly gratifies Southey's imagination, as does the eternal punishment inflicted on the aspiring Kehama:
And while within the burning anguish flows,
His outward body glows
Like molten ore, beneath the avenging Eye,
Doom'd thus to live and burn eternally.
(24.18, Poems, 206)

The Quarterly Review and Conservative politics

Kehama was published some two years after the outbreak of the Peninsular War, and by that time the euphoria attending its first phase was beginning to give way to an anxiety deepening to panic when he contemplated the political scene in Britain. His earlier Jacobinism ceased to appeal once he was forced to recognize that it was allied with opposition to the war. He was eager to take part in producing a new periodical, the Quarterly Review, dedicated to countering the influence of the widely read Edinburgh Review, which was proving lukewarm in its support of the Spanish patriots. While he had grave suspicions of the new journal's links with government ministers, the war issue took precedence over everything else. Besides, he was glad to strengthen the opposition to the Edinburgh politically since it had been hostile to his poetry. The pay, too, was excellent.

At the outset the tory management of the Quarterly did not trust Southey with political subjects. His first contribution was a defence of the Baptist Missionary Society, in effect a reply to a scornful article in the Edinburgh. Even here the editor excised any indication of indifference to theological orthodoxy, and Southey was furious when he saw how cruelly his article had been mutilated. He hoped for better things when, in 1811, he reviewed Charles W. Pasley's Essay on the Military Policy and Institutions of the British Empire. Pasley argued for a more aggressive war policy, with fewer scruples about conquest. Southey called in Rickman to help him with economic arguments to support Pasley's views, and although the resulting article contradicts Southey's enduring hostility to the industrial revolution, he was still gratified at the idea that he was establishing a new and less inhibited habit of thinking about the war. But once again the editor intervened: he called in J. W. Croker to tone down the more offensive passages. Southey refused to acknowledge the review as his when he saw the published version.

Southey had more freedom of expression in another publishing enterprise. This was the ‘history of the year’ that he contributed to the Edinburgh Annual Register, beginning with 1808. What he wrote in the first volume, which occupied him through the winter of 1809–10, illustrates the final phase of his radical commitment. He strongly supported the Spanish patriots, showed goodwill to the British radical reformers, censured government patronage, and admired (with some reservations) Cobbett's vigorous and fearless journalism. While he was, of course, scornful of Samuel Whitbread and the peace campaigners, and disturbed when radicals like Sir Francis Burdett supported them, the continuity with his former views is still unmistakable. But when he came to write the history of the following year, during the winter of 1810–11, he adopted an altogether different tone. He had to record the exposure of the duke of York's corrupt disposal of army commissions through his mistress, and the resulting ‘political Saturnalia’ which gave the mob an unwelcome taste of power (Edinburgh Annual Register for 1809, 1.230). As he was writing, the renewed mental illness of George III opened up the prospect of a regency and hence of a change of government, a change which might mean some weakening in the conduct of the war. By the time he had finished he was convinced that what the country needed was above all a strong leader. A regular opposition was absurd, and reform an invitation to anarchy.

This was Southey's political creed for the next two decades. It gave him little comfort, as increasingly he felt that events were moving inexorably towards a destructive revolution. His fears were reinforced in May 1812 when a failed businessman assassinated the prime minister, Spencer Perceval, and crowds rejoiced in the streets. In a succession of articles in the Quarterly he called for stern measures against agitators coupled with an attempt to reverse the fatal dependence on manufacturing industry. There were now extremes of inequality which undermined social cohesion and were intolerable. It was this revulsion against the commercial spirit that led him to endorse the egalitarian plans of Robert Owen, and to listen sympathetically to the young and fiercely radical poet Shelley when he visited Keswick in 1812.

Poet laureate

In 1813, partly through the efforts of Walter Scott, Southey was offered and accepted the post of poet laureate. His immediate predecessor, Henry James Pye, was extremely undistinguished, but Southey saw the appointment as an opportunity to offer much needed leadership to a nation threatened by catastrophic disruption. Though some of his odes dealt with traditional laureate subjects like a royal marriage, he lost no opportunity of making a (lofty) political point. He denounced the idea of negotiating with Bonaparte, celebrated the victory over France in 1814, commended programmes of emigration, and warned the nation of the dangers of faction and sedition. His last major narrative poem, Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), reinforced this martial message, evoking warlike passions strangely at variance with the pacifism implicit in poems like ‘The Battle of Blenheim’ of some fifteen years earlier. Admittedly the mood is very different in his Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816), where a sad visit to the battlefield is followed by an inspiring vision of the future, of a world transformed by beneficent British rule. The Life of Nelson (1813) belongs to this period, a book which continued to find readers long after most of Southey's work was forgotten. This is understandable, for Nelson was congenial to both sides of Southey's character, the kindly and the aggressive, being a war hero who was both indomitable and affectionate.

Southey was a poet laureate who took his duties as a bulwark of good order very seriously—duties which inevitably exposed him to ridicule by those who were in opposition to the tory government. Critics accused him of absurd self-importance, and were quick to point out the contrast between his former radicalism and his present role as a courtier. The contrast was underlined in 1817 when a mischievous publisher obtained a copy of Southey's youthful play Wat Tyler and printed it. The publication was enormously successful, and was acutely embarrassing to a poet laureate, although he defended himself forcefully. In his Letter to William Smith (1817) he argued that his basic convictions had never changed. His concern had always been to remove obstacles to human progress.

The sympathy that Southey felt for Nelson does not inform the more ambitious Life of Wesley (1820), impressive though this is as a conscientious account of the rise and progress of an important religious movement. Southey is stern about Methodism's enthusiasm and extravagance, and hopes that it will see its way to becoming an auxiliary of the established church.

On one occasion, at least, Southey's standing as a champion of established institutions gained him recognition that gave him unmixed pleasure. In June 1820 his old university awarded him the degree of LLD, and at the ceremony he told his daughters, ‘there was a great clapping of hands and huzzaing at my name’ (Southey, Life and Correspondence, 5.41). But there were few cheers a year later when his laureate career reached an unhappy climax with A Vision of Judgement. This was an elaborate poem in hexameters describing the king's triumphant entry into heaven. His manifest innocence put to shame those who had so troubled him during his lifetime. Rather rashly, Southey identified political opposition with discipleship of Satan, and in the preface further attacked what he called the satanic school of poetry. Lord Byron took this personally, and in his own hugely entertaining Vision of Judgment interpreted the events imagined by Southey in a way far less flattering to the dead king. Southey's reputation has never recovered from Byron's ridicule.

Southey was unfortunate in coming to the laureate's office at a time of acute social disruption, when political conflicts were savage and apocalyptic hopes and fears all too plausible. The harsh tone of his political writing after 1812, though ugly, was a natural enough reaction to a pervasive sense of insecurity. The insecurity was intensified by distresses nearer home. His much loved son Herbert died in 1816 when only nine years old, and with his death Southey lost something of his hopes for the future.

In Southey's view the threats to order and good government continued to multiply through the 1820s. The main focus of his concern was the so-called Catholic question. Until 1829 Roman Catholics in Britain and Ireland were excluded from many public offices and were forbidden to sit in parliament. Southey strongly defended these exclusions, mainly on the ground that Ireland, where most of the Catholics lived, was a barbarous country, and Catholicism a characteristic element in the barbarity: inherently, incurably, and restlessly intolerant. Unchecked, it would threaten the whole fabric of the British constitution, and attempts at conciliation served only to whet destructive appetites. Southey's contribution to the defence was to publish The Book of the Church (1824), a history of Christianity in England. It celebrated the emergence of an established church which had shown itself the guardian of religious and political liberty. The book became the focus of fierce controversy, to which Southey responded in Vindiciae ecclesiae Anglicanae (1826), making its political significance explicit. The Catholic claims were, he said, supported by every faction, ‘every demagogue, every irreligious and every seditious journalist, every open and every insidious enemy to Monarchy and to Christianity’ (p. xvi). One of the most active opponents of concessions, the earl of Radnor, thought so well of Southey's exertions that in 1826 he had him returned as MP for Downton in Wiltshire, a borough he controlled. This happened without Southey's knowledge, and as he had no wish to embark on a career in parliament he declined the honour. Certainly he would have found it painful to witness at close quarters the spectacle, some three years later, of a tory ministry under the duke of Wellington conceding Catholic emancipation.

Man of letters and last years, 1829–1843

None the less, as the pressure towards a major reform of parliament became irresistible, Southey's alarm seems to have decreased. His Colloquies of Society (1829) is a calm exposition of his mature social and political convictions: rejection of the Catholic claims and of constitutional reform, support for high taxation to redistribute wealth, and so on. The conversations are conducted with the ghost of Sir Thomas More, whose Utopia was a remote ancestor of pantisocracy. They are set in the neighbourhood of Keswick, and the beauty of the countryside tempers the generally gloomy tone of the conversation, as does the quiet of his splendid library. ‘When I go to the window there is the lake, and the circle of the mountains, and the illimitable sky’ (Colloquies, 2.343).

This quieter mood is typical of the last phase of Southey's life. It can already be detected in his last published narrative poem, A Tale of Paraguay (1825), which shows him exploring, in greater depth than elsewhere in his work, the insecurity of the human condition, the prolonged suffering to which so many are condemned. But he could still take pleasure in the vigorous ballad mode which he had always found congenial, in such poems as ‘All for Love’ and ‘The Young Dragon’ (1829). His edition of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress appeared in 1830, and in 1831 he published the poems of an ‘old servant’, John Jones, with an essay on ‘uneducated poets’. His substantial edition of Cowper's works (1835–7) includes a sympathetic biography.

Byron said that Southey
had written much blank verse and blanker prose,
And more of both than anybody knows.
(The Vision of Judgment, stanza 98)
The conscientious industry needed to write works like the History of Brazil (1810–19) and the History of the Peninsular War (1823–32) is impressive, and the curious reader can still find in them much engaging anecdote and odd information. But they show a poor narrative grasp, and little sense of a broad historical perspective. Southey was more at home with his last assignment, Lives of the British Admirals (1833–7). His last poem to be published was Oliver Newman: a New-England Tale (1845). He had been working on it for many years, but it was never finished. It was a story with an unconventional hero, a near Quaker caught up in a war with Native Americans. It appeared posthumously, as did his Commonplace Books and his various travel journals.

Vehement feelings were never far from the quiet surface, even in Southey's last years, sometimes bursting out in a startling way. When Thomas Carlyle met him in 1835 something provoked his anger, and his face became ‘slaty almost, like a rattle-snake, or fiery serpent’ (Carlyle, 2.284). He came to know Thomas Sadler and Lord Ashley (later Lord Shaftesbury), and was horrified by their accounts of child labour. He was much alarmed by ‘the devouring principle of trade’ (Colloquies, 2.253), and one of his last articles for the Quarterly warned his readers of the danger of an appalling social cataclysm if that devouring principle went unchecked (Quarterly Review, 51/279, March 1834). But checked it could be, by the corn laws and factory legislation.

The man of letters

Throughout his adult life until his mind failed at the end, Southey followed his vocation as a man of letters with a quiet diligence. He never overworked, never carried on any task until it wore him out, but passed from one assignment to another, from poetry to history to reviewing, with an equable temper. He was a strikingly handsome man, tall with aquiline features. He took regular exercise, was hospitable to visitors, and valued the time he spent with his children. He was conscientious in responding to requests for advice from aspiring writers, most famously in his letters to Charlotte Brontë in 1837. While his concern that she might be neglecting her womanly duties reflected views widely held at the time, it is also evidence of a depressed state of mind, which indeed informs much of his work. ‘My days among the Dead are past’, he said in a once famous lyric (Poems, 347), and the fact is often too apparent.

This was in part a sign of ageing. Southey had much to dispirit him. His youngest daughter, Isabel, died at the age of fourteen in 1826, and his wife was even more severely affected by this loss than he. In 1834 her mental illness became acute, and although treatment at the Quaker hospital in York did some good, she never recovered her sanity, and died in 1837. Two years later, on 4 June 1839, Southey married again. His new wife was Caroline Anne Bowles (1786–1854) [see ], whom he had known for some twenty years. He had helped her in finding publishers for her poetry, and had even collaborated with her in writing a poem on Robin Hood. But he was already suffering a loss of his faculties, and the last few years of his life were passed in senility. Robert Southey died on 21 March 1843 at Greta Hall and was buried on 23 March at Crosthwaite church in Keswick.

Southey's status as a writer has always been uncertain. He never gained from his long narrative poems the reputation he hoped for. The Life of Nelson and a few of his shorter poems were familiar to many readers for up to a century after his death, but by the late twentieth century were familiar no longer. Yet he remains an important figure for students of Romanticism, and his private letters have an enduring value. They provide an unsurpassed insight into the stresses of life in the England of his time.

Geoffrey Carnall

Sources  

The life and correspondence of Robert Southey, ed. C. C. Southey, 6 vols. (1849–50) [incl. autobiography] · Selections from the letters of Robert Southey, ed. J. W. Warter, 4 vols. (1856) · New letters of Robert Southey, ed. K. Curry, 2 vols. (1965) · Poems of Robert Southey, ed. M. H. Fitzgerald (1909) · The correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles, ed. E. Dowden (1881) · J. Simmons, Southey (1945) · G. Carnall, Robert Southey and his age (1960) · M. Storey, Robert Southey: a life (1997) · O. Williams, Lamb's friend the census-taker: life and letters of John Rickman (1911) · T. De Quincey, Recollections of the lake poets, ed. E. Sackville-West (1948) · T. Carlyle, Reminiscences, ed. C. E. Norton, 2 (1887) · W. Haller, The early life of Robert Southey (1917) · K. Curry, Southey (1975) [systematic discussion of works, with bibliography] · E. Bernhardt-Kabisch, Robert Southey (1977) · J. W. Robberds, Memoirs of the life and writings of the late William Taylor, 2 vols. (1843) · R. Southey, The doctor, 7 vols. (1834–47) · The contributions of Robert Southey to the Morning Post, ed. K. Curry (1984) · R. Southey, Letters written during a short residence in Spain and Portugal (1797) · R. Southey, Journal of a tour in the Netherlands in the autumn of 1815, ed. W. R. Nicoll (1903) · R. Southey, Journal of a tour in Scotland in 1819, ed. C. H. Herford (1929) · R. Southey, Journals of a residence in Portugal, 1800–1801, and a visit to France, 1838, ed. A. Cabral (1960) · M. Lefebure, The bondage of love (1986) [on the Fricker sisters]

Archives  

BL, corresp., literary MSS, and papers, Add. MSS 28096, 30927, 47883–47892, 49529; M/621; RP 202, 254, 487, 1222, 2544, 4533(ii) · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. and literary MSS · Boston PL, corresp. and literary MSS · Bristol Reference Library, diaries in Portugal and France, corresp. and papers · Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, papers · Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, papers · Cowper Memorial Library, Market Place, Olney, letters and literary MSS · Duke U., Perkins L., corresp. and papers · FM Cam., letters to his publisher relating to his Life of Cowper · Harvard U., Houghton L., corresp. and papers, incl. commonplace books, literary MSS · Hunt. L., corresp. and papers, incl. notebooks and literary MSS · Inst. CE, journal · JRL, letters · Keswick Museum and Art Gallery, corresp., literary MSS, and papers · McGill University, Montreal, McLennon Library, corresp. and papers · Morgan L., papers · Newnham College, Cambridge, letters · NL Scot., corresp. · NL Wales, corresp. · Ransom HRC, papers · Saffron Walden Museum, Essex, literary MSS and papers · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters and notes; literary MSS · U. Leeds, Brotherton L., letters in his Life of Nelson · University of Rochester, New York, Rush Rhees Library, corresp., literary MSS, and papers · University of Waterloo, Ontario, letters, notes, and literary MS; corresp. and papers relating to Samuel Taylor Coleridge · Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, corresp. and notebooks |  BL, letters, mostly to Anna Eliza Bray [copies], MS Facs. 615 · BL, letters to Sir John Taylor Coleridge, Add. MS 47553 · BL, letters to Charles Danvers, Add. MS 30928 · BL, letters to John May, microfilm M/596 · BL, letters to William Peachey, Add. MS 28603 · BL, letters to his brother, Thomas Southey, Add. MS 30927 · BL, letters and poems to Daniel Stuart, Add. MS 34046 · Bodl. Oxf., corresp., mainly with Grosvenor Bedford; other MSS · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Charles Danvers and Caroline Bowles [copies] · Bodl. Oxf., corresp. with Isaac D'Israeli · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Francis Douce · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Robert Gooch · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Richard Heber · Bodl. Oxf., letters to Nicholas Lightfoot · Bodl. Oxf., letters to H. H. Southey · CKS, letters to Lord Stanhope · Cumbria RO, Carlisle, letters to Lord Lonsdale · DWL, letters to Henry Crabb Robinson and others · FM Cam., letters to Baldwin & Cradock · Hunt. L., letters to Edward Locker · Hunt. L., letters to John Rickman · Keswick Museum and Art Gallery · Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letters to James Crossley · Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, letters to Charles Swain · Mirehouse, Keswick, corresp. with John Spedding · NL Scot., letters to J. G. Lockhart · NL Scot., corresp. with Sir Walter Scott · NL Wales, corresp. with C. W. W. Wynn · NRA Scotland, priv. coll., letters to John Swinton · U. Edin. L., letters to David Laing · U. Leeds, letters to John May · U. Lpool L., corresp. with Joseph Blanco White · University of Rochester, New York, Rush Rhees Library, letters to Humphrey Senhouse [copies] · University of Toronto, Victoria University, letters to Samuel Taylor Coleridge · V&A NAL, letters and literary MSS sent to W. S. Landor · Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. with John Taylor


Likenesses  

P. Vandyke, oils, 1795, NPG · R. Hancock, pencil and wash drawing, 1796, NPG · H. Edridge, pencil, chalk, and wash drawing, 1804, NPG [see illus.] · M. Betham, watercolour miniature, 1812, Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery · E. Nash, oils, 1820, NPG · S. Lane, oils, exh. RA 1824, Balliol Oxf. · T. Lawrence, oils, 1828, National Gallery of South Africa, Cape Town; repro. in K. Garlick, Sir Thomas Lawrence (1954) · F. Chantrey, marble bust, 1828–32, NPG · E. W. Wyon, wax medallion, 1835, NPG · J. G. Lough, marble effigy, 1845, Crosthwaite church, Cumberland · D. Aguirre, drawing, NPG · E. H. Baily, bust, Bristol Cathedral · W. H. Egleton, stipple (after J. Opie), BM, NPG; repro. in Southey, Life and correspondence (1849) · J. G. Lough, marble bust, NPG · S. W. Reynolds, mezzotint (after T. Phillips, 1815), priv. coll. · H. Weekes, bust, Westminster Abbey · miniature, NPG