Robert Southey 1774-1843
English poet, historian, biographer, and essayist. For further information on Southey's life and career, see NCLC, Volume 8.
Robert Southey, an English poet of the Romantic period, was associated with the Lake School, which included such luminaries as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Lamb, and William Wordsworth. Though he enjoyed considerable fame and his work was well respected during his lifetime—he served as Poet Laureate of England for thirty years—his reputation since then has been overshadowed by these other, more illustrious poets. In addition to his epic poems, Southey was a prolific writer of histories, biographies, and essays, many of which are considered superior to his often pedestrian verse. One of his most treasured contributions to literature, however, is his children's fable “The Story of the Three Bears,” which was included in his anonymously published collection The Doctor (1834–1847).
Born in Bristol, England, on August 12, 1774, Southey had an unhappy childhood. Neglected by his parents, he was raised by his mother's half sister, and he experienced the death of five of his siblings during childhood. He grew up to be an emotionally sensitive and rebellious young man. After being expelled from the Westminster School in 1792 because of his stand against the practice of flogging, Southey matriculated at Balliol College, Oxford. While there he met and befriended Samuel Taylor Coleridge who shared Southey's distaste for what they saw as an English system of tyranny. The two worked on a plan to establish a “pantisocracy”—a kind of agrarian utopia—in America; however, the idea was later abandoned because of a lack of money.
After marrying Edith Fricker in 1795 and traveling to Spain and Portugal, Southey returned to England and gained fame for several epic poems. Although popular, these epic works were sometimes criticized for their unconventional meter and lack of passion. Ironically, though, Southey had consciously attempted to curb his passionate emotions in these verses. As he became more financially successful, Southey's rebelliousness was gradually tamed and he became a conservative Tory. His writings increasingly turned to history and biography, though as Poet Laureate, an office he gained in 1813, he was charged with the task of immortalizing numerous events in verse. He also frequently contributed articles to the Quarterly Review, a Tory publication. Despite his conservative leanings, Southey supported the workers and protested their exploitation. He believed that through his biographies and other books he could provide enlightening examples of virtuous lives and thus be an agent for reform.
Southey also authored several histories and biographies to help support his growing family. His position as Poet Laureate provided some stability, and Southey's tenure in that office helped restore some of the position's prestige that had been lost by previous poets. He suffered some embarrassment when his early radical epic Wat Tyler was published against his wishes in 1817, a time when he and the other Lake poets were under attack for being overly conservative, but ironically, the controversy made Southey even more popular. Southey's poetic output decreased considerably in his later years, and his reputation during this time rested on the strength of his essays. After his wife's death in 1837, Southey married Caroline Bowles in 1838. However, his mind began to fail soon after, and his health declined until his death on March 21, 1843.
Southey's early poetical works reveal a young and rebellious man who sympathized with the French Revolution. The Fall of Robespierre (1794), a drama he wrote with Coleridge, and Joan of Arc (1796), have definite revolutionary themes, and the latter gained the poet early recognition. Southey's reputation during his lifetime was largely established by his epics: Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Madoc (1805), and The Curse of Kehama (1810), all set in exotic locations. His goal in creating these works was to render the major mythologies of the world in poetic form, and the themes shared by all three involve the importance of family, the need to destroy evil in the world, and a love of nature. His poems also explore the nature of leadership while theorizing about the types of government that might lead to a truly great and just civilization. Southey's last major poem, Roderick, the Last of the Goths (1814), set on the Iberian peninsula, was written after the poet had switched to a more conservative stance and exhibits nationalistic overtones missing from his previous work. Southey was an ardent supporter of Spain in its fight against France and Napoleon.
Even as an historian, Southey was considered a romanticist in that he wished to show how religion imposed itself upon historical events. As with his epic poems, his historical writings reflect his belief that heroic individuals, guided by their principles, could greatly affect the course of historical events. His belief in the importance of the individual is reflected in the devotion of hundreds of pages to the man who is credited with freeing Brazil from Dutch control, Joam Vieria, in History of Brazil (1810-19). Strength of character, nationalism, and courage are treated as the greatest virtues in Southey's The Life of Nelson (1813), which follows the career of the brilliant English strategist Admiral Nelson in his battles against the French. Southey's admiration for Nelson is well documented, and although his biography is not as factually accurate as others, it is considered by many to be Southey's greatest work and the one that most demonstrates the author's passionate involvement with his subject.
Southey was also known for his love for his children, obvious from his many letters to them collected in several publications. Those contained in The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (1849) display a wit and humor not often seen in his verse and prose—with the exception of his classic children's tale “The Story of the Three Bears.” This story, which has been much changed over the years from its original version of three brother bears and an old, wicked woman, remains one of his greatest legacies.
Although Southey gained a reputation sufficient to become his country's Poet Laureate, his verses were often criticized by his contemporaries. Critics and fellow poets disapproved of the absence of rhyme and traditional meter in his epic poems. They also noted a certain dispassionate intellectualism that made the verses less than poetic, with the exception of Southey's colorful descriptions of battles. Despite this, he was, in his day, as prominent a poet than either Coleridge or Wordsworth.
After Southey's death, his works were largely neglected in favor of those of other poets, and were rarely studied or taught. However, in more recent years a number of academics have noted that Southey deserves more attention, and although still not considered a great poet, he has been credited as an important contributor to the Romantic movement. More importantly, however, attention has been lately drawn to Southey's social ideas—expressed through his many essays—including his support for human rights in an era of English history in which workers' rights were virtually crushed. He is considered influential in the development of Christian socialism.
Some modern critics reason that Southey, whose writing was the sole source of income for his family and helped support many of his friends as well, often wrote less-than-inspiring work because he was greatly concerned with earning enough to provide for his loved ones. Others contend that he simply lacked the genius of the other Lake Poets. Despite the general agreement that Wordsworth and Coleridge far outshine Southey creatively, the poet is increasingly considered an important figure of the Romantic period, and a number of critics contend that a full appreciation of this period in English literature cannot be obtained by ignoring Southey's contribution.
The Fall of Robespierre. An Historical Drama [with Samuel Taylor Coleridge] (drama) 1794
Poems: Containing The Retrospect, Odes, Elegies, Sonnets, etc. [with Robert Lovell] (poetry) 1795
Joan of Arc, an Epic Poem (poetry) 1796
Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal. With Some Account of Spanish and Portugueze Poetry (letters) 1797; revised edition, 1799
On the French Revolution, by Mr. Necker. 2 vols. [volume 2 translated by Southey] (history) 1797
Poems. 2 vols. (poetry) 1797
The Annual Anthology 2 vols. (poetry) 1799
Thalaba the Destroyer 2 vols. (poetry) 1801
Amadis of Gaul. 4 vols. [translator; from the book by Vasco Lobeira] (romance) 1803
The Works of Thomas Chatterton. 3 vols. [editor with Joseph Cottle] 1803
Madoc. 2 vols. (poetry) 1805
Metrical Tales, and Other Poems (poetry) 1805
Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. Translated from the Spanish. 3 vols. [as Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella] (letters) 1807
Palmerin of England. 4 vols. [translator; from the book by Francisco de Moraes] (romance) 1807
The Remains of Henry Kirke White, of Nottingham, Late of St....
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SOURCE: “Robert Southey: Toryism and the Social Question,” in Romanticism and the Social Order 1780-1830, Blandford Press, 1969, pp. 263-86.
[In the following essay, Harris explains Southey's social and political beliefs, their evolution, and how they are reflected in his epic poems, histories, biographies, and essays.]
Of all the tory writers, none was more deeply concerned with the social problems of the time than Robert Southey. At the age of eighteen, as an undergraduate of Balliol, he had celebrated the French Revolution with an epic on Joan of Arc. He despised what he called ‘the pedantry, prejudice, and aristocracy’ of the university, gave up powdering his hair, and was accounted a Jacobin. Under the influence of Coleridge, and with his friend Robert Lovell, he threw himself into Pantisocracy, a plan for a perfect social life on the banks of the Susquehanna. He incorporated his republican sentiments in a drama called Wat Tyler, which however he was prudent enough not to publish, and which appeared only in a pirated edition in 1817. When his enemies attacked him for the expression of views so unlike those he held in 1817, he replied in the Quarterly Review that Wat Tyler expressed the errors of youth and ignorance, but that at least ‘they bore no indication of an ungenerous spirit, or of a malevolent heart’ (Essays, II, 9).
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SOURCE: “Introduction,” Robert Southey: The Critical Heritage, edited by Lionel Madden, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972, pp. 1-31.
[In the following essay, Madden discusses Southey's critical reputation from his own time through the twentieth century.]
Imagine me in this great study of mine from breakfast till dinner, from dinner till tea, and from tea till supper, in my old black coat, my corduroys alternately with the long worsted pantaloons and gaiters in one, and the green shade, and sitting at my desk, and you have my picture and my history.
This was Southey's description of himself as a professional author in 1804.1 Nine years later Byron wrote in his journal: ‘His appearance is Epic; and he is the only existing entire man of letters. All the others have some pursuit annexed to their authorship’ (No. 45). Byron proceeded to praise Southey's ‘talents of the first order’, finding them displayed in his ‘perfect’ prose and in those passages of his poems which are ‘equal to any thing’. To the modern reader this seems high commendation from one who had already gibed at Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers and who was later to appear as his most powerful satirist and critic. The contradictions in Byron's attitude to Southey, however, may be seen as indicative of the complex ambiguity of...
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SOURCE: “Southey in the Tropics: A Tale of Paraguay and the Problem of Romantic Faith,” in Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 5, No. 2, Spring, 1974, pp. 97-104.
[In the following essay, Bernhardt-Kabisch discusses one of Southey's least-known poems, A Tale of Paraguay, and explains how this unromantic verse narrative expresses the poet's central literary concerns.]
Southey's poetry remains as lifeless today as it was when it fell huge but still-born from the press over a century and a half ago. With the possible exception of one or two lyrics and a few scattered passages in the long poems, his verse has neither wit nor depth, neither music nor metaphoric resonance, but is at best picturesque, rhetorically dignified and metrically dextrous, and all too often dull, banal, and downright shoddy. Southey may have been a very good man (as the Victorians kept pointing out) but he was also a bad wizard, whose magic was mere machinery and apparatus, and whose Pegasus was only a large balloon.
Yet Southey's failure as a poet solicits our understanding, if not our respect. For while there is nothing grand in his voluminous miscarriages, the problems that challenged and defeated Southey, sheer lack of genius aside, were problems that all the Romantics had to confront and found formidable, problems involving the authenticity of poetic vision itself—what Keats called “the truth of...
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SOURCE: “The Thematic Structure of Southey's Epic Poetry,” in Wordsworth Circle, Vol. 6, No. 4, Autumn, 1975, pp. 240-48.
[In the following essay, Hoffpauir investigates Southey's epic poetry and points out the three major themes that run through them: the necessity to eliminate evil in the world, the importance of family ties, and the intrinsic benevolence that is found in nature.]
A persistent refrain which sounds through criticism of Robert Southey's five epic poems is the lack of narrative unity. In The Spirit of the Age (1825), when Hazlitt compared the structures to “the unweeded growth of a luxuriant and wandering fancy” (p. 177), he was summing up the charge by most reviewers: the epics did not “adhere to ‘strict rules of harmonious composition’”; there was “no dependency of parts” (Monthly Review, 39 [Nov., 1802], 240, 250); they were “composed of scraps … much like the pattern of … patch-work drapery” (Edinburgh Review, 1 [Oct., 1802], 77). Francis Jeffrey, in the Edinburgh, led this attack, proceeding on the assumption stated in his review of Marmion in April, 1808: “No long poem … can maintain its interest without a connected narrative” (p. 8). The principle of connection, however, was narrowly defined as a “rational” or cause-and-effect relationship between juxtaposed episodes, a succession of incidents which imitates...
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SOURCE: “Days Among the Dead: Prose Writings,” in Robert Southey, Twayne, 1977, pp. 158-80.
[In the following essay, Bernhardt-Kabisch discusses Southey's prose writings, contending that these works are superior to Southey's poetry.]
By common opinion, Southey's prose is greatly superior to his poetry. Contemporaries deemed it exemplary, and more recent critics have tended to agree. In fact, Southey did much to free English prose from the labored solemnity of the school of Johnson, Gibbon, and Burke and to develop a medium suited to scholarly exposition, practical controversy, and unadorned narrative—a style, as he put it, pregnant with meaning yet “plain as a Doric building” ([The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey, hereafter] Life, II, 133). Plainness, however, is not always a virtue; and, if Southey's prose is, as Coleridge said, a model of transparency and down-to-earth functionalism, it is also quite unpoetic and justifies Byron's quip about the Laureate's “blank verse and blanker prose”: it is unfailingly discursive and denotative, often abstract and Latinate in diction, rhythmical but not melodious, almost void of metaphor, and frequently poor in active verbs and constructions. Always richly informative, it seldom reaches beyond the merely practical or commonplace in thought and feeling, seldom transforms knowledge into power. It thus cannot, despite its vast...
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SOURCE: “History and Transcendence in Robert Southey's Epic Poems,” in Studies in English Literature 1500-1900, Vol. 19, No. 4, Autumn, 1979, pp. 589-608.
[In the following essay, Meachen analyzes Southey's epic poems in terms of how they reflect the poet's and contemporary society's moral, political, and social ideas. The critic also explains how Southey attempted to show through his verses that societal reform could be achieved by adhering to common moral ideas and through the irresistible progression of history.]
“In verse only we throw off the yoke of the world,” Robert Southey wrote years after abandoning poetry as a vocation, “and are as it were privileged to utter our deepest and holiest feelings. … We express in it, and receive in it sentiments for which, were it not for this permitted medium, the usages of the world would neither allow utterance nor acceptance.”1 He always believed that poetry was the sublimest form for expressing that “manifestation of spirit” and “inward revelation” he had experienced during the course of the French Revolution.2 Poetry offered him the means to convey religious and historical beliefs to a public that might otherwise be shocked by his heterodoxy.
Southey's epics are not particularly sublime. Occasionally he strikes a responsive chord in the reader's mind, but for the most part his verse is fairly...
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SOURCE: “From an Historical Religion to a Religion of History: Robert Southey and the Heroic in History,” in CLIO, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter, 1980, pp. 229-52.
[In the following essay, Meachen discusses Southey's role as a “romanticist” historian and compares his work to that of his contemporary Sharon Turner.]
In one of his imaginary conversations, Walter Savage Landor has Robert Southey say that “we must see through many ages before we see through our own distinctly.”1 Landor's characterization of Southey is insightful: no one in the early Nineteenth Century strove harder to see through many ages and many civilizations, and few sought more diligently to apply what they had learned to the problems of contemporary society. History remained an abiding passion for Southey, more enduring even than the poetry for which he is remembered. Though he was a prolific historian, biographer, and reviewer of histories, his historical work has been generally ignored; no just estimation of his histories or analysis of his philosophy of history has been undertaken.2 Yet Southey's historical writings tell us much about the man and the age. His works suggest a movement away from the “philosophical” history favored in the Eighteenth Century, but do not fit into that genre of Christian history so characteristic of the other prominent Romantic historian of early nineteenth-century England,...
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SOURCE: “Southey's Early Writings and the Revolution,” in The Yearbook of English Studies, Vol. 19, 1989, pp. 181-96.
[In the following essay, Raimond argues that Southey's early poems were more important than current critics believe in initiating the era of Romanticism in poetry, discussing how Wat Tyler and Joan of Arc reflect the young poet's republican idealism and sympathies for the French Revolution.]
Robert Southey's attitude towards the French Revolution is an instructive case. A staunch supporter of the Revolutionary ideals in his early years, the author of Joan of Arc and Wat Tyler was horrified by the excesses of the Terror, which, together with several other factors, led the former Radical to become strongly conservative. Even more than Wordsworth and Coleridge, whose political development was very similar, Southey was branded by his enemies as a contemptible shallow ‘turncoat’. When the hitherto unpublished anti-royal three-act play Wat Tyler was unexpectedly brought to light in February 1817, only two days after the publication in the Quarterly Review of a Tory article on ‘Parliamentary Reform’ in which Southey vilified those journalists, pamphleteers and lampooners who specialized in abusing official authorities and preaching rebellion against the Establishment, Southey (who had accepted the office of Poet Laureate four years earlier)...
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SOURCE: “Robert Southey's The Doctor, &c.: Anonymity and Authorship,” in English Language Notes, Vol. 31, No. 4, June, 1994, pp. 54-63.
[In the following essay, Shortland investigates several explanations for why Southey published The Doctor anonymously, including the idea that the author wished to protect his status as a poet.]
Every student of English literature (albeit perhaps unknowingly) is familiar with anonymous publication. Some of our most significant novels—Pamela, Joseph Andrews, Roderick Random, all Jane Austen's early work—have appeared with no attributed author, and so have such poems as Gray's Elegy, Byron's Don Juan, and Tennyson's In Memoriam. There are listed in Halkett and Laing's Dictionary (1882-8) thousands of other examples of anonymous, pseudonymous and “initialled” authorship, ranging widely in style and scope.1
Authors hide behind the veil of anonymity for the most part to protect themselves or their reputation. But there are many other motives besides caution, for anonymity can just as surely attract as deflect attention. Perhaps surprisingly, given the amount of such publications, there exist, with the exception of brief studies of particular authors who at some stage in their careers went “under cover” and of disputes over anonymity in Victorian periodicals, almost no...
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SOURCE: “The Publishing History of ‘The Three Bears,’” in Book Collector, Vol. 44, No. 3, Autumn, 1995, pp. 318-38.
[In the following essay, Bruce traces the history of Southey's famous children's story and how it metamorphosed over time from a story of three brother bears and a villainous old woman into a story of a family of bears and a foolish little girl.]
‘The Story of the Three Bears’ first appeared in printed form in Volume IV (1837) of the ‘Doctor’, a miscellany of episodes and essays written anonymously by Robert Southey of which five volumes had appeared by the time of Southey's death in 1843. Two further volumes, edited and published by his son-in-law John Wood Warter, completed the series in 1847. Southey's essays are linked by the history of the imaginary Dr Daniel Dove of Doncaster, and the story of the three bears appears in Chapter CXXIX of Volume IV, the heading of which is: ‘Wherein the author speaks of a tragedy for the ladies, and introduces one of William Dove's stories for children.’ ‘Uncle William’ is conjured up as the past narrator of the tale to the doctor in his youth, and it is noteworthy that he had a real-life counterpart in William Tyler, the half-brother of Southey's mother. William Tyler, though his wits may have been addled, was a fluent exponent of the traditional tale, and Southey recorded elsewhere: ‘I often regret that my memory should have...
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SOURCE: “Southey's ‘The Three Bears’: Irony, Anonymity, and Editorial Ineptitude,” in Charles Lamb Bulletin, Vol. 97, January, 1997, pp. 41-42.
[In the following essay, Misenheimer notes that, although Southey is not considered a major author of the Romantic period, he contributed important works, including his children's story “The Three Bears,” which has become so entrenched in our literary consciousness that some editors have mistakenly believed its anonymity is due to its origins being lost to time.]
In another age, Robert Southey might well have received more attention and achieved a higher status. Because he was a contemporary of such literary greats as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Keats and Shelley, he stands in the second line of literary figures of that era with such worthies as Lamb, Hazlitt, Leigh Hunt, and Thomas Hood. In every literary genre upon which he concentrated, Southey was immensely prolific. His political works fill six volumes, his poetic works fill ten volumes, and his letters (the one genre he never intended for publication) fill eight volumes. He wrote constantly, always conscious of two paramount issues. One was his own need to maintain his personal integrity by writing well and accurately. The other overriding force was his perpetual need for money, caused not by profligacy or greed but rather by his noble assumption of financial responsibility for Coleridge's...
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SOURCE: “Nationalist Texts and Counter-Texts: Southey's Roderick and the Dissensions of the Annotated Romance,” in Nineteenth Century Literature, Vol. 53, No. 4, March, 1999, pp. 421-51.
[In the following essay, Saglia compares the text of Southey's last epic poem Roderick, the Last of the Goths with actual historical events, and discusses how the poem reflects Southey's interest in cultural and national identity.]
On 18 July 1811 the radical poet, thinker, and reformer John Thelwall invited Robert Southey and Henry Crabb Robinson to dine at his home. Robinson had recently returned from Spain, where he had been sent as a reporter for the Times, while Southey was a staunch supporter of the Peninsular campaigns and one of the major British experts on Iberian culture. Thus conversation at Thelwall's table soon centered on the war that the British army had been fighting for over three years against the Grande Armée on the Peninsula.1 Even if pessimism was by then the prevalent political feeling, Southey still firmly believed in the Spanish cause, and his interventions at dinner confirmed that despite the recent defeats his hopes for the Spaniards' final success were unchanged. But as recorded in Robinson's account, political topics soon gave way to a literary discussion about the latest publications on the market. Southey, who had been working for some time on a...
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Bauman, Michael. “The Historicity of the Trial Scene in Southey's Joan of Arc: A Note.” In Charles Lamb Bulletin 79 (1992): 254-55.
Maintains that although Southey was faithful to the historical record for the most part in his Joan of Arc, there were occasional alterations to history in the name of poetic license.
Butler, Marilyn. “Revising the Canon.” In Times Literary Supplement 4418 (December 4, 1987): 1349, 1359-60.
Proposes that canonical poets in English literary history can be better understood when studied together with minor poets, and offers Robert Southey as an example of one whose poems help put the works of more famous poets in clearer perspective.
de Deugd, Cornelis. “Friendship and Romanticism: Robert Southey and Willem Bilderdijk.” In Europa Provincia Mundi, pp. 369-88. Atlanta, Georgia, and Amsterdam: Rodopi, 1992.
Explores the possible influence of Dutch author Willem Bilderdijk's friendship with Southey on the latter's work.
Eastwood, David. “Ruinous Prosperity: Robert Southey's Critique of the Commercial System.” In Wordsworth Circle 25, No. 2 (Spring 1994): 72-76.
Examines Southey's writings on economics and commercial society, suggesting that they were informed by the standard Romantic Tory...
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