Robert Southey Biography


(British and Irish Poetry, Revised Edition)

Although born at Bristol, the son of Robert Southey and Margaret Hill Southey, Robert Southey spent most of his first fourteen years at Bath, in the company of his mother’s half-sister, Miss Elizabeth Tyler. Biographers describe Tyler as a lady endowed with strong personal attractions, ambitious ideas, an imperious temper, and a significantly large library. The last-mentioned asset allowed young Southey early introductions to dramatic literature, classical poetry, and the epics of Edmund Spenser. Thus, his entrance into Westminster School in April, 1788—after shorter terms at small schools in Corston and Bristol—found him well prepared to pursue learning. Nevertheless, he demonstrated little interest in subjects outside the narrow limits of his own idiosyncratic reading tastes: ceremony, ritual, and world mythology and religion. Four years later, the school authorities expelled him for his published essays against Westminster’s system of corporal punishment, specifically the flogging of students by their masters for trivial offenses. Through the efforts of his maternal uncle, the Reverend Herbert Hill, Southey gained entrance to Balliol College, Oxford (after first having been refused admission by Christ Church because of the Westminster School incident). The significant events during his undergraduate term proved to be friendships formed with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Lovell. The three determined to emigrate to the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States, there to embark on a scheme of an ideal life of unitarianism and pantisocracy (a Utopian community in which all members would rule equally). Interestingly enough, the relationship acquired even stronger ties (which would eventually cost Southey considerable money and labor) when the friends married the three daughters of the widow of Stephen Fricker, an unsuccessful sugar-pan merchant at Westbury. Southey’s marriage to Edith Fricker occurred in November, 1795.

When Elizabeth Tyler heard of her nephew’s proposal to leave England, she evicted him from her house. By that time, Southey had embarked on several literary projects, and, fortunately, a young publisher, Joseph Cottle, came...

(The entire section is 890 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

One of the hardiest of English poet laureates, Robert Southey (SOW-thee) held that post for the last thirty years of his life, from 1813 to 1843. During that time he also held a firm grip on the attention of the English reading public, though modern criticism has removed him from the pedestal that it still allows William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to rest upon. Nevertheless, even today it is impossible to dismiss him as a factor in the literary scene of the Romantic era.

Southey was the son of a Bristol linen draper. At the age of three he was surrendered to the care of a maternal aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, who lived in Bath. He attended Westminster, from which he was expelled for writing an article about flogging for the school paper. Another sympathetic relative, the Reverend Herbert Hill, sent him on to Oxford, where, after Christ Church rejected him because of the Westminster incident, he was accepted at Balliol in November, 1792.

At Oxford, according to Southey, his chief interests turned out to be boating and swimming; he did, however, briefly espouse the cause of the French Revolution. It was also at Oxford that he met Coleridge, who promptly converted him to Unitarianism and pantisocracy. The two youths jointly sponsored an idealistic scheme to establish a perfect community in America on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, a venture that died for lack of funds. Southey’s aunt, learning of the utopian project,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)