Robert Southey

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 890

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.

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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 to his aid and purchased the first of his epic poems, Joan of Arc. Moreover, his uncle, Herbert Hill, invited him to visit Lisbon, resulting in Letters in Spain and Portugal (1808) and Madoc. After returning to London, he began to study the law, but soon abandoned that exercise (as he had turned from divinity and medicine at Oxford) and once more focused his attention on poetry. Seeking seclusion, Southey moved first to Westbury, then to Burton (in Hampshire), producing additional ballads and eclogues and working hard on his History of Brazil. In April, 1800, serious illness forced him to seek the temperate climate of Portugal, where he remained for a year, completing Thalaba the Destroyer and continuing to plod along with the Brazilian history. Back in England, he settled first at Keswick, then moved to Dublin as secretary to the chancellor of the Irish exchequer, Isaac Corry. He then moved to Bristol, but the death of his mother and infant daughter drove him away from his birthplace. In 1803, partly to satisfy his wife, Southey and his family took up residence at Greta Hall, Keswick; there, practically under the same roof as his brother-in-law Coleridge, he made his home for the remainder of his life.

Work and activity at Keswick brought Southey into close association with Wordsworth and, more important, provided the motivation to produce his most ambitious poetic works. Financial pressures (particularly the support of Coleridge’s family in addition to his own), however, forced him to forsake poetry temporarily for more lucrative prose projects, which he churned out in significant quantity between 1803 and 1832. At Greta Hall, he amassed a library in excess of fourteen thousand volumes, including works that he eventually edited and translated. Between 1808 and 1839, he edited and contributed to the Quarterly Review, the result of his association with Sir Walter Scott. That relationship proved to be most advantageous to Southey’s literary career, for although Scott could not arrange to secure for his friend the post of historiographer royal, he did, in 1813, transfer the offer to be poet laureate from himself to Southey. To his credit, the latter accepted the honor only on condition that he would not be forced to write birthday odes to the sovereign or to members of the royal family. Unfortunately, however, he did manage to get into trouble with Byron and others of the liberally inclined Romantic poets when he wrote A Vision of Judgement and seemingly challenged liberal opinion. Despite squabbles with his contemporaries, his reputation remained high, as witnessed by offers to edit the Times of London and to serve as librarian of the Advocates’ Library, Edinburgh—both of which he declined.

In November, 1837, Edith Southey passed away—for years she had been failing mentally. The poet-essayist himself, according to contemporary accounts, had by this time become afflicted with softening of the brain, manifested by an obvious indifference to everyone and everything except his beloved books. Suddenly, near the end of his sixty-fourth year, Southey married (on June 4, 1839) Caroline Ann Bowles, a poet and hymnodist with whom he had maintained a close correspondence for more than twenty years. When the couple returned from their wedding tour, Southey’s condition worsened; he passed gradually from insensibility to external matters into a complete trance and died on March 21, 1843. The poet laureate was buried in Crosthwaite churchyard, and friends placed memorials in Westminster Abbey and Bristol Cathedral.

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