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.