Robert Southey Southey, Robert - Essay


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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).

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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. John's College, Cambridge; With an Account of His Life. 3 vols. [editor and author of biography] 1807, 1822

Specimens of the Later English Poets. 3 vols. [editor and author of notes...

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R. W. Harris (essay date 1969)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lionel Madden (essay date 1972)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch (essay date 1974)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Hoffpauir (essay date 1975)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Ernest Bernhardt-Kabisch (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward Meachen (essay date 1979)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Edward W. Meachen (essay date 1980)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jean Raimond (essay date 1989)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Michael Shortland (essay date 1994)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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David Bruce (essay date 1995)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Carolyn Misenheimer (essay date 1997)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Diego Saglia (essay date 1999)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 785 words.)