Robert Southey

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 342

The collected prose works of Robert Southey (SOW-thee, also SUHTH-ee) comprise almost forty volumes, ranging from literary criticism to biography, from fiction to translations. Letters from England by Don Manuel Espriella (1807) is a satiric commentary on everyday life in contemporary England, while Sir Thomas More (1829) reveals Southey again examining society, this time by way of conversations between the spirit of the departed More and Montesimos (Southey himself). His so-called novel, the seven-volume The Doctor (1834-1847), concerns Dr. Daniel Dove of Doncaster and his horse Nobs; as a fantasy and a commentary on life, the excruciatingly lengthy piece reminds one of Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759-1767)—without the artistic qualities of that remarkable work of fiction. Hidden within chapter 129 of Southey’s effort lies the first-known telling of the nursery classic “The Three Bears.”

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Life of Nelson (1813) and Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820) head the list of Southey’s biographical studies. Others of note include A Summary of the Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington (1816); the Life of John, Duke of Marlborough (1822); Lives of the British Admirals (1833-1840); and The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell (1844, one volume only), the Scottish-born educationist who founded the National Society for the Education of the Poor. Southey’s historical writings include the History of Brazil (1810-1819), The History of Europe (1810-1813), and the History of the Peninsular War (1823-1832). In 1812, Southey published The Origin, Nature, and Object of the New System of Education. This was followed by The Book of the Church (1824), Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae (1826), and Essays Moral and Political (1832).

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Southey was also an editor and translator. Among his edited works are The Annual Anthology (1799-1800), The Works of Chatterton (1803, with Joseph Cottle), Palmerin of England (1807), Isaac Watts’s Horae Lyricae (1834), and The Works of William Cowper (1835-1837). Southey’s notable translations include Jacques Necker’s On the French Revolution (1797), Vasco Lobeira’s Amadis de Gaul (1805), the Chronicle of the Cid (1808), Abbe Don Ignatius Molina’s The Geographical, Natural, and Civil History of Chili (1808), and Memoria Sobre a Litteratura Portugueza (1809).


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

During his lifetime, Robert Southey enjoyed moments of popularity and success; there were even those among his contemporaries who believed that he ranked with the best of his nation’s poets. He outlived Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Sir Walter Scott, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats, yet rarely does one find mention of his name in a discussion of the significant figures and forces that shaped British Romanticism in the first part of the nineteenth century. Although Southey is deep in the shadows of William Wordsworth and Coleridge, appearing in literary histories only as their mediocre associate, his poetry deserves a careful reading, especially that written before 1801. This early work reveals an extremely high degree of versatility, not always appreciated by those who study only the first rank of nineteenth century British Romantics. The simplicity and directness of language found in Southey’s early ballads and short narratives echo Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads (1798), but the pieces succeed because the poet could rise above pure imitation. He could also write irregular odes and heroic epistles that demonstrated his knowledge of the Augustan Age, he knew how to create sublime imagery with the aid of biblical themes, and he could plunge downward to concoct playful exercises with pigs and gooseberry pies. He was adept in a variety of poetic forms: the elegy, the sonnet, the sapphic, the ballad, the metrical tale.

The content of Southey’s poems is as varied as the form. While at Balliol College, Oxford, during the period of his enthusiasm for republicanism, he wrote a dramatic poem on Wat Tyler, the leader of the peasant revolt of 1381, while four years later, his piece on the first duke of Marlborough’s victory at Blenheim (August, 1704) during the War of the Spanish Succession graphically underscored the poet’s sentiments on the futility of war—“But what good came of it at last?” In what seemed a radical shift of poetical gears, Southey rode hard and fast on the waves of the Gothic horror narrative in “God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop” (1799), in which he adapted the legendary story of a tenth century German bishop who was attacked and then devoured by a pack of rats. At the outset of the nineteenth century, he turned to a series of epic poems—Thalaba the Destroyer and The Curse of Kehama being two examples—that placed him alongside his contemporaries in the Romantic quest for glamour and the grandeur of distant places and even more distant times.

Southey’s greatest weakness may have been his inability to recognize his own limitations as a poet. He remained unaware of what he could do best. He took his role as poet laureate of England far too seriously—especially in view of the fact that the honor came only because Sir Walter Scott refused to accept it. Not only did he exercise poor political and critical judgment by attacking Byron, but he also wrote, in 1821, the unnecessarily lengthy A Vision of Judgement, in which he attempted to transport the recently departed King George III into heaven. Byron, of course, replied in the preface to his similarly titled poem (The Vision of Judgment, 1822), “If Mr. Southey had not rushed in where he had no business, and where he never was before,” paraphrasing Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Criticism (1711), “the following poem would not have been written.” Southey never appreciated his skill as a writer of shorter and less ambitious poems wherein, for example, he could calmly reflect on his personal love of good books in his own large library, as in “My Days Among the Dead Are Past.” Perhaps, also, he never realized the extent to which he could display his talent with language, as in the onomatopoetic and highly animated “The Cataract of Ladore.” Interestingly enough, when Southey could isolate himself from the perils and problems of a large, ugly world, he achieved considerable maturity as a poet. Unfortunately, the periods of imaginative seclusion were both irregular and inconsistent.


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Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. Robert Southey. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A study of Joan of Arc follows a sketch of Southey’s early life. Chapter 3 assesses his personality and lyrical poetry. The central chapters analyze his epics and the verse of his laureate years. The last chapter is a survey of Southey’s prose. Contains chronology, notes, select bibliography, and index.

Bolton, Carol. Writing the Empire: Robert Southey and Romantic Colonialism. London: Pickering & Chatto, 2007. The author places Southey’s writings, including his epic poetry, within their historical context to argue that Southey’s views created a moral imperialism that shaped Victorian values.

Carnall, Geoffrey. Robert Southey and His Age: The Development of a Conservative Mind. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. Part 1 focuses on Southey as Jacobin, devoted to radical reform and democracy. Part 2 analyzes Southey as Tory, advocating strong government and conservativism. Finally, the question of whether Southey should be called an apostate is examined. Supplemented by illustrations, two appendixes, and an index.

Curry, Kenneth. Southey. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. Reviews Southey’s life, prose, and poetry. Includes bibliography and index.

Pratt, Lynda, ed. Robert Southey and the Contexts of English Romanticism. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2006. A specially commissioned collection of essays on Southey that examine the links between the writer and English Romanticism. The essays focus on culture, politics, and history, although many deal with his writings, including his poetry.

Simmons, Jack. Southey. 1945. Reprint. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1968. A substantial biography of modest length, this book details Southey’s education, his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his sojourn in Portugal. His fame leads to political controversies, and his declining years begin with the death of his daughter Isabel. Contains illustrations, a note on the Southey family, a list of Southey’s works, notes, and an index.

Smith, Christopher J. P. A Quest for Home: Reading Robert Southey. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1997. A historical and critical study of the works of Southey. Includes bibliographical references and index.

Speck, W. A. Robert Southey: Man of Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. This biography of the poet discusses his poetry but also establishes Southey as more than a poet: as essayist, reviewer, historian, biographer, and novelist. Includes bibliography and index.

Storey, Mark. Robert Southey: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Storey tells the fascinating story of a complex and contradictory man, the mirror of his age, and provides a different perspective on familiar events and figures of the Romantic period.

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Critical Essays