Robert Southey[a] (12 August 1774 – 21 March 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic school, one of the Lake Poets along with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and England’s poet laureate for thirty years from 1813 until his death in 1843. It was a time of great political and social upheaval, and saw Southey’s political attitudes hardening from republicanism to conservatism, which was reflected in his literary output. Many of his contemporaries perceived him as having sold out to the establishment, but he was unapologetic.
Southey has long been eclipsed by Wordsworth and Coleridge, although some of his shorter poems were familiar to many readers until the late 20th century. Probably his best-known work today is the children’s classic The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks story, first published in his prose collection The Doctor in 1837. Posterity has not been kind to Southey, whose reputation never really recovered after he was ridiculed by his fellow poet Lord Byron.
Robert Southey was born in Wine Street, Bristol, to Robert Southey and Margaret Hill. Margaret’s half-sister Elizabeth Tyler belonged to a family of minor gentry; she took responsibility for the young Robert, and he lived with her until the age of seven and she supported him throughout his teenage years.
Southey was educated at Westminster School, London, from which he was expelled in 1792 for writing an article in The Flagellant condemning flogging, and Balliol College, Oxford. Southey later said of Oxford, “All I learnt was a little swimming … and a little boating”, which is perhaps unsurprising as he only spent two terms there. The intention was that after graduating he would be ordained into the church, but events took a different turn. Increasingly Southey began to reject the idea of becoming a clergyman, and started to devote more and more of his time to writing. But believing that he would not be able to make a career out of it he turned his attention to medicine and briefly to law, but he found neither to be any more to his taste than the church.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited Oxford in June 1794, and he and Southey became instant friends. A month after meeting they had devised the idea of pantisocracy, an egalitarian community they proposed to establish in North America.
Their [the members of the community’s] wants would be simple and natural; their toil need not be such as the slaves of luxury endure; where possessions were held in common, each would work for all; in their cottages the best books would have a place; literature and science, bathed anew in the invigorating stream of life and nature, could not but rise reanimated and purified. Each young man should take to himself a mild and lovely woman for his wife; it would be her part to prepare their innocent food, and tend their hardy and beautiful race.
Their idealistic vision was doomed to failure, as neither Southey nor Coleridge had the money even to travel to Pennsylvania, much less set up a settlement. Southey’s financial difficulties increased when Elizabeth Tyler heard of his engagement to a mere seamstress, Edith Fricker, and she ceased her support. Southey and Edith married secretly on 14 November 1795, and five days later he set off to spend some time with his uncle in Portugal.
Southey remained in Portugal, chiefly in Lisbon and with occasional trips to Spain, until May 1796. On his return to England, he and Edith set up home in rented accommodation and lived a somewhat itinerant lifestyle, frequently moving from lodging to lodging, until in 1802 Coleridge urged them to join him at Greta Hall in Keswick, in the Lake District. Coleridge’s wife Sara was Edith’s sister, and as Southey believed that it would be good for Edith to be with her sister, he overcame his initial misgivings about the climate. Greta Hall became his home for the next forty years.
Coleridge’s marriage had long been under strain, and a few months after the arrival of the Southeys he left for Malta in the hope of finding a position in the government there, leaving his wife Sara and their three children to be supported by Southey on the small income he received from writing. He and Edith had eight children themselves, six daughters and two sons, and he derived great pleasure from his family; in The Doctor he writes “a house is never perfectly furnished for enjoyment, unless there is a child in it rising three years old, and a kitten rising six weeks”.
In 1813 Southey was appointed poet laureate after Walter Scott refused the post, a position he held until his death thirty years later. He received an annual salary of £100 for the job, equivalent to about £6000 in 2017.
Southey was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford University in 1820. The Whig politician Sir James Mackintosh, who was present at the ceremony, described him as “a good deal oldened … [but] in spite of a touch of affectation … very pleasant. Edith died in 1838, and Southey remarried on 4 June 1839. His new wife, Caroline Anne Bowles, was also a poet whom Southey had known for twenty years. He had helped her to find publishers for her poetry, but by the time of their marriage he was suffering from the onset of senility and had already begun to lose his mind. Southey died on 21 March 1843 and was buried in the churchyard of Crosthwaite Church, Keswick.
Towards the end of his life, in 1837, Charlotte Brontë asked Southey for his advice on some of her poems. He wrote back praising her talents, but discouraging her from writing professionally: “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life”. Brontë appears not to have taken Southey’s advice too seriously, as ten years later she published Jane Eyre.
Southey had written his first poem at the age of eight or nine, a sequel to the Orlando Furioso, and while at Oxford had written the first version of Joan of Arc, but his stay in Portugal marked the true beginning of his literary career. While in that country he wrote Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), a miscellany of verse and prose which enjoyed some modest success.
Southey was a prolific writer, working in a variety of genres as a historian, biographer, travel writer, translator, editor, pamphleteer, essayist, reviewer, social critic, story teller and poet. The volume of his work was aided by the discipline of his working day:
three pages of history after breakfast … then to transcribe and copy for the press, or to make my selections and biographies, or what else suits my humour, till dinner time; from dinner till tea I read, write letters, see the newspaper and very often indulge in a siesta … Well, after tea I go to poetry, and correct and re-write and copy till I am tired, and then turn to anything else till supper; and this is my life, which, if it be not a very merry one, is yet as happy as heart could wish.
He also wrote for periodicals including the somewhat conservative Quarterly Review, to which he contributed almost 100 articles.
Southey’s knowledge of Spanish and Portuguese enabled him to undertake paid translation work such as Amadis of Gaul (1803), after the original by Vasco Lobeira, and inspired him to write a History of Brazil, part of his unfinished History of Portugal. The Chronicle of the Cid (1803), a translation of the early 16th-century Cronica del Cid, is perhaps the best of his translations.
Much of Southey’s literary work explores the insecurity of the human condition, and the suffering which many are forced to endure. Although for much of his early life Southey thought of himself primarily as a poet, by common consensus his prose is more accomplished than his verse. He developed what has been called a Georgian prose style, “pure and practical”, in contrast to the “ponderous solemnity” of earlier authors such as Samuel Johnson.
Although Southey had been a supporter of the French Revolution, and even went so far as to consider himself a Jacobin, from the turn of the 19th century he began to lose some of his radical zeal and became unapologetically more conservative in his views; “I am no more ashamed of having been a republican, than I am of having been a boy”. He believed that the country needed strong leadership, and that parliamentary reform was the road to anarchy. He steadfastly opposed Catholic emancipation, believing Catholicism to be inherently intolerant, and that any concessions to Catholics “would threaten the whole fabric of the British constitution”.
In some respects though Southey was ahead of his time. In his Letters from England published in 1808 under the pseudonym of Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, he gives an account of a tour supposedly from a foreigner’s viewpoint. Through the mouth of his pseudonym Southey is critical of the disparity between the haves and have-nots in English society, arguing that a change in taxation policy would be needed to foster a greater degree of equity. He was an early critic of the evils brought to early 19th-century Britain by the new factory system and was appalled by the conditions of life in towns like Birmingham and Manchester, and especially by the employment of children in factories. He sympathised with the pioneering socialist plans of Robert Owen, advocated that the state promote public works to maintain high employment, and called for universal education.
Without his prior knowledge, the Earl of Radnor, an admirer of his work, had Southey returned as MP for the latter’s pocket borough seat of Downton in Wiltshire at the 1826 general election, as an opponent of Catholic emancipation. But Southey refused to sit in the House of Commons, causing a by-election in December that year, pleading that he did not have a large enough estate to support him through political life,[b] did not want to take on the hours full attendance required, wanted to continue living in the Lake District, and preferred to defend the Church of England in writing rather than speech. He declared that “for me to change my scheme of life and go into Parliament, would be to commit a moral and intellectual suicide”; his friend John Rickman, a Commons clerk, noted that “prudential reasons would forbid his appearing in London” as a Member.
In 1835 he declined the offer of a baronetcy, but accepted a life pension of £300 a year from Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.
Southey was perhaps unfortunate to have occupied the position of poet laureate at a time of political turmoil and social disruption. Many saw his switch from republicanism to conservatism as a form of hypocrisy, selling out to the establishment; certainly his reputation among many of his contemporaries was generally low. The Whig politician Lord Holland gave it as his opinion that although Southey was “pleasant and amiable”,
… he was not only a credulous and almost silly historian, but a weak reasoner and tiresome poet, and neither in prose nor in verse captivated or warmed his reader, though he might occasionally surprise and divert him.
In 1821 Southey published A Vision of Judgement, an elaborate poem describing the entry into heaven of the recently deceased King George III. Rather unwisely, in the preface Southey identified those in political opposition as disciples of Satan, and launched an attack on what he called the satanic school of poetry. Although Byron was not referred to by name the diatribe was clearly directed at him, and he retaliated with The Vision of Judgment, a parody of Southey’s poem. Southey’s reputation never recovered from the ridicule heaped on him by Byron, who wrote that Southey had produced “much blank verse and blanker prose, And more of both than anybody knows.”
- Harold, or, The Castle of Morford (an unpublished Robin Hood novel written in 1791).
- The Fall of Robespierre (1794)
- Joan of Arc (1796)
- Icelandic Poetry, or The Edda of Sæmund (1797)
- Poems (1797–1799)
- Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797)
- St. Patrick’s Purgatory (1798)
- After Blenheim (1798)
- The Devil’s Thoughts (1799). Revised edition published in 1827 as The Devil’s Walk.
- English Eclogues (1799)
- The Old Man’s Comforts and How He Gained Them (1799)
- Thalaba the Destroyer (1801)
- The Inchcape Rock“The Inchcape Rock” is a ballad written by English poet Robert Southey. Published in 1802, it tells the story of a 14th-century attempt by the Abbot of Arbroath (“Aberbrothock”) to install a warning bell on Inchcape, a notorious sandstone reef about 11 miles (18 km) off the east coast of Scotland. (1802)
- Madoc (1805)
- Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella (1807), the observations of a fictitious Spaniard.
- Chronicle of the Cid, from the Spanish (1808)
- The Curse of Kehama (1810)
- History of Brazil (3 vols.) (1810–1819)
- The Life of Horatio, Lord Viscount Nelson (1813)
- Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814)
- Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur (1817)
- Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1817)
- Cataract of Lodore (1820)
- The Life of Wesley; and Rise and Progress of Methodism (2 vols.) (1820)
- What Are Little Boys Made Of? (1820)
- A Vision of Judgement (1821)
- History of the Peninsular War, 1807–1814 (3 vols.) (1823–1832)
- Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (1829)
- The Works of William Cowper (15 vols.) (ed.) (1833–1837)
- Lives of the British Admirals, with an Introductory View of the Naval History of England (5 vols.) (1833–40); republished as English Seamen in 1895.
- The Doctor (7 vols.) (1834–1847). Includes The Story of the Three Bears (1837).
- The Poetical Works of Robert Southey, Collected by Himself (1837)
- Southey’s biographer comments that: “There should be no doubt as to the proper pronunciation of the name: ‘Sowthey’. The poet himself complained that people in the North would call him ‘Mr Suthy’ ”
- MPs were then unsalaried, and expected to treat voters at election times.