Robert Southey

Robert Southey (1774-1843) was born in Bristol, the son of a linen draper. His father became bankrupt in 1792 and died shortly thereafter, but his uncle, Herbert Hill, was very successful, serving as chaplain to the British factory in Porto, Portugal. He, along with Southey’s aunt, Elizabeth Tyler of Bath, were important influences in his early life. His uncle gained Southey admission to the Westminster School in London in 1788, with the idea that he would then enter Oxford and the Anglican ministry. Here he gained two life-long friends and benefactors, Charles Williams Wynn and Grosvenor Charles Bedford. He was expelled from the school in 1792 for inappropriate contributions to a school paper, but he still was able to matriculate to Balliol College, Oxford, which he entered in January 1793. His interest in more radical forms of thinking led him away from a career in the church and into thoughts of emigrating to America. He met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in June 1794 and the scheme of Pantisocracy was soon hatched, which eventually led both of them to Bristol in 1795 where they briefly lived together before marrying two Fricker sisters, Edith and Sara.  They gave lectures on a variety of controversial topics in Bristol, and Southey composed his infamous play, Wat Tyler, at this time. Differences in their temperament, financial concerns, and the complications of their marriages eventually doomed Pantisocracy. Coleridge contemplated the Unitarian ministry, and Southey left for Portugal to work with his uncle. Their relationship would be weakened thereafter, but both continued to write poetry and other forms of writing, including their joint effort, Joan of Arc. When Southey returned from Portugal, he published Letters Written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797), a collection of poems and short prose pieces that found an audience sufficient to give Southey hope of becoming a writer. He contributed to the Monthly Magazine, and began his longer verse projects, Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) and Madoc (1805). To improve his economic situation, he entered Grays Inn, London, to study law in the spring of 1797. He lived in and out of London for the next two years, reading in law and writing more poetry, some of it for the Morning Post. He spent another year in Portugal, then returned and continued his periodical writing, some of it for Arthur Aikin’s Annual Review. In 1802 he moved to Greta Hall in Keswick, in the Lake District, to share the house with the Coleridges. Shortly thereafter, Coleridge left for Malta to work for the Governor there, and his marriage never recovered, with the Southey’s essentially housing his wife and children at Keswick the remainder of Coleridge’s life. The Southeys would live at Keswick for the next 40 years. They would have eight children. At Keswick Southey’s friends became the Wordsworths at Rydal, the young Thomas de Quincey, and in 1808 Walter Savage Landor. Landor’s encouragement led to Southey’s next major poem, The Curse of Kehama (1810). He soon began a collaboration with a new periodical, the Quarterly Review, which was designed to counter the Edinburgh Review. He also wrote for the Edinburgh Annual Register, his opinions on the war now much more conservative than they had been in the 1790s, but even during the next decade, he had not given up on all his reformist ideals from his youth. By 1811, however, his positions were even more conservative, and his opinions about reform far more negative, viewing the current radicals more as anarchists than helping solve the problems of England, though his positions against the mercantilists and manufacturing interests in favor of something more egalitarian, like that of Robert Owen, aligned him with many radicals. In 1813, he became Poet Laureate, and he used the position with great alacrity in support of the nation and its people, especially the gap between the working poor and the rich. His last major narrative poem, Roderick, the Last of the Goths, appeared in 1814. He turned to writing historical accounts of people and events, such as his Life of Nelson (1813), Life of Wesley (1820). His politics continued to be one of emphasizing order and good government through the 1820s and ’30s. His dislike of Catholic Emancipation led to an important prose work, The Book of the Church (1824), though the Emancipation would come nevertheless in 1829.  In 1825 his last narrative poem, A Tale of Paraguay, appeared, followed by Colloquies of Society (1829) and an edition of Pilgrim’s Progress (1830), and finally, a posthumous poem, Oliver Newman (1845), and his Commonplace Books.  His wife, Edith, became senile in 1834 and died in 1837. He remarried in 1839, this time to the poet Caroline Anne Bowles (1786-1854). Shortly thereafter he too fell into senility and died on 21 March 1843, about one month after Mary Hays.