Then Encyclopædia Britannica, 11th edition, 1910-1911Scroll to "Now" essay

SOUTHEY, ROBERT (1774-1843)

SOUTHEY, ROBERT (1774-1843), English poet and man of letters, was born at Bristol on the 12th of August 1774. His father, Robert Southey, an unsuccessful linen draper, married a Miss Margaret Hill in 1772. When he was three, Southey passed into the care of Miss Elizabeth Tyler, his motherʼs half-sister, at Bath, where most of his childhood was spent. She was a whimsical and despotic person, of whose household he has left an amusing account in the fragment of autobiography written in a series of letters to his friend John May. Before Southey was eight years old he had read Shakespeare and Beaumont and Fletcher, while his love of romance was fostered by the reading of Hooleʼs translations of Tasso and Ariosto, and of the Faerie Queene. In 1788 he was entered at Westminster school. After four years there he was privately expelled by Dr William Vincent (1739-1815), for an essay against flogging which he contributed to a school magazine called The Flagellant. At Westminster he made friends with two boys who proved faithful and helpful to him through life; these were Charles Watkyn Williams Wynn and Grosvenor Bedford. Southeyʼs uncle, the Rev. Herbert Hill, chaplain of the British factory at Lisbon, who had paid for his education at Westminster, determined to send him to Oxford with a view to his taking holy orders, but the news of his escapade at Westminster had preceded him, and he was refused at Christ Church. Finally he was admitted at Balliol, where he matriculated on the 3rd of November 1792, and took up his residence in the following January. His father had died soon after his matriculation.

At Oxford he lived a life apart, and gained little or nothing from the university, except a liking for swimming and a knowledge of Epictetus. In the vacation of 1793 Southeyʼs enthusiasm for the French Revolution found vent in the writing of an epic poem, Joan of Arc, published in 1796 by Joseph Cottle, the Bristol bookseller. In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge, then on a visit to Oxford, was introduced to Southey, and filled his head with dreams of an American Utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna. The members of the pantisocracy were to earn their living by tilling the soil, while their wives cared for the house and children. Coleridge and Southey soon met again at Bristol, and with Robert Lovell developed the emigration scheme. Lovell had married Mary Fricker, whose sister Sara married Coleridge, and Southey now became engaged to a third sister, Edith. Miss Tyler, however, would have none of pantisocracy and aspheterism, and drove Southey from her house. To raise the necessary funds for the enterprise Coleridge and he turned to lecturing and journalism. Cottle generously gave Southey £50 for Joan of Arc; and, with Coleridge and Lovell, Southey had dashed off the drama, printed as the work of Coleridge, on The Fall of Robespierre. A volume of Poems by R. Southey and R. Lovell was also published by Cottle in 1795. Southeyʼs uncle, Mr Hill, now desired him to go with him to Portugal. Before he started for Corunna he was married secretly, on the 14th of November 1795, to Edith Fricker. On his return to England his marriage was acknowledged, and he and his wife had lodgings for some time at Bristol. He was urged to undertake a profession, but the Church was closed to him by the Unitarian views he then held, and medicine was distasteful to him. He was entered at Grayʼs Inn in February 1797, and made a serious attempt at legal study, but with small results. At the end of 1797 his friend Wynn began an allowance of £160 a year, which was continued until 1806, when Southey relinquished it on Wynnʼs marriage. His Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal were printed by Cottle in 1797, and in 1797-1799 appeared two volumes of Minor Poems from the same press. In 1798 he paid a visit to Norwich, where he met Frank Sayers and William Taylor, with whose translations from the German he was already acquainted. He then took a cottage for himself and his wife at Westbury near Bristol, and afterwards at Burton in Hampshire. At Burton he was seized with a nervous fever which had been threatening for some time. He moved to Bristol, and after preparing for the press his edition of the works of Thomas Chatterton, undertaken for the relief of the poetʼs sister and her child, he sailed in 1800 for Portugal, where he began to accumulate materials for his history of Portugal. He also had brought with him the first six books of Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), and the remaining six were completed at Cintra. The unrhymed, irregular metre of the poem was borrowed from Sayers.

In 1801 the Southeys returned to England, and at the invitation of Coleridge, who held out as an inducement the society of Wordsworth, they visited Keswick. After a short experience as private secretary to Isaac Corry, chancellor of the exchequer for Ireland, Southey in 1803 took up his residence at Greta Hall, Keswick, which he and his family shared thenceforward with the Coleridges and Mrs Lovell. His love of books filled Greta Hall with a library of over 14,000 volumes. He possessed many valuable MSS., and a collection of Portuguese authorities probably unique in England. After 1809, when Coleridge left his family, the whole household was dependent on Southeyʼs exertions. His nervous temperament suffered under the strain, and he found relief in keeping different kinds of work on hand at the same time, in turning from the History of Portugal to poetry. Madoc and Metrical Tales and Other Poems appeared in 1805, The Curse of Kehama in 1810, Roderick, the last of the Goths, in 1814. This constant application was lightened by a happy family life. Southey was devoted to his children, and was hospitable to the many friends and even strangers who found their way to Keswick. His friendship for Coleridge was qualified by a natural appreciation of his failings, the results of which fell heavily on his own shoulders, and he had a great admiration for Wordsworth, although their relations were never intimate. He met Walter Savage Landor in 1808, and their mutual admiration and affection lasted until Southeyʼs death.

From the establishment of the Tory Quarterly Review Southey, whose revolutionary opinions had changed, was one of its most regular and useful writers. He supported Church and State, opposed parliamentary reform, Roman Catholic emancipation, and free trade. He did not cease, however, to advocate measures for the immediate amelioration of the condition of the poor. With William Gifford, his editor, he was never on very good terms, and would have nothing to do with his harsh criticisms on living authors. His relations with Giffordʼs successors, Sir J. T. Coleridge and Lockhart, were not much better. In 1813 the laureateship became vacant on the death of Pye. The post was offered to Scott, who refused it and secured it for Southey. A government pension of some £160 had been secured for him, through Wynn, in 1807, increased to £300 in 1835. In 1817 the unauthorized publication of an early poem on Wat Tyler, full of his youthful republican enthusiasm, brought many attacks on Southey. He was also engaged in a bitter controversy with Byron, whose first attack on the ballad-monger Southey in English Bards and Scotch Reviewers nevertheless did not prevent them from meeting on friendly terms. Southey makes little reference to Byron in his letters, but Byron asserts (Letters and Journals, ed. Prothero, iv. 271) that he was responsible for scandal spread about himself and Shelley. In this frame of mind, due as much to personal anger as to natural antipathy to Southeyʼs principles, Byron dedicated Don Juan to the laureate, in what he himself called good, simple, savage verse. In the introduction to his Vision of Judgment (1821) Southey inserted a homily on the Satanic School of poetry, unmistakably directed at Byron, who replied in the satire of the same name. The unfortunate controversy was renewed even after Byronʼs death, in consequence of a passage in Medwinʼs Conversations of Lord Byron.

Meanwhile the household at Greta Hall was growing smaller. Southeyʼs eldest son, Herbert, died in 1816, and a favourite daughter in 1826; Sara Coleridge married in 1829; in 1834 his eldest daughter, Edith, also married; and in the same year Mrs Southey, whose health had long given cause for anxiety, became insane. She died in 1837, and Southey went abroad the next year with Henry Crabb Robinson and others. In 1839 he married his friend Caroline Bowles (see below). But his memory was failing, and his mental powers gradually left him. He died on the 21st of March 1843, and was buried in Crosthwaite churchyard. A monument to his memory was erected in the church, with an inscription by Wordsworth.

The amount of Southeyʼs work in literature is enormous. His collected verse, with its explanatory notes, fills ten volumes, his prose occupies about forty. But his greatest enterprises, his history of Portugal and his account of the monastic orders, were left uncompleted, and this, in some sense, is typical of Southeyʼs whole achievement in the world of letters; there is always something unsatisfying, disappointing, about him. This is most true of his efforts in verse. In his childhood Southey fell in with Tasso, Tasso led him to Ariosto, and Ariosto to Spenser. These luxuriantly imaginative poets captivated the boy; and Southey mistook his youthful enthusiasm for an abiding inspiration. His inspiration was not genuinely imaginative; he had too large an infusion of prosaic commonplace in his nature to be a true follower of Ariosto and Spenser. Southey, quite early in life, resolved to write a series of epics on the chief religions of the world; it is not surprising that the too ambitious poet failed. His failure is twofold: he was wanting in artistic power and in poetic sympathy. When his epics are not wildly impossible they are incurably dull; and a man is not fit to write epics on the religions of the world when he can say of the prophet who has satisfied the gravest races of mankind—Mahomet was far more remarkable for audacious profligacy than for any intellectual endowments. Southeyʼs age was bounded, and had little sympathy for anything beyond itself and its own narrow interests; it was violently Tory, narrowly Protestant, defiantly English. And in his verse Southey truthfully reflects the feeling of his age. In the shorter pieces Southeyʼs commonplace asserts itself, and if that does not meet us we find his bondage to his generation. This bondage is quite abject in The Vision of Judgment; Southeyʼs heavenly personages are British Philistines from Old Sarum, magnified but not transformed, engaged in endless placid adoration of an infinite George III. For this complaisance he was held up to ridicule by Byron, who wrote his own Vision of Judgment by way of parody.

Some of Southeyʼs subjects, The Poetʼs Pilgrimage for instance, he would have treated delightfully in prose; others, like the Botany Bay Eclogues, Songs to American Indians, The Pig, The Dancing Bear, should never have been written. Of his ballads and metrical tales many have passed into familiar use as poems for the young. Among these are The Inchcape Rock, Lord William, The Battle of Blenheim, the ballad on Bishop Hatto, and The Well of St Keyne.

Southey was not in the highest sense of the word a poet; but if we turn from his verse to his prose we are in a different world; there Southey is a master in his art, who works at ease with grace and skill. Southeyʼs prose is perfect, said Byron; and, if we do not stretch the perfect, or take it to mean the supreme perfection of the very greatest masters of style, Byron was right.

In prose the real Southey emerges from his conventionality. His interest and his curiosity are unbounded as his Common- Place Book will prove; his stores of learning are at his readersʼ service, as in The Doctor, a rambling miscellany, valued by many readers beyond his other work. For biography he had a real genius. The Life of Nelson (2 vols., 1813), which has become a model of the short life, arose out of an article contributed to the Quarterly Review; he contributed another excellent biography to his edition of the Works of William Cowper (15 vols., 1833-1837), and his Life of Wesley; and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (2 vols., 1820) is only less famous than his Life of Nelson. But the truest Southey is in his Letters: the loyal, gallant, tenderhearted, faithful man that he was is revealed in them. Southeyʼs fame will not rest, as he supposed, on his verse; all his faults are in that–all his own weakness and all the false taste of his age. But his prose assures him a high place in English literature, though not a place in the first rank even of prose writers.

Southeyʼs love of romance appears in various volumes: Amadis of Gaul (4 vols., 1803); Palmerin of England (1807); Chronicle of the Cid (1808), and The byrth, lyf and actes of King Arthur. . .with an introduction and notes (1817). His other works are: Specimens of English Poets (3 vols., 1807); Letters from England by Don Manuel Espriella (3 vols., 1807), purporting to be a Spaniardʼs impressions of England; an edition of the Remains of Henry Kirke White (2 vols., 1807) ; Omniana or Horae Otiosiores (2 vols., 1812); Odes to. . .the Prince Regent. . .(1814); Carmen Triumphale. . .and Carmina Aulica. . .(1814); Minor Poems. . .(1815); Lay of the Laureate (1816), an epithalamium for the Princess Charlotte; The Poetʼs Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816); Wat Tyler: a dramatic poem (1817); Letter to William Smith Esq., M.P. (1817), on the occasion of strictures made in the House of Commons on Wat Tyler; History of Brazil (3 vols., 1810, 1817, 1819); Expedition of Orsua and the Crimes of Aguirre (1821); A Book of the Church (2 vols., 1824) ; A Tale of Paraguay (1825); Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae, Letters to C. Butler, Esq., comprising essays on the Romish Religion and vindicating the Book of the Church (1826); History of the Peninsular War (3 vols., 1823, 1824, 1832); Lives of uneducated Poets, prefixed to verses by John Jones (1829); All for Love and The Pilgrim to Compostella (1829); Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society (2 vols., 1829); Life of John Bunyan, prefixed to an edition (1830) of the Pilgrimʼs Progress; Select Works of British Poets from Chaucer to Jonson, edited with biographical notices. . .(1831) Essays Moral and Political. . .now first collected (2 vols., 1832); Lives of the Admirals, with an introductory view of the Naval History of England, forming 5 vols. (1833-1840) of Lardnerʼs Cabinet Cyclopaedia; The Doctor (7 vols., 1834-1847), the last two volumes being edited by his son-in-law, the Rev. J. Wood Warter; Common-Place Book (4th series, 1849-1851), edited by the same; Oliver Newman: a New England Tale (unfinished), with other poetical remains (1845), edited by the Rev. H. Hill. A collected edition of his Poetical Works (10 vols., 1837-1838) was followed by a one volume edition in 1847. Southeyʼs letters were edited by his son Charles Cuthbert Southey as The Life and Correspondence of the late Robert Southey (6 vols., 1849-1850); further selections were published in Selections from the Letters of Robert Southey (4 vols., 1856), edited by J. W. Warter; and The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles. To which are added: Correspondence with Shelley, and Southeyʼs Dreams (1881), was edited, with an introduction, by Professor E. Dowden. An excellent selection from his whole correspondence, edited by Mr John Dennis, as Robert Southey, the story of his life written in his letters (Boston, Massachusetts, 1887), was reprinted in Bohnʼs Standard Library (1894). See also Southey (1879) in the English Men of Letters Series, by Professor E. Dowden, who also made the selection of Poems by Robert Southey (1895) in the Golden Treasury Series. A full account of his relations with Byron is given in The Letters and Journals of Lord Byron (vol. vi., 1901, edited R. E. Prothero), in an appendix entitled Quarrel between Byron and Southey, pp. 377-399. Southey figures in four of the Imaginary Conversations of W. S. Landor, two of which are between Southey and Porson, and two between Southey and Landor.

Southeyʼs second wife, CAROLINE ANNE SOUTHEY (1786-1854), was the daughter of an East Indian captain, Charles Bowles. She was born at Lymington, Hants, on the 7th of October 1786. As a girl Caroline Anne Bowles showed a certain literary and artistic aptitude, the more remarkable perhaps from the loneliness of her early life and the morbidly delicate condition of her health–an aptitude however of no real distinction. When money difficulties came upon her in middle age she determined to turn her talents to account in literature. She sent anonymously to Southey a narrative poem called Ellen Fitzarthur, and this led to the acquaintanceship and long friendship, which, in 1839, culminated in their marriage. Ellen Fitzarlhur (1820) may be taken as typical, in its prosy simplicity, of the rest of its authorʼs work. Mrs Southeyʼs poems were published in a collected edition in 1867. Among her prose writings may be mentioned Chapters on Churchyards (1829), her best work; Tales of the Moors (1828); and Selwyn in Search of a Daughter (1835). It was soon after her marriage that her husbandʼs mental state became hopeless, and from this time till his death in 1843, and indeed till her own, her life was one of much suffering. She was not on good terms with her stepchildren, and her share in Southeyʼs life is hardly noticed in Charles Cuthbert Southeyʼs Life and Correspondence of his father. But with Edith Southey (Mrs Warter) she was always in friendly relations, and she supplied the valuable additions to Southeyʼs correspondence published by J. W. Warter. She is best remembered by her correspondence with Southey, which, neglected in the official biography, was edited by Professor Dowden in 1881. Mrs Southey died at Buckland Cottage, Lymington, on the 20th of July 1854, two years after the queen had granted her an annual pension of £200.

Besides the works already mentioned, Mrs Southey wrote The Widowʼs Tale, and other Poems (1822); Solitary Hours (prose and verse, 1826); Tales of the Factories (1833); The Birthday (1836); and Robin Hood, written in conjunction with Southey, at whose death this metrical production was incomplete.

& Now A 21st-century viewpointScroll to original Britannica article

SOUTHEY, Robert (1774-1843) by Lynda Pratt

Two striking features of the 1910-1911 Encyclopædia Britannica appraisal of the controversial Poet Laureate, historian, and polemicist Robert Southey are its delight in the negative and its need to rank writers against one another. Southey, we learn, was a failure. He wrote incurably dull and not genuinely imaginative poetry, was wanting in artistic power and in poetic sympathy and was therefore not in the highest sense of the word a poet. Although the article praises Southey’s biographies and other prose works, the concluding observation that he is not . . . in the first rank even of prose writers puts him very firmly in his place.

Robert Southey
Nash, Edward. Robert Southey. 1820, © National Portrait Gallery, London Original image

Such qualitative evaluations of Southey’s writings were by the early twentieth century nothing new. Indeed, they had begun in his own lifetime. However, in the early-mid nineteenth century, unlike in the early twentieth century, Southey’s works, including his poetry, were both extravagantly praised and extravagantly condemned. His revisionist epic Madoc was, in 1805 in the Imperial Review, described by an anonymous reviewer as the second heroic production in the English language (first place going to Milton’s Paradise Lost). In contrast, Southey’s life of William Cowper was described by the Christian Observer in 1837 as revolting because it contained a detailed account of . . . [the poet’s] suicide.

Other Romantic-era reviewers picked up on something else not in the Britannica appraisal: the odd hybridity of Southey’s works and their capacity to confuse and even disturb their readers. Madoc, for example, was summed up by John Ferriar in an 1805 article in the Monthly Review as a confusing cross-bred animal, something between a rough Welsh poney [sic] and a Peruvian sheep; meanwhile the Eclectic Review was sickened to the stomach by the same poem’s depiction of cannibals and human sacrifices . . . almost in every page. The Romantic period’s sense of Southey as a significant and at times rather odd writer whom it was impossible to ignore or to categorise is encapsulated both by his inclusion in William Hazlitt’s The Spirit of the Age (1825) and by the latter’s striking description of Southey as not shaped on any model.

The Britannica entry demonstrates how, by the early twentieth century, Southey’s refusal to fit any model was increasingly problematic, especially where his poetry was concerned. His controversial and sometimes quite peculiar writings did not sit comfortably alongside the professionalisation of the discipline of English studies and the development of an exclusive canon. That other increasingly canonical poets like Byron and Percy Shelley had publicly criticised both Southey and his works did not help with his reputation as a mainline Romantic poet. The result of this increasing unwillingness to tolerate Southey’s differences was the hardening and simplification of an existing view of him as somehow unsatisfying and disappointing.

For the author of the Britannica entry, a central plank of this disappointment is that in his verse Southey truthfully reflects the feeling of his age—a time that was bounded, and had little sympathy for anything beyond itself and its own narrow interests; it was violently Tory, narrowly Protestant, defiantly English.

This linkage between Southey and his own time is important in being acknowledged by both his Romantic period and twenty-first century critics. The crux, though, is how Southey’s age is defined. Then, in 1910-11, it is narrow, confined by rigidly delineated political views, religious beliefs, and geographical spaces. Now appreciation of the multifarious ideas, faiths, peoples, places, politics, and practices that shaped early nineteenth-century culture both in Britain and globally has expanded massively. Southey has been increasingly recognised as key to understanding this—he is a missing link. His works speak forcefully to, with, and about local, national, and international communities and challenges, be they in the Lake District, London, or Brazil (Southey wrote a significant three-volume History of the latter over a number of years). By so doing, they shed new light on the complications and contradictions of the Romantic period. This crucial difference between views of Southey then and Southey now is most evident in a group of shorter poems dismissed in 1910-11 as examples of works that he should never have . . . written: the Botany-Bay Eclogues, Songs to American Indians (Southey’s actual title was Songs of the American Indians), The Pig, and The Dancing Bear. From a twenty-first century perspective, these same poems’ radical reflections on the British empire, politics, and the rights of both people and animals are evidence of Southey’s engagement with controversial subjects of real and pressing concern to himself and to his contemporaries.

Britannica’s specific take on historical context also overlooks aspects of Southey’s poetic career that were evident to his contemporaries and are very much part of how he is seen today. The first of these is his strong interest in experimentation. Southey made his name in the mid 1790s with his self-consciously radical, revisionist, national epic Joan of Arc. The poem addresses the triumphs of a French heroine over the English, at a time when England was at war with revolutionary France. It struck a controversial and experimental note that was to continue throughout his career, and that encompassed both his poetry and prose. The second absence is Southey’s influence on others—his role in shaping the poetic landscape of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. In 1910-11, it is Southey’s complaisance that provokes Lord Byron’s ridicule in his 1822 The Vision of Judgment. Today Southey’s relationship to Byron is seen as significantly more complicated and nuanced. For example, critics have explored the complex influence of Southey’s ambitious Islamic romance Thalaba the Destroyer (1801) on Byron’s oriental tales. If in 1910-11 interest and curiosity are found only in Southey’s prose, today he is increasingly viewed as a powerful writer whose experimental poetry and prose—all those ballads, epics, romances, histories, and biographies—both paved the way for and also helped to shape the work of others.

The most radical change between now and then is encapsulated in the following quotation from Britannica:

Southeyʼs prose is perfect, said Byron; and, if we do not stretch the perfect, or take it to mean the supreme perfection of the very greatest masters of style, Byron was right.

Here, then, in 1910-11, Southey is seen through what others had to say about him, rather than through his own words. Remarkably, there is only one direct quotation from him in the entire Britannica entry. Tellingly, it is from his prose—the Preface to volume eight of his Poetical Works (10 vols, 1837-38)—and is used to evidence Southey’s narrow views. The contrast with the greater use of quotation from Coleridge and Wordsworth (Southey’s direct contemporaries) in their respective Britannica entries is telling. This same strange sense of absence—of Southey’s writings as slightly out of reach or out of focus—is also seen in the bibliographical listing at the end of the Britannica entry. This begins not with Southey’s own original writings but with his translations from and adaptations of works by others. The first original Southey work listed is Letters from England (published in three volumes in 1807), and that was published under the pseudonym of a fictitious Spanish narrator, Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella. This looks even stranger when juxtaposed with Southey’s extraordinary productivity (something acknowledged in the 1910-11 article and a commonplace of criticism before and since). Although there is much of Southey to draw upon, the author of the 1910-11 entry chose not to do so.

The absence of Southey’s writings reflects a time when they were increasingly fragmented and increasingly unavailable. In 1910-11, would-be readers of Southey were reliant on M. H. Fitzgerald’s highly selected one-volume edition of his poems (1909), the occasional anthologised poem, and long-out-of-print editions of his selected letters and prose. This situation remained largely the same throughout the twentieth century, with the notable exceptions of selected editions of his letters by Kenneth Curry (2 vols, 1965) and Charles Ramos (1976) as well as journals, edited by Adolfo Cabral (1960). Thousands of Southey’s letters and significant versions of his poems and prose writings remained unpublished in any form. However, since 2004, this situation has been transformed by the publication of new scholarly editions of Southey’s poetry in 2004 and 2012 (general editors Lynda Pratt and Tim Fulford); his prose (edited by Carol Bolton, Tom Duggett, Cristina Flores, Tim Fulford, and Jonathan Gonzalez); and his letters (general editors, Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford, and Ian Packer, 2009-ongoing). It is now possible to read, use, and analyse what Southey wrote, something that Britannica implies was both impossible and undesirable. The result is transformational—as Daniel Cook observed in 2016, Southey is now acknowledged as an influential writer whose time has come, and he has become a central figure in early-nineteenth century cultural, literary, political, and religious controversies and debates. His ambiguity and refusal to fit are no longer a problem; rather, they reflect the complex period which shaped him and which he helped to shape.

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