Robert Southey (August 12, 1774 – March 21, 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic school, one of the so-called "Lake Poets", and Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 to his death in 1843. Although his fame tends to be eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey's verse enjoys enduring popularity. Moreover, he was a prolific letter writer, literary scholar, essay writer, historian and biographer. His biographies include the life and works of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. The latter has rarely been out of print since its publication in 1813 and was adapted for the screen in the 1926 British film, Nelson. He was also a renowned Portuguese and Spanish scholar, translating a number of works of those two countries into English and writing both a History of Brazil (part of his planned History of Portugal which was never completed) and a History of the Peninsular War. Perhaps his most enduring contribution to literary history is the immortal children's classic, The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks story, which first saw print in 1834 in Southey's novel, The Doctor.
The same year, he, Coleridge and a few others discussed setting up an idealistic community in America ("pantisocracy"):
Later iterations of the plan moved the commune to Wales, but Southey was later the first of the group to reject the idea as unworkable.
Southey's wife, Edith Fricker whom he married at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, on November 14, 1795, was the sister of Coleridge's wife, Sara Fricker. The Southeys set up home at Greta Hall, Keswick (pronounced Kesick), in the Lake District, living on a tiny income. In 1808 he became acquainted with Walter Savage Landor whose early work he had admired, and the two developed mutual admiration of each other's work and became close friends.
In 1808, Southey used the pseudonym Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella to write Letters From England, an account of a tour of the country supposedly from a foreigner's perspective. The book is said to contain a more accurate picture of English ways at the beginning of the nineteenth century than exists anywhere else.
In 1819, through a mutual friend (John Rickman), Southey met leading civil engineer Thomas Telford and struck up a strong friendship. From mid-August to 1 October 1819, Southey accompanied Telford on an extensive tour of his engineering projects in the Scottish Highlands, keeping a diary of his observations. This was published posthumously in 1929 as Journal of a tour in Scotland in 1819. He was also a friend of the Dutch poet Willem Bilderdijk whom he met twice, in 1824 and 1826 at Bilderdijk's home in Leiden.
In 1837, Southey received a letter from Charlotte Bronte seeking his advice on some of her poems. He wrote back praising her talents but also discouraging her from writing professionally. He said "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life...". Years later, Bronte remarked to a friend that the letter was "kind and admirable; a little stringent, but it did me good".
In 1838, Edith died and Southey married Caroline Anne Bowles, also a poet. Southey's mind was giving way when he wrote a last letter to his friend Landor in 1839, but he continued to mention Landor's name when generally incapable of mentioning any one. Many of his poems are still read by British schoolchildren, the best-known being The Inchcape Rock, God's Judgement on a Wicked Bishop, After Blenheim (possibly one of the earliest anti-war poems) and Cataract of Lodore.
As a prolific writer and commentator, Southey introduced or popularised a number of words into the English language. The term 'autobiography', for example, was first used by Southey in 1809 in the Quarterly Review in which he predicted an 'epidemical rage for autobiography', which indeed has continued to the present day. Southey is also attributed with penning the popular children's nursery rhyme What are Little Boys Made of? around 1820.
Although originally a radical supporter of the French Revolution, Southey followed the trajectory of fellow Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, towards conservatism. Embraced by the Tory Establishment as Poet Laureate, and from 1807 in receipt of a yearly stipend from them, he vigorously supported the repressive Liverpool government. He argued against parliamentary reform ("the railroad to ruin with the Devil for driver"), blamed the Peterloo Massacre on the allegedly revolutionary "rabble" killed and injured by government troops, and opposed Catholic emancipation. In 1817 he privately proposed penal transportation for those guilty of "libel" or "sedition". He had in mind figures like Thomas Jonathan Wooler and William Hone, whose prosecution he urged. Such writers were guilty, he wrote in the Quarterly Review, of "inflaming the turbulent temper of the manufacturer and disturbing the quiet attachment of the peasant to those institutions under which he and his fathers have dwelt in peace." (Wooler and Hone were acquitted, but the threats caused another target, William Cobbett, to emigrate to the United States.)
Southey’s articles were not however merely pleas for repression and in many respects he was ahead of his time in his views on social reform. He was for example an early critic of the evils which the new factory system brought to early nineteenth-century Britain. He was appalled by the conditions of life in towns like Birmingham and Manchester and especially by the employment of children in factories and was outspoken in his criticism of these things. He sympathised with the pioneering socialist plans of Robert Owen, advocated that the state promote public works in order to maintain high employment and called for universal education.
Given his departure from radicalism, and his attempts to have former fellow travellers prosecuted, it is unsurprising that contemporaries who kept the faith attacked Southey. They saw him as a selling out for money and respectability.
In 1817 Southey was confronted with the surreptitious publication of a radical play, Wat Tyler, that he had written in 1794 at the height of his radical period. This was instigated by his enemies in an attempt to embarrass the Poet Laureate and highlight his ‘apostacy’ from radical poet to supporter of the Tory establishment. One of his most savage critics was William Hazlitt. In his portrait of Southey in The Spirit of the Age wrote: "He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded with an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy." Southey largely ignored his critics but was forced to defend himself when William Smith, a member of Parliament, rose in the House of Commons on 14 March to attack him. In a spirited response Southey wrote an open letter to the MP, in which he explained that he had always aimed at lessening human misery and bettering the condition of all the lower classes and that he had only changed in respect of “the means by which that amelioration was to be effected”. As he put it, “that as he learnt to understand the institutions of his country, he learnt to appreciate them rightly, to love, and to revere, and to defend them.”
He was often mocked for what were seen as sycophantic odes to the king, most notably in Byron's long ironic dedication of Don Juan to Southey. In the poem Southey is dismissed as insolent, narrow and shabby. This was based both on Byron's disrespect for Southey's literary talent, and his disdain for Southey's conservative politics.
The source of much of the animosity between the two men can be traced back to Byron’s belief that Southey had spread rumours about himself and Percy Shelley being in a "League of Incest" during their time on Lake Geneva in 1816, a claim that Southey strenuously denied.
In response, Southey attacked what he called the ‘Satanic School’ among modern poets in the preface to his poem, A Vision of Judgement, written following the death of George III. While not referring to Byron by name, this was clearly directed at Byron. Byron retaliated with The Vision of Judgment, a brilliant parody of Southey's poem.