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Robert Southey

Robert SoutheyBorn: 12-Aug-1774
Birthplace: Bristol, Gloucestershire, England
Died: 21-Mar-1843
Location of death: Keswick, Cumberland, England
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, St. Kentigern Churchyard, Crosthwaite, Cumbria, England

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Poet, Author

Nationality: England
Executive summary: A Vision of Judgment

English poet and man of letters, born at Bristol on the 12th of August 1774. His father, Robert Southey, an unsuccessful linendraper, married a Miss Margaret Hill in 1772. When he was three, Southey passed into the care of Miss Elizabeth Tyler, his mother's 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 Hoole's 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. Southey's 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 Southey's 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. Southey's 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 Gray's 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 Wynn's marriage. His Letters written during a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal were printed by Cottle in 1797, and in 1797-99 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 poet's 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 William 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 from that point forward 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 manuscripts, and a collection of Portuguese authorities probably unique in England. After 1809, when Coleridge left his family, the whole household was dependent on Southey's 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 Southey's 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 Gifford's 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 Sir Walter 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 Lord 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 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 Southey's 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 Byron's death, in consequence of a passage in Medwin's Conversations of Lord Byron.

Meanwhile the household at Greta Hall was growing smaller. Southey's eldest son, Herbert, died in 1816, and a favorite 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. 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 Southey's 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 Southey's 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." Southey's 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 Southey's 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; Southey's 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 Southy's subjects, "The Poet's 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. "Southey's 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 reader's 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., 1833-37), 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. Southey's 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.

Father: Robert Southey (linendraper)
Mother: Margaret Hill
Wife: Edith Fricker (m. 14-Nov-1795)

    High School: Westminster School (expelled 1792)
    University: Balliol College, Oxford University

    Expelled from School



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