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Robert Southey (12 August 1774 – 21 March 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, Southey 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.


Robert Southey was born in Wine Street, Bristolmarker, England, to Thomas Southey and Margaret Hill and educated at Westminster Schoolmarker, London, (from which he was expelled for writing a magazine article in The Flagellant condemning flogging) and Balliol College, Oxfordmarker (of his time at Oxford – before the era of Benjamin Jowett and the dramatic raising of standards that over the previous century had become somewhat lax – Southey was later to say "All I learnt was a little swimming ... and a little boating."). After experimenting with a writing partnership with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most notably with the joint composition of The Fall of Robespierre, he published his first collection of poems in 1794.

The same year, he, Coleridge and a few others discussed setting up an idealistic community in America ("pantisocracy"):
Their 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.

Later iterations of the plan moved the commune to Walesmarker, but Southey was later the first of the group to reject the idea as unworkable.

In 1799, both Southey and Coleridge were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Experiments were performed by Cornishman Humphry Davy. [10896]

Southey's wife, Edith Fricker, whom he married at St. Mary Redcliffemarker, Bristol, on 14 November 1795, was the sister of Coleridge's wife, Sara Fricker. The Southeys set up home at Greta Hall, Keswickmarker (pronounced Kesick), in the Lake Districtmarker, living on a tiny income. Also living at Greta Hall with Southey and supported by him were Sara Coleridge and her three children following their abandonment by Coleridge and the widow of fellow poet Robert Lovell and her son.

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. [10897]

From 1809, Southey contributed to the Quarterly Review, and had become so well-known by 1813 that he was appointed Poet Laureate after Sir Walter Scott refused the post.

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. He died on 23 March 1843 and is buried in the churchyard of Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, where he worshipped for forty years. There is a memorial to him inside the church with an epitaph written by his friend, William Wordsworth.

Many of his poems are still read by British schoolchildren, the best-known being The Inchcape Rockmarker, God's Judgement on a Wicked Bishop, After Blenheim (possibly one of the earliest anti-war poems) and Cataract of Lodoremarker.

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 credited with penning the popular children's nursery rhyme What are Little Boys Made of? around 1820.

Major works

Robert Southey

  • The Fall of Robespierre (1794).
  • Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem (1796)
  • Icelandic poetry or The Edda of Sæmund (1797) with Amos Simon Cottle
  • Poems (1797-99)
  • Letters from Spain (1797)
  • Saint Patrick's Purgatory (1798)
  • After Blenheim (1798)
  • Devil's Thoughts (1799)
  • The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them (1799) (Began "You are old, father William")
  • Thalaba the Destroyer (1801)
  • The Inchcape Rockmarker (1802)
  • Amadis de Gaula (1803). Translation
  • Madoc (1805)
  • Metrical Tales and Other Poems (1805)
  • Letters from England (1807) ISBN 0-86299-130-7, (Alan Sutton, Paperback).
  • Palmerin of England (1807). Translation.
  • The Cid (1808). Translation
  • Curse of Kehama (1810)
  • History of Brazil Volume I (1810)
  • The Life of Nelson (1813)
  • Roderick the Last of the Goths (1814)
  • The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo (1816)
  • The Lay of the Laureate: Carmen Nuptiale(1816)
  • Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem (1817)
  • A Letter to William Smith Esq MP (1817)
  • Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819 (1929, posthumous )
  • The Life of Wesley, and the rise and progress of Methodism (1820)
  • A Vision of Judgment (1821)
  • Life of Cromwell (1821)
  • History of the Peninsular War (1821)
  • The Book of the Church (1824)
  • A Tale of Paraguay (1825)
  • Thomas More (1829)
  • The Pilgrim's Progress with a Life of John Bunyan (1830)
  • Essays, Moral and Political (1832)
  • Cowper (1833)
  • Lives of the British Admirals (1833)
  • The Doctors (1834). Includes the first published version of the fairy tale-like The Three Bears.
  • Select Lives of Cromwell and Bunyan (1846)


A 1797 caricature of Southey's early radical poetry.
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 Massacremarker 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.

See also


  1. Icelandic poetry, Amos Simon Cottle, Robert Southey, 1797
  2. Carnell (1971) page 9
  3. Speck (2006) page 172

Further reading

  • Carnall, Geoffrey, Writers and Their Works: Robert Southey, (Longman Group Ltd: London 1971)
  • Curry, Kenneth (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (Columbia UP: New York and London, 1965)
  • Dowden, Edward (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881)
  • Low, Dennis, The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)
  • Madden, John Lionel, Robert Southey: the critical heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)
  • Pratt, Lynda, ed. Robert Southey, Poetical Works, 1793-1810, 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2004)
  • Simmons, Jack, Southey, (Kennikat: Washington, 1945)
  • Southey, Charles Cuthbert (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855).
  • Speck, W. A. Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters, (Yale University Press, 2006)

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