Authors: Robert Southey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English poet

August 12, 1774

Bristol, England

March 21, 1843

Greta Hall, Keswick, England


One of the hardiest of English poet laureates, Robert Southey held that post for the last thirty years of his life, from 1813 to 1843. During that time he also held a firm grip on the attention of the English reading public, though modern criticism has removed him from the pedestal that it still allows William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge to rest upon. Nevertheless, even today it is impossible to dismiss him as a factor in the literary scene of the Romantic era.

Robert Southey.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Southey was the son of a Bristol linen draper. At the age of three he was surrendered to the care of a maternal aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, who lived in Bath. He attended Westminster, from which he was expelled for writing an article about flogging for the school paper. Another sympathetic relative, the Reverend Herbert Hill, sent him on to Oxford, where, after Christ Church rejected him because of the Westminster incident, he was accepted at Balliol in November, 1792.

At Oxford, according to Southey, his chief interests turned out to be boating and swimming; he did, however, briefly espouse the cause of the French Revolution. It was also at Oxford that he met Coleridge, who promptly converted him to Unitarianism and pantisocracy. The two youths jointly sponsored an idealistic scheme to establish a perfect community in America on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, a venture that died for lack of funds. Southey’s aunt, learning of the utopian project, promptly dismissed him from her house and her affections.

After various temporary employments, Southey settled at Keswick in 1803, where his family shared a double house with the Coleridges. There he devoted himself completely to literature, forming a connection with the Quarterly Review and turning out a steady stream of books, poems, and articles. Of these, comparatively few are read today, and those that still receive attention are mostly his shorter poems, such as “The Battle of Blenheim” and “The Inchcape Rock.” Modern taste does not respond to the ambitious epic poems that were Southey’s chief stock in trade, though Thalaba the Destroyer, Madoc, and The Curse of Kehama achieved considerable contemporary success. Efforts were made in the late twentieth century, notably by Marilyn Butler, to reinstate Southey to the canon, but modern criticism prefers the author’s prose to his verse, particularly his outstanding biographies Life of Nelson and Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism. Southey was also the original author of the popular children’s story “Tale of Three Bears.”

Though the laureateship in 1813 brought added recognition to Southey, its effect was offset by a series of family tragedies. The deaths of his much-loved son and a daughter were followed by an additional blow, the loss of his wife’s mental health. Mrs. Southey died in 1837. Two years later Southey married Caroline Bowles, and he died four years later; his mental faculties had been gradually failing, and contemporary accounts say that he died of “brain fever.” Wordsworth attended his funeral, and memorials were placed in Westminster Abbey and Bristol Cathedral.

Author Works Poetry: Poems, 1795 (with Robert Lovell) Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem, 1796, 1798, 1806, 1812 Poems, 1797-1799 St. Patrick's Purgatory, 1798 After Blenheim, 1798 English Eclogues, 1799 Thalaba the Destroyer, 1801 The Inchcape Rock, 1802 Madoc, 1805 Metrical Tales, and Other Poems, 1805 The Curse of Kehama, 1810 Roderick, the Last of the Goths, 1814 Odes to His Royal Highness the Prince Regent, His Imperial Majesty the Emperor of Russia, and His Majesty the King of Prussia, 1814 Minor Poems, 1815 The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo, 1816 The Lay of the Laureate: Carmen Nuptiale, 1816 Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem, 1817 A Vision of Judgement, 1821 A Tale of Paraguay, 1825 All for Love, and the Pilgrim to Compostella, 1829 Poetical Works, 1829 The Devil’s Walk, 1830 (with Samuel Taylor Coleridge) Selections from the Poems, 1831, 1833 Poetical Works, 1839 Oliver Newman: A New-England Tale (Unfinished), with Other Poetical Remains, 1845 Robin Hood: A Fragment, 1847 (with Caroline Southey) Long Fiction: The Doctor, 1834-1847 (7 volumes; includes "Goldilocks and the Three Bears") Drama: The Fall of Robespierre, pb. 1794 (with Samuel Taylor Coleridge) Nonfiction: Letters from England, by Don Manuel Espriella, 1807 Letters in Spain and Portugal, 1808 The History of Europe, 1810-1813 History of Brazil, 1810-1819 The Origin, Nature, and Object of the New System of Education, 1812 Life of Nelson, 1813 A Summary of the Life of Arthur, Duke of Wellington, 1816 Life of Wesley and the Rise and Progress of Methodism, 1820 History of the Expedition of Orsua and Crimes of Aguirre, 1821 Life of John, Duke of Marlborough, 1822 History of the Peninsular War, 1823-1832 The Book of the Church, 1824 Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae, 1826 Sir Thomas More, 1829 Essays Moral and Political, 1832 Lives of the British Admirals, 1833-1840 The Life of the Rev. Andrew Bell, 1844 Translations: On the French Revolution, 1797 (of Jacques Necker) Amadis de Gaul, 1805 (of Vasco Lobeira) Chronicle of the Cid, 1808 (of Crónica del famoso cavallero Cid Ruy Diaz Campeador, La crónica de España, and Poema del Cid) The Geographical, Natural, and Civil History of Chili, 1808 (of Abbe Don Ignatius Molina) Edited Texts: The Annual Anthology, 1700-1800 The Works of Chatterton, 1803 (with Joseph Cottle) Palmerin of England, 1807 Horae Lyricae, 1834 (by Isaac Watts) The Works of William Cowper, 1835-1837 Bibliography Bernhardt-Kabisch, Ernest. Robert Southey. Boston: Twayne, 1977. A study of Joan of Arc follows a sketch of Southey’s early life. Chapter 3 assesses his personality and lyrical poetry. The central chapters analyze his epics and the verse of his laureate years. The last chapter is a survey of Southey’s prose. Contains chronology, notes, select bibliography, and index. Carnall, Geoffrey. Robert Southey and His Age: The Development of a Conservative Mind. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1960. Part 1 focuses on Southey as Jacobin, devoted to radical reform and democracy. Part 2 analyzes Southey as Tory, advocating strong government and conservativism. Finally, the question of whether Southey should be called an apostate is examined. Supplemented by illustrations, two appendices, and an index. Curry, Kenneth. Southey. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975. Reviews Southey’s life, prose, and poetry. Includes bibliography and index. Simmons, Jack. Southey. London: Collins, 1945. A substantial biography of modest length, this book details Southey’s education, his friendship with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his sojourn in Portugal. His fame leads to political controversies, and his declining years begin with the death of his daughter Isabel. Contains illustrations, a note on the Southey family, a list of Southey’s works, notes, and an index. Smith, Christopher J. P. A Quest for Home: Reading Robert Southey. Liverpool, England: Liverpool University Press, 1997. A historical and critical study of the works of Southey. Includes bibliographical references and index. Speck, W. A. Robert Southey: Man of Letters. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2006. A recent biography of the poet. Includes bibliography and index. Storey, Mark. Robert Southey: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Storey tells the fascinating story of a complex and contradictory man, the mirror of his age, and provides a different perspective on familiar events and figures of the Romantic period.

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