Last reviewed: June 2018
August 12, 1774
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.
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.