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Robert Southey, poet, historian, and miscellaneous author, was born at Bristol on 12 August 1774. His father, Robert Southey, a linendraper, was the son of a farmer at Lydiard St. Lawrence, in the Quantock Hills, and was descended from a great clothier who lived at Wellington, Somerset, about the beginning of the seventeenth century. His mother, Margaret Hill, belonged to a good Herefordshire family. Southey was in a considerable degree brought up at Bath by his aunt, Miss Elizabeth Tyler, his mother's half-sister, a lady endowed with personal attractions, ambitious ideas, and an imperious temper.
Southey before he was eight had read all the plays in her library, and attempted dramatic composition himself. By a somewhat later date he had composed epics on Brutus the Trojan, Egbert, and Cassibelaunus, and was enthralled by Spenser. After attending minor schools at Corston and at Bristol, he was sent in April 1788 to Westminster, where he made little progress in ordinary school learning, but nourished his mind with out-of-the-way reading. One of his favourite books was Picart's ‘Religious Ceremonies,’ which gave him the idea of a series of heroic poems embodying the essence of the principal mythologies of the world, a project partly carried out in ‘Thalaba’ and ‘Kehama.’ After four years' stay he was privately expelled in 1792 for a misdemeanour for which he deserved honour, a protest against excessive flogging made in a school magazine entitled ‘The Flagellant.’ One copy has survived in the British Museum, fulfilling his wish that testimony should remain that his expulsion involved nothing discreditable.
His aunt, now living at Bristol, took his part; and his mother's brother, the Rev. Herbert Hill , chaplain at the Lisbon factory, sent him to Oxford. Christ Church rejected him on the ground of the Westminster incident, but at Michaelmas 1792 he found a haven at Balliol (he matriculated on 3 November). ‘Mr. Southey,’ said his tutor, ‘you won't learn anything by my lectures; so, if you have any studies of your own, you had better pursue them.’ According to Southey's own account, the only university studies he did pursue were swimming and boating. He nevertheless tempered his youthful-enthusiasm for Werther and Rousseau by a course of Epictetus, and in the long vacation sat down to write an epic on Joan of Arc as the most appropriate method he could find of celebrating the French Revolution. The execution of the Girondins in October 1793 chilled his ardour, and he fell for a time into despondency, aggravated by uncertainty as to his future course in life.
His father had died about the time of his matriculation, leaving his affairs greatly embarrassed. His uncle and mother wished him to take orders, but this the state of his religious opinions forbade. A doctor's career was equally impossible, owing to his repugnance to anatomical demonstration. Meanwhile, in June 1794, Allen, an undergraduate of University College, brought a friend, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who was on a visit, to Southey's rooms at Balliol. Coleridge soon converted Southey to unitarianism and pantisocracy.* Southey himself has described Coleridge's influence upon him in an interesting letter to James Montgomery. The friends a month later met at Bristol, and, with another associate, Robert Lovell, framed their scheme for an ideal life on the banks of the Susquehanna.
Soon after his first meeting with Coleridge, Southey had engaged himself to Edith Fricker, one of six daughters of the widow of Stephen Fricker, an unsuccessful manufacturer of sugar-pans at Westbury. Southey's friend Lovell quickly married another daughter, Mary, and Coleridge now engaged himself to a third daughter, Sara. Southey convinced his mother of the feasibility of both emigration and matrimony, but dared not open his lips to his aunt. In August 1794 Southey and Coleridge met Thomas Poole at Nether Stowey. Poole immediately recognised the great intellectual superiority of Coleridge, while adding that Southey had much information. The violence of the opinions of both, especially Southey's, was much commented upon, but neither can have said that he would rather have heard of his own father's death than of Robespierre's, for neither had a father living.
In October Miss Tyler became aware of her nephew's projects, and he was forthwith ejected from her house, which he never entered again. The Bristol bookseller, Joseph Cottle, came to the rescue. ‘It can rarely happen,’ says Southey, ‘that a young author should meet with a publisher as inexperienced and ardent as himself,’ but Cottle gave Southey £50 for ‘Joan of Arc,’ which had already been offered for subscription with indifferent success. Southey conscientiously rewrote his epic, which was further enriched by the lines by Coleridge which were afterwards published separately as ‘The Destiny of Nations.’ ‘Joan of Arc’ eventually appeared in quarto at Bristol in 1796. Southey also printed much occasional verse, and joined Coleridge and Lovell in composing a tragedy on the fall of Robespierre, and a translation of ‘Poems by Bion and Moschus’. ‘Wat Tyler,’ a drama full of republican sentiment, had been written in 1794, but remained unknown until the publication of a surreptitious edition in 1817. Late in 1795 Southey's uncle, the Rev. Herbert Hill, invited him to visit Lisbon. Southey consented, but before his departure quietly united himself at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, to Edith Fricker on 14 November 1795. She remained with her sisters, and continued to bear her maiden name.
In the previous October Cottle and Southey had compelled Coleridge to fulfil his engagement to Sara Fricker, an action which laudable as it was in point of principle, entailed great suffering upon all the parties concerned, and not least upon Southey himself. On the eve of Southey's own marriage and departure for Lisbon Coleridge fulminated a portentous rebuke for his renunciation of pantisocracy, which temporarily interrupted and permanently chilled their friendship. There was much real congeniality between the two men, but Southey was intolerant of most men's faults, and of Coleridge's characteristic faults beyond others.
Southey's visit to the Peninsula was the germ of much of his subsequent literary activity, but had few immediate results. One of these, however, was his pleasant ‘Letters written during a short Residence in Spain and Portugal’. At the same time he began his epic of ‘Madoc.’ A gradual change in his political and religious opinions dated from his return to England early in 1797. It was mainly due to a sense of two special obligations now laid upon him — one to his wife, the other to his friend and former schoolfellow, Charles Watkyn Williams Wynn. The latter, out of gratitude for the benefit he had derived from Southey's example and admonition at Oxford, imitated the behaviour of the Wedgwoods to Coleridge, and of Raisley Calvert to Wordsworth, by settling an annuity of £160 upon him. Southey heroically determined to study law. Repairing to London, he entered himself at Gray's Inn on 7 February 1797, but found that, for him, such a study was but ‘laborious indolence.’
Relinquishing it, he published in 1797 his miscellaneous ‘Minor Poems’, completed ‘Madoc,’ and planned ‘Thalaba,’ which was not only a poem of unusual length, but a daring experiment in stanzas of free unrhymed verse. The idea he had taken from a German scholar, Frank Sayers of Norwich, with whom and William Taylor he studied German in 1798. In June 1798 he settled at Westbury, but after little more than a year, with a view to greater seclusion, migrated to Burton in Hampshire. At this time he composed many of his ballads and his ‘English Eclogues,’ besides meditating a ‘History of Portugal,’ editing the ‘Annual Anthology,’ and prefacing Chatterton's works for the benefit of Chatterton's sister. He was actively, if not lucratively, employed when, in April 1800, a serious illness again drove him to Portugal, accompanied this time by his wife. The visit lasted nearly a year. In Portugal ‘Thalaba’ was finished, and copious materials were amassed for the ‘History of Portugal.’
On his return he established himself at Keswick, which he quitted for Dublin to undertake a secretaryship to Isaac Corry, chancellor of the Irish exchequer. Neither the appointment nor the Irish metropolis proved congenial. Southey was soon back in England, and spent some time at Bristol. The death of his mother and infant daughter, however, rendered the place irksome, and, mainly that his wife might be near her sister, Mrs. Coleridge, Southey removed in 1803 to Greta Hall, Keswick, his residence for the remainder of his life. Greta Hall consisted of two houses under a single roof. Coleridge and his family had occupied one of the houses since 1800. Southey now took the other, and in 1809 became owner of the whole. Coleridge had then practically left his family, and his wife and children continued to be inmates of Southey's house. Life at Keswick brought Southey into more intimate relations with Wordsworth, who was settled at Grasmere, and thus he acquired his undeserved reputation as a poet of the ‘Lake school.’ ‘Thalaba’ had been published in 1801. ‘Madoc’ was soon afterwards completed, and it appeared in 1805. This poem was to be the ‘pillar’ of his reputation. The hope was exaggerated; but, though it was rudely assaulted by Jeffrey in the Edinburgh Review, both it and ‘Thalaba’ obtained considerable literary success. The pecuniary results were small, and ‘The Curse of Kehama,’ which had been begun in 1801 under the title of ‘Keradin,’ was for a time abandoned.
The need of a substantial income compelled Southey to put aside his design of versifying ancient and exotic mythologies. He had magnanimously insisted on relinquishing Wynn's annuity upon his friend's marriage in 1806. A government pension of £160 a year soon filled its place, but Southey was disinherited at the same time by a rich uncle, who deemed his manservant a fitter object of his bounty. He had to provide not only for his own family, but in a large degree for Coleridge's. Apart from his pension, his pen was his sole resource. ‘To think,’ he exclaims, ‘how many mouths I must feed out of one inkstand!’ Never was a life of drudgery more courageously accepted, and the amount of work done was not more remarkable than the quality. With his unswerving conscientiousness Southey combined an innate love of books and a remarkable agility in passing from one subject to another.
Among the works undertaken and rapidly carried on after his settlement at Keswick, where he formed a library consisting of fourteen thousand volumes, were translations of the Spanish prose romances of Amadis of Gaul, Palmerin of England , and the Cid; ‘Specimens of the Later English Poets, with preliminary notices’; ‘Letters from England by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella’, a lively account of this country, written in the guise of letters assigned to a fictitious Spanish traveller; a highly valued edition of the ‘Remains of Kirke White, with an account of his Life’; a reprint of Malory's ‘Morte D'Arthur’; and the ‘History of Brazil’. The last was a portion, and the only portion published, of the intended ‘History of Portugal.’ The style of the book has been preferred to that of any other of Southey's prose works, except the ‘Life of Nelson,’ but the scale is much too large. A minor episode, however, published separately as ‘The Expedition of Orsua and the Crimes of Aguirre’, is a masterpiece of narrative. In August 1822 Southey wrote that his ‘History of Portugal’ was substantially complete down to the accession of Don Sebastian in 1557, and his son-in-law stated that the manuscript and additional materials were in his possession, but no more was published
Two of his principal poems meanwhile appeared. ‘The Curse of Kehama,’ his chef d'euvre, was resumed and completed, and published in 1810. ‘Kehama’ is based upon a really grand conception of the Hindoo mythology. The gorgeous shows of Indian courts and Indian nature are admirably reproduced in intricate and sonorous rhymed stanzas. The striking catastrophe owes much to ‘Vathek.’ The second poem, ‘Roderick, the last of the Goths’, although rather a work of reflection than of inspiration, contains Southey's best blank verse.
Southey had contracted in 1808 an engagement which impaired his activity as an author of books, while extending his influence and contributing materially to the support of his family. This was the prominent position which, at the instance of Walter Scott, he assumed as a contributor to the ‘Quarterly Review,’ for which he wrote regularly until 1839, contributing altogether ninety-five articles, mostly on publications of the day. The position was not altogether comfortable. Gifford and his successors, Sir John Taylor Coleridge and Lockhart, permitted themselves liberties with Southey's manuscripts which greatly tried his self-esteem, and his correspondence is full of complaints on the subject; but the emolument, which eventually came to be £100 an article, was too considerable to be lightly resigned. Though a selection of his contributions was published in 1831 as ‘Essays Moral and Political,’ they did not, with one exception, conduce to his permanent literary celebrity. His style and treatment were too smooth and equable to give his articles genuine distinction. An article on Nelson, however, formed the basis of his ‘Life of Nelson’, the peerless model of short biographies. From 1809 to 1815 he edited, and principally wrote, the ‘Edinburgh Annual Register,’ much of which afterwards passed into his ‘History of the Peninsular War.’
The alliance with Sir Walter Scott proved advantageous in other ways. Scott failed in procuring him the post of historiographer royal, but, when in 1813 the poet-laureateship was offered to himself, he generously transferred it to Southey, who on his part showed a becoming spirit by accepting it only on condition that he should be excused the drudgery of composing birthday odes. The affairs of the time afforded a sufficiency of more congenial matter. He wrote ‘Carmen Triumphale’ on the glories of 1814, ‘The Poet's Pilgrimage to Waterloo’ (1816), Princess Charlotte's epithalamium and her elegy (1817), and ten odes on public events. If not marked by any conspicuous inspiration, these performances did no discredit to the themes or to the writer. On the other hand, ‘The Vision of Judgment,’ an apotheosis of George III in English hexameters, an experiment worth making, should have been made by a more accomplished metrist, and upon some other subject. It was viewed by liberals as a challenge to liberal opinion, and as such incited Byron, who had long been exasperated against Southey, to pillory him in the great satiric parody which bore the same title.
Byron was not the only scoffer. The change in Southey's political and religious opinions which made the republican of 1793 a tory, the author of ‘Wat Tyler’ a poet laureate, and the independent thinker whom Coleridge had just managed to convert from deism to unitarianism a champion of the established church, inevitably exposed Southey to attack from the advocates of the opinions he had forsaken. There can be no question of Southey's perfect sincerity. The evolution of his views did not differ materially from that traceable in the cases of Wordsworth and Coleridge. But the immediate advantage to the convert was more visible and tangible, and Southey provoked retaliation by the uncharitable tone he habitually adopted in controversy with those whose sentiments had formerly been his own. Every question presented itself to him on the ethical side. But constitutionally he was a bigot; an opinion for him must be either moral or immoral; those which he did not himself share inevitably fell into the latter class, and their propagators appeared to him enemies of society. At the same time his reactionary tendencies were not unqualified. He could occasionally express liberal sentiments. Shelley testified in the Hitchener letters to his liberality in many points of religious opinion. He warmly welcomed Carlyle's ‘French Revolution.’ His articles in the ‘Quarterly Review’ on the poor law exhibit him in the light of a practical statesman who was ahead of public opinion. In a letter to Wiffen, years before the introduction of railways, he pointed out with force and precision the advantages of tramways. His prophecy that Napoleon's interference with Spain would be his ruin was a striking example of sagacious political prediction.
In 1817 the revolution that Southey's opinions underwent was brought conspicuously to public notice by the piratical issue of his early drama, ‘Wat Tyler,’ which he had indeed contemplated publishing in 1794, but which had long passed from his hands and his mind. He failed in obtaining an injunction from chancery to stop the publication, but it is scarcely possible to believe with him that sixty thousand copies were sold. A derisive allusion to the circumstance in the House of Commons by William Smith (1756-1835), M.P. for Norwich, produced a letter from Southey to that gentleman, which was intended to have been annihilating, but was not even pungent. He declares that he would not have noticed the matter at all but for the concern it occasioned his wife; and his mind was still under the shadow of the greatest sorrow of his life, the death in the preceding year (17 April 1816) of his eldest and most gifted son, Herbert. Another grief of the same nature befell him by the death of a daughter in 1826.
Apart from such incidents, the history of his life continued to be that of his friendships and publications. He saw much of Wordsworth, but, although they respected each other, there was, according to De Quincey, little cordiality between them. De Quincey found Southey serene and scholarly, but reserved and academic. Henry Taylor visited him in 1823, and wrote that he was as personally attractive as he was intellectually eminent. His correspondence with Landor, Bilderdijk, and Caroline Bowles was a great resource. Characteristically in the case of one who lived so entirely for books, all his friendships were of the nature of literary alliances. The mutual admiration of him and Landor, men who differed on every conceivable subject except the merits of each other's writings, was almost ludicrous.
In 1820 the university of Oxford created Southey D.C.L. (14 June), and in June 1826 he was elected M.P. for Downton in Wiltshire, but was disqualified in the following December as not possessing the necessary estate. He seems indeed to have had no desire whatever to embark on a parliamentary career, and his election was effected without his knowledge by the influence of the Earl of Radnor, who admired his principles. He was offered at different times the editorship of the ‘Times’ (with £2,000 a year) and the librarianship of the Advocates' Library, Edinburgh, but declined both.
The admirable ‘Life of Wesley,’ Coleridge's ‘favourite among favourite books,’ appeared in 1820. ‘The History of the Peninsular War’ (in three volumes), extending from 1823 to 1832, was a failure, being entirely superseded by Napier's. Southey had made the great mistake of neglecting the military part of the story, which, when the Duke of Wellington refused to entrust him with documents, he persuaded himself to think of little importance. He would have been better employed in writing those histories of Portugal and of the monastic orders which he sometimes meditated. Much that might have entered into these unwritten books adorns ‘Omniana’, or its better-known successor, that glorified commonplace book ‘The Doctor’. The first two volumes of a copy of ‘The Doctor,’ in the British Museum, have manuscript notes by Coleridge. The nursery classic — ‘The Three Bears’ — is embedded in chap. 129. Southey's actual ‘Commonplace Book’ was edited by his son-in-law, the Rev. J. Wood Warter, after his death.
Between 1820 and 1828 much of Southey's attention was absorbed by the Roman catholic controversy, which the agitation for Roman catholic emancipation provoked. In 1824 he published ‘The Book of the Church’, a narrative of striking episodes in English ecclesiastical history, delightfully written, but superficial and prejudiced. Charles Butler's reply produced Southey's ‘Vindiciæ Anglicanæ’ in 1826.
In 1825, returning to more purely literary work, Southey published ‘A Tale of Paraguay’, a poem on which, ‘impeded by the difficulties of Spenser's stanza,’ he had laboured at intervals for several years. The result, however, justified the exertion; the piece is among the most elegant and finished of his works. It is founded on an incident related in Dobrizhoffer's Latin ‘History of the Abipones,’ translated about the same time, and no doubt at his suggestion, by Sara Coleridge, still an inmate of his house. The long narrative ballads, ‘All for Love’ and ‘The Pilgrim of Compostella’ (1829), added little to his reputation; nor would much have been gained had he completed ‘Oliver Newman,’ designed to have been ‘an Anglo-American Iliad of King Philip's war,’ in the metre of ‘Kehama,’ on which he worked at intervals from 1815 to 1829. The fragment was included among his ‘Poetical Works’. In 1829 appeared his ‘Sir Thomas More, or Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society’, a series of interviews between himself and the ghost of Sir Thomas More. The machinery excited the scathing ridicule of Macaulay. But the view of social evils to which Southey there gave expression, often in anticipation of Mr. Ruskin, was in many respects deeper and truer than that of his optimistic critic.
In 1830 Southey wrote a life of Bunyan for a new edition of the ‘Pilgrim's Progress.’ In 1831, to the ‘Attempts in Verse of John Jones, a servant,’ he prefixed an interesting ‘Introductory Essay on the Lives and Works of our Uneducated Poets.’ Besides an edition of Dr. Watts's ‘Poems,’ with memoir, and an edition of his own ‘Poetical Works, collected by himself’, two more literary labours of importance remained for him to accomplish. One was the excellent life of Cowper prefixed to his standard edition of Cowper's ‘Works, comprising the Poems, Correspondence, and Translations’; the other, ‘The Lives of the Admirals’ (or ‘Naval History of England,’), in Lardner's ‘Cabinet Cyclopædia,’ which was useful, but not exempt from the general dulness of that arid series. When in 1835 Sir Robert Peel did himself honour by bestowing a pension of £300 a year upon Southey, accompanied by the offer of a baronetcy, which was declined, Southey declared that he would devote the remainder of his life to his histories of Portugal and the monastic orders, and to a continuation of Warton's ‘History of English Poetry.’
But the time for such undertakings was past. For years he had been tried by the failure of his wife's mind, terminating in lunacy, from which she was released by death in November 1837. His own apparent apathy provoked comment. ‘Better,’ said Miss Fenwick, in speaking of the comfort for which he was indebted to the devotion and contrivance of his daughters, ‘better the storms which sometimes visit Rydal Mount than a calm like this.’ In truth, his apparent indifference was incipient softening of the brain. ‘It is painful to see,’ said Wordsworth to Crabb Robinson, ‘how completely dead Southey has become to all but books. He is amiable and obliging, but when he gets away from his books he seems restless, and, as it were, out of his element.’ Carlyle about this time thought him ‘the most excitable but the most methodic man I have ever seen.’ In the helplessness of his failing faculties Southey took a step most natural, but in his state of health most unfortunate: he contracted a second marriage. For twenty years he had maintained a close correspondence with Caroline Bowles, and he married her on 4 June 1839. He returned from his wedding tour in a condition of utter mental exhaustion, which gradually passed into one of insensibility to external things. The last year of his life was a mere trance. He died from the effects of a fever on 21 March 1843. He was buried in Crosthwaite churchyard, and a beautiful recumbent statue, provided by public subscription, was dedicated to his memory in the church. Other memorials were placed in Westminster Abbey and Bristol Cathedral. Southey lost three children in his lifetime: Herbert; Isabel, who also died young; and Margaret, an infant. Four remained — Charles Cuthbert (1819-1888), a graduate of Queen's College, Oxford, who took orders and died vicar of Askham, Westmoreland, on 22 December 1888; Edith May, who married the Rev. John Wood Warter; Bertha, who married her cousin, the Rev. Herbert Hill; and Kate.
Southey was an heroic man of letters, displaying an indomitable sense of duty and an anchorite's renunciation in pursuit of his honourable resolve to be absolutely independent. Without effort he performed acts of magnanimity and self-denial, such as providing for Coleridge's family; while to young aspirants like Kirke White and Herbert Knowles he manifested boundless kindness. Yet his essential dignity of character was obscured by his foibles — by his self-appreciation and intolerance of every action and opinion that did not commend itself to him, by his blindness to the significance of much contemporary literary work, and by his habit of predicting national ruin on the smallest provocation. Of his valuable library, the excellence of which he celebrates in the well-known verses of ‘The Scholar,’ a portion was catalogued and sold by Kerslake at Bristol in 1845, but the greater part was sold by auction in London.
Poetical criticism, whether of his own writings or of those of others, was one of Southey's weakest points. But while egregiously deceived as to the absolute worth of his epics, he obeyed a happy instinct in selecting epic as his principal field in poetry. The gifts which he possessed — ornate description, stately diction, invention on a large scale — required an ample canvas for their display. Although the concise humour and simplicity of his lines on ‘The Battle of Blenheim’ ensure it a place among the best known short poems in the language, there are not half a dozen of his lyrical pieces, some of his racy ballads excepted, that have any claim to poetic distinction. The ‘English Eclogues,’ however, have an important place in literature as prototypes of Tennyson's more finished performances, but are hardly poetry.
As a writer of prose Southey is entitled to very high praise, although, as De Quincey justly points out, the universally commended elegance and perspicuity of his style do not make him a fine writer. But within his own limits he is a model of lucid, masculine English — ‘sinewy and flexible, easy and melodious.’ Sir Humphry Davy called his ‘Life of Nelson’ ‘an immortal monument raised by genius to valour.’ Although his forte was biography, not one of his prose works, except his ‘History of the Peninsular War’ and his ‘Colloquies,’ and this merely from initial defects of plan, proved other than a success. His correspondence exhibits him as a master of easy, familiar composition, and forms a treasury of literary and biographical information.
Southey's handsome personal appearance was admitted even by Byron. ‘The varlet was not an ill-looking knave.’ Crabb Robinson saw a resemblance to Shelley.
* pantisocracy - a form of utopian social organization in which all are equal in social position and responsibility.
 Zelonie Moyle
"One of the family John Enys was terminally ill, making his will on the 24th of April, 1802 and one of the witnesses on that day was Herbert, His Britannia Majesties Chaplain for the factory of Lisbon. As well there was a captain of a Packet ship (Falmouth) and James Basset, Inspector General of the foreign corps in Lisbon.
John Enys went to Portugal in the Spring of that year to improve his health. He died aged 30 years in an accident, probably brought on by his illness in the October of the same year."
I am wondering if the trip was anything to do with either of these men, but may never find that information. [back]
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