Robert Southey was born in 1774 in Bristol and lived for most of his life in the Lake District. He was a Romantic poet and Poet Laureate from 1813 to 1843. Unlike his friends and contemporaries Wordsworth and Coleridge, he’s barely remembered today. I don’t know that I’ve ever read one of his poems and I couldn’t find one in any of my anthologies. I’ve attached a link to one of them below in case you’re in the same position.
As well as poetry he also wrote histories and biographies. He wrote lives of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. Jane Austen wrote in one of her letters that she was going to read this last, as she believed it mentioned her brother, Frank; it didn’t.
Southey was a great scholar of Spanish and Portuguese literature and history and he translated literary works from those languages into English. He planned a history of Portugal, but only completed the History of Brazil. He also wrote a history of the Peninsular War.
Initially he tried a writing partnership with Coleridge and they published The Fall of Robespierre in 1794. It was a three act play depicting a very recent event. Robespierre had only been beheaded in July of that year. It was originally envisaged as a project between Southey, Coleridge and Lovell, each writing an act, but Lovell’s work didn’t fit with what Southey and Coleridge had written and Southey rewrote it. The three men each married one of the Fricker sisters. When Lovell died in 1796 Mrs Lovell and her son went to live with the Southeys.
The three poets had plans to found an egalitarian society in America, but it fell through when Southey suggested that Wales would be more suitable.
Although The Fall of Robespierre was a success, the relationship between Southey and Coleridge deteriorated, as did most of Coleridge’s relationships, due to his drug addiction.
Southey married Edith Fricker in 1795 and they moved to Keswick. As well as Lovell’s widow and son, their household included Sara Coleridge and her three children, who had been abandoned by Coleridge.
In 1808 he wrote Letters from England, the account of a tour of England written from a foreigner’s viewpoint. It was considered an accurate depiction of England in the early 1800s, but Jane Austen found it very anti-English.
By 1813 he had become so well-known that he was appointed Poet Laureate after Walter Scott had refused the post.
It wasn’t just poets with whom he became friends. Humphry Davy, the amateur poet and chemist who invented the Davy lamp, was a friend, and Southey accompanied Thomas Telford, on a tour of his projects in the Highlands
Although initially a supporter of the French Revolution, writing an epic poem on the life of Joan of Arc, Southey, like Coleridge and Wordsworth, became more conservative, to the extent that he blamed the Peterloo Massacre on the crowd. Many of his contemporaries attacked him for selling out for money and respectability. He did, however turn down a baronetcy in 1835 and was extremely critical of conditions in manufacturing towns such as Birmingham and Manchester. He was also outspoken in his condemnation of child labour.
He celebrated the victory at Waterloo by building a bonfire on the top of Skiddaw which could be seen in Scotland. The celebration was attended by many people who walked to the top of the mountain, including the Wordsworths. There were large amounts of food and drink, to the extent that many of the gentlemen were drunk before they went back down. It is not recorded whether Southey and Wordsworth were in their number.
Southey visited Waterloo on 3rd October 1815, three and a half months after the battle. He wrote a poem about the experience – The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo. Jane Austen, who read it in January 1817 shortly after it was published, was moved by the description in the poem of Southey’s son, Herbert, who died in 1816. Its tone was very different to the anti-war poem After Blenheim that he had written twenty years before.
Byron despised him, in addition to having no respect for his abilities as a poet, for what he considered to be a hypocritical turn to conservative politics. In return, Southey held Byron in very low esteem.
He was far from being a feminist and discouraged Charlotte Brontë from pursuing a career as a writer when she wrote to him to ask for advice. On the other hand he enjoyed Jane Austen’s novels and expressed regret after her death that he hadn’t known her.
After the death of his wife, Southey married again in 1839. His new wife, Caroline Bowles, was also a poet. Shortly after the marriage signs of dementia began to appear and he died in 1843.