Robert Southey was a poet who suffers from competition of his friends and enemies. He was a friend of Coleridge and Wordsworth and publicly made mock of by Byron. His name is almost unknown except to teachers of literature and even they usually pass him by for the poems of Wordsworth, Shelley, or Byron. Southey’s reputation has been harmed by Byron’s disparaging remarks about him in various works , but especially Don Juan. Very odd that even people who don’t think much of Byron or his poetry seem to accept his evaluation of Southey. Perhaps it is time to give Southey another chance?
During the Regency period he was quite well known though perhaps not as popular as Walter Scott. He became poet laureate in 1813 and remained in that post until he died in 1843.
Southey was born in 1774. He was expelled from Westminster school for publishing an essay in the school paper against flogging. He went on to Oxford but left without a degree.
He became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The men married sisters and talked about setting up a pantisocratic society in America. The plans changed to setting up the society in Wales but by this time Southey had learned not to put too much dependence on Coleridge who was addicted to opium and not a dependable person at all. Southey and his wife ended up supporting Coleridge’s wife and children when Coleridge went off, leaving them without support.
In 1808, Southey used the name 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.[Wikipedia]
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 last 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 children’s classic, The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks story, which first saw print in Southey’s prose collection, The Doctor.[Wikipedia]
Though being named poet laureate was an honor some, like Walter Scott, turned it down because it entailed writing verses on demand or on significant dates or events in the life of the sovereign or country. Unfortunately, Southey’s reputation has often been based on those poems instead of on the body of his work. Southey’s poem about the death of George III A Vision of Judgment is a perfectly adequate poem until compared to Byron’s The Vision of Judgment which Byron wrote in parody and response to Southey’s poem. Unfortunately, Byron’s poem is considered a great satirical poem while Southey’s has been reduced to common place.
A poet laureate also had to write odes on the King’s and Queen’s birthdays, jubilees, great victories and such. Those who didn’t have to do so, called such work hack work. Southey needed the few pounds the position paid.
Like many others of his day, Southey started out as a reformer and a supporter of the French revolution. The reign of terror and the excesses of mobs made him rethink his politics and he ended being a moderate Tory.
Southey lived to see Victoria ascend to the throne of England.