Robert Southey 1774-1843

This session is not about Goldilocks and the Three Bears, although many of you would prefer it to be, but no, it is about the man who brought this beloved story to all children.  Robert Southey was for thirty years England’s Poet Laureate following the death of William Wordsworth.  I should mention that this distinction was gained by default when Sir Walter Scott declined.  He was the last and least gifted of the Lake Poets, Coleridge and Wordsworth, and is closely linked to William Landor, who characterized his writing as “interesting but not exciting” and not-quite romantic.

For Southey on his birthday, Landor wrote:

“No Angel borne on whiter wing
Hath visited the sons of men,
Teaching the song they ought to sing
And guiding right the unsteady pen.
Recorded not on earth alone,
O Southey! Is thy natal day,
But there where stands the choral throne
Show us thy light and point the way.”

We follow several paths when exploring Southey’s development: the first is “the school path,” which begins at Keswick in the Lake District of Cumberland, England.  Here he lived a gentle life shuttled between a devoted mother and his aunt in Bath whom he affectionately refers to in his correspondence as Miss Tyler.  When faced with the task of raising her young nephew after the death of his mother, Miss Tyler purchased a copy of Rousseau’s Emile.  Thus Southey became “the little victim, without companions, without play, without a child’s beatitudes of dirt and din, carefully swathed in the odds and ends…of a whimsical, irrational, maiden lady.”  Miss Tyler had one devotion: the theaters of Bath and Bristol.  Rather than leave Southey at home alone or with the service staff, he was obliged to accompany his aunt to performances as often as three times a week.  The adult theater fare for Southey was premature:  too young to separate reality from fantasy, one evening while viewing Sheridan’s The Critic Southey wrote “when I heard that  Sir Walter Raleigh’s head was to be cut off, I hid mine in my lap…and could not be persuaded to look up, till I was assured that the dreaded scene was over.”  But on reflection Southey wrote of: “I can trace with certainty the rise and direction of my poetical pursuits, from this exposure.” His fate now sealed, Southey was firmly in the hands of Tasso, Ariosto and Spenser.

Southey’s early education resembled that of a revolving door, never spending a long stay at any particular institution.  On the occasion when Southey was abruptly taken out of day school and placed in a boarding school he wrote:

“The first grief I felt,
And the first painful smile that clothed my front
With feelings not its own…
Sadly at night
I sat me down beside a stranger’s hearth,
And when the lingering hour of rest was come,
First wet with tears my pillow.”

After Corston came Bristol, then Westminster.  Southey spent four years at Westminster (1788-1792).  Schooling and Southey were never a good mix, having neither the patience nor temperament for intense study of any subject.  This contributed particularly with the ability to master any language: being either unable or unwilling to deal with the complexity of any grammar.  He preferred the acquisition of a storehouse of miscellaneous facts from whatever subject or book he encountered, thus  making him  more of an historian than a poet.   It was at Westminster that he announced himself as a writer and began his career by submitting articles to the school paper anonymously.

Unfortunately one article resulted in immediate expulsion. Southey chose to attack the practice of punishment by flogging, referring to  it as “an invention of the devil.”  Unfortunately this view was not shared by the head of school, Dr. Vincent, who declared that “the preceptorial dignity was being impugned by some unmannerly brat, a bulwark of the British Constitution was at stake” and made haste to prosecute the publisher for libel.

“We have ventured,
Like little wanton boys what swim on bladders,
These last nine numbers in a sea of glory,
But far above our depth; the high blown bubble
At length burst under use, and now has left us
(Yet Smarting from the rod of persecution
Though yet undwearied) to the merciless rage
Of the rude sea that swallowed Number Five.”

Southey critically misjudged the impact of his words and came forward with an apology but to no avail.  Dismissed from the school, Southey left for London where he wrote: “I was that day borne into the world as an author; and if ever my head touched the stars while I walked upon the earth, it was then…In all London there was not so vain, so happy, so elated a creature as it was that day.” Not too distressed, Southey surrounded himself with books new and old, and spent his evenings with discussing the events of the world in local meeting places.   One aspect of school learning formed a lasting bond were the doctrines of Epictetus notably to wish for nothing that is not under your control.  Southey acknowledged the impact of Epictetus after reading the sonnet To A Friend by Matthew Arnold:

“Thou halting slave, who in Nicopolis
Taught Arrian, when Vespasian’s brutal son
Clear’d Rome of what most shamed him…

Who saw life steadily, and saw it whole;
The mellow glory of the Attic stage,
Singer of sweet Colonus and its child.”

In a letter he wrote “twelve years ago I carried Epictetus in my pocket till my very heart was ingrained with it… the longer I lived, and the more I learn, that more am I convinced that Stoicism, is the best and noblest of systems.”  The lesson that he learned from the Stoic slave was that of self-regulation “that it is a man’s prerogative to apply the reason and the will to the government of conduct and to the formation of character.”

Because of the “flagellant incident” his dream to attend Christ Church was crushed.  The dean denied his admittance and Southey had to settle for Balliol College. He writes: “I left Westminster in a perilous state, a heart full of poetry and feeling, a head full of Rousseau and Werther, and my religious principles shaken by Gibbon.”  His literary appetite was filled with the imaginative epic tales of Tasso’s ottava rima (abababcc) Jerusalem Liberated and Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso.  He used Akenside as a model for his inscriptions:

“What a world were this
How unendurable its weight, if they
Whom Death hath sundered did not meet again!”

For his rhymeless stanzas;  Collin’s Ode to Evening, and for his blank verse; most certainly Landor’s Gebir. Mixed with this was “the vulgar riot and animalisms of young Oxford.”  

The second path is “the political path” which takes us from Southey the Jacobin to Southey the Tory.   As Southey aged he grew in his thinking from rebel to conservative.  The opinion of a colleague was “Just for a handful of silver he left us, Just for a riband to stick in his coat” while Southey offered “I had merely acquired greater wisdom with age and experience.”  From Anglican to Deist, in the end Southey described himself as “a seeker, a sheep without a fold, but not without a shepherd…he belonged to the communion of saints…which included papist, protestant, and heathen”, and from poet to historian.  In 1793 he writes during one of his many moods of depression:

“I am sick of this world, and discontented with every one of it…I look round the world, and everywhere find the same mournful spectacle, the strong depravity pervades the whole creation; oppression is triumphant everywhere, and the only difference is, that it acts in Turkey through anger of a grand seignior, in France of a revolutionary tribunal, and in England of a prime minister. There is no place for virtue.”

In Coleridge, whom he met at Oxford, he found a kindred spirit.  Together they fell into conversations about the sorry state of the world following the collapse of Napoleon, the industrialization of England, the growth of tyranny and usurpation of moral law and political justice.  In seeking the answer to the question “Tell me, on what holy ground; may domestic peace be found?” they developed the idea of a “Pantisocracy”.   A place of universal benevolence (hardly “universal” as they excluded priests, lords, kings and those of similar kind).  They romanticized a cottage in America on the banks of the Susquehanna   where asylum would be sought “to reside in a country where men’s abilities would ensure respect; where society was upon a proper footing, and man was considered as more valuable than money…”  Yet it was the lack of money that left their dream unfilled.

In 1794 he wrote the dramatic sketch Wat Tyler (1794, but not published until 1817) as a reaction to Tyler’s Rebellion, or what is also historically entered as the Peasants Revolt.  Because of its explosive and seditious content it was later “surreptitiously obtained and made  public by some skulking scoundrel” William Smith “for the avowed purpose of insulting him (Southey) and with the hope of injuring him if possible.”

“While the peasant works, to sleep,
While the peasant sows, to reap,
On the couch of ease  to lie,
Rioting in revelry’
Be he villain, be he fool,
Still to hold despotic rule,
Trampling on his slaves with scorn!
This is to be nobly born.”

These words stand in pale to the verse wherein Bishop Hatto is to be devoured by rats, a ballad God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop written in 1799.  

Southey thought little of his studies at Oxford in fact he declared “of all the months of his life, those passed at Oxford were the most unprofitable…all I learnt was a little swimming and a little boating.”  The dislike of Oxford became a favorite theme.

“From these dull haunts, where monkish science holds,
In sullen gloom her solitary reigh;
And spurns the reign of love,
And spurns the genial sway.”   To Hymen an allegorical ode - 1795

He was at Oxford to pursue a medical career but lacked qualities required of this profession, particularly his inability to follow rules and lack of discipline.  He could not endure even basic anatomy.  His stay was cut short by his revolutionary ideas and he was “perforce to enter the muster-roll of authors.”  He left without a degree only to receive a DCL in 1820.

In 1875 the newly married Southey went off to Portugal for the winter to work with his uncle, Herbert Hill, a chaplain at a British Factory in Lisbon.  His uncle hoped to cleanse Southey of his young rebelliousness and Southey was hoping “to look for the holy ground of domestic peace in some place nearer than the banks of the Susquehanna river.”  The stay did moderate his view of England as a quite decent place to live.  He could extol   “the climate, the mountains with their streams and coolness, the odorous gardens, Tagus flashing in the sunlight, the rough bar glittering with white breakers, lemon trees and laurels” but not the corrupt Catholicism.  Nothing could take the place of “the book stalls of London and the presence of old friends.”

When it came time for him to return to London and continue his studies it was decided that, as clergy and medicine had already been tried and failed, the only respectable choice left was to study law.  The following months he read nine hours a day at law, but in the end he could not overcome his repugnance of legal studies.  “I commit willful murder on my own intellect by drudging at law…reading law is laborious indolence, I am not indolent; I loathe indolence”   While in Italy as a member of a delegation he offered this comment “It is unfortunate that you cannot come to the sacrifice…of my whole proper stock of law books whom I design to take up to the top of Mount Etna, for the express purpose of throwing him straight to the devil.”

Meanwhile the Quarterly Review and Monthly Magazine offered him steady recompense for his writing, which brings us to our third path – poetry to prose.   Most of the poetry written during this period addressed the plight of the wretched and aggrieved in society.   There were twelve elegiac quatrains, burlesque in tone, but the target clearly aimed at social protest. All were submitted anonymously as Bion. Here is Eggs and Bacon:

“And I have din’d again have made my meal
Yes, and I found the Eggs and Bacon sweet;
Alas! That men who eat should finely feel
Alas! That men who finely feel should eat!

Cease, Sensibility! Torment me no more!
Spare me my bosom’s lov’d, yet tyrant Queen!
Why tell me what there Bacon was of yore,
And wherefore portray what the Eggs had been?

It boot not now that Bacon never more
In search of acorns thro’ the wood shall roam;
Nor when the business of the day is o’er,
At night repose him in his own dear home.

Yes, his dear home, for well his native sty
And all its sweet domestic joys he knew;
There many an hour supine he lov’d to lie,
Or on the dung-hill warm that reek’d in view.

Perhaps, poor Porker! When the Butcher came,
Thought of delight were ripening in his breast:
First, for some fair he felt the tender flame,
She was not coy, and he had sure been blest.”

And ye, poach’d eggs! To life ye soon had burst,
With sudden strength and consciousness endued;
How carefully the hen your youth had nurst,
How proudly cackled o’er her beauteous brood.

Hence had some cock the future conque’ror grown,
His glossy plumage had been bright to view;
His bloody cockscomb like the Monarch’s crown,
And sweet at morn his cock-a-doodle-doo.

O Nature, wherefore should it be thy will
That men must feed on gross corporeal fare,
Whilst thy Camelion finds his blameless fill
In the pure beverage of the ambient air.

All able Nature, in they boundless might,
Thou couldst etherial nourishment have giv’n
And made they favour’d children live on light,
Or feed like flow’rs upon the dews of heav’n.

Then had not tooth-ache stalk’d among mankind,
Tooth ache, worst fiend of all from heav’n who fell,
Who leaves the realms of penal fire behind,
And in a hollow tooth concenters Hell.

Teeth and tooth-drawers had been useless then,
The mouth alone for sounds harmonious giv’n,
And, uncorporealiz’d, the sons of men
Been pure and spotless as the race of Heav’n.

But wherefore should I muse on thoughts like these?
Why wake the wound of feeling thus unwise?
Nay, Nay, ye Eggs and Bacon, be at peace,
Nor in my conscience, nor my stomach rise.  1799

Not bad, but not memorable.   Poets are advised that “the best, most lasting, poetry is that which “tells us how to live”.  Southey, in following that advice, wrote The Old Man’s Complaints (1805):

“You are old Father William” the young man cried
The few locks which are left you are gray;
You are hale, Father William, a Hearty old man:
Now tell me the reason, I pray.”

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember’d that youth would fly fast,
And abused not my health and my vigour at first
That I never might need them at last.

You are old Father William, the young man cried,
And pleasures with youth pass away
And yet you lament not the days that are gone,
Now tell me the reason I pray.

In the days of my youth, Father William replied,
I remember‘d that youth could not last
I thought of the future whatever I did,
That I never might grieve for the past.

You are old, Father William, the young man cried,
And life must be hastening away;
You are chearful and love to converse upon death!
Now tell the reason I pray.

I am cheerful, young man, Father William replied
Let the cause thy attention engage,
In the days of my youth I remember’d my God!
And He hath not forgotten my age.”

But Southey lost to Lewis Carroll, whose parody You Are Old Father William eclipsed  Southey’s effort and  brought  lasting popularity to Father William. Today few people remember that the original source was Robert Southey.  

Written at Westbury were two sonnets:  Winter, and Southey’s most interesting sonnet, The Cataract of Lodore, which was written for children while at Keswick in 1820.  At this same time there was great public interest in the ballad form was spawned by Percy’s Reliques a collection of Northumberland border ballads highlighting English folklore.  Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Sir Walter Scott had all fallen under their spell while students at Oxford. The Ballad form is believed to have altered the direction of English literature from neo-classicism to romanticism.  Southey’s  two notable ballads Inchcape Rock written at Keswick in 1820 and The Battle of Blenhiem  while at Westbury in 1798, and lesser ones God’s Judgement on a Wicked Bishop, The Wll of St. Keyne, Brough Bells, and Lord William. 

But Southey’s real passion was history and the epic or heroic poem. What of Southey’s historical epics: Madoe,Joan of Arc, Curse of Kehama, Thalaba the Destroyer, or Rocerick? The choice of epic is a perfect fit for a historian.  Our sources tell us that the epic is that happened or what men think happened, the latter in poetic form legend and myth.  There is no need for invention because the outcome is known. The epic has a simple construction: it “represents only a single (compact) action, entire and complete”.  The Iliad happened in a few days in writing, but lasted ten years.   The one absolute requirement is a main character.   Southey chose his characters, with the exception of John of Arc, from obscure historical events of the world, for this reason they had  built-in obsolescence.   Perhaps, they may someday be rescued by Hollywood movie makers.

Madoc was a massive quarto soon needed to be divided into two parts: Madoc in Wales and Madoc in Aztlan.  This was a tale of a struggle: “mercy with cruelty, light with dark, truth with error. Madoc and his associates are the New World champions of Christendom, who plant the cross in the midst of idolatrous and bloody rites.” In Kehama Southey enters India and explains “The spirit of the poem was Indian but there was nothing Oriental in the style”.  Written in irregular verse and saved by rhyme.  “Southey was a cheerful, Christian Stoic while Ladurlad  is a Stoic who worships Brahma”  Ladurlad endures in faith and hope and finally heroic filial love of Glendoveer for his leprous stained daughter Kailya.

“Did then the thought of her own Glendoveer
Call forth that natural tear?
Was it a woman’s fear,
A thought of earthly love which troubled her?
Like yon thin cloud amid the midnight sky
That flits before the wind
And leaves no trace behind,
The womanly pang  pass’d over Kailyal‘s mind.”

Kehamawas finished in 1809.  It was a protest against the prostrate homage to immoral power which Southey, Coleridge and Wordsworth looked upon as one of the chief vices of the time.”.  It proclaims divine power, evil-doers cannot prevail.

“To wield Omnipotence! O fool, to dream
That immortality could be
The meed of evil! Yea, thou hast it now,
Victim of thine own wicked heart’s device,
Thou has thine object now, and now must pay the price.”

It was just a short leap from epic poetry to the prose of the essay, for by the age of thirty Southey had done with verse and became an historian.   He left Westbury and returned to Greta Hall and Keswick, producing only prose from that time until his death in 1803.

We close with this Inscription on Southey’s Monument in Crosthwaite Church, Keswick written by Wordsworth:

Ye vales and hills whose beauty hither drew
The poet’s steps, and fix’d him here, on you,
His eyes have closed! And ye, loved books, no more
Shall Southey feed upon your precious lore,
To works that ne’er shall forfeit their renown,
Adding immortal labours of his own
Whether he traced historic truth, with zeal
For the State’s guidance, or the Church’s weal,
Or Fancy, disciplined by studious art,
Inform’ed his pen, or wisdom of the heart,
Or judgments sanction’d in the patriot’s mind
By reverence for the rights of all mankind.
Wide were his aims, yet in no human breast0
Could private feelings meet for holier rest.
His joys, his griefs, have vanish’d like a cloud
From Skiddaw’s top; but he to heaven was vow’d
Through his laborious life, and Christian faith
Calm’d in his soul  the fear of change and death.

Should you wish to pursue the poems of Southey, we offer an index of first lines:

A Well there is in the west country   Well of St. Keyne

A wrinkled, crabbed man they picture thee   Winter

As Pedro would have answer’d, a loud cry

Beware a speedy friend, the Arabian said   

But Madoc linger’d not, his eager soul

Cold! Cold! Tis a chilly clime   Thalaba  finds theSorceress Maimuna

Edith! Ten years are number’d, since the day   Dedication

of A tale of Paraguay to Edith Southey

Four horses, aided by the favouring breeze    Flemish Landscape

From tribe to tribe, from town to town   Abaldar the Sorceror  - Thalaba

Here in the fruitful vales of Somerset    Epitaph

How beautiful is night!     The Desert-Circle – Thalaba the Destroyer

How does the Water   The Cataract of Lodore

I charm thy life    Kehama Curses Ladurlad

In its summer pride array’d   Funeral Song for the Princess Charlotte of Wales

It was a little island where he dwelt
It was a summer evening    The Battle of Blenheim

It was the early morning yet     Henry the Hermit

Lord! Who are merciful as well as just   Imitated from the Persian

Maid of the golden locks, far other lot   Caradoc and Senena  - Madoc

Mary! Ten chequer’d years have past    To Mary

Midnight and yet no eye   The Funeral – Curse of Kehama

My days among the Dead are past    
No eye beheld when William plunged    Lord William

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea     The Inchcape Rock

Not to the grave, not to the grave, my Soul      The Dead Friend

Nor with a heart unmoved I left thy shores   Madoc Voyage to the New World

O Reader! Has thou ever stood to see    The Holly Tree

Once more I see thee, Skiddaw! Once again   Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo

One day to Helbeck I had stroll’d   Brough Bells

Reclined beneath a Cocoa’s feathery shade rejoicing in their task
Rotha, after long delays   Lines Written in the Album of Rotha Quillinan

Silent and solitary is thy vale    the Attack Upon the Women - Madoc

So spake the King of Padalon, when, lo!
Soon by devious tricks
Soon had the Prince
Steep is the soldier’s path; nor are the heights   The Standard-Bearer of the Buffs

Stranger! Whose steps have reach’d this solitude   In a Forest

Stranger! Awhile upon this mossy bank     For a Traveler on the Banks of a Stream

Such was the talk they held upon their way
The friars five have girt their loins    The Queen of Orraca

The summer and autumn had been so wet    God’s Judgment on a Wicked Bishop

Them thus pursuing where the track may lead    In the Woods of Paraguay

Then in the Ship of Heaven, Errenia laid
Though the four quarters of the world have seen    At Barrosa

Thus peacefully the vernal years   Life in an Arab Tent  

‘Twas a fair scene wherein they stood    
‘Twas at the sober hour when the light of day is receding  A Vision of  Judgment

Twelve weary days with unremitting speed   Spanish Landscape

When the broad Ocean on Ladurlad’s head
Where too is she who most his heart held dear  Ladurlad Rescues His Daughter  - Kehama

Who counsels peace at this momentous hour    Negotiations with Bonaparte 1814  an ode