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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.”
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.
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:
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):
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.
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.
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:
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 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 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
Silent and solitary is thy vale the Attack Upon the Women - Madoc
So spake the King of Padalon, when, lo!
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 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
Thus peacefully the vernal years Life in an Arab Tent
‘Twas a fair scene wherein they stood
Twelve weary days with unremitting speed Spanish Landscape
When the broad Ocean on Ladurlad’s head
Who counsels peace at this momentous hour Negotiations with Bonaparte 1814 an ode