Robert Southey: A Life 
by Mark Storey.
Oxford, 405 pp., £25, April 1997, 0 19 811246 7
Show More
Show More

Southey was never a ‘marvellous boy’, but he lived a boyish life in books for half a century, and Mark Storey’s Life promises to solve a puzzle about his reputation: how someone so earnest and full of ideals could draw the loyalty of one generation, the livid contempt of another, and the nostalgic indulgence of a third, without any noticeable change of character. Almost all his verse is sensational writing for senses now defunct. Yet his lives of Nelson and Wesley are still impressive performances; and there is a morbid appeal in the eclipse of a career that spun out Thalaba, The Curse of Kehama, Roderick, Joan of Arc, and the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Adepts of cultural studies have found Southey the most open-minded of the Romantics, but the truth is that he was the most serviceable. He cast his eye in every direction, in book-making as in politics, and had the sincerity of a chameleon. Storey, a lively narrator with a mild partiality for his hero, throws down the gauntlet just once: Southey ‘in his lifetime was on a par with Wordsworth and Coleridge – and not just because they were friends and neighbours’. To make a school you need a third, and Southey was the third Lake poet. He surely profited from the neighbourhood.

Of his early schooldays on St Michael’s Hill in Bristol, he left a vivid memorial in prose, dwelling on its ‘vestiges of former respectability’ and ‘how mournful all this was in its fallen state, when the great walled garden was converted into a playground for the boys, the gateways broken, the summer-houses falling to ruin, and grass growing in the interstices of the lozenged pavement of the forecourt.’ Later, at Westminster School, he had his first taste of tyranny from bullying classmates, and discovered its antidote in the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau. He turned 15 a few days after the Revolutionists in France renounced all seigneurial privileges; he would remain all his life the sort of springtime radical who does not let you forget the coincidence. That bliss was meant for him; he took its betrayal personally. A natural pedant with an acquired aptitude for poetry, he thrived at Oxford, and wrote an ‘Ode to Contemplation’ in the manner of Gray and Collins: ‘In short quick circles the shrill bat flits by,/And the slow vapour curls along the ground’ – a bad poem and one of his favourites. By the time he attends the trial of the radical William Frend in the Senate House at Cambridge, he is already so seasoned by political warmings and coolings that his biographer can accurately say the trial ‘revived his political sensibilities’. Revived, at the age of 20; but it seems to have been true, and ‘sensibilities’ is unfortunately the right word.

In the decade to come Southey would follow the curriculum of his generation. From the republican doctrines of Plato and Milton, he graduated to the rational reformism of Godwin’s Political Justice, a tract of history, theory and moral science that proved the determinism of all thought and action. Since rational change had to be non-violent and could take place only in small groups, withdrawal from public life seemed a plausible inference from Godwin’s teaching; and in 1794, Southey, with a new friend, Coleridge, worked out a prospectus to drum up support for a utopian design for living. The poets reasoned from the premise that society requires one productive man in 20 to the conclusion that a small community of productive men and women need labour only one 20th of the time. They would spend their leisure hours in ‘liberal discussions’ and the education of children. Total abolition of property was a necessary element in such a scheme, to eradicate that craving for distinction which makes feeling itself unfree. The project of mutual benevolence, christened with the woolly nickname Pantisocracy, arrived at a welcome hour for Southey. Until this moment he had wondered whether a career in the Church quite suited him. Also, as Storey notes, he had ‘never fully resolved the problem of what the appropriate style was, certainly for his poetry’. Pantisocracy disposed of both questions by changing the subject. The pledge to share all feelings and possessions was solemnised by Southey and Coleridge in joint marriage to a pair of sisters, Edith and Sarah Fricker – a lucky shot for Southey, very much less so for Coleridge. The commune that never took shape is now embalmed in a few poems and the Platonic heat of a frank correspondence; but the friends worked steadily in Bristol in 1795, from an energy of reverence in anticipation of the exemplary life they would share.

‘Our names are written in the book of destiny on the same page,’ said Southey. Less profane, but as fulsome, Coleridge believed that his friend was ‘truly a man of perpendicular Virtue – a downright upright Republican! He is Christianizing apace.’ Together in well-nurtured melancholy, they mourned the death of Robespierre, ‘the benefactor of mankind’ as Southey considered him, ‘& we should lament his death as the greatest misfortune Europe could have sustained.’ He went himself one better: ‘I would rather have heard of the death of my own father.’ The warmth of this wish – that republican authority should once and for all supplant paternal authority – may now feel difficult to enter into. It should not therefore be dismissed as affectation. These moods run in fevers that acquire ingenuousness by being shared. A seductive cant of fellowship urged the project on its way, a style of conspicuous sincerity that approaches eloquence in Coleridge’s Bristol lecture on patriotism, and attains a perfection of bathos in Southey’s companion lecture – where, as he reported of himself, he uttered ‘bolder truths than any other man in this country has yet ventured. Speaking of my friend Tom I cried O Paine! hireless Priest of Liberty! unbought teacher of the poor!’ The echo of Burke’s ‘unbought grace of life’ is glossy and shallow, in a familiar manner of Southey’s that rapidly cloys: as if he believed he could turn any set of words around, and still have them mean the same thing. Anyway the bond of friendship was broken in an ordinary bust-up – Southey announcing that Coleridge had behaved ‘wickedly’, Coleridge responding with a 5000-word fusillade of self-defence. What remains of a collaboration so briefly so inseparable is a verse tragedy, The Fall of Robespierre, written in two days. Southey benignly summed up: ‘He did me much good – I him more.’ He saved his parting shot for a review of Lyrical Ballads, where, with characteristically misplaced wit, he would describe The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as ‘a Dutch attempt at German sublimity’.

Long habituation to almost any poetic style can produce a generous estimate of its virtues. Mark Storey has lived longer with Southey’s poetry than most of his readers will have done, and though a connoisseur of its clichés, he preserves a mostly sane and moderate tone. Picked out in a period anthology, a dozen lines by Southey are apt to show a satisfied keenness of workmanship, chiming and without resonance, quite unlike the effect of Crabbe or Wordsworth or Keats or Clare, poets with awkwardnesses all their own and an unmistakable signature. Yet Storey has been able to work up a semblance of rational enthusiasm for such a phrase as ‘the fearful features of futurity’ – words that, without their context in Southey’s Joan of Arc, are hard to say with a straight face. The best of the verse quotations summoned by Storey is the opening of The Curse of Kehama:

Midnight, and yet no eye
Through all the Imperial City clos’d in sleep!
Behold her streets a-blaze
With light that seems to kindle the red sky,
Her myriads swarming thro’ the crowded ways!
Master and slave, old age and infancy,
All, all abroad to gaze;
House-top and balcony
Clustered with women, who throw back their veils,
With unimpeded and insatiate sight
To view the funeral pomp which passes by,
As if the mournful rite
Were but to them a scene of joyance and

It is a matchless cascade of Oriental properties, as rich as the view from the carpet in The Thief of Baghdad, and all the better for the randomness of its opulence. On the other hand, how are we to take the rousing conclusion of a piece like ‘To the Genius of Africa’?

Justice shall yet unclose her eyes,
Terrific yet in wrath arise,
And trample on the tyrant’s breast,
And make Oppression groan opprest.

One may feel appropriately moved and instantly wary of what one is moved by. Like so much of Southey, it seems a case of words being heated by the breath of other words. ‘How does time mellow down our opinions!’ Southey observed – in 1810 or so, one supposes, but the year was 1796. He was capable of also saying then: ‘I do hunger & thirst for sedition.’ Early in his career, poetic audacity and political principle had grown thoroughly tangled in his mind. Later, political and poetic ‘legitimacy’ would be confused in the same way. On the verge of publishing Madoc in 1804, he announces to his friend Charles Wynn: ‘You do not know, said Horne Tooke, how proud a man feels when he is to be hung upon a charge of high treason. – You do not know how consequential a man feels when he is about to send a quarto volume into the world.’ Only two years later, ‘the turn which our politics have taken,’ he says, ‘is very fortunate; it puts me in the road to fortune & makes my prospects very bright, far higher indeed than ever could have been had I stuck either to divinity or law.’ The turn in question was Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz and his apparent invincibility. That disaster opened for Southey the vista of a drawn-out war, in which many battle-odes would be called for. The explicitness of the new demand caught him between wind and water: he was ‘more disposed’ anyway, as he told Walter Scott, ‘to instruct & admonish mankind than to amuse them’. One might pardon the versatility if only it pardoned itself less copiously; but Southey always had an exceptional gift for ingratiating himself with himself. ‘I have a trick of thinking too well of those I love, better than they generally deserve, & better than my cold & containing manners ever let them know.’ Was ever self-congratulation more devious? He loves others more than they deserve, he knows exactly how much they deserve, and the humble beauty of it is: they will never know the depth of his good nature. It is the reverse of Charles Lamb’s saying that he would prefer to do a good deed by stealth and have it discovered by accident. Southey performs the lukewarm deed manifestly and then by foolproof revelation makes it known the deed was warmly meant.

By 1812, the author of the Botany Bay Eclogues seriously thought of accepting an appointment as Governor of Botany Bay – he turned it down because, as Storey puts it, ‘Edith was not too keen on such a radical change of scenery.’ Only a few months earlier, he had received an unsettling visit in Keswick from a young poet and disciple, Percy Shelley. The Revolt of Islam would draw on Southey’s Oriental experiments, and right down to Demogorgon’s song in Prometheus Unbound, cadences from his poems and Coleridge’s of the 1790s would acquire a second life more authentic than their first. Shelley’s feeling for liberty went far deeper than Southey’s. He would have pulled away soon enough, but their encounter hastened the transition, ‘whether or not’, as Storey delicately says, ‘the story was true that Shelley had slipped beneath the table, unconscious with boredom, during Southey’s rendition of one of his epics.’ The anecdote does ring true. What prodigious bores all the Lakers became as they stepped up into patronage and prudence and middle age. Beerbohm’s caricature of ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Table-Talking’ shows the addict and sage slumped in a stupor at the head of the table, his hand vaguely stretched for a glass of port, while the statesmen huddled on both sides yawn or doze together, as prosperous as a pack of seals. And yet, Coleridge and Wordsworth each had a life to bury – a past for which the late-found respectability was a necessary cover. What was Southey’s excuse?

‘I am a quiet, patient, easy-going hack of the mule breed; regular as clockwork in my pace, sure-footed, bearing the burden which is laid on me, & only obstinate in choosing my own path.’ The judgment is honest except for one detail – a path that veers so many times eventually turns back on itself – but this private estimate is oddly in keeping with Hazlitt’s portrait in The Spirit of the Age:

Study serves him for business, exercise, recreation. He passes from verse to prose, from history to poetry, from reading to writing, by a stop-watch. He writes a fair hand, without blots, sitting upright in his chair, leaves off when he comes to the bottom of the page, and changes the subject for another, as opposite as the Antipodes.

That was the polite version of Hazlitt’s criticism, in 1825; in 1814, he had turned all the force of his satire against Southey’s debut as Poet Laureate – an ode that exhibited ‘the irregular vigour of Jacobin enthusiasm suffering strange emasculation under the hands of a finical lord-chamberlain’. This would become the tone of the second generation of Romantics towards the most despised of their precursors. For Wordsworth, injured love and a sad rebuke for the loss of self-trust; for Coleridge, wonder at what might have been and pity for the living ruin; but for the pragmatic, successful and utterly complacent hired gun of letters – scorn and disdain without intermission.

Yet there remains in Southey’s work an easy high-heartedness no more subject to moral dismissal than it can be to critical praise. None of his contemporaries had a language to describe the public effervescence and personal glee he could bring to good-bad verses like the ‘March to Moscow’:

The Emperor Nap he would set off
On a summer excursion to Moscow;
The fields were green, and the sky was blue,
Morbleu! Parbleu!
What a pleasant excursion to Moscow!

It is hard to feel grim about the man who wrote this. As Storey rightly says, it cannot have been what his government patrons had in mind. Southey’s popular poetry was simply part of the landscape during the Regency years, as much as Campbell’s or Scott’s, a thing to be taken for granted and nobody was grave-faced about it. His most memorable poems are fanciful squibs like ‘The King of the Crocodiles’ that hover on the brink of inspired nonsense. When the war was over and a wave of political protests began – really a resumption of the protests of the 1790s – Southey took an indecently hard line on restricting the freedom of the press. Then chance played him an unpleasant trick. In 1794, he had smuggled to the radical printer James Ridgeway, in prison, a draft of his revolutionary drama Wat Tyler. It passed out of sight, to emerge, in 1817, from the firm of Sherwood, Neeley and Jones – ‘associated’, says Storey, savouring the mischief, ‘with polite travel literature or smart editions of legal texts’. The pirated text of Southey’s flaming youth was nicely synchronised with two Quarterly Review articles, anonymous but easily exposed as his: one against the new political reformers, the other denouncing ‘the rise and progress of popular disaffection’. The juxtaposition was a ready-made cartoon: it needed no comment, only somebody to point, and found its man in William Smith, MP for Norwich and an early friend of the Lake poets. Smith pulled from one pocket a copy of the Quarterly, and from the other a copy of Wat Tyler, and asked if the inference was not that the author of the one must suppress the other as seditious? The incident gives a wider meaning to Byron’s epigram on Southey in the Vision of Judgment: ‘He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose,/And more of both than anybody knows.’ More, as it turned out, than Southey knew himself.

Through the 1820s his public sentiments gradually coarsened: ‘if the country is compelled to feed able-bodied paupers, it thereby acquires the right of transporting them to any place where that can be done at the easiest rate or where the necessity of doing it may be removed.’ His critical opinions also took on a more than usually heartless and self-protective tone. He could observe of Shelley’s poems after his death: ‘What merit they had was of too high a kind to be attractive, & their obscurity & extravagance served in some degree to sheath the poison which they contained.’ It is a curious comment, and vulnerable – high merit paired with obscurity and extravagance before all three are junked. Plainly, for Southey, attractiveness had become a quality preferable to invention. Yet the comment implies that the poison – of atheism and free love, presumably – would have been more attractive if presented without disguise. There was a bit of Pantisocracy left in him after all.

Shortly after the death of his wife in 1837, Southey was engaged to Caroline Bowles; within weeks of their marriage in 1839, his mental powers failed; and for his last three years he was less a husband than a dependant. To the Early Victorians, his had come to seem a life in which professional industry, performance of charitable duties, and the domestic virtues were happily joined – ‘a life,’ wrote Thackeray, ‘sublime in its simplicity, its energy, its honour, its affection’. Charlotte Brontë admired the same traits less officiously: ‘He not only loved his wife and children though he was a poet, but he loved them the better because he was a poet … I like Southey.’ The conclusion defies challenge; but one may wonder how much of the praise is wishful, and whether poetry is a surer support for happiness than happiness is for poetry. There were dissenting eulogies, too, and Storey rounds off his Life by printing Bagehot’s gloomy reflection on the author of the History of Brazil, ‘the Herodotus of the South American Republics’:

As if his epics were not already dead, and as if the people who now cheat at Valparaiso care a real who it was that cheated those before them. Yet it was only by a conviction like this that an industrious and calligraphic man (for such was Robert Southey), who might have earned money as a clerk, worked all his days for half a clerk’s wages, at occupation much duller and more laborious.

He may hold our attention most as an extreme instance of normal ambition. Probably he did more good than harm. And probably Bagehot was right: with or without treason, for the average ambitious clerk to think of a career in letters is to think of a career like Southey’s.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences