Robert Southey: Romance Interrupted
Posted on 1st July 2022
Robert Southey wasn’t just, along with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, one of the Lakeland Poets but also for a time at least, the most popular and celebrated one; a literary polymath who wrote essays, histories, biographies, melodramas, and much more besides. Indeed, his brother-in-law Coleridge described him as the complete man of letters.
Not that this was of any interest to his critics, and there were many. For them he was a liar and a hypocrite, and it didn’t matter the volume of his work when it lacked gravitas, sincerity, beauty, and genius. Even today, his reputation lies in tatters, his legacy tarnished. Why, what was his crime? He disavowed the radicalism of his youth and embraced love of country but unlike others of his association who did similar and survived the vitriol of their opponents, he did not do so quietly.
Not a native Cumbrian, though he was to make his home there at Greta Hall in Keswick for many years, Robert Southey was in fact born in Bristol on 12 August, 1774, into a well-connected but for the most part impoverished family. Nonetheless, he was able to attend both Westminster School and Oxford University where he studied for the priesthood. His heart wasn’t in it however, and already distracted and excited, as many young men of education were by the revolution in France, he left after just a few months.
In 1794 he made the acquaintance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge who was likewise fascinated with events occurring on the Continent and they became close friends, a relationship that was to last throughout their lives though not without friction and on occasion some distance between them.
Early on they collaborated on a number of projects, including a play ‘The Fall of Robespierre’ and a scheme to create a utopia in America, an ideal community known as the Pantisocracy where man would be tied to the land and no one would labour for anyone other than themselves; where all would be shared in common, and man would have the time to reproduce the generations of beautiful people of whom he was already one. Both men soon disavowed such foolishness. In Southey’s case idealism would only ever be a temporary setback.
Like so many others the worst excesses of the ‘Terror’ and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte saw Southey turn away from radical politics but unlike his friends, Coleridge who was conservative by inclination and Wordsworth who had long been a servant of the crown, he would not be forgiven.
The economic distress caused by the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the spread of urban and in particular rural unrest, saw a crackdown on dissent. The Six Acts restricting freedom of association and anti-trade union laws were introduced along with the suspension of Habeas Corpus while troops were regularly used to maintain order. Punishments for those who participated in any disorder were also harsh, ringleaders were often hanged, and many others sentenced to transportation and a life of indentured labour. Robert Southey supported it all and was vocal in doing so; and it was his unequivocal support for Lord Liverpool’s repressive administration that would see him condemned by former friends and admirers. And he would heap heresy upon heresy. He blamed the Peterloo Massacre on the protestors who he described as a revolutionary rabble. Writing in the Quarterly Review he accused radicals such as William Hone, Thomas Wooler, and William Cobbett of libel and sedition demanding they be arrested and sentenced to terms of penal servitude. He opposed Catholic Emancipation and described any move towards parliamentary reform as “The Railroad to ruin with the Devil for a driver.” Yet he remained a critic of the new industrialisation scarring landscape, opposed the evolving factory system, despaired at the living conditions of the poor, called for public works to ease unemployment, supported the reforms proposed by the utopian socialist Robert Owen and campaigned for a form of universal education. Not that any of this mattered to his critics and there were many who believed he had abandoned the individual in defence of his rights to embrace the violence of the State as the engine of their suppression.
The journalist William Hazlitt in his Spirit of the Age wrote: “He wooed liberty as a youthful lover but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride, and he has since wedded an elderly and not very reputable lady, called legitimacy.”
Southey rarely engaged with his critics though he did respond with an open letter to the criticism of William Smith MP made from the benches of the House of Commons declaring that he had always believed in bettering the lot of the poor: It was only the means by which that amelioration could be affected that had changed.
He did have a long running dispute with Lord Byron however, who believed that Southey had accused him of being in a ‘league of incest’ while staying at the Villa Diodati on Lake Geneva. It was an accusation Southey denied though he did later declare Byron part of a Satanic School and the author of horrors, mockery, lewdness, and impiety. Byron was no less critical of Southey.
He is best remembered now for the story of The Three Bears better known now as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, several important biographies and poems such as After Blenheim and the Inchcape Rock.
In 1813 Robert Southey was rewarded for his steadfast support of the governing institutions of his country with a pension and the role of Poet Laureate. He remained so until his death on 21 March 1843, at the age of 68. He was replaced as Poet Laureate by his old friend William Wordsworth.
Below is a poem composed around 1798, in which Southey highlights the plight of the poor but with a detachment that denies the expected requirement of an emotional response, as if the facts speak for themselves:
The Complaints of the Poor
And wherefore do the Poor complain?
The rich man asked of me,—
Come walk abroad with me, I said
And I will answer thee.
Twas evening and the frozen streets
Were cheerless to behold,
And we were wrapt and coated well,
And yet we were a-cold.
We met an old bare-headed man,
His locks were few and white,
I ask'd him what he did abroad
In that cold winter's night:
''Twas bitter keen indeed, he said,
But at home no fire had he,
And therefore, he had come abroad
To ask for charity.
We met a young bare-footed child,
And she begg'd loud and bold,
I ask'd her what she did abroad
When the wind it blew so cold;
She said her father was at home
And he lay sick a-bed,
And therefore was it she was sent
Abroad to beg for bread.
We saw a woman sitting down
Upon a stone to rest,
She had a baby at her back
And another at her breast;
I ask'd her why she loiter'd there
When the wind it was so chill;
She turn'd her head and bade the child
That scream'd behind be still.
She told us that her husband served
A soldier, far away,
And therefore to her parish she
Was begging back her way.
We met a girl; her dress was loose
And sunken was her eye,
Who with the wanton's hollow voice
Address'd the passers by;
I ask'd her what there was in guilt
That could her heart allure
To shame, disease, and late remorse?
She answer'd, she was poor.
I turn'd me to the rich man then
For silently stood he,
You ask'd me why the Poor complain,
And these have answer'd thee.
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