Robert Southey

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Robert Southey
Born August 12, 1774
Died March 21, 1843

Robert Southey (August 12, 1774 – March 21, 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic school, one of the so-called "Lake Poets", and Poet Laureate. Although his fame tends to be eclipsed by that of his contemporaries and friends William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Southey's verse enjoys enduring popularity. Moreover, he was a prolific letter writer, literary scholar, historian and biographer. His biographies include the life and works of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. The latter 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 immortal children's classic, The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks story.


  • 1 Life
  • 2 Major works
  • 3 Politics
  • 4 Trivia
  • 5 See also
  • 6 Further reading
  • 7 External links
  • 8 Notes


He was born in Bristol to Thomas Southey and Margaret Hill and educated at Westminster School (from which he was expelled for writing a magazine article condemning flogging) and Balliol College, Oxford (of his time at Oxford Southey was later to say "All I learnt was a little swimming. and a little boating."). After experimenting with a writing partnership with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, he published his first collection of poems in 1794. The same year, he, Coleridge and a few others discussed setting up an idealistic community in America ("pantisocracy").

Their wants would be simple and natural; their toil need not be such as the slaves of luxury endure; where possessions were held in common, each would work for all; in their cottages the best books would have a place; literature and science, bathed anew in the invigorating stream of life and nature, could not but rise reanimated and purified. Each young man should take to himself a mild and lovely woman for his wife; it would be her part to prepare their innocent food, and tend their hardy and beautiful race.

Later iterations of the plan moved the commune to Wales, but Southey was later the first of the group to reject the idea as unworkable.

Southey's wife, Edith, was the sister of Coleridge's wife. The Southeys set up home at Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake District, living on a tiny income. From 1809, he contributed to the Quarterly Review, and had become so well-known by 1813 that he was appointed Poet Laureate after Sir Walter Scott refused the post.

In 1819, through a mutual friend (John Rickman), Southey met leading civil engineer Thomas Telford and struck up a strong friendship. From mid-August to 1 October 1819, Southey accompanied Telford on an extensive tour of his engineering projects in the Scottish Highlands, keeping a diary of his observations. This was published posthumously in 1929 as Journal of a tour in Scotland in 1819.

In 1838, Edith died and Southey married Caroline Anne Bowles, also a poet. Many of his poems are still read by British schoolchildren, the best-known being The Inchcape Rock,After Blenheim (possibly one of the earliest anti-war poems) and The Cataract of Lodore.

Major works

Robert Southey
Robert Southey
  • Fall of Robespierre ( 1794 ).
  • Joan of Arc: An Epic Poem ( 1796 )
  • Poems ( 1797 - 99 )
  • Letters from Spain ( 1797 )
  • Saint Patrick's Purgatory (1798)
  • Devil's Thoughts ( 1799 )
  • Thalaba the Destroyer ( 1801 )
  • Amadis de Gaula ( 1803 ). Translation
  • Madoc ( 1805 )
  • Letters from England ( 1807 ) ISBN 0-86299-130-7, (Alan Sutton, Paperback).
  • Palmerin of England ( 1807 ). Translation.
  • The Cid ( 1808 ). Translation
  • The Curse of Kehama ( 1810 )
  • History of Brazil Volume I ( 1810 )
  • The Life of Nelson ( 1813 )
  • Roderick, the Last of the Goths ( 1814 )
  • Wat Tyler: A Dramatic Poem ( 1817 )
  • Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819 ( 1929, posthumous )
  • The Life of Wesley, and the rise and progress of Methodism (c.1820)
  • A Vision of Judgment ( 1821 )
  • Life of Cromwell ( 1821 )
  • Thomas More ( 1829 )
  • The Pilgrim's Progress with a Life of John Bunyan (1830)
  • Cowper ( 1833 )
  • The Doctors ( 1834 ). Includes the first published version of the fairy tale-like The Three Bears.
  • Select Lives of Cromwell and Bunyan (1846)
  • The Inchcape Rock
  • After Blenheim


Although originally a radical supporter of the French Revolution, Southey followed the trajectory of fellow Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Coleridge, towards conservatism. Embraced by the Tory Establishment as Poet Laureate, and from 1807 in receipt of a yearly stipend from them, he vigorously supported the repressive Liverpool government. He argued against parliamentary reform ("the railroad to ruin with the Devil for driver"), blamed the Peterloo Massacre on the allegedly revolutionary "rabble" killed and injured by government troops, and opposed Catholic emancipation. In 1817 he privately proposed penal transportation for those guilty of "libel" or "sedition". He had in mind figures like Thomas Jonathan Wooler and William Hone, whose prosecution he urged. Such writers were guilty, he wrote in the Quarterly Review, of "inflaming the turbulent temper of the manufacturer and disturbing the quiet attachment of the peasant to those institutions under which he and his fathers have dwelt in peace." (Wooler and Hone were acquitted, but the threats caused another target, William Cobbett, to emigrate to the United States.)

Given his departure from radicalism, and his attempts to have former fellow travellers prosecuted, it is unsurprising that contemporaries who kept the faith attacked Southey. They saw him as a selling out for money and respectability. In his portrait of Southey in The Spirit of the Age William Hazlitt wrote: "He wooed Liberty as a youthful lover, but it was perhaps more as a mistress than a bride; and he has since wedded with an elderly and not very reputable lady, called Legitimacy." He was often mocked for what were seen as sycophantic odes to the king, most notably in Byron's long ironic dedication of Don Juan to Southey.


  • In 1799, both Southey and Coleridge were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas). Experiments were performed by Cornishman Humphry Davy. [1]
  • In 1808, Southey used the pseudonym 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. [2]
  • Byron wrote a scornful dedication to his celebrated narrative poem Don Juan addressed to Southey, who is dismissed as insolent, narrow and shabby. This was based both on Byron's disrespect for Southey's literary talent, and his disdain for Southey's conservative politics. There is a satirical portrait of Southey in Byron's poem 'The Vision of Judgment', which is a parody of Southey's 'A Vision of Judgment'.
  • Lewis Carroll's "You Are Old, Father William" in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a parody of Southey's "The Old Man's Comforts and How He Gained Them."
  • The term autobiography was first used by Southey in 1809 in the English periodical Quarterly Review in which he predicted an 'epidemical rage for autobiography', which indeed has continued to the present day.
  • Southey is also attributed with penning the the popular children's nursery rhyme What are Little Boys Made of? around 1820.

See also

  • Caroline Bowles
  • Goldilocks and the Three Bears
  • The Three Bears

Further reading

Curry, Kenneth (ed.), New Letters of Robert Southey, 2 vols (Columbia UP: New York and London, 1965)

Dowden, Edward (ed.), The Correspondence of Robert Southey with Caroline Bowles (Dublin and London, 1881)

Low, Dennis, The Literary Protégées of the Lake Poets (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006)

Madden, John Lionel, Robert Southey: the critical heritage (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972)

Pratt, Lynda, ed. Robert Southey, Poetical Works, 1793-1810, 5 vols. (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2004)

Southey, Charles Cuthbert (ed.), The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey (New York, 1855).

Speck, W. A. Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters, (Yale University Press, 2006)

  • The Pilgrim To Compostella
  • The original Southey version of The Three Bears
  • The Robert Southey Collection: Presented online by The University of Wisconsin Digital Collections Center. Titles include:
    • Southey, Robert, 1774-1843. Southey's Common-place book. First series. Choice passages. Collections for English manners and literature: 2d. ed. (1850)
    • Southey, Robert, 1774-1843. Southey's Common-place book. Second series. Special collections: 2d. ed. (1850)
    • Southey, Robert, 1774-1843. Southey's Common-place book. Third series. Analytical readings: 2d. ed. (1850)
    • Haller, William. 1885- The early life of Robert Southey, 1774-1803 (1917)
    • Southey, Robert, 1774-1843. The doctor, &c. (1848)
  • e-book of Madoc, an epic poem in two volumes about the legendary Welsh prince Madoc.
  • Greta Hall Keswick home of Robert Southey
  • Notes

    Preceded by
    Henry James Pye
    British Poet Laureate
    Succeeded by
    William Wordsworth
    18th century - 19th century
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