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Robert Southey - Biography

Robert Southey was a major English romantic poet, one of the main famous “Lake Poets”. Indeed, together with other famous poets such as William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834) he lived and worked in the Lake district in the north of England. He was born in 1774 in Bristol, a city in south west England.

Southey was the son of a cloth merchant. He would receive a very assiduous education and be a great reader early on in his childhood. By the age of 15 Southey had already written ambitious epic poems. Because of his promising intelligence, he would be sent to the University of Westminster in London to finish his studies. However, he would mostly be remembered there for his turbulent attitude and his protests against punishments.

At Oxford University where he would be placed next, he would continue to despise university courses and would spend all of his time instead of doing class work reading all of German and French literature. This was to make his family greatly unhappy since they had planned for him to have a medical career. However, most importantly, it is while studying at Oxford University that he would become a friend of somebody who would become a great literary figure, and would also become a lake poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772 - 1834). Together they would try to found a utopian, egalitarian community, which they named Pantisocracy. It was to be situated on the banks of the Susquehanna river in the state of Pennsylvania in the United States. The project would ultimately fail but the two poets remained very close. In fact they friendship would grow even stronger when in 1795 Southey married Coleridge’s sister.

Between 1795 and 1800, Southey would three times go to Portugal for extensive amounts of time. There he would gather the material necessary for the first draft of his project entitled History of Portugal, which he would never actually complete. Yet as a writer Southey would not only come to distinguish himself particularly within the literary genres of poetry, but also with his biographies. In fact, arguably his most important works consist of the biographies he devoted to the great men of his country. Those included The Life of Horatio Lord Nelson (1813), The Life of Wesley: And the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1821), The Lives of the Admirals (1833 - 1840) as well as that of William Cowper (1731 - 1800) in a work not surprisingly entitled The Life of William Cowper (1843).

In 1803, the Coleridge and Southey families moved together to make their home in a house named Greta Hall in the market town of Keswick in the Lake District in the county of Cumbria in Great Britain. Robert Southey would live there for forty years. It is noteworthy that many famous writers would subsequently visit Greta Hall, including William Wordsworth (1770 - 1850), Charles Lamb (1775 - 1834), William Hazlitt (1778 - 1830), P.B. Shelley (1792 - 1822), and Sir Walter Scott (1771 - 1832). Today Greta Hall is a fine Bed and Breakfast.

Robert Southey’s poetic inspiration would be varied. In his youth, excited by the French Revolution he would compose various works depicting the glory of France, including the epic poem Joan of Arc, published in 1793. However his forte seems to have been in the narrative poem genre. For example, Thalaba the Destroyer, which would be published in twelve volumes in 1801. But also Roderick the Last of the Goths in 1814.

In 1821 Southey would have an argument with Lord Byron (1788 - 1824) about one of his poems. Indeed, in his preface to A Vision of Judgement (1821), which had been written in honor of George III, King of England, he had vehemently attacked Byron’s writings. This one would retaliate in 1822 with a critically celebrated parody of Southey’s original poem. Indeed Byron’s poem was to be entitled The Vision of Judgement (1822).

Along with his narrative poems, Southey would also write lighter and more accessible pieces for the modern reader. For example, we have The Story of the Three Bears (1837), which is referred to under other titles as well such as “The Three Bears” or “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” and sometimes even simply “Goldilocks”. It is a fairy tale often considered to be an anonymous folk story. Its first publication in a written narrative form, however, would be in 1834 when Southey publishes his version as an anonymous text in his book entitled The Doctor. The tale Southey tells us in that collection of prose was probably based on an earlier written version, although this is by no means certain at this point. In any case, it has enjoyed great fame ever since having been published by Southey. He is also the author of political, religious and historical essays such as his History of Brazil (1822), which was in fact part of his never-finished History of Portugal, focused on the years 1810 to 1819. It is noteworthy also that Southey would publish works by Sir Thomas Malory (1405 - 1471).

From 1813 until his death Southey had the honor of being Poet Laureate, which however would not free him from the constraints of having to write a lot in order to provide for his family. Indeed, even though his works had been great critical successes, he would financially be overwhelmed by his family responsibilities. As a result Southey had begun to work for booksellers, doing for example translations of books originally written in Spanish or Portuguese as well as editing work.

Southey would not however give up yet on pure literature and wrote at least one of his masterpieces under such pressure: The Curse of Kehama (1810). This one is an epic poem whose inception goes as far back as his being a boy who would suffer from insomnia together with recollections of a somber mysterious schoolmate, whom would play the role of the villain in the poem. Southey had started the poem in 1802 but had eventually given up on it until the poet Walter Savage Landor (1775 - 1864) would persuade him to finish it. In the end the poem would include over 5000 lines in 24 sections. The latter number is meant to make the piece be reminiscent of Homer’s (8th century BC) Illiad and Odyssey, also written in 24 books. Many consider The Curse of Kehama to be Southey’s most important addition to the British Oriental epic genre. Here is a short but riveting passage from it:

I charm thy life,
From the weapons of strife,
From stone and from wood,
From fire and from flood,
From the serpent’s tooth,
And the beast of blood.
From sickness I charm thee,
And time shall not harm thee;
But earth, which is mine,
Its fruits shall deny thee;
And water shall hear me,
And know thee and flee thee:
And the winds shall not touch thee
When they pass by thee,
And the dews shall not wet thee
When they fall nigh thee.
And thou shalt seek death,
To release thee, in vain;
Thou shalt live in thy pain,
While Kehama shall reign,
With a fire in thy heart,
And a fire in thy brain.
And sleep shall obey me,
And visit thee never,
And the curse shall be on thee
Forever and ever.

The overall volume of Southey’s works, both prose and poetry would, by the end of his life be considerable. Not surprisingly perhaps then, a combination of overwork together with the grief caused by both the madness and eventual death of his wife in 1837, would shoot him down almost completely. He would remarry, however, in 1839 with Catherine Bowles. Arguably yet he would never recover completely his writing ability.

Even thought Robert Southey’s writings have tended since his death to be neglected, it is clear he was an important and respected writer during most of his lifetime. Even so-called enemies such as Hazlitt or Byron would openly state their admiration for the style of his prose. Indeed as a poet Southey had excelled in the descriptions as his works would manage to make an indelible mark on literature. As a prose writer rare are the ones who have equaled his clarity and elegance. Even his letters would be celebrated for their charm. Southey’s poems would be collected in a book entitled Poetical Works in 1837, and would often be reprinted since then. Robert Southey would die on March 21st 1843 at Greta Hall at 68 years of age.

Robert Southey was an English Romantic Poet. (August 12, 1774 – March 21, 1843).