15 December, 2006Issue 6.1EuropePoetryWriters

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The Life of Robert Southey

Monika Class

W. A. Speck
Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters
Yale University Press, 2006
305 pages
ISBN 030011681

Until recently, Robert Southey’s reputation was one of a ‘Lake Poet’ alongside Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. The title ‘Lake Poet’ has its origins in the nineteenth century, when an influential critic at the Edinburgh Review took issue with the simplicity and lack of diction of this group of poets. Yet despite this reputation—and partly through the efforts of the novelist Walter Scott—Southey was made England’s poet laureate in 1813. Since that time and for almost two centuries, Southey’s works have drifted out of readers’ interest, possibly because they have seemed obsolete when compared to the more timeless works of Wordsworth and Coleridge, which have gained increasing popularity and esteem. Appreciating Southey’s poetry requires some command of the poet’s contemporary events and interests; Madoc, for instance, is based on his missionary work in Mexico—something only his contemporaries could appreciate. Yet a number of recent studies have reassessed this view.

In addition to a new scholarly edition of his work, several biographers have begun revisiting Southey’s life. The most recent of these is W. A. Speck’s Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters. Speck is enthusiastic about Southey and wants to present him in a positive light, despite Southey’s difficult to tackle political apostasy. Over the course of his life, Southey transformed from a full-fledged republican, a promoter of individual human rights, a Unitarian, a Pantheist and a believer in communally shared property, to an arch-conservative with a mind fixed on the king and the preservation of state and constitution. Even Coleridge, himself a Tory and a close friend of Southey, felt ‘forced to quarrel with [Southey’s] want of Judgment and his Unthinkingness.’

In the 1790s, Jacobin convictions prompted a young Southey to oppose the war with Revolutionary France and to support claims for constitutional reform, including universal male suffrage and annual parliamentary meetings. In June 1794, a mutual friend took Samuel Taylor Coleridge round to Balliol College to introduce him to Southey, who was an undergraduate there, and what followed can be read in any account of early British Romanticism. Southey and Coleridge became fast friends with the two sharing speculations about metaphysics, enthusiasm for Godwin’s Political Justice and a scheme for a commune in North America. They planned ‘the government of all,’ calling it ‘pantisocracy,’ and forged plans to emigrate to Pennsylvania with their future wives and a handful of friends to establish a democratic farming community, where all property would be communal and labours would be shared. Southey and Coleridge were so close that they even proposed to the sisters Edith and Sara Fricker.

Yet by September 1795, their impractical plan had collapsed. Southey had changed and no longer shared Coleridge’s idealism, abandoning his pledge for universal human rights. Although Southey earned a living as a journalist, literary critic and reviewer, he opposed the freedom of the press because he feared revolt in Britain. Further, Southey rejected Catholic emancipation, which, as Speck explains, had admitted Irish and English Roman Catholics to Parliament and most public offices in 1829. Southey had strongly defended the exclusion, mainly on the grounds that Ireland, where most Catholics lived, was a barbarous country. As Speck points out, Southey had a strong sense of duty to represent his political conviction, so strong indeed that he scarified even his self-respect by writing for William Gifford’s Quarterly Review, a conservative rival to the Edinburgh Review. Before Southey’s time at the Quarterly, Gifford had ridiculed the young Southey in a parody entitled ‘New Morality’ (1798), with an accompanying cartoon that features Southey as an ass beside his equally long-eared friend Coleridge. This satire stigmatised Southey and Coleridge as ‘cosmoplites,’ a term comparable to treason at the time. Even while Southey was working at the Quarterly Review, Gifford had not grown more respectful of Southey, and he kept altering Southey’s writing without his permission. Speck has written a sentimental story of Southey’s life.

He addresses Southey’s politics only in fragmented details, and his unflinching adherence to chronology precludes a coherent discussion of political and ideological connections, which is perhaps the most interesting—and yet underdeveloped—aspect of Southey’s life. Instead, Southey’s lack of and longing for an intellectual companion are the biography’s recurrent themes. This leads to a familiar story, in which a husband is unable to share his love for poetry, history and politics with his intellectually inferior wife. Nevertheless, as Speck points out, Southey was committed to his wife and children, and even supported his sister-in-law and her children when opium-addicted Coleridge abandoned his family. In later years, Southey looked after Edith unremittingly during her mental illness, even though, as Speck reveals through Southey’s letters, he was angry about and unable to comprehend his wife’s dementia. After Edith’s death, Southey married Caroline Bowles, a young writer. They were long-standing friends and their wedding is the climax of Speck’s narrative, which devotes much attention to Caroline and Southey’s relationship. However, Southey’s grown-up children did not approve of Caroline, suspecting that she had married him for money and not for love. Southey fell ill with Alzheimer’s within months of the wedding, and Caroline nursed her husband until his death in 1843, ignored by the rest of family even though they were living in the same house.

Speck’s empathy for Robert Southey is clear and his account is fair. His biography provides a reliable source of information by virtue of thorough research. In addition, his biography highlights Robert Southey’s kindness to the people around him, like Wordsworth, whom Southey consoled for several days following the tragic death of Wordsworth’s brother John.

Overall, Speck’s Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters is sympathetic to Southey. Speck respects his personal and political experiences and admires Southey’s writing. He belongs to a group of scholars who laments that Southey ‘was dropped from the canon.’ His biography contextualises Southey’s poetry, and by doing so, it emphasises its importance. Speck’s biography does not question the literary canon as a whole or whether Southey’s poetry ranks alongside that of the other two ‘Lake Poets.’ In the end, whether Southey is enjoyable or interesting to read depends on the individual reader, and those who are interested in the culture and politics of the time will surely find worthwhile information in Robert Southey’s work, and Speck’s account of Southey’s life will help them best appreciate it.

Monika Class is a DPhil student in British and German Romanticism at Balliol College, Oxford.