Robert Southey

Robert Southey (/ˈsaʊði/ or /ˈsʌði/;[a] 12 August 1774 – 21 March 1843) was an English poet of the Romantic school, one of the Lake Poets along with William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and England's Poet Laureate for 30 years from 1813 until his death in 1843. Although his fame has been eclipsed by that of Wordsworth and Coleridge, his verse still enjoys some popularity.

Robert Southey
Portrait, c. 1795
Portrait, c. 1795
Born12 August 1774
Bristol, England
Died21 March 1843 (aged 68)
London, England
OccupationPoet, historian, biographer, essayist
Literary movementRomanticism
  • Edith Fricker (1795–1838; her death)
  • Caroline Anne Bowles (1839–1843; his death)


Southey was also a prolific letter writer, literary scholar, essay writer, historian and biographer. His biographies include the life and works of John Bunyan, John Wesley, William Cowper, Oliver Cromwell and Horatio Nelson. The last has rarely been out of print since its publication in 1813 and was adapted as the 1926 British film, Nelson.

He was also a renowned scholar of Portuguese and Spanish literature and history, translating a number of works from those two languages into English and writing a History of Brazil (part of his planned History of Portugal, which he never completed) and a History of the Peninsular War.

Perhaps his most enduring contribution to literary history is the children's classic The Story of the Three Bears, the original Goldilocks story, first published in Southey's prose collection The Doctor. He also wrote on political issues, which led to a brief, non-sitting, spell as a Tory Member of Parliament.


Robert Southey by Sir Francis Chantrey, 1832, National Portrait Gallery, London
Robert Southey, by Sir Francis Chantrey, 1832, National Gallery, London

Robert Southey was born in Wine Street, Bristol, to Robert Southey and Margaret Hill. He was educated at Westminster School, London, (where he was expelled for writing an article in The Flagellant attributing the invention of flogging to the Devil),[1] and at Balliol College, Oxford.[2] Southey later said of Oxford, "All I learnt was a little swimming... and a little boating."

Experimenting with a writing partnership with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, most notably in their joint composition of The Fall of Robespierre, Southey published his first collection of poems in 1794. The same year, Southey, Coleridge, Robert Lovell and several others discussed creating an idealistic community ("pantisocracy") on the banks of the Susquehanna River in America:

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.[2]

Southey was the first to reject the idea as unworkable, suggesting that they move the intended location to Wales, but when they failed to agree, the plan was abandoned.

In 1799 Southey and Coleridge were involved with early experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas), conducted by the Cornish scientist Humphry Davy.[3]

Matilda Betham, Portrait of Edith May Southey, 1809
Mary Matilda Betham, Portrait of Edith May Southey, 1809[4]
Matilda Betham, Portrait of Herbert Southey, 1809
Mary Matilda Betham, Portrait of Herbert, 1809[4]

Southey married Edith Fricker, Coleridge's sister-in-law, at St. Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, on 14 November 1795. The Southeys made their home at Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake District, living on his tiny income. Also living at Greta Hall and supported by him were Sara Coleridge and her three children (after Coleridge abandoned them) and the widow of poet Robert Lovell and her son.

In 1808 Southey met Walter Savage Landor, whose work he admired, and they became close friends. That same year he wrote Letters from England under the pseudonym Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, an account of a tour supposedly from a foreigner's viewpoint. Through the mouth of his pseudonym Southey is critical of the disparity between the haves and have-nots in English society, arguing that a change in taxation policy would be needed to foster a greater degree of equity.[2]

From 1809 Southey contributed to the Quarterly Review. He had become so well known by 1813 that he was appointed Poet Laureate after Walter Scott refused the post.

In 1819, through a mutual friend (John Rickman), Southey met the leading civil engineer Thomas Telford and struck up a 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 in 1929 as Journal of a Tour in Scotland in 1819. He was also a friend of the Dutch poet Willem Bilderdijk, whom he met twice, in 1824 and 1826, at Bilderdijk's home in Leiden. He expressed appreciation of the work of the English novelist Ann Doherty.[5]

In 1837 Southey received a letter from Charlotte Brontë, seeking his advice on some of her poems. He wrote back praising her talents, but discouraging her from writing professionally: "Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life," he argued. Years later, Brontë remarked to a friend that the letter was "kind and admirable; a little stringent, but it did me good."

In 1838 Edith died and Southey remarried, to Caroline Anne Bowles, also a poet, on 4 June 1839.[6] Southey's mind was giving way when he wrote a last letter to his friend Landor in 1839, but he continued to mention Landor's name when generally incapable of mentioning any one. He died on 21 March 1843 and was buried in the churchyard of Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, where he had worshipped for forty years. There is a memorial to him inside the church, with an epitaph written by his friend, William Wordsworth.

Many of his poems are still read by British schoolchildren, the best-known being The Inchcape Rock, God's Judgement on a Wicked Bishop, After Blenheim (possibly one of the earliest anti-war poems) and Cataract of Lodore.

As a prolific writer and commentator, Southey introduced or popularised a number of words into the English language. The term autobiography, for example, was used by Southey in 1809 in the Quarterly Review, in which he predicted an "epidemical rage for autobiography", which indeed has continued to the present day.[b]


A 1797 caricature of Southey's early radical poetry

Although originally a radical supporter of the French Revolution, Southey followed the trajectory of his 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 Liverpool government. He argued against parliamentary reform ("the railroad to ruin with the Devil for driver"), blamed the Peterloo Massacre on an allegedly revolutionary "rabble" killed and injured by government troops, and spurned Catholic emancipation.[7] 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 temporarily to the United States.

In some respects, Southey was ahead of his time in his views on social reform. For example, he was an early critic of the evils the new factory system brought to early 19th-century Britain. He was appalled by the living conditions in towns like Birmingham and Manchester and especially by employment of children in factories and outspoken about them. He sympathised with the pioneering socialist plans of Robert Owen, advocated that the state promote public works to maintain high employment, and called for universal education.[8]

Given his departure from radicalism, and his attempts to have former fellow travellers prosecuted, it is unsurprising that less successful contemporaries who kept the faith attacked Southey. They saw him as selling out for money and respectability.

In 1817 Southey was confronted with the surreptitious publication of a radical play, Wat Tyler, which he had written in 1794 at the height of his radical period. This was instigated by his enemies in an attempt to embarrass the Poet Laureate and highlight his apostasy from radical poet to supporter of the Tory establishment. One of his most savage critics was William Hazlitt. In his portrait of Southey, in The Spirit of the Age, he 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." Southey largely ignored his critics but was forced to defend himself when William Smith, a member of Parliament, rose in the House of Commons on 14 March to attack him. In a spirited response Southey wrote an open letter to the MP, in which he explained that he had always aimed at lessening human misery and bettering the condition of all the lower classes and that he had only changed in respect of "the means by which that amelioration was to be effected."[9] As he put it, "that as he learnt to understand the institutions of his country, he learnt to appreciate them rightly, to love, and to revere, and to defend them."[9]

Another critic of Southey in his later period was Thomas Love Peacock, who scorned him in the character of Mr Feathernest in his 1817 satirical novel Melincourt.[10]

He was often mocked for what were seen as sycophantic odes to the king, notably in Byron's long ironic dedication of Don Juan to Southey. In the poem Southey is dismissed as insolent, narrow and shabby. This was based both on Byron's disrespect for Southey's literary talent, and his disdain for what he perceived as Southey's hypocritical turn to conservatism later in life. Much of the animosity between the two men can be traced back to Byron's belief that Southey had spread rumours about him and Percy Bysshe Shelley being in a "League of Incest" during their time on Lake Geneva in 1816, an accusation that Southey strenuously denied.

In response, Southey attacked what he called the Satanic School among modern poets in the preface to his poem, A Vision of Judgement, written after the death of George III. While not naming Byron, it was clearly directed at him. Byron retaliated with The Vision of Judgment, a brilliant parody of Southey's poem.

Without his prior knowledge, the Earl of Radnor, an admirer of his work, had Southey returned as MP for the latter's pocket borough seat of Downton in Wiltshire at the 1826 general election, as an opponent of Catholic emancipation, but Southey refused to sit, causing a by-election in December that year, pleading that he did not have a large enough estate to support him through political life,[11] or want to take on the hours full attendance required. He wished to continue living in the Lake District and preferred to defend the Church of England in writing rather than speech. He declared that "for me to change my scheme of life and go into Parliament, would be to commit a moral and intellectual suicide." His friend John Rickman, a Commons clerk, noted that "prudential reasons would forbid his appearing in London" as a Member.[12]

In 1835 Southey declined the offer of a baronetcy, but accepted a life pension of £300 a year from Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel.[12] He is buried in the churchyard of Crosthwaite Parish Church in Cumbria.

Honours and memberships

Southey was elected a member of the American Antiquarian Society in 1822.[13] He was also a member of the Royal Spanish Academy.

List of works

See also



  1. ^ Southey's biographer comments that: "There should be no doubt as to the proper pronunciation of the name: 'Sowthey'. The poet himself complained that people in the North would call him 'Mr Suthy'" (Jack Simmons: Southey (London: Collins, 1945), p. 9). Byron rhymed Southey with "mouthy" (Don Juan Canto the First, Stanza 205) Retrieved 12 August 2012. The pronunciation criticized by Southey is still used; the Oxford English Dictionary cites both for the word "Southeyan" (relating to Robert Southey or his work).
  2. ^ The Oxford English Dictionary entry for autobiography contains an earlier quotation using this word.


  1. ^ Geoffrey Treasure: Who's Who in Late Hanoverian Britain (2nd, enlarged edition, London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1997), p. 143.
  2. ^ a b c Carnall, Geoffrey (2004). "Southey, Robert (1774–1843), poet and reviewer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. Retrieved 26 August 2012. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. ^ Humphry Davy, NNDB
  4. ^ a b "Letter 1669. Robert Southey to Grosvenor Charles Bedford, 12 August 1809". The Collected Letters of Robert Southey. Romantic Circles, University of Maryland. 12 August 1809. Retrieved 6 March 2015.
  5. ^ Links to letters Romantic Circles: "Attersoll, Ann..." Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  6. ^ Blain, Virginia H. (2004). "Southey, Caroline Anne Bowles (1786–1854), poet and writer". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  7. ^ Carnall, Geoffrey. "Southey, Robert (1774–1843)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/26056. (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  8. ^ Carnall (1971), p. 9.
  9. ^ a b Speck (2006) p. 172.
  10. ^ Howard Mills: Peacock, His Circle and His Age (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1969) p. 115 ff. Retrieved 31 July 2018.(
  11. ^ MPs were then unsalaried, and expected to treat voters at election times.
  12. ^ a b [1] History of Parliament article.
  13. ^ American Antiquarian Society Members Directory
  14. ^ Bodleian MS. Eng. Misc. e. 121
  15. ^ "Review of History of Brazil by Robert Southey. Part the First". The Quarterly Review. 4: 451–474. November 1810.
  16. ^ "Review of History of Brazil by Robert Southey, vol. ii". The Quarterly Review. 18: 99–128. October 1817.

Further reading

  • Carnall, Geoffrey, Writers and Their Works: Robert Southey, (Longman Group: London 1971)
  • 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)
  • Simmons, Jack, Southey, (Kennikat: Washington, 1945)
  • 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)
  • Stephen, Leslie (1902). "Southey's Letters" . Studies of a Biographer. London: Duckworth and Co. pp. 45–85.

External links

Court offices
Preceded by
Henry James Pye
British Poet Laureate
Succeeded by
William Wordsworth
After Blenheim

"After Blenheim" is an anti-war poem written by English Romantic poet laureate Robert Southey in 1796. The poem is set at the site of the Battle of Blenheim (1704), with the questions of small children about a skull one of them has found. Their grandfather, an old man, tells them of burned homes, civilian casualties, and rotting corpses, while repeatedly calling it "a famous victory".

Ann Doherty

Ann Doherty (c. 1786 – c. 1831–32) was an English novelist and playwright, who corresponded with Robert Southey. Her father, Thomas Holmes (1751–1827), was a wealthy East India merchant from Worcestershire, who changed his name to Hunter on inheriting an estate, Gobions in North Mymms, Hertfordshire, through his wife, the daughter of the Governor of Bombay, William Hornby.

Caroline Anne Southey

Caroline Anne Southey (1786–1854) was an English poet. As the second wife of Robert Southey, she supported him through his senile dementia.

Cataract of Lodore

"The Cataract of Lodore" is a poem written in 1820 by the English poet Robert Southey which describes the Lodore Falls on the Watendlath.

Goldilocks and the Three Bears

"Goldilocks and the Three Bears" (originally titled "The Story of the Three Bears") is a British 19th-century fairy tale of which three versions exist. The original version of the tale tells of a badly-behaved old woman who enters the forest home of three bachelor bears whilst they are away. She sits in their chairs, eats some of their porridge, and sleeps in one of their beds. When the bears return and discover her, she wakes up, jumps out of the window, and is never seen again. The second version replaced the old woman with a little girl named Goldilocks, and the third and by far most well-known version replaced the original bear trio with Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

What was originally a frightening oral tale became a cozy family story with only a hint of menace. The story has elicited various interpretations and has been adapted to film, opera, and other media. "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" is one of the most popular fairy tales in the English language.

Greta Hall

Greta Hall is a house in Keswick in the Lake District of England. It is best known as the home of the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey.

The house is late C18. Front 3 storeys, with quoins and plinth, centre flush-panelled double doors (Gothic top panels glazed with net tracery), Ionic doorcase with fluted 3/4 columns, frieze, cornice and dentilled pediment. 3 sash windows on each floor (2 to left and 1 to right on ground floor, other storeys symmetrical), all 12-paned, in stone architraves. Large segmental 2-storeyed bow on right hand return side, otherwise 3 storeys with a Venetian window. Left hand return side has a similar Venetian window and a half-bow. Interior has good carved oak fireplace dated 1684 in "Southey's parlour", flag floors and old ovens in kitchens, and main windows with fluted interior wood cases. Simple wood staircase.Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived there with his family from 24 July 1800 until 1803 and regularly visited William Wordsworth in Grasmere.

Robert Southey and his wife came to stay with Coleridge at Greta Hall in 1803 and lived there until his death in 1843. Coleridge left Greta Hall in 1804 leaving his family in the care of Southey.

Greta Hall was visited by a number of the Lake Poets and other literary figures including William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, William Hazlitt, Lord Byron, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Sir Walter Scott, Sir George Beaumont, Charles Lamb and Mary Lamb 1802, Thomas De Quincey and John Ruskin.

Sara Coleridge was born at Greta Hall.

Henry Herbert Southey

Henry Herbert Southey M.D. (1783–1865) was an English physician.

Henry Kirke White

Henry Kirke White (21 March 1785 – 19 October 1806) was an English poet. He died at the young age of 21.

Joseph Cottle

Joseph Cottle (1770–1853) was an English publisher and author.

Cottle started business in Bristol. He published the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey on generous terms. He then wrote in his Early Recollections an exposure of Coleridge that was, at the time, severely criticised and generally condemned.

Lake Poets

The Lake Poets were a group of English poets who all lived in the Lake District of England, United Kingdom, in the first half of the nineteenth century. As a group, they followed no single "school" of thought or literary practice then known. They were named, only to be uniformly disparaged, by the Edinburgh Review. They are considered part of the Romantic Movement.

The three main figures of what has become known as the Lakes School were William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. They were associated with several other poets and writers, including Dorothy Wordsworth, Charles Lamb, Charles Lloyd, Hartley Coleridge, John Wilson, and Thomas De Quincey.


In psychiatry, oikophobia (synonymous with domatophobia and ecophobia) is an aversion to home surroundings. It can also be used more generally to mean an abnormal fear (a phobia) of the home, or of the contents of a house ("fear of household appliances, equipment, bathtubs, household chemicals, and other common objects in the home"). The term derives from the Greek words oikos, meaning household, house, or family, and phobia, meaning "fear".

In 1808 the poet and essayist Robert Southey used the word to describe a desire (particularly by the English) to leave home and travel. Southey's usage as a synonym for wanderlust was picked up by other nineteenth century writers.

The term has also been used in political contexts to refer critically to political ideologies that repudiate one's own culture and laud others. The first such usage was by Roger Scruton in a 2004 book.


Pantisocracy (from the Greek πᾶν and ἰσοκρατία meaning "equal or level government by/for all") was a utopian scheme devised in 1794 by the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey for an egalitarian community. It is a system of government where all rule equally. They originally intended to establish such a community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in the United States, but by 1795 Southey had doubts about the viability of this and proposed moving the project to Wales. The two men were unable to agree on the location, causing the project to collapse.

Recollections of the Lake Poets

Recollections of the Lake Poets is a collection of biographical essays written by the English author Thomas De Quincey. In these essays, originally published in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine between 1834 and 1840, De Quincey provided some of the earliest, best informed, and most candid accounts of the Lake Poets, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey, and others in their circle. Together, the essays "form one of the most entertaining of Lakeland books."

Southey, Saskatchewan

Southey is a town in Saskatchewan, Canada. It is located on Highway 6, 55 km. north of Regina, Saskatchewan, the capital city of the province of Saskatchewan.

Southey is named after a famous English poet, Robert Southey. Additionally, most of the streets of Southey are named after English poets.

The Fall of Robespierre

The Fall of Robespierre is a three-act play written by Robert Southey and Samuel Coleridge in 1794. It follows the events in France after the downfall of Maximilien Robespierre. Robespierre is portrayed as a tyrant, but Southey's contributions praise him as a destroyer of despotism. The play does not operate as an effective drama for the stage, but rather as a sort of dramatic poem with each act being a different scene. According to Coleridge, "my sole aim to imitate the impassioned and highly figurative language of the French Orators and develop the characters of the chief actors on a vast stage of horrors."

The Inchcape Rock

"The Inchcape Rock" is a ballad written by English poet Robert Southey. Published in 1802, it tells the story of a 14th-century attempt by the Abbot of Aberbrothok ("Aberbrothock") to install a warning bell on Inchcape, a notorious sandstone reef about 11 miles (18 km) off the east coast of Scotland. The poem tells how the bell was removed by a pirate, who subsequently perished on the reef while returning to Scotland in bad weather some time later.

Like many of Southey's ballads "The Inchcape Rock" describes a supernatural event, but its basic theme is that those who do bad things will ultimately be punished accordingly and poetic justice done.

The Vision of Judgment

The Vision of Judgment (1822) is a satirical poem in ottava rima by Lord Byron, which depicts a dispute in Heaven over the fate of George III's soul. It was written in response to the Poet Laureate Robert Southey's A Vision of Judgement (1821), which had imagined the soul of king George triumphantly entering Heaven to receive his due. Byron was provoked by the High Tory point of view from which the poem was written, and he took personally Southey's preface which had attacked those "Men of diseased hearts and depraved imaginations" who had set up a "Satanic school" of poetry, "characterized by a Satanic spirit of pride and audacious impiety". He responded in the preface to his own Vision of Judgment with an attack on "The gross flattery, the dull impudence, the renegado intolerance, and impious cant, of the poem", and mischievously referred to Southey as "the author of Wat Tyler", an anti-royalist work from Southey's firebrand revolutionary youth. His parody of A Vision of Judgement was so lastingly successful that, as the critic Geoffrey Carnall wrote, "Southey's reputation has never recovered from Byron's ridicule."

To Southey

"To Southey" or "To Robert Southey" was written by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and published in the 14 January 1795 Morning Chronicle as part of his Sonnets on Eminent Characters series. Robert Southey became a close friend of Coleridge during the summer of 1794 and the two originally formed a plan to start an ideal community together. Although the plan fell apart, Coleridge dedicated the poem to his friend and emphasized Southey's poetic abilities. Following the poem, Coleridge further drifted from Southey and the poem was not republished.

What Are Little Boys Made Of?

"What Are Little Boys Made Of?" is a popular nursery rhyme dating from the early 19th century. It has a Roud Folk Song Index number of 821.

The author of the rhyme is uncertain, but may be English poet Robert Southey (1774–1843).

Story within a story
Robert Southey
Epic poems
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