Biographical Note on Robert Southey

Biographical Note on Robert Southey

  1. Robert Southey was born into humble beginnings on August 12, 1774.   His father was a linen draper in Bristol who disliked his trade and eventually went bankrupt. As a result of the family's financial struggles, Southey was sent to Bath at the age of two to live with his mother's half-sister, Elizabeth Tyler.

  2. For Southey, life with his Aunt Tyler was a blessing and a curse.  His unmarried aunt could be overbearing and eccentric; but she was financially independent and easily able to raise Southey in the fashionable district of Bath.  Moreover, as an avid reader and patron of the theatre, she cultivated young Southey's intellectual development. Under her influence, Southey began reading Shakespeare and writing his own poetry and plays as early as the age of eight. With their son showing promise, Southey's family began to plan for him to become a clergyman, enrolling him at the age of fourteen in the Westminster School at the expense of his uncle, the Reverend Herbert Hill.

  3. One year after his admission to Westminster 1788, the Bastille was stormed. Like many of his peers, Southey found the news from France exciting and inspiring. The result was a growing radicalism; alongside Westminster's curriculum of Latin and Greek, Southey sought out the works of Rousseau, Voltaire, and Goethe. During these formative years, he also befriended Charles W. W. Wynn (nephew of the prominent Lord Grenville) and Grosvenor Charles Bedford. In 1792, Bedford and Wynn began publishing The Flagellant, Southey joining them as writer and co-editor. He used the publication to explore many philosophical issues of the day, sometimes imitating the style of the writers he admired.  It was in this spirit that he submitted an anonymous article on "Flogging," in which he asserted that the school's disciplinary practice of flogging students was satanic. Dr. Vincent, the headmaster at the school, viewed the article as a direct attack on the school and the British Constitution. When Southey came forward to apologize, he was preemptorily expelled. Refused admission at Christ Church, he attended Balliol College instead.

  4. Finding the intellectual and political atmosphere at Oxford oppressive, Southey took a leave from Balliol in the autumn of 1793. It was at this time that he read William Godwin's Political Justice, which strengthened his commitment to political reform. He also could not but take instruction from his own family's growing poverty. With her husband dead and Elizabeth Tyler at once critical and unhelpful, Southey's mother was forced to run a boarding house to support the family. Living in Bristol during these months, Southey soon befriended three sisters—Sarah, Edith, and Mary Fricker—and quickly fell in love with Edith. Wishing to marry and not wishing to become a clergyman, Southey returned to Oxford and flirted with the possibility of becoming a doctor. His aversion to the dissecting room, however, decided matters; cut off by his Aunt Tyler for refusing to dissociate himself from the Fricker family, Southey left the university after his second term.

  5. Shortly after leaving Oxford, Southey crossed paths with the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The two formed a close though tempestuous friendship, sharing common interests and beliefs, including a love of literature and politics, a frustration with the staid practices of Britain's educational institutions, and a growing disillusionment with the political atmosphere of their country. With several other friends, the two forged a plan to create a "Pantisocracy," or "equal rule of all," in which the egalitarian principles of the French Revolution could be fully realized on the banks of the Susquehannah River in Pennsylvania. Their goal was to emigrate to America to practice Pantisocracy by forming a communal, utopian settlement where everyone would live in harmony and brotherhood. In order to raise money for their venture, Southey and Coleridge joined forces to write a drama, The Fall of Robespierre (Cambridge, 1794), and to deliver weekly lectures on politics and history.

  6. It was during this same year that Southey wrote Wat Tyler, a dramatic poem celebrating republican ideals against the backdrop of revolution. Southey entrusted the manuscript to his friend and future brother-in-law, Robert Lovell, who, arriving in London, submitted the play to James Ridgeway, a radical printer who had expressed an interest in publishing it. A few months later in January of 1795, Southey visited Ridgeway at Newgate prison in London, where he had recently been incarcerated, to close the deal. Ridgeway's intention was to arrange to have the play printed immediately and sold for the price of two shillings. At the same time, he intended to advance some of the money to Southey to finance his impending marriage to Edith Fricker and his emigration to America. What happened next is not entirely clear. Despite the group's efforts to raise money and interest in the scheme, the pantisocratic project continued to be fraught with continual difficulties and differences in opinion about how next to proceed. By the end of January 1795, Southey was forced to face disappointment on all counts: Wat Tyler was not published, the proposed emigration to America looked doomed to failure, and his friendship with Coleridge was becoming increasingly strained.

  7. However abortive, the scheme nevertheless permanently changed both men's lives. Having sworn at the height of the scheme to marry Sarah Fricker, Coleridge felt compelled both by Southey and by his own sense of honor to marry her when Southey married Edith. And while Southey's marriage was a happy one, Coleridge's proved a disaster. Their marital difficulties put further strain on Southey's relationship with Coleridge; years later, Coleridge would separate permanently from Sarah Coleridge, and Southey would end up supporting her and Coleridge's family.

  8. With Pantisocracy dead, Southey accepted Charles Wynn's generous offer to set up an annuity for him if he would study law. Southey proceeded to study law by day and write poetry and prose at night, eventually dropping legal study to concentrate entirely on writing. Southey's output over the next ten years was prodigious. Between 1796 and 1805 he published Joan of Arc (1796), Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), Madoc (1805), and several volumes of shorter verse. During this time he also wrote steadily to support his growing family, contributing to The Monthly Magazine and publishing the popular  Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797).

  9. These years also saw changes in Southey's political views. With the rise of Napoleon serving only to bring about a different sort of despotism, Southey found himself increasingly skeptical of revolutionary social change. While remaining a champion of the poor and an outspoken critic of slavery, he also began to believe in the maintenance of social order above all else. Such principles stood him in good stead with the Tory government, and when Walter Scott declined the position in 1813, Southey was appointed Poet Laureate, a position he held for 30 years. Writing for the Quarterly Review and other publications, he became increasingly identified with Tory politics. In the months following Wellington's victory at Waterloo, readers like Godwin, Mary and Percy Shelley, and Byron were shocked by changes that seemed to them sudden but that had been evolving for well over a decade.

  10. It was in this context that, twenty-three years after its composition, Wat Tyler suddenly resurfaced. On the morning of February 14, 1817, Southey came across an advertisement for the play, published by Sherwood, Neely, and Jones, in the Morning Chronicle. Upon learning that Southey was the author, his adversaries seized upon the play as proof of his apostasy and hypocrisy. The play, moreover, sold like wildfire; with 60,000 copies eventually in print, it is, ironically, one of Southey's most commerically successful works. After initially trying to suppress its publication, Southey eventually incorporated the play into his complete works in 1838. He died in 1843.