This Day In Writing History
On August 12th, 1774, the poet, essayist, biographer, and scholar Robert Southey was born. He was born in Bristol, England. Southey was educated first at Westminster School, where he was expelled for publishing a magazine article where he condemned the practice of flogging students. He later attended Balliol College, Oxford. Later, Southey would poke fun at the lax standards of the college, quipping that "All I learnt was a little swimming... and a little boating."
Southey became friends with writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge and they began a writing partnership. Their best known collaborative effort was a three-act play called The Fall Of Robespierre. In 1794, Southey published his first solo work, a collection of poems. He remained friends with Coleridge, and they and a few others discussed going to America and setting up a utopic commune. They later decided to set up the commune in Wales. Southey became the first member of the group to reject the whole idea as unworkable.
In November 1795, Southey married his girlfriend Edith Fricker - the sister of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's wife, Sara. She and her children would later move in with Southey after Coleridge abandoned them.
Southey continued to write. In 1808, writing under the pseudonym Don Manuel Alvarez Espirella, Robert Southey published Letters From England, a non-fiction account of a tour of the country - England as seen through the eyes of (allegedly) a foreigner. It has been said that the book features the most accurate descriptions of early 19th century English life ever written.
Beginning in 1809, Southey became a regular contributor to the Quarterly Review literary magazine. By 1813, he had become so well known as a poet that he was appointed Poet Laureate of England after Sir Walter Scott declined the honor.
Although Southey had been a political radical most of his life, (he was an ardent supporter of the French Revolution) by the time he had become Poet Laureate, his political views had changed to that of a staunch conservative. The Tory Establishment embraced him and gave him a small stipend.
Southey used his position as Poet Laureate to voice support of the repressive Liverpool government and argue against Parliamentary reform. He even sided with the government following the notorious Peterloo Massacre of August 16th, 1819.
What happened was this: approximately 60,000 people gathered at St. Peter's Field, Manchester, for a demonstration to demand Parliamentary reform. The demonstration featured a speech by radical orator Henry Hunt. The local magistrates called in the military to arrest Hunt and disperse the crowd. The military's idea of crowd dispersal was to have the cavalry charge into the crowd with sabers drawn. As a result, 15 people were killed and another 400-700 injured. The event was nicknamed the Peterloo Massacre in reference to the Battle of Waterloo.
Robert Southey's political views resulted in him falling out of favor with his fellow poets and writers. He had gone from political radical to establishment tool who demanded the prosecution of his former fellow travelers. He was seen as a sellout. In 1817, he was brought to task for hypocrisy when, after arguing against the publication of radical literature, Wat Tyler, a radical play Southey had written himself when he was young, was brought out to embarrass him.
One of Southey's most scathing critics, William Hazlitt, wrote that Southey "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's fellow poets often mocked him, as some of his works were seen as sycophantic odes to the King.
Lord Byron's legendary epic poem Don Juan opens with a bitterly funny, deliberately long-winded dedication to Robert Southey, whom Byron loathed and suspected of spreading rumors about the relationship between himself, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Shelley's wife Mary, and her stepsister, Claire Clairmont, accusing them all of being in a "League of Incest" while they lived together on Lake Geneva in 1816. Southey strongly denied spreading the rumors.
In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Robert Southey's conservative politics alienated him from his contemporaries. Today, most of his work remains obscure for the same reason. But he did make some important contributions. In addition to his poetry, he wrote biographies of John Wesley, Oliver Cromwell, Horatio Nelson, and other figures. He introduced new words to the English language, including the term autobiography.
A very prolific writer, Southey's works also included children's stories and poems. He wrote The Story of the Three Bears - the fairy tale about Goldilocks and the Three Bears - which first appeared in his 1834 novel, The Doctor. He also wrote the nursery rhyme What Are Little Boys Made Of? and to this day, British schoolchildren still read some of his poems in class.
Robert Southey served as Poet Laureate for thirty years until his death in 1843 at the age of 68. He was buried in the churchyard of Crosthwaite Church, Keswick, to which he belonged for forty years. Inside the church is a memorial to Southey written by his friend William Worsdworth, who succeeded him as Poet Laureate.
Quote Of The Day
"Write poetry for its own sake; not in the spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that the more likely you will be to deserve and finally obtain it." - Robert Southey, in advice to Charlotte Bronte.
Today's video features a reading of Robert Southey's poem The Battle Of Blenheim, performed by Sir Derek Jacobi. Enjoy!