Robert Southey thought of himself primarily as a poet, but the bulk of his writing is prose. His “reactionary” image is only partially correct. In his youth he had been a committed radical, and as a mature man he was rather more liberal than his erstwhile friends Coleridge and Wordsworth. While The Life of Nelson (1813) is indeed a work imbued with nationalistic rhetoric and pride, and Southey’s opposition to an extension of civil rights to Roman Catholics (as well as his colonialist convictions) was unabashed, it is also true that his writings of journalistic history usually send mildly reformist messages, compatible with a benevolently ironic kind of Enlightenment ideology: he opposed anti-Semitism, supported the secret ballot, and protested against the conditions of the industrial proletariat.
Southey’s gravitation toward the essay can be seen even in some of his poems such as “The Battle of Blenheim” (1798) or, in a more humorous vein, “Snuff” or “The Pig” (both 1799). It comes to full fruition in The Doctor (1834–47), a novel in name only, but in its substance an excellent connecting link between the English familiar essay of the 18th century and the newer, more whimsical, and more erudite developments that had been initiated by contemporaries such as Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and William Hazlitt. Written in the tradition of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, the text (unfinished at the time of Southey’s mental decline and death) further deconstructs or even explodes any novelistic framework. The different chapters become conversational essays, and as digressions gain full autonomy inside the text. Southey’s impressive but disorderly and subjective erudition allows him to switch nonchalantly from disquisitions on
topographical etymology to comments on equitation and horse-raising, from witty associative examinations of the symbolism of the letter “D”to loud admiration for folk superstitions, lore, or obsessions. Besides these we find anecdotes, homilies, genre sketches, exercises in the whimsical and the absurd, and Southey’s ambition to distill “wine into alcohol,” i.e. to develop symptomatology into a substitute for grave and systematic informational intake. The Doctor is a work in which a kind of philosophy of detail is worked out by concrete illustration; the book turns into an encyclopedia of the essay, bringing under one roof the different kinds of texts that had been the object of experimentation by other Romantics. There are also intriguing signs that (despite his patriarchal ideology) Southey was trying to approach by indirection a kind of feminine discourse (a fact to which he himself alludes several times) stripped of logocentric impositions.
More conventionally essayistic writings are those in which, by the late 1820s and early 1830s, Southey gives expression to his vision of a “traditional” England, a pre-capitalist and pre-modern, Horatian construct: a harmonious, modestly selfsatisfied environment in which contact with nature could be preserved at all times, with the admission of slow and carefully selected movements toward progress. It is surprising how many of the key themes of Victorian England in general (and of Disraeli’s “progressive conservatism” in particular) are clearly outlined in Southey’s sociopolitical essays.
At the opposite end of the essayist spectrum is the short, dry notation of odd facts (Omniana, 1812; Common-Place Book, posthumously pub. 1849–51). Southey is overwhelmed by and enthusiastic about the explosive expansion of knowledge in history, geography, the natural sciences, and the humanities that occurred at the turn of the century. He plunges deep into this sea of knowledge, coming up with various objects and episodes which he holds up to attention. These are expected to have an eloquence of their own, so that readers can draw their own conclusions. The rhetoric of strange facts also becomes a kind of subjective alternative to the vast ordering and disciplinary systems emerging in Southey’s time.
A consistently anti-canonical streak in Southey’s intellectual make-up also connected him with essayistic attitudes. He turned happily toward the margins of Europe and the West (Portugal, Brazil, Wales), chose Indian and Arabic themes for some of his main epic poems, and lauded (with a puzzled smile) the “uneducated,” trivial, and “low-class” poets: “waterpoets,” “old servants,” men and women alike.
For all such preferences of taste, temperament, and ideology, it is obvious that a generic vehicle of ambiguity and multiple meanings, unsuited to definitive statements, was a sheer necessity for Southey. The continuing scholarly indifference to and public ignorance of him is strange, regrettable, and unjustified.
Born 12 August 1774 in Bristol. Studied at Westminster School, London, 1788–92: expelled for publishing a satire on corporal punishment in the school paper; Balliol College, Oxford, 1793–94, where he met and became friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge; also studied law, 1797. Married Edith Fricker, 1795 (died, 1837): one daughter (another died in infancy) and one son. Lived in Portugal, 1795–96 and 1800–01, and at Westbury, near Bristol, 1798–99. Began writing reviews, from 1796, for journals including the Monthly Magazine, Morning Post, Critical Review, Annual Review, and Quarterly Review. Settled near William Wordsworth at Greta Hall, Keswick, 1803.
Formed with Wordsworth and Coleridge the so-called “Lake School,” the most structured expression of early English Romanticism. Poet Laureate, 1813–43. Received a government pension, 1835. Married Caroline Ann Bowles, 1838. Died (of a stroke) at Greta Hall, 21 March 1843.
Essays and Related Prose
Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal, 1797; revised edition, 1799; revised edition, as Letters Written During a Journey in Spain, and a Short Residence in Portugal, 2 vok, 1808
Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espiella, 2, vols., 1807
Omniana, or Horae Otiosiores, with Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2 vols., 1812; edited by Robert Gittings, 1969
Vindiciae Ecclesiae Anglicanae: Letters to Charles Butler, Comprising Essays on the Romish Religion and Vindicating the Book of the Church, 1826
Sir Thomas More; or, Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, 2 vols., 1819–31
Essays, Moral and Political, 2 vols., 1832
Selections from the Prose Works, edited by I. Moxon, 1832; as The Beauties of the Prose Works, 1833
The Doctor, 7 vols., 1834–47 (vols. 6 and 7 edited by John Wood Warter)
Common-Place Book, edited by John Wood Warter, 4 vols., 1849–51
Select Prose, edited by Jacob Zeitlin, 1916
The Contributions of Robert Southey to the Morning Post, edited by Kenneth Curry, 1984
Other writings: poetry (including the long epic poems Thalaba the Destroyer, 1801;
The Curse of Kehatna, 1810; Roderick, the Last of the Goths, 1814), two plays, works of history, biographies of Nelson (1813), Wesley (1820), and Cowper (1835), journals, and much correspondence.
Curry, Kenneth, Robert Southey: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, 1977
Bernhardt-Kabish, Ernest, Robert Southey, Boston: Twayne, 1977 Curry, Kenneth, Southey, London and Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1975
Dowden, Edward, Southey, New York: Harper, 1980 (original edition, 1879)
Simmons, Jack, Southey, London: Collins, 1945; New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1948
Raimond, Jean, Robert Southey: L’Homme et son temps, I’æuvre, le rôle, Paris: Didier, 1968
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