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Robert Southey

Southey was born 12 August 1774 in Bristol and raised through his early years mostly in Bath. He attended Westminster School in London, but after criticizing the school for excessive corporal punishment was expelled. That youthful crisis notwithstanding, he matriculated at Oxford in 1792, living in Balliol College. Here he established the dual interests that would drive his subsequent literary career: precocious ambition and wide-ranging, often arcane, erudition. In 1794, he met Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who shared both his literary aspirations and his radical political views, and together that same year the two wrote a verse drama, The Fall of Robespierre. Southey left Oxford without a degree and for a time was caught up with Coleridge in a project for a pantisocracy, or utopian agricultural community, to be located on the banks of the Susquehanna River, in the United States, on land that had been purchased by Joseph Priestley when he emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1794. In 1795, however, Southey secretly married Edith Fricker, and common domestic considerations began to dissipate his utopian passions. Although his abandoning his commitment to the pantisocracy scheme caused a temporary breach with Coleridge, the latter, in a homosocial pattern that would later intensify in terms of his friendship with Wordsworth, mended the rupture by proposing marriage to Edith's sister Sara.

Southey's literary activities continued unabated, revealing themselves in numerous short poems contributed to newspapers and periodicals for a fee and in the project that would establish his initial public reputation as an audacious enfant terrible, his epic poem Joan of Arc, in which he expressed strong sympathy for a French citizenry defending itself English agression, thus barely disguising his own revolutionary sympathies. The poem was published in 1796 during the third year of warfare between these two countries, when its author was twenty-one years old and public defence of contemporary France was being prosecuted as treasonous.

Southey's marriage was deeply resented by the aunt who had raised him, and late in 1795, to repair the breach he accompanied his uncle on a diplomatic appointment to Spain. While there he engaged in a deep study of the literatures of the Iberian peninsula that would be reflected for years in various of his literary projects. He also turned his actual experience to good practical effect, writing a work whose title reflects the clear influence of Mary Wollstonecraft, Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal (1797). Upon his return, he settled in London and began to study law but found himself unsuited for it. In a fortunate intervention, beginning in 1797, he started to receive an annuity of £160 that was paid to him for nine years by an old Westminster school friend, Charles Wynn. This stable income allowed him finally to concentrate on his career as a writer, and in 1797 and 1799 he gathered together his many shorter writings in two volumes of collected Poems, thereby hoping to consolidate his position as the leading formulator of a revolution in English letters. (It is, of course, Wordsworth, who in the celebrated preface to his own two-volume Lyrical Ballads in 1800, would come to be seen as the formative voice in this development.)

In 1800 Southey again accompanied his uncle abroad, this time to Lisbon, where the uncle held the office of chaplain to the British embassy. By the time of his return, however, he had firmly decided to earn his living as a writer, a project that for this day would have appeared as ambitious and even almost as utopian as the pantisocracy scheme he had outgrown. Short poems and quasi-popular ballads reflecting a true feeling for a rural folk were a staple of his output. He began the long series of editions (e.g. the works of the Bristol native Thomas Chatterton) and translations that would mark his career, outlined a plan for the exotic Welsh-Aztec epic-romance that would be published as Madoc in 1805 and completed a verse romance derived from Mohammedan lore that became a bestseller, Thalaba the Destroyer (1801), an excerpt from which is included here.

In 1803 the Southeys, who had returned to the south-west of England, visited the Coleridges, then living at Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake district. The visit transformed itself into a lifelong residence there, where the sisters raised their families together. This is the point, too, at which Southey established a close friendship with Wordsworth, then living nearby in Dove Cottage at Grasmere. The Southeys had seven children of their own, and when Coleridge left his family in 1804 for a three-year appointment as secretary to the British High Commisioner in Malta, the whole household became economically dependent on Southey's unabating literary endeavors in a broad range of fields. During this period Southey's politics had greatly shifted. Although he retained the deep populism that could be discerned from the beginning, it became more and more identified with conservative, if not reactionary, causes. The claims on his finances and his early dependence on newpapers and periodicals for revenue made him a natural spokesperson for those causes and the quasi-governmental sponsorship of his hyperactive pen. After the Tory Quarterly Review was established in 1808, Southey became a regular reviewer, at £100 per article, a sum sufficient at that time to provide a modest means for an entire year.

With The Curse of Kehama of 1810 Southey returned to the form of exotic verse romance, this time exploiting Indian mythology (though with an unmistakeable application to the megalomaniacal political ambitions of Napoleon Bonaparte and British imperial designs for controlling the Indian subcontinent). It became another bestseller, so greatly revered, for instance, by the young Percy Bysshe Shelley that in 1812, in search of a literary father figure, he came to reside in Keswick with his young bride Harriet. Although their literary ambitions and taste for recondite learning brought Southey and Shelley easily together, their political differences were sharp from the first, and after a month Shelley and Harriet moved on. The next year (1813) Southey was appointed poet laureate through the influence of Walter Scott (who had himself turned down the appointment), a position he would hold for the next thirty years. The literary generation in which Mary Shelley and her husband took part all saw Southey as the prime example of literary talent that could be bought. From the daunting brilliance of Byron's assault in Don Juan and The Vision of Judgment, in particular, Southey's reputation has never recovered. The paradox is that, as the years went on, his own politics were increasingly more reactionary than was the government he represented, and he staunchly opposed the middle-class reforms that ushered in a new polity in the late 1820s and early 1830s. His last years were difficult, clouded by his wife's insanity and death, by family disputes arising from his second marriage to a much younger woman, the poet Caroline Bowles Southey, and by his own physical and mental decline. He died 21 March 1843 in Cumberland.