Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 1. Details of Southey’s Life

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VIII. Southey

§ 1. Details of Southey’s Life

THERE are few English writers who have been the subject of more controversy in different kinds than Robert Southey. Estimates of his positive worth as a poet have varied from the certainly rather excessive notions of it entertained by himself and by Landor, to the mere impertinence of Emerson’s “Who is Southey?” Very few persons have endeavoured to give full value to that singular combination of proficiency and performance in the two harmonies wherein he has, perhaps, only one rival in English literature. The absence—an absence which, perhaps, is the chief instance of a scandal that too often affects English, as compared with foreign, literature—of even an attempt at a complete edition of at least his bookwork, has complicated the difficulty of dealing with him. Even though the old odia—political, theological and other—have, to some extent (by no means wholly), settled down, he is—it may be admitted partly by his own fault—apt to rouse them in single cases and passages after a disturbing fashion. And there is one pervading condition of a dangerous kind attending his work, from which he was almost the first, if by no means the last, to suffer.

This condition was the difficulty—which his prudence and self-denial reduced to some extent, but which weighed on him all his life and finally killed or helped to kill him—of adjusting the vita to the vivendi causae. If Southey had had a private fortune or a lightly burdened office or benefice of any kind; if he had had the gift of bachelorhood and the further gift of a college fellowship; if he had been able to draw profit from professional work which left time for writing; if several other “ifs and ands” had transformed themselves in the practical fashion of the saying—not merely would he, probably, have died in perfect mental health, but he would have left us work (if he had left any at all, which is an important proviso) including more definite masterpieces than he actually achieved. But fate would not have it so. He had no fortune; and, more than once, he rather stood in the way of his own luck. He was a born “family man”; and, what is more, a most hospitable, charitable and generous person. He not only refused, after some efforts, all professional work, but was, probably, in a measure, incapable of any. He would not have been able to live his own life anywhere except in the depths of the country; but he could only live that life there by spending what would have been now enormous, and must, even then, have been considerable, sums upon a vast library. To supply these necessities, there was only one way—hackwork for the press. He began this at a very unfavourable time, when, as he has somewhere said, a whole day’s work would bring him in some ten shillings, and, though he lived into a more golden age, he never, as had even Coleridge at one time, had that regular work for daily and weekly periodicals which alone really makes an income. Even so, there might have been difficulties; for he did not like being “edited”; he would not, as he says himself, “regard pen-and-inkmanship as a trade”; and the consequence was that, while he was perpetually interrupting his more ambitious work to “boil the pot,” these interruptions merely performed that office and seriously interfered with the other.

Thus, being not a mere gutter journalist but a man of letters of the higher, if not highest, rank, he was ill content with this hackwork. He wanted to do, and he did, great work in prose and verse; and, with such work, after a, perhaps, treacherously prosperous beginning, he had scarcely any luck—perhaps because, as Scott thought, he mismanaged his affairs with his publishers. As for the pensions which were constantly thrown in his face by his political decriers, the facts are simply these. He had—and, for some time, could hardly have lived without it—an allowance of £160 a year from his rich school-fellow Charles Wynn; he gave this up when he received a government pension rather less than more than it in value (it was nominally £200, but was largely reduced by fees and taxes); the laureateship added less than £100 (the whole of which, and a little more, he at once devoted to life insurance), and, very late in his life, Sir Robert Peel gave him £300 more. In 1816, he had declined offers from Lord Liverpool which, though apparently somewhat vague, would certainly have tempted most men, at a time when he was actually pressed for money. A little later, he refused the editorship of The Times with, it is said £2000 a year attached. It may be taken as certain that, if his gains, including these pensions, during a lifetime of almost unbroken work, resulting, occasionally, in first-rate literature, were summed up and divided yearly, the average income would be found to be not half of that of some places since created for persons of no merit who perform services of no value.

Southey’s life was what is called uneventful; but its circumstances were too intimately connected with the character of his work to permit complete neglect of them. He was born (1774) in Bristol, of a Somerset family, old, entitled to bear arms, in one of its branches possessed of some fortune, but not of any historical distinction, and, so far as his own immediate connections were concerned, obscure and unfortunate. His father, who was a linen draper, failed in business, and died early; but Southey received unusual, if, on one side, fitful, assistance from his mother’s relations. His uncle, a clergyman named Thomas Hill, was almost a father to him; and his half-aunt, Miss Tyler, made him free of her house till his own eccentricities, and her wrath at his marriage, drove him out. From his very earliest childhood, he seems to have been a devourer of books, especially in English literature, and more especially in poetry. His uncle sent him to Westminster, where he made valuable friends. But the “strong contagion” of the French revolution caught him there; and he was expelled for his concern in a school magazine the principles of which are sufficiently indicated by its title, The Flagellant. He was thus cut off from proceeding, as usual, to Christ church, but he went to Balliol (1792), where he stayed for a year and a half “working,” in the strict sense, not at all, but reading immensely, advancing in Jacobinism, making the acquaintance of Coleridge and, with him and others, starting the famous scheme of “pantisocracy” or “aspheterism,” a miniature socialist republic to be carried out anywhere or nowhere. The vicissitudes of this association are not for us; but they ended, so far as Southey was concerned, in his relinquishing the scheme and marrying (1795) Edith Fricker, but starting from the church door, and alone, for Portugal, to comply with the demands of his uncle, who was chaplain at Lisbon.

How he there laid the foundation of that knowledge of the peninsular literatures which formed one of the special studies of his life and supplied the subjects of more than one of his chief works; how he returned, lived with his wife at Bristol or London and elsewhere, dutifully tried the law, but found it as hopelessly uncongenial as he had previously, in his hotter Jacobin time, found the church and medicine; how he paid a second visit (1800) to Lisbon, this time with his wife, and how, after trying various abodes and giving himself up to the press and various employments, including a private secretaryship to the chancellor of the Irish exchequer Corry, he settled, where Coleridge had already established himself (and, at first, with him), at Greta hall, Keswick, thus becoming “a Lake poet,” would take long to tell. But, rolling stone as he had been for some thirty years, he here found his resting-place (though that was hardly the term for a home of Southey) for life. He never left it again, save for short holiday absences; he became, after being, in a way, Coleridge’s guest or, at least, his house partner, the host and, for a time, the supporter of Coleridge’s family; he collected the great library already mentioned; he begat sons and daughters, and was passionately fond of them, suffering intensely from the deaths of some of them, especially those of his eldest son, Herbert, and his youngest daughter, Isabel. At last in 1834, his wife’s mind gave way, and she soon died. The shock completed what, if it had not altogether caused inordinate brainwork had, beyond all doubt, helped a mental breakdown in his own case. He found a second wife, or rather, a nurse, in the poetess Caroline Bowles; but she could only attend upon his decline, and he died of softening of the brain in 1843.