SOUTHEY, Robert (1774-1843), of Greta Hall, Keswick, Cumb.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1826 - 8 Dec. 1826

Family and Education

b. 12 Aug. 1774, 2nd but 1st surv. s. of Robert Southey (d. 1792), linen draper, of Bristol, Glos. and Margaret, da. of Edward Hill, attorney, of Long Ashton, Som. educ. Westminster 1788; Balliol, Oxf. 1792; G. Inn 1797. m. (1) 14 Nov. 1795, Edith (d. 16 Nov. 1837), da. of Stephen Fricker, manufacturer, of Westbury, Wilts., 2s. (1 d.v.p.) 5da. (3 d.v.p.); (2) 4 June 1839, Caroline Anne, da. of Capt. Charles Bowles of E.I. Co., of Buckland Cottage, Lymington, Hants, s.p. d. 21 Mar. 1843.

Offices Held

Poet laureate 1813-d.


Southey was descended from an old Somerset family of modest social origins.1 He attended schools in Bristol and Corston, was expelled from Westminster for writing an article in the Flagellant against caning, and having been refused entry to Christ Church because of this, instead took up a place at Balliol, which he left without a degree. Imbued with the spirit of republicanism and Unitarianism, he, with his friend and brother-in-law Samuel Taylor Coleridge, planned to emigrate to America to establish a community embodying the principles of pantisocracy (‘the equal government of all’), and aspheterism (‘the generalization of individual property’), but nothing came of it.2 He travelled in Portugal, 1800-1, the first of several visits abroad. He gave up potential careers in the church, medicine and the law, and, after an unhappy spell as private secretary to Isaac Corry†, the Irish chancellor of the exchequer, 1801-2, he abandoned his ambitions for government service, though he retained hopes of a consular sinecure in southern Europe. In fact, he declined most later offers of employment because they would have drawn him away from Greta Hall, where he settled, with the Coleridges, in 1803. Reserved and temperamental by nature, it was only occasionally that his kind-heartedness showed through, as it did to Greville, who once described him as ‘remarkably pleasing in his manner and appearance, unaffected, unassuming and agreeable’.3

Southey’s prodigious output was largely the result of the regularity of his working day, which he described as

three pages of history after breakfast ... then to transcribe and copy for the press, or to make my selections and biographies, or what else suits my humour, till dinner time; from dinner till tea I read, write letters, see the newspaper and very often indulge in a siesta ... Well, after tea I go to poetry, and correct and re-write and copy till I am tired, and then turn to anything else till supper; and this is my life, which, if it be not a very merry one, is yet as happy as heart could wish.4

The modest fees that he earned from his writing were supplemented by a pension of £160 a year from his friend Charles Williams Wynn*, which in 1807 was replaced by one of £200 a year from the Grenville ministry. With Coleridge and William Wordsworth he established the Lakes school of poetry and, thanks to Walter Scott’s stepping aside, he was appointed poet laureate in 1813, with a salary of £100 a year.5 He published many works as a historian, biographer, travel writer, translator, editor, pamphleteer, essayist, reviewer, social critic and story teller, and was involved in several periodicals, notably the Quarterly Review, to which he contributed nearly 100 articles.6 He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Oxford in June 1820, when the Whig Sir James Mackintosh* described him as ‘a good deal oldened’ though ‘his mild manner, in spite of a touch of affectation, is very pleasant’.7 Yet his contemporary reputation was generally low, Lord Holland judging that

his vanity was inoffensive and diverting, and his enthusiasm, real or affected, about his literary pursuits pleasant and amiable ... yet, in spite of research and ardour, a sprightly imagination and great raciness and accuracy in his English, he was not only a credulous and almost silly historian, but a weak reasoner and tiresome poet, and neither in prose nor in verse captivated or warmed his reader, though he might occasionally surprise and divert him.8

Posterity has been scarcely less unkind.

Ever since the turn of the century, Southey’s political opinions had been moving steadily to the right, so that by the mid-1810s he was, as Henry Crabb Robinson put it, ‘an alarmist, though what he fears is a reasonable cause of alarm, viz. a bellum servile’.9 Ten years later he was labelled by Charles Wood* as ‘intolerantium intolerantissimus’.10 This was how he was widely perceived, and Whigs and radicals made great play of his apostasy from their cause. On the mischievous publication of his early jacobinical play Wat Tyler in 1817, the Unitarian William Smith* denounced him in the Commons, 14 Mar., when he was defended by Williams Wynn and supported by most of the House.11 William Hazlitt scathingly summarized the argument of his ensuing Letter to William Smith (1817) as ‘once admit that Mr. Southey is always in the right, and every one else is in the wrong, and all the rest follows’.12 At the Westmorland election, 30 June 1818, Henry Brougham* accused him of having been bribed by place into changing his political outlook, a charge which he later retracted.13 Southey took little part in electoral or county affairs, but in late 1819 he was the anonymous author of the Tory address against the calling of a Cumberland meeting on Peterloo.14 In the preface to his Vision of Judgment (1822), a cruel satire on Southey’s poem of the same name, Lord Byron declared of him that ‘the gross flattery, the dull impudence, the renegado intolerance and impious cant of the poem ... are something so stupendous as to form the sublime of himself, containing the quintessence of his own attributes’.

Southey was robust in his own defence, arguing that his views had inevitably matured with age: ‘I am no more ashamed of having been a republican, than I am of having been a boy’.15 His son excused his conduct by arguing that he had naturally sided with radicals in the 1790s, when the main threat was perceived to come from a tyrannical government, and joined the conservatives in later life, when the danger of anarchy became uppermost in his mind and he had lost his belief in the perfectibility of human nature.16 Yet he was never quite as extreme as he appeared, and although he argued in favour of a more powerful executive, he also advocated a great many social, economic, legal and humanitarian reforms, such as schemes for assisted emigration and national education, in order to ameliorate the effects of industrialization.17 Not only in his overtly polemical writings, but also, for instance, in his Life of Nelson (1813), widely regarded as his most successful book, he assisted in the Tory appropriation of older opposition notions of patriotism and their transformation into a new idea of English nationalism. In this sense he was an essential link between the Toryism of Edmund Burke† and the Conservatism of Benjamin Disraeli†.18

Integral to Southey’s conception of the state was the centrality of the established church as the embodiment of the nation’s spiritual achievement and the guarantor of its civilisation and freedom.19 The publication of his Book of the Church in 1824 led to his ‘parliamentary adventure’ at the general election two years later, when, without his prior knowledge, the convinced Tory 2nd earl of Radnor, an admirer of this work, had him returned for his pocket borough of Downton as an opponent of Catholic claims. He was only nominally a Member: he declined to take his seat and refused even to use his privilege of franking letters, much to the irritation of his neighbours. The reasons he gave for his refusal were that he lacked a large enough estate, had a pension ‘during pleasure’, preferred his lakeland domesticity to the long hours of the House, which his health could in any case not have stood, and intended to devote his time to writing, rather than to speaking, in defence of the church. He might have avoided the problem over his pension by having it altered to one ‘for life’ or transferred to his wife, and he could have accepted the property which Sir Robert Inglis* and others offered to buy for him, but he was determined not to sit. He duly informed the Speaker that he was not qualified, and, as he wished, a new writ was issued, 8 Dec. 1826; otherwise he would have resigned his seat.20 He declared that ‘for me to change my scheme of life and go into Parliament, would be to commit a moral and intellectual suicide’; and his friend John Rickman, a Commons clerk, noted that ‘prudential reasons would forbid his appearing in London’ as a Member.21 Another friend, his neighbour William Peachy, who had just been elected for Taunton, was given a triumphal greeting on his return home, but Southey was spared this as it was thought that he ‘would not like it’.22

He was, of course, a steadfast opponent of the Wellington administration’s decision to emancipate the Catholics in 1829. Later that year he published his Colloquies on the Progress and Prospects of Society, which provoked a famous and savagely destructive attack from Thomas Macaulay* in the Edinburgh Review early the following year. In January 1830 it was reported by Brougham that Southey would ‘move or second the resolution that the [agricultural] distress is within the power of the legislature’ to curtail, at the proposed Cumberland county meeting.23 Encouraged by Rickman, he planned to write a pamphlet against parliamentary reform, and to this end he attended the Commons for the first time, 2 Nov. 1830, but nothing came of it.24 Though prepared to accept some measures of reform, he was firmly opposed to the Grey ministry’s bill, commenting that ‘Lord John [Russell]’s budget’, 1 Mar. 1831, ‘is as much a masterpiece in its way as [the chancellor] Lord Althorp’s. It really seems as if the aristocracy of this country are to be destroyed, so marvellously are they demented’. He believed that ministers had thrown in their lot with the radicals in order to survive in office, and he continued to hope that the mood of the country would turn against them.25 Even after the bill’s enactment he remained an alarmist, writing in March 1833 that

this year will not pass away without greater changes than the last. It is already apparent that the reformed Parliament will not work. Government by authority has long been defunct. Government by influence was put to death by the reform bill and nothing is left but government by public opinion.26

In 1835 he declined the offer of a baronetcy from the premier, Sir Robert Peel, but accepted a pension of £300 per year.27

John Stuart Mill, who visited him in 1831, wrote this analysis of his character and career:

Southey is altogether out of place in the existing order of society. His attachment to old institutions and his condemnation of the practices of those who administer them, cut him off from sympathy and communion with both halves of mankind. Had he lived before radicalism and infidelity became prevalent, he would have been the steady advocate of the moral and physical improvement of the poorer classes and denouncer of the selfishness and supineness of those who ought to have considered the welfare of those classes as confided to their care. Possibly the essential one-sidedness of his mind might then have rendered him a democrat; but now the evils which he expects from increase of the power wielded by the democratic spirit such as it now is, have rendered him an aristocrat in principle without inducing him to make the slightest compromise with aristocratic vices and weaknesses. Consequently he is not liked by the Tories, while the Whigs and radicals abhor him.28

Shortly after the death of his first wife he married his long-time correspondent, the poetess Caroline Bowles. She was his nursemaid, for he lapsed into imbecility a few months later. He died in March 1843, dividing his estate between his widow and surviving children.29 His son Charles Cuthbert (1819-88), vicar of Askham, Westmorland, edited his Life and Correspondence.

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Stephen Farrell


Based on Life and Corresp. of Southey ed. C.C. Southey (1849-50) and J. Simmons, Southey (1945). Southey’s voluminous correspondence has been extensively published, notably in Selections from Letters of Southey ed. J.W. Warter, 4 vols. (1856); Corresp. of Southey with Caroline Bowles ed. E. Dowden (1881); and New Letters of Southey ed. K. Curry (1965). Good biographies include G. Carnall, Southey and his Age (1964) and K. Curry, Southey (1975). Recent experiments in rehabilitation are M. Storey, Robert Southey: A Life (1997) and W.A. Speck, Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters (2006).

  • 1. Life and Corresp. i. 2-3; N and Q (ser. 8), v. 141-2, 202-3, 241-3.
  • 2. Life and Corresp. i. 221.
  • 3. Ibid. vi. 1-14; Barclay Fox’s Jnl. ed. R.L. Brett, 113; Greville Mems. ii. 58.
  • 4. Life and Corresp. iii. 2-3.
  • 5. Ibid. iii. 72-73; vi. 14-15.
  • 6. For Southey’s works, see Allibone’s Dict. of Eng. Literature (1870), ii. 2182-7; Curry, Southey; E. Bernhardt-Kabisch, Southey.
  • 7. Add. 52444, f. 162.
  • 8. Holland, Further Mems. 385.
  • 9. Crabb Robinson Diary, i. 282.
  • 10. Glos. RO, Sotheron Estcourt mss D1571 F365, Wood to Bucknall Estcourt, 27 June 1826.
  • 11. Life and Letters of Rickman ed. O. Williams, 187-9.
  • 12. Complete Works of Hazlitt ed. P.P. Howe, vii. 187.
  • 13. Life and Corresp. iv. 309; The Times, 4 July 1818.
  • 14. Letters of Southey, iii. 148-54.
  • 15. Wilson’s Noctes Ambrosianae ed. R.S. Mackenzie, ii. 365.
  • 16. Life and Corresp. iii. 5-7; v. 1-7.
  • 17. Ibid. iv. 198-233; A. Cobban, Burke and Revolt against 18th Cent. 215-18; Carnall, 193-214.
  • 18. D. Eastwood, ‘Southey and Intellectual Origins of Romantic Conservatism’, EHR, civ (1989), 308-31; ‘Patriotism Personified: Southey’s "Life of Nelson" Reconsidered’, Mariner’s Mirror, lxxvii (1991), 143-9; ‘Southey and Meanings of Patriotism’, JBS, xxxi (1992), 265-87; J. Mendilow, Romantic Tradition in British Political Thought, 47-82; P. Harling, ‘Southey and Language of Social Discipline’, Albion, xxx (1998), 630-55.
  • 19. Life and Corresp. v. 308-9; S. Gilley, ‘Nationality and Liberty, Protestant and Catholic: Southey’s "Book of the Church"’, in Religion and National Identity ed. S. Mews, 409-32.
  • 20. Life and Corresp. v. 261-4, 271, 273-9; Add. 56368, f. 93; The Times, 4, 5 July 1826; Letters of Sara Hutchinson ed. K. Coburn, 326; CJ, lxxxii. 29, 109; Storey, 310.
  • 21. Letters of Southey, iv. 7; Colchester Diary, iii. 444.
  • 22. Life and Corresp. v. 265.
  • 23. Creevey Pprs. ii. 147.
  • 24. Life and Letters of Rickman, 259-60, 268; Corresp. of Southey and Bowles, 207.
  • 25. Life and Corresp. vi. 90-91; Corresp. of Southey and Bowles, 219; Berks. RO, Pusey mss D/EBp C1/44.
  • 26. HMC 14th Rep. iv. 568-9; Life and Corresp. vi. 199.
  • 27. Life and Corresp. vi. 253-65.
  • 28. Mill Works, xii. 83.
  • 29. The Times, 1 Apr. 1843; Gent. Mag. (1843), i. 662-3; DNB; Oxford DNB.