Robert Southey

Robert Southey

Robert Southey, the son of a linen draper, was born in Bristol on 12th August 1774. After his father's death an uncle sent him to Westminster School but he was expelled in 1792 after denouncing flogging in the school magazine.

In 1794 Southey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Bristol and the two men became close friends. They developed radical political and religious views and began making plans to emigrate to Pennsylvania where they intended to set up a commune based on communistic values. Southey and Coleridge eventually abandoned this plan and instead stayed in England where they concentrated on communicating their radical ideas. This included the play they wrote together, The Fall of Robespierre. Southey also wrote the republican play, Wat Tyler.

In 1795 Southey married Edith Fricker, whose elder sister, Sara Fricker, married Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That year saw the publication of his book Poems and the epic poem, Joan of Arc. Between 1796 and 1798 he wrote many ballads, including The Inchcape Rock and The Battle of Blenheim. Southey's poetry sold poorly and had to rely on the £160 a year allowance paid to him by his friend Charles Wynn.

Southey gradually lost his radical opinions and in 1807 he was rewarded by being granted an annual allowance by the Tory government. In 1809 Robert Southey joined the staff of the Quarterly Review established by John Murray in 1809 as a Tory rival to the Whig supporting Edinburgh Review. Other contributors included the Tory politicians George Canning, and the Marquis of Salisbury.

Robert Southey by John Opie (1805)
Robert Southey by John Opie (1805)

In 1813 Robert Southey was appointed poet laureate. Southey was criticised by Lord Byron and William Hazlitt who accused him of betraying his political principles for money. In 1821 Southey commemorated the death of George III with his poem A Vision of Judgement. This included an attack on Lord Byron who replied with The Vision of Judgement, one of the great satirical parodies of English literature.

Southey wrote several books including: The Book of the Church (1824), Sir Thomas More (1829), Essays Moral and Political (1832) and Lives of British Admirals (1833). In 1835 Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, increased Southey's pension to £300 a year.

Robert Southey died on 21st March 1843.

Primary Sources

(1) Robert Southey, The Inchcape Rock (1796)

No stir in the air, no stir in the sea,
The Ship was still as she could be;
Her sails from heaven received no motion,
Her keel was steady in the ocean.

Without either sign or sound of their shock,
The waves flow'd over the Inchcape Rock;
So little they rose, so little they fell,
They did not move the Inchcape Bell.

The worthy Abbot of Aberbrothok
Had placed that bell on the Inchcape Rock;
On a buoy in the storm it floated and swung,
And over the waves its warning rung.

When the Rock was hid by the surge's swell,
The Mariners heard the warning Bell;
And then they knew the perilous Rock,
And blest the Abbot of Aberbrothok

The Sun in the heaven was shining gay,
All things were joyful on that day;
The sea-birds scream'd as they wheel'd round,
And there was joyaunce in their sound.

The buoy of the Inchcpe Bell was seen
A darker speck on the ocean green;
Sir Ralph the Rover walk'd his deck,
And fix'd his eye on the darker speck.

He felt the cheering power of spring,
It made him whistle, it made him sing;
His heart was mirthful to excess,
But the Rover's mirth was wickedness.

His eye was on the Inchcape Float;
Quoth he, "My men, put out the boat,
And row me to the Inchcape Rock,
And I'll plague the Abbot of Aberbrothok."

The boat is lower'd, the boatmen row,
And to the Inchcape Rock they go;
Sir Ralph bent over from the boat,
And he cut the bell from the Inchcape Float.

Down sank the Bell with a gurgling sound,
The bubbles rose and burst around;
Quoth Sir Ralph, "The next who comes to the Rock,
Won't bless the Abbot of Aberbrothok."

Sir Ralph the Rover sail'd away,
He scour'd the seas for many a day;
And now grown rich with plunder'd store,
He steers his course for Scotland's shore.

So thick a haze o'erspreads the sky,
They cannot see the sun on high;
The wind hath blown a gale all day,
At evening it hath died away.

On the deck the Rover takes his stand,
So dark it is they see no land.
Quoth Sir Ralph, "It will be lighter soon,
For there is the dawn of the rising Moon."

"Canst hear," said one, "the breakers roar?
For methinks we should be near the shore."
"Now, where we are I cannot tell,
But I wish we could hear the Inchcape Bell."

They hear no sound, the swell is strong,
Though the wind hath fallen they drift along;
Till the vessel strikes with a shivering shock,
"Oh Christ! It is the Inchcape Rock!"

Sir Ralph the Rover tore his hair,
He curst himself in his despair;
The waves rush in on every side,
The ship is sinking beneath the tide.

But even is his dying fear,
One dreadful sound could the Rover hear;
A sound as if with the Inchcape Bell,
The Devil below was ringing his knell.

(2) Robert Southey, The Battle of Blenheim (1798)

It was a summer evening,
     Old Kaspar's work was done,
And he before his cottage door
     Was sitting in the sun,
And by him sported on the green
     His little grandchild Wilhelmine.

She saw her brother Peterkin
     Roll something large and round,
Which he beside the rivulet
     In playing there had found;
He came to ask what he had found,
     That was so large, and smooth, and round.

Old Kaspar took it from the boy,
     Who stood expectant by;
And then the old man shook his head,
     And, with a natural sigh,
"'Tis some poor fellow's skull," said he,
     "Who fell in the great victory.

"I find them in the garden,
     For there's many here about;
And often when I go to plough,
     The ploughshare turns them out!
For many thousand men," said he,
     "Were slain in that great victory."

"Now tell us what 'twas all about,"
     Young Peterkin, he cries;
And little Wilhelmine looks up
     With wonder-waiting eyes;
"Now tell us all about the war,
     And what they fought each other for."

"It was the English," Kaspar cried,
     "Who put the French to rout;
But what they fought each other for,
     I could not well make out;
But everybody said," quoth he,
     "That 'twas a famous victory.

"My father lived at Blenheim then,
     Yon little stream hard by;
They burnt his dwelling to the ground,
     And he was forced to fly;
So with his wife and child he fled,
     Nor had he where to rest his head.

"With fire and sword the country round
     Was wasted far and wide,
And many a childing mother then,
     And new-born baby died;
But things like that, you know, must be
     At every famous victory.

"They say it was a shocking sight
     After the field was won;
For many thousand bodies here
     Lay rotting in the sun;
But things like that, you know, must be
     After a famous victory.

"Great praise the Duke of Marlbro' won,
     And our good Prince Eugene."
"Why, 'twas a very wicked thing!"
     Said little Wilhelmine.
"Nay... nay... my little girl," quoth he,
     "It was a famous victory.

"And everybody praised the Duke
     Who this great fight did win."
"But what good came of it at last?"
     Quoth little Peterkin.
"Why that I cannot tell," said he,
     "But 'twas a famous victory."