ROBERT SOUTHEY poet laureate of England, was born at Bristol, August 12, 1774, and he died at Greta, March 21, 1843.
His father was a respectable linen draper, but Robert was indebted to his uncle for an education. At the age of fourteen he was sent to the West-minster School, where he remained about four years. Southey and some of his school associates started a periodical called "The Flagellant," in which they published a sarcasm upon corporal punishment. Dr. Vincent, the headmaster, commenced a prosecution against the publishers, which forced Southey to withdraw from the school. Like Shelley, he was somewhat disgusted with the institutions of his country, but the effect upon their lives was far different. The effect finally wore off from Southey. In 1792 he entered Balliol College, Oxford. He became an excellent scholar, including a knowledge of Greek, Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese languages. While at Oxford he formed literary plans enough for the work of several long and busy lives. He was one of the most studious men that ever lived. His life was spent almost entirely in his magnificent library. Referring to his books, and he had one of the finest private libraries in the realm, he said:
My days among the dead are passed;
Around me I behold,
Where'er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old;
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse night and day.
Southey's literary career commenced in 1794, when he published a volume of poems in conjunction with Robert Lovell, under the names of Moschus and Bion. At the same time he composed his drama of "Wat Tyler," a revolutionary pamphlet, "which was long afterward published surreptitiously by a knavish book-seller to annoy its author." Afterward Southey expressed his excuse for "Wat Tyler" as follows: "In my youth, when my stock of knowledge consisted of such an acquaintance with Greek and Roman history as is acquired in the course of a scholastic education--when my heart was full of poetry and romance, and Lucan and Akenside were at my tongue's end--I fell into the political opinions which the French revolution was then scattering throughout Europe; and following these opinions with ardor wherever they led, I soon perceived that inequalities of rank were a light evil compared to the inequalities of property, and those more fearful distinctions which the want of moral and intellectual culture occasions between man and man. At that time, and with those opinions, or rather feelings (for their root was in the heart and not in the understanding), I wrote 'Wat Tyler,' as one who is impatient of all the oppressions that are done under the sun. The subject was injudiciously chosen, and it was treated as might be expected by a youth of twenty at such times, who regarded only one side of the question."
"Joan of Arc," published in 1793, is full of the same political sentiment. In 1795 he married Miss Edith Fricker, of Bristol, but they parted immediately after the ceremony was performed, the lady returning to her parents, while Southey finished his studies.
The death of his brother-in-law and brother-poet, Lovell, occurred during his absence abroad, and Southey on his return set about raising something for his young friend's widow. She afterward found a home with Southey--one of the many generous and affectionate acts of his busy life. In 1797 he published his "Letters from Spain and Portugal," and took up his residence in London, in order to commence the study of law. A college friend, Mr. C. W. W. Wynn, gave him an annuity, which he continued to receive until 1807, when he relinquished it on obtaining a pension from the crown.
His health failing, he again visited Portugal, and after a year's absence, returned to England much improved. For a short time he resided at Bristol, then took a journey into cumberland to visit Coleridge. He found his poetic friend at Greta Hall, Keswick, where Southey remained during the greater part of the rest of his life. About the same time he was appointed private secretary to Mr. Cory, chancellor of the exchequer of Ireland. The work was not congenial, hence after about six months of bondage, he returned to his home and entered upon his career as a professional author. "Thalaba, the Destroyer," appeared in 1801, an Arabian fiction of great beauty and magnificence, for which he received 100 guineas. Abandoning entirely his revolutionary views, he became greatly devoted to the church and state, and settled on the banks of the river Greta, near Keswick. A volume of "Metrical Tales" appeared in 1804; "Madoc," an epic poem, founded on a Welsh story, in 1805; "The Curse of Kehama," his greatest poetical work, in 1810. Some of the scenes of this strangely magnificent theatre of horrors are described with the power of Milton.
In 1814 he published "Roderick, the Last of the Goths," a noble and pathetic poem. Accepting the office of poet laureate in 1813, he published some courtly strains that added nothing to his fame. His "Carmen Triumphale" appeared in 1814, and "The Vision and of Judgment," 1821. These works were ridiculed at the time, and especially by Lord Byron, who published another "Vision of Judgment," in which he punishes the laureate most severely. His last poetical work was a volume of narrative verse, "All for Love," and "The Pilgrim of Compostella," published in 1829. He was offered a baronetcy and a seat in parliament, both of which he prudently declined. His fame and his fortune, he knew, could only be preserved by adhering to his solitary studies, but these were too constant and uninterrupted. The poet forgot one of his own maxims, that "frequent change of air is of all things that which most conduces to joyous health and long life."
In 1833-'37 Southey edited and published the works of Cowper in fifteen volumes. In the meantime his wife became a mental imbecile in 1834, in which sad condition she remained about three years. Southey bore up under the affliction, but his health was greatly shattered. After a brief time he married Miss Bowles, the poetess, but his mind became clouded in the course of a few years, and he died in 1843.
Wordsworth, writing to Lady Frederick Bentinck in July, 1840, says that on visiting his early friend he did not recognize him till he was told. "Then his eyes flashed for a moment with their former brightness, but he sank into the state in which I had found him, patting with both hands his books affectionately like a child." Three years were passed in this deplorable condition, and it was a matter of satisfaction rather than regret that death at length stepped in to shroud this painful spectacle from the eyes of affection as well as from the gaze of vulgar curiosity. He died at Greta on the 21st of March, 1843. He left at his death a sum of about #12,000, to be divided among his children, and one of the most valuable private libraries in the kingdom. The life and correspondence of Southey have been published by his son, the Rev. Charles Cuthbert Southey, in six volumes. His son-in-law, the Rev. J. Wood Warter, published his "Commonplace Book," four volumes, and "Selections from His Letters," four volumes. In these works the amiable private life of Southey, his indefatigable application, his habitual cheerfulness and lively fancy, and his steady friendships and true generosity, are strikingly displayed. The only drawback is the poet's egotism, which was inordinate, and the hasty, uncharitable judgments sometimes passed on his contemporaries, the result partly of temperament and partly of his seclusion from general society. Southey was interred in the churchyard of Crosthwaite, and in the church is a marble monument to his memory, a full-length recumbent figure, with the following inscription by Wordsworth on the base:
WORDSWORTH'S EPITAPH ON SOUTHEY.
Ye vales and hills, whose beauty hither drew
The poet's steps, and fixed him here, on you
His eyes have closed; and ye, loved books, no more
Shall Southey feed upon your precious lore,
To works that ne'er shall forfeit their renown,
Adding immortal labors of his own;
Whether he traced historic truth with zeal
For the state's guidance, or the church's weal;
Or Fancy, disciplined by studious Art,
Informed his pen, or Wisdom of the heart
Or Judgments sanctioned in the patriot's mind
By reverence for the rights of all mankind.
Large were his aims, yet in no human breast
Could private feelings find a holier nest.
His joys, his griefs, have vanished like a cloud
From Skiddaw's top, but he to heaven was vowed
Through a life long and pure, and steadfast faith
Calmed in his soul the fear of change and death.
Biography from: http://www.2020site.org/poetry/index.html