I don’t know about you but I have little sympathy for Robert Southey. Born in 1774, Southey was the son of a linen draper and though he received a rather patchy education, he displayed an early talent for Latin and writing verse. Although he began an education at Oxford with an eye toward the clergy, Southey was drawn to writing, eventually earning an impressive reputation and living as an author of poetry and a number of histories, including a multi-volume history of Brazil. In 1813 Southey won the appointment of Poet laureate, guaranteeing him a place in the history of English poetry. Now even though the ‘office’ of Poet Laureate has been occupied by such illustrious names as Dryden, Wordsworth, and Tennyson, none of the truly great poets of passion and vision have ever held the title. In fact a number of interesting poets have refused the title including William Morris and Philip Larkin. But it is not his status as Poet Laureate that turns me off of Robert Southey, rather it is his abandonment of idealism, the true focus of great poetry, that makes it difficult for me to sympathise with him. As a young man Southey admired the motivations behind the French Revolution and was committed to the struggle for political reform and social equality. For a long time Southey was committed to elaborate plans with his friend Coleridge to found a utopian community on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. But Southey quickly abandoned his political radicalism and became a fervent and active Tory, supporting the government of Lord Liverpool. Southey, like most Tories, was fond of blaming reformers and the working-class for their own oppression and was strongly opposed to Catholic emancipation. Now as much as I despise Tories in general, I hold a special place of loathing for a person who begins at point of poetry and idealism only to abandon the cause of humanity. The greatest consolation we can draw from Southey’s abhorrent abandonment of everything good and humane (as all Toryism is) is that he is now a largely forgotten poet, little known or read. A couple of years ago I had a friend who was taking a university course in English Romanticism and Southey wasn’t even included! Perhaps the only thing that Southey wrote that is still widely known is the Three Bears.
Yet despite Southey’s Toryism and abandonment of hope, I recently found something interesting and ironic. I was reading through a six volume edition of the Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey compiled by his son, Charles, when I found something he had written in a letter to friend named John May that sparked my interest. Southey wrote:
“It is not manners and fashions alone that change and are perpetually changing with us. The very constitution of society is unstable: it will, and in all probability will, undergo as great alterations, in the course of the next two or three centuries, as it has undergone in the last. The transitions are likely to be more violent, and far more rabid. At no very distant time, these letters, if they escape the earthquake and the volcano, may derive no small part of their interest and value from the faithful sketches which they contain of a stage of society which has already passed away, and a state of thing which then will have ceased to exist.”
This letter, written when Southey had already abandoned his youthful ideals, is remarkable. It is amazing that a man committed to the deplorable ideology of Toryism – an ideology distinguished by its blind commitment to tradition and resistance to social and political change – could make this basic insight concerning the inevitability of change. A conservative is someone who accepts a radical idea a century after it was conceived, after the radicals have moved on to something better. Unfortunately conservatives also fail to recognize this basic reality, imagining instead that, because of fundamental human inadequacies, we have now reached the greatest height of social or moral development. It is odd therefore to read these words written from the hand of rather despicable Tory, words that recognize that his own beliefs and commitments will soon be surpassed.