Rupert Christiansen

Firebrand turned diehard

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Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters

W. A. Speck

Yale, pp. 305, £

‘Do you pronounce it Sowthy or Suthy?’ asked a friend when I mentioned I was reviewing this book. Today, that small controversy probably marks the limit of public curiosity as to this remarkably prolific but not otherwise exceptional poet, novelist, historian, critic and political commentator, who flourished as a radical alongside his friend Coleridge in the early stages of the French Revolution, and later retreated to the Lake District where he became a diehard Tory and Poet Laureate, earning himself the contempt of Shelley, Byron and Hazlitt.

This new biography follows relatively recent volumes by Geoffrey Carnall and Mark Storey; it adds little of significance to them. Professor Speck is, for one thing, an historian rather than a literary critic, and he evinces no interest in analysing or exploring Southey’s imaginative writing. His is a very straight-faced and solidly old-fashioned approach to the facts and the documents; it is meticulously researched and amply annotated and calmly objective and, oh dear, oh dear, more than slightly flat and dull.

This is not really Speck’s fault, in as much as Southey can scarcely be made to cut an entrancingly romantic figure. After his firebrand youth, he buckled down to provide for his wife and children. His motto being ‘In labore quies’, he wrote with assiduous Trollopian regularity, and apart from family tragedies his life continued for another 40 years as one of pretty blameless integrity, unmarked by dramatic or scandalous events.

He could be acerbic in his judgment of opponents, but he wasn’t one for feuds or bitterness and, however hardline his Toryism became, it was never irrationally obsessive or mean-spirited. Speck suggests Southey was someone who succeeded — with the help of what he called ‘a strict intellectual regimen’ — in keeping his stock of anger and disappointment bottled up. He loved his children, paid his debts and got on with the job. Did his long and warm friendship with Mary Barker, a woman more simpatico than his stolid wife Edith Fricker, ever breach propriety? Probably not. Yes, it’s sadly difficult to take much interest in such a man.

He was born in 1774, the son of a draper who never prospered. Having been farmed out to wealthier relations, he was sent to board at Westminster, where his anti-Burkean, pro-Republican tendencies finally got him expelled. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he read Rousseau and Godwin, and hatched with Coleridge the socialistic doctrine of ‘pantisocracy’, which they planned to realise in a rigorously egalitarian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna river.

The scheme collapsed in a muddle. Sexual jealousy (Coleridge was married to Edith Fricker’s sister, Sara) was one element; the failure to raise the necessary cash another. But the fundamental problem was the clash between Southey’s mistrust of Coleridge’s reliability and Coleridge’s refusal to accept any compromise of ideological purity.

By the turn of the century, Southey’s practicality of spirit had steered him to the Right, where he would staunchly remain — fervently antagonistic to Napoleonic tyranny, an opponent of Catholic emancipation and Calvinist puritanism alike, and a sceptic on all proposed extensions of democracy (he decided that the cholera epidemic of 1832 was judgment on the nation’s folly in passing the Reform Bill). Only the co-operative movement gave him any hope that the lower orders might significantly better themselves.

The first part of his literary career was dominated by the production of fustian epic poems on exotic subjects such as Thalaba the Destroyer, Madoc, The Curse of Kehama and Roderick, The Last of the Goths. Extracts reproduced by Professor Speck do not encourage one to investigate them further, though they were popular in their time and had some influence on Byron. After he became Poet Laureate in 1813, Clio replaced Calliope as his muse, and he increasingly concentrated on history and biography. A sympathetic life of Nelson has remained in print for the best part of 200 years, and a chronicle of Brazil still has admirers; his voluminous works on the Peninsular War and the Protestant Church have long been forgotten.

Until ‘an organic affliction of the brain’ softened his mind (he died in 1843), Southey never stopped writing; he wasn’t driven by genius, and what he thought he could achieve is not clear. Carlyle visited him when he was an old man, and felt him to be ‘militant in his aspect — in the eyes especially was visible a mixture of sorrow and of anger, or of angry contempt, as if his indignant fight with the world had not yet ended in victory, but also never should in defeat’. This is quoted in Speck’s preface, and it’s the most intriguing insight into Southey’s psychology that this worthy book has to offer. Elsewhere, there is no sense of his inner life — perhaps he was too busy to have one.

And as to the initial question, no solution is offered: Sowthy or Suthy. Does anybody really care?