Robert Southey

In the early 1800s there were a group of writers known as The Lake Poets. This was because they all lived in the “Lake District” in northwestern England. They are usually listed as a trio, but only two of them are really famous. The Lake Poets are: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Wordsworth, and Robert Southey. These poets were part of what was called The Romantic Movement from the late 1700s and early 1800s. As stated elsewhere on this website, “romantic” didn’t mean silly valentine-type romance – it was about brave heroes of the past, like Greeks and Romans and also more modern day heroes. Each progressive era of poets and writers tried to speak in a more common, less artificial style, even though by today’s standards Robert Southey sounds stilted. It’s as though we have to read Southey through the misty fog of another time. Every literary movement sets the stage for the next one, so while some people find the Romanticists “square” and the Transcendentalists “hip”, we should acknowledge the contribution of one to another.

For example, Robert Southey (1774-1843), who was from England and went to college at Oxford, made friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge and made plans with Coleridge to set up a “Utopian Community” along the Susquehanna River in in Pennsylvania in the United States. They never quite finished that goal, even though they married two sisters they had met, and settled to live near each other. There should be more on the subject of this planned community but I have not unearthed it yet.

The fact remains that Coleridge and Southey influenced one another to each accept a point of view that favored the common man, equality of all people, the abolition of slavery, and a poetry that more closely favored the common speach of the day.

I call Robert Southey “the underdog” because his poetry is somewhat harder to “get into” and he has been called, by some, inferior to Coleridge and Wordsworth. The Columbia Encyclopedia say Southey’s “reputation as a poet rests upon his friendships with Coleridge and Wordsworth.” His writing seems a little old fashion but it reflects modern ideas. Sometimes it conjures visions that are uncomfortable to see:

A poem about slavery Southey wrote:

“High in the air exposed the slave is hung,
To all the birds of heaven, their living food!”

It is a shocking scene but Southey was passionately opposed to slavery as well as war and he does not hold back.

An indication of Southey’s popularity during his lifetime is that he was named Poet Laureate in 1813.

The way I discovered Southey was, when I was about five years old, my parents had a set of pseudo-encyclopedias called “The Book of Knowledge” and on the 1950’s cover of each hardbound volume was a boy & girl holding hands standing on a streamlined jet-type vessel sailing across continents, characters, physics symbols, and the ocean, and those books held SO much. My favorite pages were where it showed a skeleton, and when you turned the clear page, all the muscles went over the skeleton. Turn the page again and all the vital organs fit in, then the nerves, then the skin.

But one day I chanced to turn the pages FURTHER and I came upon an illustration of and old man sitting in a field holding a skull, with a small boy child in front of him and a small girl child trotting up into the scene. And the poem,
“The Battle of Blenheim” by Robert Southey filled the page below. I must have been barely old enough to understand it – my Mother read it to me and explained it – but the theme of the poem was the futility of war. The old man speaks of a great victory and the little girl says, “But what good came of it?” and the old man says, “That, I cannot tell. But (they say) it was a great victory.”

I had almost forgotten about that poem until certain utterances on this website brought it back to me. Robert Southey, one of the Lake Poets.

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