Robert Southey

Robert Southey was born on August 12th, 1774 above a draper's shop in Wine Street, Bristol belonging to his unsuccessful father.  His cloth-making ancestors had come from Wellington and his grandfather had farmed at Rich's Holford on the Quantocks. His Uncle and aunt Mary lived at Bishop's Lydeard.  His childhood was divided between Bristol and Bath, much time being spent in the middle class household of his snobbish and unloved aunt Elizabeth Tyler, from whom he acquired a polished manner.

He became a radical and was expelled from Westminster School for publishing an essay against flogging. His expulsion brought out a rebellious side to his nature.  He supported the French Revolution and opposed the wars against France.  In 1792, soon after his father's bankruptcy and death, he went to Balliol College, Oxford. Here he was told to study what he liked and he started to write poetry.  In 1794 he was introduced to S T Coleridge, who had come to visit friends at Oxford whilst on a walking tour from Cambridge, where he was at university.  The two were instantly caught in mutual admiration, Southey admiring Coleridge's eloquence and intellect and Coleridge admiring Southey's decisiveness and strength of character.  They both discussed philosophy and Utopian principles, both being convinced that vice was not natural to man and felt that under the right circumstances man could reach near perfection.  They even proposed to set up an agricultural community in Pennsylvania, America where all property would be shared and everyone would have equal status, an idea that they called Pantisocracy.

Coleridge continued on his walking tour but met up with Southey a month later in Bristol, to which Southey had also walked.  Both started recruiting 'Pantisocrats' and recruits included Southey's seafaring brother, Tom and his widowed mother in Bath.  Another recruit was Robert Lovell, who had married actress Mary Fricker.  Mary was one of five sisters and Southey proposed to her sister, Edith whilst recruiting her.  Coleridge was introduced to the family and met another sister, Sara, who he was later to marry.

At the end of August the two set off on a walking tour of Somerset, starting at Southey's mother's in Bath, where they met up with Sara.  They then went to Cheddar, which greatly impressed the two and which Southey described in terms reminiscent of a later visit to the Valley of Rocks.  They then went on to Bridgwater and Nether Stowey, then known simply as Stowey, which Coleridge saw for the first time.  Here they met Tom Poole, who developed a friendship with Coleridge which caused him to return to Stowey later. Coleridge returned with Southey to Bristol.  There he proposed to Sara Fricker, partly through the cajoling of Southey, who felt that the three sisters would make a firm foundation for the Pantisocracy.  During this time Southey composed the verse drama 'Joan of Arc' which, embellished with lines from Coleridge, was published two years later.  The two then returned to their respective universities.

During the next few months the two remained in contact, although they gradually drew apart as the decisive Southey found Coleridge becoming less fervent both for Pantisocracy and Sara. The money to finance the American colony did not materialise and the following year the two established themselves back in Bristol.  Southey had left Oxford without a degree.  It was here that they first met William Wordsworth. Working in cramped quarters and Southey gradually despairing of the indecisive Coleridge, the two fell out, never to resume the closeness of their friendship. Coleridge married Sara Fricker in October.  Southey married Edith a month later and they made their home at Westbury-on-Trym, Bristol.  He did not inform his family of the wedding and this caused a final break with his Aunt Elizabeth, who had disapproved of the Pantisocracy.

Shortly afterwards he went to Portugal with his uncle, who was British chaplain in Lisbon. He wrote many letters from Portugal and Spain, some of which were later published.  He stayed for nearly two years and during this time began the gradual change from revolutionary to Tory.  When he returned in 1797 he was given a small annuity by an old school friend, which enabled him to concentrate on writing.  He wrote poetry and ballads, contributed to magazines and newspapers, edited books and undertook translations.

It was in 1799, when the Southeys were leaving their first married home for another in Bristol, that Southey and Coleridge met up again.  This was on the instigation of Sara, who had much sympathy from Southey for the fact that Coleridge did not return her love.  They stayed together briefly at Nether Stowey and the Southeys set off for a tour of the Exmoor coast, arranging to return to Nether Stowey afterwards.

They went to Minehead via Watchet, which Southey described as "the most miserable collections of man-sties I have ever beheld.  The Cornish boroughs are superb to it."  His approach to Minehead was recorded in a letter: "The quay is ugly, but the view very striking along the coast towards Stowey.  From a hill on our way here we had one glorious burst of prospect. The sun fell on the sea through a mist, and on the crags of the shore they looked like a glittering faery fabric; the very muddiness of the water mellowed the splendour and made it more rich and beautiful."  After getting to know it better, he was more taken with Minehead, which was recovering from a disastrous fire: "Minehead presents the cheerful appearance of a town rising from its ruins.  New houses built and building everywhere give a lively and clean appearance to it."  Edith became ill at Minehead, suffering from "extreme debility, pain in back and bowels, lack of appetite" and other complaints. Southey stayed with her for a fortnight, exploring the surrounding area. He said "The inland walks are striking: the hills dark, and dells woody and watery, winding up them in ways of sequestered coolness."  He went to Dunster, from where he described "One of the finest scenes in the West of England.  From here the sea view is very striking.  Minehead stands under a headland which projects boldly.  This seat is said to command one of the finest views in England.  If the water were clear and boundless I should think so."   He walked to the church at Minehead and beyond, up North Hill: "When I reached the top, half trembled to see the sea immediately below me.  The descent, however, though to the eye directly abrupt, was not precipitous. A path shelves along, sufficiently fearful to produce an emotion of pleasurable dread, yet perfectly safe, for in almost every part it would be practicable to walk to the beach.  The descent is all furze and fern.  On a clear day the houses on the opposite shore are distinct; but in hazy weather the view is finer, like the prospects of human life, because its termination is concealed."

On 8th August, Edith being better but not fit for walking, Southey set off alone, agreeing to return via Nether Stowey, where he would meet up with Edith again. He was driven to Porlock by Coleridge's Nether Stowey friend and neighbour, John Cruickshank, who had told Coleridge of his dream of a ghost ship, which became inspiration for 'The Rime of the Ancient Mariner'. He wrote: "Cruickshank took me in his chair to Porlock, six miles. Hedges luxuriantly high for the most part impede the view; through their openings dark hills are seen, and the combes that intersect them. . . . Porlock is called in the neighbourhood the End of the World.  All beyond is inaccessible to carriage or even cart.  A sort of sledge is used by the country people resting upon two poles like cart shafts." Later he wrote to his brother: "Tom, you have talked of Somersetshire and its beauties but you have never seen the finest part. The neighbourhood of Stowey, Minehead and Porlock exceed anything I have seen in England before... If only beauty of landscape were to influence me in choice of residence, I should at once fix on Porlock."  That evening he walked down to Porlock Weir. He stayed at the Ship Inn in Porlock, where "the bedroom reminded me of Spain, two long old dark tables with benches and an old chest composed its furniture: but there was an oval looking-glass, a decent pot de chambre and no fleas." 

The next day was chilly and wet and he stayed by the inn fire in a nook now known as Southey's Corner and composed his sonnet 'To Porlock':

"Porlock thy verdant vale so fair to sight

Thy lofty hills which fern and furze embrown

Thy waters that roll musically down

Thy woody glens, the traveller with delight

Recalls to memory, and the channel grey

Circling its surges in thy level bay.

Porlock, I shall forget thee not,

Here by the summer rain confined;

But often shall hereafter call to mind

How here, a patient prisoner `twas my lot

To wear the lonely, lingering close of day,

Making my sonnet by the ale house fire,

Whilst Idleness and Solitude inspire

Dull rhymes to pass the duller hours away."

A week later this brought him a guinea from the 'Morning Post'.  Although it was also published in his 'Book of Poems', it never became well-known except locally.  Southey refers in it to his 'dull rhymes' and, although he became poet laureate, he was never regarded as a great poet and was better known as a prose writer and biographer.  During his stay there he acquired a taste for laver and, even when later living in the Lake District, friends would often send him jars of pickled laver from Porlock. Coleridge, on his last visit to Tom Poole in 1807 sent Southey some Porlock laver.

The next day he walked to Lynton in the company of "a natural son of one of the Royal Dukes."

Extracts from Southey's journal of his Exmoor holiday:

"Friday Aug 9 1799

Two travellers arrived dripping wet the preceding night from Ilfracombe with a guide here (Porlock).  There was a guide for me and a horse.  The man was stupid.  He conducted me over the hill instead of taking the road nearer the Channel, where there are many noble scenes; and what there was remarkable in the barren, objectless track we went he did not point out.  I thus lost the Danish encampment where Hubba besieged Oddune. We passed the spot where Kenwith Castle stood; but for which fortress and its gallant defender, the efforts of Alfred might perhaps have been in vain, and the tide of our history flowed in a different channel. From this place the descent to Lynmouth begins. It runs along the edge of a tremendous precipice and the sea at the base! A bank of from two to three feet is the only barrier. At the bottom, in a glen, lies Lynmouth. We passed through and ascended half a mile up the steepest of possible hills to Linton, where the public house is better than in the larger village below.

Two rivers, each coming down a different combe, and each descending so rapidly among huge stones as to foam like a long waterfall, join at Lynmouth, and enter the sea immediately at their junction; and the roar of the sea forms with them but one sound. Of these combes one is richly wooded, the other runs up between bare and stony hills; a fine eminence, Line Cliff, rises between them. Even without the sea this would be one of the finest scenes I ever beheld; it is one of those delightful and impressive places from which the eye turns to rest upon the minutest home object - a flower, a bank of moss, a stone covered with lichens.

From Linton an easy and little descent led me to the Valley of Stones.  The range of hills here next the sea are completely stripped of their soil, the bones only of the earth remain: in the vale, stone upon stone is scattered, and the fern grows among them.  Its origin I could not conjecture.  Water to have overwhelmed such a height must have inundated all the lower country, a thing evidently impossible: and the hills on the other side of the valley, not an arrow's flight distant, are clothed with herbage.  A water spout perhaps; but I am , to my shame, no naturalist.

On the summit of the highest point of the hill, two large stones inclining against each other form a portal; here I laid myself at length - a level platform of turf spread before me about two yards long, and then the eye fell immediately on the sea - a giddy depth. After closing my eyes a minute, it was deeply impressive to open them on the magnificent dreariness, and the precipice, and the sea. A Mr Williams led me here in the morning; in the evening I came alone, and resigned myself to the solitude.

The alehouse at Linton is bad.  Mr Lean was there and claimed acquaintance with me, because his son had met me at Bristol.  He is a pleasant, intelligent man, and showed me where to walk.  I learnt afterwards that he travels twice or thrice a year with a cartful of goods around Exmoor; and when he arrives at a village, it is proclaimed at the church door that Mr Lean is come."

When he returned to Nether Stowey he wrote to John May an account of the same visit in which he compared Lynton and Lynmouth with Cintra and Arrabida in Portugal:

"My walk to Ilfracombe led me through Lynmouth, the finest spot, except Cintra and Arrabida, which I have ever seen. Two rivers join at Lynmouth; each of these flows down a combe, rolling over huge stones like a long waterfall. Immediately at their junction they enter the sea, and the rivers and the sea make but one uproar. Of these combes, the one is richly wooded, the other runs between two high, bare stony hills, wooded at the base. From the Summerhouse Hill between the two is a prospect most magnificent - on either hand, combes and river; before, the beautiful little village, which, I am assured by one who is familiar with Switzerland, resembles a Swiss village.  This alone would constitute a view beautiful enough to repay the fatigue of a long journey, but to complete it there is the blue sea, for the faint and feeble line of the Welsh coast is only to be seen on the right hand if the day be clear.

Ascending from Lynmouth up a road of serpentining perpendicularity, you reach a lane which by slight descent leads to the Valley of Stones, a spot which, as one of the greatest wonders in the West of England, would attract many visitors if the roads were passable by carriages. Imagine a narrow vale between two ridges of hills, somewhat steep; the southern hill turfed; the vale , which runs from east to west, covered with huge stones and fragments of stone among the fern that fills it; the northern ridge completely bare, excoriated of all turf and all soil, the very bones and skeletons of the earth; rock reeling upon rock, stone piled upon stone, a huge and terrific mass. A palace of Preadamite kings, a city of the Anakim, must have appeared so shapeless, and yet so like the ruins of what had been shaped after the waters of the flood subsided. I ascended, with some toil, the highest point; two large stones inclining on each other formed a rude portal on the summit."

He continued at length, first suggesting a flood or waterspout theory for the Valley of Rocks, then that it may be the work of ancient giants and finally concludes it to be: "the ruins of some work erected by the devils who concubinated with the fifty daughters of Diocletion. . . ." His praise of Lynton and Lynmouth and dislike of many other places was well used as publicity for the developing tourism industry. His likening of the area to Switzerland earned it the title 'The English Switzerland' and sparked off a fashion for building in a Swiss style."

Saturday Aug 10

"To Ilfracombe five hours and a quarter; the distance variously computed from fifteen to eighteen miles. Two sailors were my guides; and an acquaintance of theirs went part of the way. We passed through Combmartin, an old, and dirty, and poor place; one house, once a good one, bears the date 1584; another is built in a most ridiculous castle style and is called the Pack of Cards.

Southey continued to Ilfracombe and Barnstaple that day. The next day he took a coach to Taunton, via South Molton and Tiverton, where he lunched on boiled beef with an herb stuffing, which he enjoyed.  On the Monday he surprised his aunt Mary at Bishops Lydeard by breakfasting with her.  He then went over the Quantocks to Stowey, where he met up with Edith and the Coleridges.  The following day they all set off to stay with Coleridge's family in South Devon, where Southey and Coleridge resumed their walking together. The two did not, however, resume a close friendship and, even when Coleridge died in 1834, Southey's reaction was merely to recite old grievances. Southey was not so impressed with South Devon.  He called Sidmouth "a nasty watering place, infested with lounging ladies". The Southeys stayed at Exeter for five weeks. Robert did not like Exeter either and wrote: "Exeter is ancient, and stinks." He went on to say it was "the filthiest place in England"  and later said of it "The inhabitants in general are behindhand in information and refinement. The streets are not flagged, neither are they cleaned." Neither did he like Dartmoor where "the character of the whole is bald high hills, with hedges and no trees, and broad views that contained no object on which the eye could fix." He thought himself a Somerset man and could not find anything good to say about Devon: "those travellers who praise it so highly must either have come from Cornwall, or have slept through Somersetshire."

In 1800 a serious illness drove Southey back to Portugal for a year, this time with his wife.  On his return he established himself at Keswick, now home of the Coleridges.  He then briefly took up an appointment in Dublin and returned to Bristol for a while before permanently settling in Keswick in 1803.  They lived at Greta Hall, which was two houses under one roof and which they could share with the Coleridges and Edith and Sara could be together.  Coleridge left Sara and his family in 1804.  Southey felt responsible for them as he had ill advised the marriage and spent much of his remaining working days in the effort of supporting them.

Whilst in the Lake District Southey developed a friendship with Wordsworth.  He was admired by Hazlitt and Sir Walter Scott, who helped him to become Poet Laureate in 1835.  His poetry is, however, little read nowadays.  His best known poems are 'My Days Among the Dead are Past', 'After Blenheim' and 'The Inchcape Rock'.  His style was much criticised by Byron, who used references to his rebellious youth to denigrate him.  Southey's prose style, however, made him popular in his day and is still regarded as masterly in its ease and clarity.  He is particularly noted for his biographies of Nelson and Wesley and his voluminous correspondence, which gives a detailed picture of his friends and surroundings.

In late 1836 Southey set out with his son and biographer, Cuthbert, on a four month tour to revisit old friends and haunts in the West Country. He had been persuaded for his own health to take a rest from Edith, who had become mentally ill. He returned to Bristol and went on to stay with Tom Poole at Nether Stowey. The local paper reported that he was in the best of health. From Nether Stowey he travelled to Holnicote with Tom Poole. There he stayed with Sir Thomas Acland, with whom he had previously made acquaintance through Tom Poole. Sir Thomas had come to stay with him four years previously at Keswick and he was now to return the favour by providing the Southeys with guides and lodging during their tour.  They arrived somewhat unannounced as Southey had been unable to decipher the address of Holnicote House from Sir Thomas's notoriously illegible handwriting. The Southeys went with him to Killerton to see the road he had made down the Exe valley and continued to South Devon.  They travelled on to Crediton. They may then have visited Porlock. At some stage Southey had determined to revisit Lynton and the Valley of Rocks by walking the coast route he had missed in 1799.  Previously he seems to have followed a route similar to that of the A39. This time he took a route similar to today's coast path. He went from Porlock Weir to Culbone where, he said "the women married all the men in the parish." and on to "a remarkable spot called Glenthorne, where Mr Halliday has built a beautiful dwelling about half-way up the cliff." "Think of my finding at Glenthorne my brother's old servant, Thomas, living there in service with Mary his wife." "I never remember any day's journey that impressed me more."

On 7th December he wrote from Lynton:

"Here we are in certainly the most beautiful spot in the West of England. I was here in 1799 alone and on foot. At that time the country between Porlock and Ilfracombe was not practicable for wheel carriages, and the inn at Lynton received all travellers in the kitchen.  Instead of that single public house, there are now several hotels, and in its accommodation, and in the number of good houses which have been erected by settlers, Linton vies with any watering place in Devonshire."

Robert and Cuthbert went on to Barnstaple, Bideford, Hartland and Cornwall, staying with a prominent local Tory, Mr Buck of Hartland Abbey. They spent Christmas 1836 at Crediton.

After that final journey he wrote that, apart from Lynton and the Valley of Rocks, he had seen nothing in any western county to compare with the Somerset scenery. The painter Gainsborough had also liked Lynmouth, calling it "the most beautiful place for a landscape painter this country can boast." Southey called Exmoor "A land of recollections... wherein I am well pleased as I can be anywhere but at home."  He continued to record his dislike of Cornwall and said that Dorset was hideous and Devon over praised, except for its rivers and 'clouted cream' that both he and Coleridge had enjoyed, because "many of its visitors had slipped through Somerset, the county of real beauty." He wrote: "Clouted cream was the food of my paternal ancestors up to James I's reign... I was often regaled with it in my childhood when a pot came as a present to my father from his relations, not infrequently accompanied by a jar full of worts, as we used to call the whortleberries... I often yearn for the cream-bowls of the West."

Southey's last years were clouded by his wife's insanity, family quarrels resulting from his second marriage after her death in 1837 and his own failing mental and physical health. He undertook a wedding tour in 1839, but returned utterly mentally exhausted.  He did not recognise Wordsworth, who visited him in 1840 and the last few years of his life were spent as if in a trance, oblivious to external things.  Eventually Southey died in March 1843 at Keswick.

Many of Southey's letters were later published by his son-in-law, J W Warter, as "Southey's Common-place Book". This was published in four separate volumes between 1849 and 1851. These are the best known, but not the only volumes of his letters. More recent editions include "Letters of Robert Southey, a selection", Oxford, 1912 and "Letters from England", Cresset Press, 1951, new edition by Sutton 1984. A local guide book by 'Russet Brown' was "Jaunts with Southey in Red Deer Land", Cox, Williton.