Ode to a forgotten Laureate

Shelley accused him of 'villainy'. Byron called him a 'son of a bitch'. But the poet Robert Southey is finally about to get the praise he deserves. Duncan Wu reports
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The author of the first printed version of the Three Bears story ought to be a national hero, but Robert Southey seems never to have been anyone's favourite writer, except possibly his own. Despite a sizeable nose, he was a good-looking man (Wordsworth easily outstripping him in the nose department); in the Peter Vandyke portrait, in the National Portrait Gallery, in London, he is distinguished by a luxuriant mane of hair, his large brown eyes and long face making him look like an exceedingly well-bred Afghan hound.

The author of the first printed version of the Three Bears story ought to be a national hero, but Robert Southey seems never to have been anyone's favourite writer, except possibly his own. Despite a sizeable nose, he was a good-looking man (Wordsworth easily outstripping him in the nose department); in the Peter Vandyke portrait, in the National Portrait Gallery, in London, he is distinguished by a luxuriant mane of hair, his large brown eyes and long face making him look like an exceedingly well-bred Afghan hound.

Add to that the misfortune that his best friend and brother-in-law was that incorrigible drug addict and ancient-mariner figure Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, without hesitation, dumped his wife and children on Southey, who looked after them for the remainder of his life, and you have the makings of a saint. Alas, since his death in 1843, his stock has plumbed the depths of near-oblivion: there are, so far as I know, no paperback editions of his poetry in print.

The blame rests partly at the door of his best friends (who else?). A contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, his poetry pales by comparison with The Prelude and "Kubla Khan". Thirty years earlier, he would have been a star of the mid-18th century, when the nearest competition would have been Thomas Gray and William Collins. Surrounded instead by colossi, his literary stock has suffered by comparison with theirs.

As if that weren't enough, there are the disdainful testimonials that have pursued him through the decades. In a strained moment, Wordsworth unhelpfully described him as "certainly a coxcomb"; to Byron, he was "that Son of a Bitch", while Shelley accused him of "overflowing villainy". The main problem, as far as Byron and Shelley were concerned, was his abandonment of pro-revolutionary politics so that he could become Poet Laureate to an increasingly decadent regime that, at a time of high taxes, high prices, and high unemployment, succeeded in driving the country to near anarchy by such brutal ineptitudes as the Peterloo massacre. For Shelley, this was proof of Southey's "gross corruption", while Byron punished him by making him dedicatee of Don Juan, which begins with a swipe at his political apostasy:

Bob Southey! You're a poet - Poet Laureate,

And representative of all the race;

Although 'tis true that you turned out a

Tory at

Last, yours has lately been a common

case;

And now, my epic renegade, what are ye at,

With all the Lakers in and out of place?

A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye

Like four and twenty blackbirds in a pie.

That wasn't all, unfortunately: a sizeable, funny and very rude anthology could be compiled of all the occasions on which Byron gave Southey a roasting in verse and prose. Hazlitt, too - never one to sit mutely in the corner when there were turncoats to be reviled - targeted him with memorable success. "To be a renegado is, with him, to be virtuous," he said of the middle-aged Southey. "A woman is more likely to prostitute her person at nineteen - a man more likely to prostitute his understanding at forty. Poor Bob Southey! How they laugh at him!" - Hazlitt laughing the hardest.

But he had cause: in March 1817, Southey wrote to the Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool, urging a clampdown on radical journalists, using transportation if necessary - an act of treachery that Southeyans would doubtless prefer to forget. Add to the charge sheet that he produced some notoriously bad poetry as Laureate, the nadir probably being his description of George III entering heaven in "The Vision of Judgement" - "Lift up your heads, ye gates, and ye everlasting portals, Be ye lift up!" - and you have a partial explanation for the neglect lavished on him for much of the 20th century.

It's all tremendously unfair. After all, Southey was not the only Romantic to change his politics in middle age, nor the only one to write a bad line. (Wordsworthians are tight-lipped about the first line of his "To the Spade of a Friend" - "Spade! with which Wilkinson hath tilled his lands".) Which makes the publication by Pickering & Chatto of this handsome new edition of Southey's poetry, edited by three of the best Southeyans in the business - Lynda Pratt, Tim Fulford and Daniel Sanjiv Roberts - all the more welcome. Under the general editorship of Pratt, they do full scholarly justice to his long early poems ( Joan of Arc, Thalaba, The Curse of Kehama and Roderick Madoc), alongside a volume of shorter works written before 1810.

It is a triumphant achievement, showing what a powerful writer he was. The splendid new text of Thalaba, edited here by Tim Fulford, reminds us not just that Southey is redolent of Wordsworth and Coleridge at their best, but that he was a fine poet on his own account, as in the description of Laila's home:

It was a little, lowly dwelling place,

Amid a garden, whose delightful air

Felt mild and fragrant, as the evening wind

Passing in summer o'er the coffee-groves

Of Yemen and its blessed bowers of balm.

A Fount of Fire that in the centre played,

Rolled all around its wonderous rivulets

And fed the garden with the heat of life.

Southey has the ability always to surprise you: here, the unexpected element is the coffee groves. He had never been to Yemen, but it doesn't matter - they evoke an atmosphere that sets up the drama of the poem. There's risk in this, as when in the middle of Madoc we are told that, "On the top/ Of yon magnolia the loud turkey's voice/ Is heralding the dawn". The loud turkey? It's odd, but it works. Southey seems to have a knack of jolting you with ideas that neither Wordsworth nor Coleridge would have come up with. He was an original.

Sometimes he seems to go too far, as when, in Joan of Arc, a massive rock falls on a soldier - "the vast force/ Shattered the bone, and with his mangled lungs/ The fragments mingled". You don't expect to find that sort of thing in the middle of an epic poem, but it works as part of the story. And as the poems reveal, that was his essential gift: like Quentin Tarantino, he's a born storyteller, willing to risk good taste in the knowledge that narrative momentum will see him through.

It's not all blood and gore; the early works are so issue-driven that you can see why Byron and Shelley were disappointed by his defection to the Tory camp. The shorter poems are variable, but most of those presented by Lynda Pratt in Volume VI are entertaining, even at their most earnest - from his first published poem, "To a Nettle", which decries "The awe of Subjects and the might of Kings!"; to his various attacks on slave traders ("High in the air expos'd the Slave is hung"), war ("The Battle of Blenheim") and rural and metropolitan poverty; and his animal poems ("The King of the Crocodiles", "To a Dancing Bear", "Sonnet to a Goose" and "Ode to a Pig while his nose was boring").

Reading these charmingly quirky poems, you cannot help but regret the turning of the young, revolutionary poet of the 1790s into the sclerotic reactionary of the 1820s, who thought the homeless, the poor, radical intellectuals and fellow-travellers should be herded on to the first boat to Australia, along with a vast swathe of other law-abiding people. After all, parliamentary reform and Catholic emancipation were likely only to lead to anarchy, weren't they? (Southey's attitude toward Roman Catholics was nothing short of rabid. Informed of his younger brother's decision to convert to Catholicism, he said that he would have preferred to hear "that he was fairly and honestly fit for a madhouse".)

What was his problem? Middle age, most likely, and the sheer economic pressure of providing for two families on the strength of his literary output. Up against that, how many of us could have continued to believe that peace and love would be the inevitable result of stringing up George IV and his ministers in Whitehall?

This fine new edition tells us that it is folly for a politically correct age to go on holding that against him. Its editors have painstakingly retrieved the best of Southey's poetry and given it the scholarly treatment that it has long deserved, so that he can finally step out from beneath the apostate's mantle and be acknowledged as the great verse storyteller he always was.

'Robert Southey: Poetical Works 1793-1810' is published in five leather-bound volumes by Pickering & Chatto at £450

Comments