Robert Southey by W A Speck

Was he a secret subversive?
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The Independent Culture

Who now reads Southey? Many a naval enthusiast and almost every child in the land. Neither group is likely to bring a great audience for the second elegant biography in a decade of this diligent author whom almost everybody else grants only a sidelong glance as a friend or foe of the glamorous Romantics. No boat off the Italian coast for him, no headlong mission in Greece; any youthful hopes of a co-operative colony in America with his brother-in-law Coleridge were swallowed by long hours in a book-lined Keswick study until all was lost to Alzheimer's and death in 1843. As his 1997 biographer, Mark Storey, wrote, "to be so prolific can lead, paradoxically, to writing yourself out of the history books. We cannot bear too much literariness."

W A Speck similarly subtitles his biography "entire man of letters", a phrase from Byron, whose ridicule included "The Vision of Judgement", Don Juan and many a letter - one of which also confessed: "to have that poet's head and shoulders, I would almost have written his Sapphics."

Such was Southey's stoicism that these sallies and slights scarcely dented, and he rather liked Byron when they met. This resilience, perhaps fatal for creativity, sprang from childhood. Married to a hapless businessman, his mother grieved for a dead son while enduring a breast injury, and farmed out this next child to a foster-mother, after which came despatch to Bath. There a bizarre aunt, Elizabeth, so feared dirt that she refused outside play and covered up her portrait, a Gainsborough, lest it attract flies.

Southey found refuge in books, Spenser in particular, a lifelong wall against vexation. For all that, he had some engagement with the world, being expelled from Westminster School for writing an article against flogging. This led to exclusion from Christ Church but a welcome at Balliol. Steeped in Gibbon and the Enlightenment, he knew revolutionary fervour: verse epics were ever at the ready, and he gave up sugar in protest against slavery. Oxford was augmented by friendship with Coleridge, who visited during a walking tour, and their settling in various parts of Bristol, each marrying a Fricker sister, led to plans for a "Pantisocratic" society, an ideal which foundered in some acrimony - most brilliantly chronicled by Richard Holmes.

Despite family pressure, Southey hardly had the makings of a clergyman or a lawyer. A year - 1798 - at Westbury, near Bristol, yielded most of his best, shorter poems while visits to Portugal and Spain galvanised the prose by which he earned a living when duly ensconced ever after at Greta Hall in Keswick. Beset by family tragedies and hankering after livelier women, he settled to the production of, among much else, a huge history of Brazil; one of Portugal; a life of Wesley; one of Nelson (still in print); a history of the Peninsular War, soon supplanted by Napier's; a history of the Church; innumerable reviews; a life of Cowper, thousands of letters... always readable, most has gone the way of the verse he created when made laureate in 1812 - the Mr Feathernest of Thomas Love Peacock's underrated novel Melincourt.

And yet, for some of us, Southey is a secret subversive, a post-modernist ahead of his time. The three-volume Letters from England (1807) is a chronicle purportedly by Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, an imperfect disguise in which Southey is as idiosyncratic as Defoe and Cobbett. As for The Doctor &c., that abbreviation is an essential part of the title of a long-gestated, seven-volume work which defies abridgement or one-word description. Nominally a Yorkshire doctor's life, it echoes Sterne and Burton with rambling byways whose inspired madness make for an animated commonplace book - along the way, up pops the very first telling of the story of The Three Bears. Open it anywhere, and one cannot help but read on - or back, even sideways. It is his true epic, attracting posterity with such observations as "a man who shaves himself every day, and lives to the age of three score and ten, expends during his life as much time in the act of shaving, as would have sufficed for learning seven languages." True to that spirit, risk some stubble: make time for Southey.