Robert Southey, the son of a linen draper, was born in Bristol in 1774. After his father's death an uncle sent him to Westminster School but he was expelled in 1792 after denouncing flogging in the school magazine.
In 1794 Southey met Samuel Taylor Coleridge in Bristol and the two men became close friends. They developed radical political and religious views and began making plans to emigrate to Pennsylvania where they intended to set up a commune based on communistic values. Southey and Coleridge eventually abandoned this plan and instead stayed in England where they concentrated on communicating their radical ideas. This included the play they wrote together, The Fall of Robespierre. Southey also wrote the republican play, Wat Tyler.
In 1795 Southey married Edith Fricker, whose elder sister, Sara Fricker, married Samuel Taylor Coleridge. That year saw the publication of his book Poems and the epic poem, Joan of Arc. Between 1796 and 1798 he wrote many ballads, including The Inchcape Rock and The Battle of Blenheim. Southey's poetry sold poorly and had to rely on the £160 a year allowance paid to him by his friend Charles Wynn.
Southey gradually lost his radical opinions and in 1807 he was rewarded by being granted an annual allowance by the Tory government. In 1809 Robert Southey joined the staff of the Quarterly Review established by John Murray in 1809 as a Tory rival to the Whig supporting Edinburgh Review. Other contributors included the Tory politicians George Canning, and the Marquis of Salisbury.
In 1813 Robert Southey was appointed poet laureate. Southey was criticised by Lord Byron and William Hazlitt who accused him of betraying his political principles for money. In 1821 Southey commemorated the death of George III with his poem A Vision of Judgement. This included an attack on Lord Byron who replied with The Vision of Judgement, one of the great satirical parodies of English literature.
Southey wrote several books including: The Book of the Church (1824), Sir Thomas More (1829), Essays Moral and Political (1832) and Lives of British Admirals (1833). In 1835 Sir Robert Peel, the British prime minister, increased Southey's pension to £300 a year. Robert Southey died in 1843.
(1) E. M. Forster, Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)
One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of one's life, and it is therefore essential that they should not let one down. They often do. Personal relations are despised today. They are regarded as bourgeois luxuries, as products of a time of fair weather which is now past, and we are urged to get rid of them, and to dedicate ourselves to some movement or cause instead. I hate the idea of causes, and if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. Such a choice may scandalise the modern reader, and he may stretch out his patriotic hand to the telephone and ring up the police. It would not have shocked Dante, though. Dante placed Brutus and Cassius in the lowest circle of Hell because they had chosen to betray their friend Julius Caesar rather than their country Rome.