Magazine article The Spectator

Firebrand Turned Diehard

Magazine article The Spectator

Firebrand Turned Diehard

Article excerpt

ROBERT SOUTHEY : ENTIRE MAN OF LETTERS by W. A. Speck Yale, £25, pp. 305, ISBN 0300116810 . £20 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

'Do you pronounce it Sowthy or Suthy?' asked a friend when I mentioned I was reviewing this book. Today, that small controversy probably marks the limit of public curiosity as to this remarkably prolific but not otherwise exceptional poet, novelist, historian, critic and political commentator, who flourished as a radical alongside his friend Coleridge in the early stages of the French Revolution, and later retreated to the Lake District where he became a diehard Tory and Poet Laureate, earning himself the contempt of Shelley, Byron and Hazlitt.

This new biography follows relatively recent volumes by Geoffrey Carnall and Mark Storey; it adds little of significance to them. Professor Speck is, for one thing, an historian rather than a literary critic, and he evinces no interest in analysing or exploring Southey's imaginative writing. His is a very straight-faced and solidly old-fashioned approach to the facts and the documents; it is meticulously researched and amply annotated and calmly objective and, oh dear, oh dear, more than slightly flat and dull.

This is not really Speck's fault, in as much as Southey can scarcely be made to cut an entrancingly romantic figure.

After his firebrand youth, he buckled down to provide for his wife and children. His motto being 'In labore quies', he wrote with assiduous Trollopian regularity, and apart from family tragedies his life continued for another 40 years as one of pretty blameless integrity, unmarked by dramatic or scandalous events.

He could be acerbic in his judgment of opponents, but he wasn't one for feuds or bitterness and, however hardline his Toryism became, it was never irrationally obsessive or mean-spirited. Speck suggests Southey was someone who succeeded -- with the help of what he called 'a strict intellectual regimen' -- in keeping his stock of anger and disappointment bottled up. He loved his children, paid his debts and got on with the job. Did his long and warm friendship with Mary Barker, a woman more simpatico than his stolid wife Edith Fricker, ever breach propriety? Probably not.

Yes, it's sadly difficult to take much interest in such a man.

He was born in 1774, the son of a draper who never prospered. Having been farmed out to wealthier relations, he was sent to board at Westminster, where his anti-Burkean, pro-Republican tendencies finally got him expelled. As an undergraduate at Oxford, he read Rousseau and Godwin, and hatched with Coleridge the socialistic doctrine of 'pantisocracy', which they planned to realise in a rigorously egalitarian commune on the banks of the Susquehanna river. …

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