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A Tory Transition

Robert Southey turned away from radicalism to become a great conservative.

By 2.12.07

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Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters
by W.A. Speck
(Yale University Press, 336 pages, $45)

A fascinating political conservative has been coming out from the shadows of literary history, and in the last twenty years he has finally begun to get the attention he deserves as British poet, historian, critic, and -- more particularly -- political activist.

Robert Southey (1774-1843) began to reemerge when Marilyn Butler reintroduced him as an important part of the canonical landscape through her 1988 lecture at Cambridge University, which appears in Rethinking Historicism: Critical Readings in Romantic History. Then Mark Storey's Robert Southey: A Life appeared as the first major Southey biography since Jack Simmons's Southey. In recent years, academic journals have included hundreds of articles about the simple, scholarly man who properly occupies a central place in early nineteenth century English literature and politics.

Now, in Robert Southey: Entire Man of Letters -- clearly the best biography of Southey ever written -- highly respected historian W. A. Speck offers an important new portrait of Southey as the "'most powerful literary supporter of the Tories,'" and the "missing link in the development of English Conservatism between Burke and Disraeli."

Southey began his literary and political life as a zealous liberal who embraced the French Revolution, yet less than twenty years later he became conservative in his political attitudes, so much so that he would be denounced by his liberal peers as an apostate; the critic William Hazlitt, in fact, excoriated Southey: "'His mind is after all rather the recipient and transmitter of knowledge, than the originator of it. He has hardly grasp of thought enough to arrive at any great leading truth. His passions do not amount to more than irritability. [ . . . ] Rash in his opinions, he is steady in his attachments -- and is a man, in many particulars admirable, in all respectable -- his political inconsistency alone excepted!"

Notwithstanding Hazlitt's attack, contemporary observers should see Southey's political transformation as one which anticipates the anecdotal quote mistakenly attributed to Winston Churchill: "Any man who is under thirty, and is not a liberal, has no heart' and any man who is over thirty, and is not a conservative, has no brains." Southey's evolution -- his embodiment of this aphorism -- is the heart-and-soul of Speck's analysis.

Speck -- in biographical writing at its best that is thoroughly entertaining and painstakingly researched -- organizes his presentation around three periods of Southey's life: "A morning of ardour and hope" (1774-1803); "A day of clouds and storms" (1803-1834); and "An evening of gloom closed in by premature darkness" (1834-1839). First, Speck covers Southey's years as a directionless student who nevertheless acquired an important lifelong habit as a prolific letter writer. Jack Simmons, Southey's earlier biographer said that Southey, "Beyond dispute and without qualification belongs to the great English letter-writers. . . his letters show all powers in turn at their height. . . . There he stands to the life: independent, irritable, generous, tender, kind-hearted, loyal -- above all, intensely human." In fact, Southey's voluminous correspondence becomes Speck's main evidence in reconstructing his subject's personal and political life.

Southey, during his adolescence, developed a political consciousness when revolution was convulsing France; at the same time, Southey was influenced by Rousseau, Gibbon, and Voltaire. Because of those influences, Southey's radical views began to emerge and harden, "for he now thought that both the Church and State were 'rotten at the heart . . . and should be hewn down and cast into the fire.'" Despite his attack on the Church, Southey would later object to Hume and Voltaire precisely because, in Southey's words, "'the man who destroys religion deprives us of the only substantial happiness.'" Characteristic inconsistencies in Southey's Liberal political attitudes had begun to appear in his late adolescence.

As an impatient student and a Jacobin sympathizer, Southey thought it "'rather disgraceful, at the moment when Europe is on fire with freedom -- when man and monarch are contending -- to sit and study Euclid.' Like many students during times of upheaval, Southey felt that the momentous events in Europe made his studies seem trivial." Southey would, however, again change directions within another year when he said that he "was not enamored of the Jacobins who, led by Robespierre, had seized power [in France and purged] the Girondins"; he would, though, mitigate his retreat from Jacobin sympathies by saying "'I can condemn the crimes of the French and yet be a republican!'"

It was also about this time that Southey became familiar with William Godwin's Enquiry Concerning Political Justice to which he was completely converted. "Southey admired Godwin's argument for rational political institutions, democracy exercised in small communities, and the eradication of anti-social behaviors through the application of reason. Southey said that he 'counteracted Rousseau by dieting upon Godwin.'" Speck points out, however, that even though Southey "never completely renounced the French philosopher [Rousseau], he was by the time of his early twenties offsetting his Romanticism [and revolutionary zeal] with a kind of utilitarian stoicism."

At about the same time, Southey became involved with Edith Fricker, a woman he would marry on November 14 in 1795. And in one of the most intriguing marital twists-of-fate in literary history, Southey -- through that marriage -- became brother-in-law to Samuel Taylor Coleridge who had married Edith's sister Sara on October 4 of that same year.

Southey became energized as he, Coleridge, and others made plans to establish a utopian Pantisocracy in Pennsylvania. Southey believed their community could be established "'upon the basis of common property -- with liberty for all -- . . . a republic of reason and virtue.'"

Their Pantisocracy, though, quickly ran into trouble. Coleridge and Southey were "temperamentally and intellectually very different." Coleridge was "unstable, erratic [and flawed with a] lack of will power" while Southey by contrast was "stable," iron-willed, and possessed of "a rigid discipline of hard work and productivity."

The more they planned, Southey became more disillusioned: "The dawning realization that Pantisocracy was a pipe dream woke him up to reality, where he had to face up to his future prospects and responsibilities." This realization and maturation was accompanied by a philosophical course-correction when Southey became disillusioned with Godwin: "'I had read and all but worshipped [Godwin, but] I have since seen his fundamental error, -- that he theorizes for another state, not for the conduct of the present.'"

As the fanciful Pantisocracy vaporized in the mid-1790s, Southey's and Coleridge's lifelong relationship would be marked by bitter alienation and uneasy reconciliations. There were times that the only bond that sustained their tempestuous friendship was the fact that they were brothers-in-law.

Southey's life in the final years of the 1790s and during his decades in the nineteenth century is the truly significant part of Speck's presentation. Readers follow along as Southey becomes acquainted with the most remarkable people of the era, a few of which included George Gordon, Lord Byron; Charles Lamb; Percy Bysshe Shelley; Mary Wollstonecraft; and William and Dorothy Wordsworth. Readers also trace Southey's development as one of England's most prolific and noteworthy writers of poetry, histories, and book reviews for Edinburgh Annual Register, Edinburgh Review, Quarterly Review, and Annual Review.

Quite remarkable in Speck's presentation are the ways in which Southey's political attitudes were undergoing constant readjustments. Southey eventually admitted that "'some years and some observations have modified many of my opinions,'" and by 1809 he "confessed that he had become more conservative. . . . As for his past political attitudes, he admitted they] 'were rather feelings than opinions . . . rather exacted by sympathy or provocation than taken up on enquiry and reflection, and in that state they might have remained if I had not been required to write upon subjects which made it necessary that I should look into them and examine their foundation.'" In 1811, Southey had finally concluded that the "'system of English policy consists of church and state, [ . . .and] they must stand together or fall together; and the fall of either would draw after it the ruin of the finest fabric ever yet created by human wisdom under divine favour.'"

Shelley, another of Southey's contemporaries who repudiated him, said that Southey "was no longer a radical. 'I shall see him soon and reproach him for his tergiversation. [ . . . ] He to whom Bigotry, Tyranny and Law was hateful has become the votary of those Idols in a form the most disgusting.'" Southey, by then a famous writer with important connections to the government, responded simply in 1812: "'When you are as old as I am you will think with me,'" and he said of Shelley, "'[He] is the very ghost of what I was at his age -- poet, philosopher, and Jacobin and moralist and enthusiast . . . His own heart will lead him right at last.'"

To see how the radical liberal became the thoughtful conservative -- a nineteenth century exemplar who is most instructive for observers of the twenty-first century -- spend a few evenings with W. A. Speck's marvelous new biography. You will see why Shelly and Hazlitt were so wrong, and you will see how and why Southey was ultimately so right!

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