Robert Southey biography

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About Robert Southey

Robert Southey was born in Bristol in 1774 and died in Keswick in 1843. The son of a bankrupt linen-draper, he was educated at Westminster School and Balliol College, Oxford, which he left without taking a degree. He published his first collection of poems in 1795 and in 1813 became Poet Laureate, a post he held until his death. Southey was a prolific and influential poet, essayist, historian, travel-writer, biographer, translator and polemicist. His experimental poetry paved the way for writers such as Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and – later in the nineteenth century – Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson. His essays, histories and reviews tackled the issues confronting a period dominated by imperialism and industrialisation. His biographies, including the best-selling The Life of Nelson (1813), contributed to the formation of the celebrity culture we recognise today. Southey was, throughout his career, someone his contemporaries found impossible to ignore. He was frequently satirised and attacked for both his poetry and his politics.

Southey and his wife moved to Keswick in 1803 after the death of their first child. They lived at Greta Hall, which they initially shared with the family of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Southey’s brother-in-law) and the house’s owner William Jackson. Southey and his family quickly settled in. They became familiar figures to local people and Southey’s fame brought visitors from across the world to the town.

The Southey Family and Keswick: A Brief Chronology

Robert Southey's family tree
Robert Southey’s family tree

Robert Southey Timeline

1774: Robert Southey born in Bristol, eldest surviving son of a linen draper and his wife.

1795: Marries Edith Fricker, whom he has known since childhood.

1801: Visits Keswick for the first time, stays with the Coleridges at Greta Hall

1803: Southey and his wife move from Bristol to Keswick after the death of first child, Margaret. They are accompanied on their journey by Edith’s widowed sister Mary Lovell. They all move into Greta Hall, which they share with its owner (William Jackson), Mrs Wilson (his housekeeper) and the Coleridges. The Southeys do not, at first, intend to live permanently in the Lakes.

1804-12: Births of Edith May, Herbert, Bertha, Emma (d. 1809), Katharine (Kate) and Isabel Southey.

1806: Southey painted by John Opie, a leading portraitist.

1813: Southey is appointed Poet Laureate, and holds the role until his death. From 1813-23 writes an annual ‘New Year’s’ ode as part of his duties. These poems were not published at the time, and many did not appear until years later.

1816: The Poet’s Pilgrimage to Waterloo celebrates Southey’s life in Keswick and his family. Herbert Southey dies.

1819: Birth of Charles Cuthbert Southey.

1822: ‘The Cataract of Lodore’ finished. Published 1823.

1826: Death of Isabel Southey. Edith Southey’s mental and physical health deteriorates.

1834: Edith Southey experiences a mental health crisis.  She is taken by Southey to ‘The Retreat’, a progressive Quaker-run asylum in York.

1835: Edith Southey returns home uncured and is cared for at Greta Hall by her family.

1837: Edith Southey dies. ‘The Three Bears’ published in The Doctor.

1839: Southey marries Caroline Bowles, an old friend and fellow writer. Shortly afterwards his health collapses. He spends his final years incapacitated, probably with a form of dementia.

1843: Southey dies and is buried in Crosthwaite churchyard. The family give up their tenancy of Greta Hall shortly afterwards.

1864: Death of Kate Southey, the last member of her family to live in Keswick.

Greta hall by John Rothwell
An imagined interior of Greta Hall, John Rothwell

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