As the first substantial biography of Robert Southey to be published since Jack Simmons' Robert Southey (1945) and Geoffrey Carnall's Southey and His Age (1960), Professor Mark Storey's Robert Southey: A Life is a welcome addition to the modest collection of modern criticism on the Poet Laureate. For a long time, Southey has figured as the one amongst the Romantic poets mentioned by scholars as deserving more serious attention, but few have bothered to tackle him, not least because the sheer volume of his writings (most of which are now regarded as second-rate). In his biography, Storey makes a valiant attempt to marshal the wealth of material on Southey, both published and unpublished, into a coherent portrait of the man. Southey emerges as a character of contradictions: worthy but unlovable to all but his most intimate friends; generous to some but severely judgmental to others; a man who did not know himself as well as he ought.
The biography follows Southey through his boyhood in Bristol and Bath, where he lived with his formidable Aunt Tyler who, despite her peculiar habits, did possess the merit of introducing the young boy to the world of the theatre. Escaping from the suffocating confines of Aunt Tyler's home, Southey attended school, first in Bristol and then as a pupil of Westminster School in London - the latter from which he was expelled for writing articles in the school magazine against the practice of flogging. With this notoriety hanging over him, he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, in 1792, his own rebellious schoolboy interests rapidly developing into a wider concern for the great events then taking place across Europe. By this time, poetry was already a passion and now became a means by which to express his thoughts and feelings. Fired with revolutionary enthusiasm, Southey recognized a kindred-spirit when he met Coleridge in 1794; the two quickly concocted plans for literary collaboration and for the ambitious scheme to emigrate to America which they called Pantisocracy. The plan was to fail, but not before Coleridge and Southey had married their prospective fellow-colonists, Sarah and Edith Fricker. On the day of his marriage in 1795, Southey set sail - alone - for Portugal to try to find a direction for his future life in the home of his uncle, Herbert Hill. The success of his poem, Joan of Arc , published whilst he was abroad, settled him in the course he was to follow for the rest of his days: that of a professional writer. A few more events mark out Southey's life: another spell in Portugal (with Edith this time), the move to Keswick in 1803, and the tragic deaths of a number of his children, his wife's decline and the late flowering of romance with his second wife, Caroline Bowles. Otherwise the rest of Southey's life can be told as a history of his publications as a poet, historian and reviewer for the Quarterly and it is upon these that Storey concentrates, trying to find a key to understand the man in his letters and published works.
Storey's biography is of value not only too those interested in this intriguing personality: those wishing to understanding the wider literary and political world of age of Romanticism could not find a better starting point because Southey - thanks to his friendships and political activities - provides an excellent entree to multifarious aspects of this world. As Storey notes in his preface, "[w]hen Hazlitt spoke of Southey's "fierce extremes', he could have been speaking of the first thirty years of the century. For this reason, much of the narrative of this biography concerns Southey's varied life as a writer, trying to trace the growths and shifts in his ideas, placing them in as detailed a context as is possible, whilst recognizing in his clockwork-like existence he is, one minute, writing a romance, like The Curse of Kehama , and, the next, considering the problems of the Corn Laws.' The biography's greatest strength is its comprehensive scope giving a full sense of the range of activities in which Southey was involved and his engagement with the current literary and political issues of his day.
In addition to the biographical narrative that provides the structure underlying the book, Storey also addresses the question of Southey as a writer of both prose and poetry, paying particular attention amongst the poetry to the narrative poems. However, taking into account the neglect of Southey's work for over a century, there is a strong case to be made for more space to be given over to this subject and the biography would have been all the more richer for developing the arguments Storey begins to make on behalf of the poems. For example, he makes the observation that '[t]he very idea of the quest [in Thalaba ], of the avenging demon, is central to much Romantic poetry, and, as with so much else, Southey is in there at the start.' And there the argument rests. One feels that Storey only has time to dip his toe into these interesting waters before rushing on to the next stage of the story. Yet even a brief discussion is better than no discussion at all and Storey should be given credit for trying to bring the neglected virtues of Southey's poetry into the mainstream of criticism of Romantic poetry in general.
Coming to the end of the biography, one is left with the sense of a competent and comprehensive study, a useful reference work on an interesting and central literary figure of Romanticism. However, this is not the book to arouse the sleeping interest of critics as to Southey's merits as a creative writer, but rather confirms the impression of his importance as an adjutant to others and as a representative figure of his age. But perhaps this biography was not the place to tackle the difficult task of dragging Southey's literary reputation back from oblivion and giving him even a fraction of the attention that has been paid to the works of his poet-friends. Yet from the glimpses that Storey does give us of Southey the poet, it is clear that this is an argument waiting to be made: Southey is far more interesting than critical consensus allows, often being the first to bring into circulation ideas central to the works of other romantic poets, which, more often than not they got from him - be they his friends, such as Coleridge, or his enemies, such as Byron and Shelley. Judging by the library shelves groaning under the weight of criticism on Wordsworth and Coleridge and light with the paucity of material on Southey, this is one book yet to be written.