Sunday poetry – Robert Southey

All I really know about Robert Southey (picture from here) is that when Charlotte Brontë wrote to him, sending some of her poetry & asking his advice on her following a literary career, he replied, “Literature cannot be the business of a woman’s life, and it ought not to be. The more she is engaged in her proper duties, the less leisure she will have for it, even as an accomplishment and a recreation.” Charlotte wrote on this letter, “Southey’s advice, to be kept forever.” Interestingly, she may have kept the advice but she completely ignored it, and thank goodness for that! This took place in 1837 when Southey was Poet Laureate, a long time since he was one of the leading Romantic poets, living in the Lake District, along with Wordsworth & Coleridge.

Two of his poems are in my anthology, one of which, After Blenheim, I remember reading in an anthology I had as a child. It’s a beautiful poem about the futility of war. It could be called After the Somme, After Gallipoli, After Balaclava, the sentiments are universal & how sad that we still have no answers to the question of why wars happen. Like the grandfather in the poem, when asked why the battle had to be fought & why so many men died, we’re still told “‘Twas a famous victory.” The poem is a bit long for me to type out here but if you follow the link to the picture above, you’ll find it there.

The other poem has no title. It’s a lovely meditation on the past, on friends & family who have gone before. I can almost forgive Southey his advice to Charlotte Brontë when I read it.

My days among the Dead are passed;
Around me I behold,
Where’er these casual eyes are cast,
The mighty minds of old:
My never-failing friends are they,
With whom I converse day by day.


With them I take delight in weal
And seek relief in woe;
And while I understand and feel
How much to them I owe,
My cheeks have often been bedew’d
With tears of thoughtful gratitude.


My thoughts are with the Dead; with them
I live in long-past years,
Their virtues love, their faults condemn,
Partake their hopes and fears,
And from their lessons seek and find
Instruction with an humble mind.


My hopes are with the Dead; anon
My place with them will be,
And I with them shall travel on
Through all Futurity;
Yet leaving here a name, I trust,
That will not perish in the dust.

5 thoughts on “Sunday poetry – Robert Southey

  1. You'll be pleased to know that Southey was actually one of the nineteenth century's foremost champions of women's writing. He was instrumental to the careers and reception of many women writers, including Lucretia Davidson, Maria Gowen Brooks, Caroline Bowles (whom he married towards the end of his life) and his niece Sara Coleridge. His letter to Charlotte Bronte has been woefully misinterpreted for the last 150 years or so – hard to believe, given the quotation, but 'business' is used in the sense of 'financially sustaining activity' rather than 'mind your own business' – and the 1830s was a bad time to make a living as a poet (and it was as an aspiring poet, rather than a novelist, that Bronte approached Southey). If you can get it, there's a lot more on the subject in Chapter 1 of The Literary Protegees of the Lake Poets by Dennis Low.

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  2. With regard to the misinterpreted advice to Bronte, “even as an accomplishment and a recreation” would appear to suggest he is saying that women do not even have the time to write as a hobby? However, his later actions do seem to contradict this. Perhaps he championed female writers of whose circumstances he was aware, knowing that they could afford to make writing their “business”, whereas he was cautious about encouraging a stranger like Bronte to set her sights on a poetic career? Even today, perhaps even more so today, I could imagine any poet approached by a young person for advice on pursuing poetry would encourage the creative aspiration whilst sounding a cautious note about its remunerative prospects.

    On a more frivolous note, do you know if Southey is supposed to be pronounced sow-v (as in cow), suv-v (as in dove) or south-e (as in the compass point)?

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  3. There's no financial constant when it comes to women writers that Southey (I'm with 'cow') championed: Caroline Bowles was on the brink of losing her home when she first wrote to him, and had no source of income available to her other than her poetry; Maria Gowen Brooks was a wealthy widow with a plantation in Cuba. Interestingly, on another occasion, Charlotte Bronte's brother wrote to Caroline Bowles asking for advice about publication…

    As for the encouragement you want from Southey to give Bronte, take a look at the end of his letter which makes your point exactly:

    “But do not suppose that I disparage the gift which you possess; nor that I would discourage you from exercising it. I only exhort you so to think of it, and so to use it, as to render it conducive to your own permanent good. Write poetry for its own sake; not in a spirit of emulation, and not with a view to celebrity; the less you aim at that the more likely you will be to deserve and finally to obtain it. “

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  4. Thanks for the additional information on Southey. I've come to him through my reading about Charlotte Bronte so I've accepted Charlotte's interpretation of his words that women's proper business was as a wife & mother. I'm sure he gave many aspiring poets the same advice. Very few poets in any century made a living from it, the Brontes failed dismally. David, I've always pronounced it Suth-ee, not sure if this makes sense but I can't work out how else to write it! Not like any of your suggestions, though.

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