A Dreadful Brotherhood

On the 12th August 1774 the poet Robert Southey was born. He was a contemporary of William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge and was associated with the Romantic movement. The Romantic poets were chiefly known for their emphasis upon the virtue of sentiment but they were also driven by the necessity to liberate the individual human spirit from oppressive convention.

Wordsworth and Coleridge were initially enthused by the radical political movements that were engulfing continental Europe. Wordsworth was sufficiently inspired to visit France in 1791 after reading about the revolution. Coleridge and Southey were radicalised at University. This atmosphere of social tumult had begun to filter through the gilded halls of academia, and it shaped the literature that they created.

Coleridge and Southey collaborated on a project which later became a play called “The Fall of Robespierre”. Robespierre was portrayed as the proud, defiant leader of a vanguard that toppled the despots and the tyrants of the ancien regime. However their idealistic vision was soon tarnished by the harsh realities of a country torn from its roots, as France descended into chaos and terror.

The new French Republic cleansed the supposed superstitions of the past in the most callous and deadly way possible, under the unforgiving blade of the guillotine. Wordsworth believed that he could start a new life in France. He had high hopes for his burgeoning relationship with Annette Vallon and their daughter but the situation ultimately became too dangerous and he was forced to return home and leave both of them behind.

Wordsworth`s contemporaries also found themselves disillusioned by revolutionary politics and began to appreciate the traditions and institutions of England. Southey became the most conservative writer out of all three as his poetry echoes the maxim so memorably uttered by Edmund Burke that there is an unspoken pact between the people of the past, present and future.

There is an inherent conservatism within Romantic poetry. The poems immortalise the beauty of the past and impress upon us the value of preserving it for future generations. The poems also reflect a distinctly English sensibility, a sensibility made much more potent after the foment of the French Revolution.

However this country maintained a level of stability that contrasted starkly with the rest of Europe. In the early twentieth century, the German historian Otto Hintze made the wry observation that the English were a set of living fossils dependent upon an ancient feudal system that had largely vanished on the continent.

Southey lived the remainder of his life on a £300 a year pension, a gift from the Conservative prime minister Sir Robert Peel who was a long admirer of his work. He died in 1843.

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