Southey was never a 'marvellous boy', but he lived a boyish life in books for half a century, and Mark Storey's Life promises to solve a puzzle about his reputation: how someone so earnest and full of ideals could draw the loyalty of one generation, the livid contempt of another, and the nostalgic indulgence of a third, without any noticeable change of character. Almost all his verse is sensational writing for senses now defunct. Yet his lives of Nelson and Wesley are still impressive performances; and there is a morbid appeal in the eclipse of a career that spun out Thalaba, The Curse of Kehama, Roderick, Joan of Arc, and the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Adepts of cultural studies have found Southey the most open-minded of the Romantics, but the truth is that he was the most serviceable. He cast his eye in every direction, in book-making as in politics, and had the sincerity of a chameleon. Storey, a lively narrator with a mild partiality for his hero, throws down the gauntlet just once: Southey 'in his lifetime was on a par with Wordsworth and Coleridge - and not just because they were friends and neighbours'. To make a school you need a third, and Southey was the third Lake poet. He surely profited from the neighbourhood.
LRB 21 May 1998 | PDF Download