Robert Southey (1774-1843) isn’t perhaps as well-known as his famous English romantic poet counterparts, Wordsworth and Coleridge, but he still had an important role to play in the nation’s poetic landscape.
Despite his fall into obscurity today, Southey was a celebrated poet in his time and established an experimental writing partnership with Coleridge. He was also much admired by Sir Walter Scott, who, in 1835, helped him become Poet Laureate.
His poetry is, however, sadly side lined these days and his best-known poems, ‘My Days Among the Dead are Past’, ‘After Blenheim’ and ‘The Inchcape Rock’, are rarely read.
But Southey’s prose style made him popular in his day, regardless of being much denigrated by Byron, and is still regarded as masterly in its ease and clarity. He is particularly lauded for his biographies of Nelson and Wesley, and his numerous letters that provide a detailed picture of his friends and surroundings.
He was also the first writer to put pen to paper to record a version of the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, which remains popular with children even today.
In 1799, Southey travelled to Lynton, via Porlock, and stayed at Lynton. He wrote journals and letters in praise of the town, which were used extensively by the residents to gain publicity for the area’s burgeoning tourism industry.
His described the area in likeness to Switzerland and it was nicknamed ‘The English Switzerland’, which in turn sparked off a trend for Swiss-style buildings.
The towns were often called ‘England’s Little Switzerland’ and this can be attributed to Southey rather than Shelley, who is often wrongly credited for this. He wrote from Lynton: “Here we are in certainly the most beautiful spot in the West of England.”
Southey also visited Dunster, which is near us, and described it as: “One of the finest scenes in the West of England. From here the sea view is very striking. Minehead stands under a headland which projects boldly. This seat is said to command one of the finest views in England. If the water were clear and boundless I should think so.”
Later he wrote to his brother: “Tom, you have talked of Somersetshire and its beauties but you have never seen the finest part. The neighbourhood of Stowey, Minehead and Porlock exceed anything I have seen in England before…If only beauty of landscape were to influence me in choice of residence, I should at once fix on Porlock.”
He also wrote of the Valley of Stones, which we know today as the Valley of the Rocks, which he said was ‘one of the greatest wonders in the West of England.’
Southey was also extremely fond of Exmoor and called it: “A land of recollections…wherein I am well pleased as I can be anywhere but at home.”
You can find out more about Robert Southey here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/robert-southey