On this day, Robert Southey, Wordsworth’s predecessor as poet laureate of England, is born in Bristol.
Southey began writing at the Westminster School in London. He was expelled for writing an essay condemning excessive corporal punishment, which he published in the school magazine. He managed to make it to Oxford in 1792, where he wrote poetry and hatched a plan with his friend Samuel Coleridge to start a utopian society in America. Their plans called for married couples to establish the society. To this end, Southey married Edith Fricker and convinced Coleridge to marry Fricker’s sister Sarah.
However, Southey left Oxford without taking a degree and abandoned the utopian plan. He went to Portugal and later published his correspondence as Letters Written During a Short Residence in Spain and Portugal. Back in England, he wrote biographies, translations, and journalism to support his family.
Southey continued to write verse when time permitted, including epic poems like Madoc (1805) and Thalaba the Destroyer (1801). Financially strapped, Southey struggled until 1813, when the support of Sir Walter Scott won him the appointment of poet laureate, which brought him a regular income. Although seldom read today, Southey was very popular during his time, both for his poetry and for his excellent biographies, including Life of Nelson (1813) and Life of Wesley, and the Rise and Progress of Methodism (1820).
Southey remained poet laureate until his death in 1843. William Wordsworth succeeded him.