Of the Lake triad Robert Southey was the worst poet and the best man. He was born at Bristol, son of a clothier; but from that mercantile environment his wealthy aunt, Elizabeth Tyler, often borrowed him to be polished in the genteel society of Bath. At fourteen he was sent to the prestigious Westminster School in London, where, doubtless surreptitiously, he read Voltaire, Rousseau, Gibbon, and Goethe’s Werther, and wrote some epic poetry and rebellious prose. His attack upon corporal punishment, in the school magazine called The Flagellant, infuriated the headmaster, who felt that he had been disarmed. Robert was expelled just as graduation neared, but somehow he was admitted into Balliol College, Oxford, in December, 1792. There he continued his secret operations—writing an epic, Joan of Arc, in which he praised the French Revolution. He was engaged upon a verse drama about Wat Tyler, the English revolutionist of 1381, when Coleridge arrived.
The older found the younger man in a brown study, for Robespierre had sent the lustiest leaders of the Revolution—Danton and Desmoulins—to the guillotine; were the Rights of Man ending in competitive homicide? Coleridge comforted him: Europe, he explained, was decadent, worn out with history; but every week or so, from Southey’s native Bristol, a ship sailed to an America spacious, fertile, and republican. Why should not Coleridge and Southey organize a group of stout English lads and lasses, get them soundly married, migrate with them to Pennsylvania, and set up a communal colony on the lovely shores of the Susquehanna’s unpolluted stream? All that was necessary was that each male should contribute £125 to the common fund. Each couple should have an equal voice in ruling the colony, and so Coleridge named it a “pantisocracy.”
To raise their own shares of the cost the two founding fathers joined in writing a verse drama, The Fall of Robespierre; it was published, but had no sale. Southey sold Joan of Arc to Cottle of Bristol for fifty guineas. The degreeless graduates lectured in Bristol, and earned enough to raise Southey to proposal point; Edith Fricker accepted him, and they were married (November 14, 1795). Edith’s sister Mary had already accepted Robert Lovell and pantisocracy. Now, said Southey, it was extremely desirable that Coleridge should love and marry the third sister, Sara.
When Elizabeth Tyler disowned him as lost to gentility by his lowly marriage and subversive ideas, Southey accepted an invitation to visit Lisbon as companion to an uncle who was chaplain to the British Embassy there. The trip broadened the young pundit’s borders; he traveled in Spain as well as Portugal; when he returned to England (May, 1796) he discovered that he loved it, and pantisocracy faded with his youth. He studied law, found work as a journalist, and time to write more unmemorable epics, and some famous ballads, like “The Battle of Blenheim.” In 1803, armed with a friendly annuity of £160, he settled down in Greta Hall, Keswick, hardly suspecting that he would stay there to the end of his life.