Literary Daybook, March 21

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors

Published March 21, 2002 8:00PM (EST)

Today in fiction

On March 21, 1868, Nautilus reaches the South Pole.
-- "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea" (1870)
by Jules Verne

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1843 Robert Southey died. Though not as well-known today -- and if known, more for his letters, or his biographies, or for writing "The Story of the Three Bears" -- Southey was England's poet laureate for 30 years, thought by some contemporaries to be of the same rank as Coleridge, Wordsworth and the other Lake poets. Other contemporaries, notably Byron, Shelley and William Hazlitt, thought him little more than a political hack and a hypocrite, and caused great controversy by saying so.

In their early 20s, Southey, Coleridge and several friends made plans to establish a pantisocracy ("equal rule for all") in America, in the form of an agricultural commune on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. Their soon-aborted vision included honest toil, shared property, a well-stocked library and wives; with this in mind, Southey, Coleridge and one other, James Lowell, married the three Fricker sisters. Southey was devoted to his wife and stayed so; Coleridge soon left his; Lowell soon died: The upshot was that Southey did end up living for several years in a commune of sorts, with all three sisters and their families in the Lake District town of Keswick, and with his honest toil required and given. Many who thought Southey got his laureateship by becoming "a sychophantic, meretricious, toady" who had "sold himself to the court" disregarded his need to make a living and his circumstances.

But the greater controversy was on moral grounds. As Southey got older and more Tory-minded (and Tory-funded) he became as enthusiastic for social order as he once was for pantisocratic experiment. This made Southey, according to Byron, not only one of the government's "dull hirelings" but one of a group of "venomous apostates" and "cold blooded assassins of freedom." When Southey went on to advocate censorship of seditious writing like Byron's, and to attack the Byron-Shelley "League of Incest," Byron satirized him mercilessly in "A Vision of Judgement." (To those unclear over the pronunciation of Southey's name, Byron would explain, "it rhymes with mouthey.")

Politics and moralizing aside, "The Cambridge History of British and American Literature" thinks the breadth and style of Southey's prose unequaled: "Such a polyhistor, for variety, for excellence of matter and for excellence of form, it may be doubted whether any other language possesses."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," e-mail Steve King.

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