The prolific poet Robert Southey had a very brief and bizarre parliamentary ‘career’.
With fellow ‘Lake poet’ Coleridge, the young Southey devised a Utopian philosophy they dubbed ‘Pantisocracy’. However, as the French Revolution soured, he gradually shed his radical views. Even so, he was the target of the more reactionary press, especially the Anti-Jacobin, founded in 1797 by Tory minister George Canning. These attacks further cooled his radicalism.
His support for war against France led him to write for journals backed by those who had earlier criticised his politics. Though Southey felt he remained true to his core values, and was initially wary of these journals’ government line, he was clearly shifting into that camp.
His poetry was parodied and his politics ridiculed by his rivals, especially by his former radical allies. He wrote in 1810: “every apprentice in satire and scandal for the last dozen years has tried his hand upon me”.
The prime minister, Lord Liverpool, appointed him Poet Laureate in 1813, which provided a platform for both his pro-establishment and anti-Catholic views.
In 1817, to his embarrassment, his enemies published his youthful radical play of 1794, Wat Tyler. Southey failed in the courts to stop its publication, and it became a best-seller. In March, during a Commons debate, the radical MP, William Smith, denounced him as a renegade, highlighting the political contrasts between his earlier and later works.
Southey wrote an open letter to Smith defending his beliefs, but the episode crystallised his reputation as a political turncoat. As the essayist William Hazlitt wrote in 1825: “He missed his way in Utopia: he has found it at Old Sarum”.
In June 1826, parliament again intruded in his life. While in Brussels, he was astonished to hear that, entirely unbeknownst to him, he had become an MP at the recent general election.
Back in London, he found an anonymous letter, whose writer declared himself “azealous admirer of the British Constitution in Church and State” who liked his recent Book of the Church. He was “anxious that Mr. Southey should have a seat in the ensuing parliament; and having a little interest, has so managed that he is at this moment in possession of that seat”.
The writer was identified from the handwriting as Lord Radnor, an eccentric peer who controlled the seat of Downton, Wiltshire. Southey was determined to refuse the unsolicited gift, and replied via a mutual friend: “A seat in parliament is neither consistent with my circumstances, inclinations, habits, or pursuits in life.”
He argued that his election was void on two grounds: that he held a disqualifying public pension, and did not have the requisite property qualification to sit in the house.
His election was greeted with surprise by the press and his critics. The Times declared on 20 June that his “introduction to parliament seems the last expedient of a restless and worn out spirit.” But Southey just wanted this unwelcome situation resolved when the new parliament assembled. He vowed not to use the postal franking privilege, despite family entreaties that he accept just one perk as a souvenir.
On his return to Keswick, he found that the local band “was drawn up in honour of my MP-ship… and the whole posse of the place had assembled to see what alteration dignity had produced in my stature and appearance”. He admitted that “this odd affair… keeps my name fresh before the public, and in a way too which raises it in vulgar estimation”. He wrote to a friend, Caroline Bowles (later to become his second wife): “As it gratifies my friends, it gratifies me, now that I have done laughing at it.”
When the house met in November, the speaker read out a letter from Southey, stating that he had been elected without his knowledge, and informing the house that he did not possess the requisite qualification.
Southey firmly resisted efforts by some friends to get him an estate sufficient to meet the property qualification. He claimed to be content with his life as it was, and unwilling “to sacrifice the blessings of leisure and tranquillity”. So ended the political career of Robert Southey MP.