Southey, Robert

A prolific author, closely associated with Wordsworth and Coleridge, he was the first outside Methodism to publish a biography of John Wesley (1820). J.G. Lockhart in the Quarterly Review deemed the subject 'unworthy of the labours of the Poet Laureate'. R.P. Heitzenrater describes him as 'a truly cultivated biographer and literary light with an audience that no Methodist could have commanded'.

He describes Wesley as 'a man of great views, great energies, and great virtues', but an 'enthusiast' of 'a voracious credulity' who 'spread superstition as well as piety'. He also accused Wesley of ambition, but later was persuaded by Alexander Knox's 'Remarks' to withdraw the charge in a letter reproduced in George Smith's History of Wesleyan Methodism (2nd edn., vol.1 p.602). At the request of the 1821 Conference Richard Watson wrote and published his Observations on Southey's portraiture of Wesley, which later formed the basis for his own biography (1831).


'Perhaps you may have heard that I am writing (in truant hours, and yet with great diligence) a life of Wesley. It will be upon such a scale as to comprise a view of our religious history during the last fourscore years. I remember Wesley well: he laid his hands upon me when I was about six years old and blest me. It was a chance meeting: I was going up the stairs of a lodging house at Bath, when he came out of one of the rooms, and was struck wih my appearance...'

'I cosider [Wesley] as the most influential mind of the last century - the man who will have produced the greatest effects, centuries or perhaps milleniums hence, if the present race of men should continue so long. The early excesses of Methodism I can account and allow for; I admire his tolerant and truly Catholic spirit; and I accord so far with his opinions as they are expressed in his later years, that where he goes beyond me in his belief, I feel a conviction it is because I have not yet advanced far enough.'

Robert Southey to William Wilberforce, 10 December 1817 and 3 January 1818, in The Correspondence of William ilberforce (1840) vol ii, pp.388,-40

'Southey's Life of Wesley being spoken of in terms of reprobation, as giving a false impression of Methodism and its founder, Mr. Drew observed, "Though Dr. Southey's book may be a burlesque, or a caricature, I believe it has done Methodism good service. Through the Laureate's work, the tenets of Methodism have found their way into circles previously inaccessibe; and his picture, though distorted, is far less hideous than the monstrous creations of fancy which it helped to dispel." '

Life of Samuel Drew by his eldest son (1834), p.495

'The recurrent theme in [Watson's] critique [of Southey], contrary to the judgment of Lockhart, is that Southey was totally unqualified for the task of writing a biography of Wesley, the Poet Laureate's mind being "but slenderly furnished" with the theological principles necessary to such an undertaking. Watson's assumption was a transparent reiteration of earlier attacks on Hampson, Whitehead and Priestley: only a Methodist (and a "good" one at that) is qualified to write a proper biography of the founder. Watson recognizes Southey's literary skills, his intended impartiality, and even his occasional inclination towards praising Wesley. But the critic observes finally that "the Wesley of Mr. Southey is not, in several of the most important characteristics, Mr. Wesley himself". The "real" John Wesley, he thought, had eluded the non-appreciative mind of the poet.'

Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (Nashville, 1984) II p.176

  • Alexander Knox, 'Remarks on the Life and Character of John Wesley', in Robert Southey, The Life of Wesley and the rise and progress of Methodism (Oxford, 1925) II pp.338-72
  • Richard P. Heitzenrater, The Elusive Mr. Wesley (1984), vol. 2 pp.174-6
  • Samuel Rogal, 'Southey's Biography of John Wesley Revisited', in Methodist History, 41:3 (April, 2003) pp.103-16