Great Robert Southey Poems About Social Issues

You may not have heard of Robert Southey, but he was a fantastic poet who often wrote about social issues.

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black and white photo of Robert Southey

Robert Southey was a Romantic poet and a prose writer born on August 12, 1774, and he started writing at a young age. He published his first poetry collection in 1794, and he was the Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1813 to his death in 1843. His works reflected his political beliefs, which were initially radical but grew more conservative as he got older. He wrote about poverty, war, and more. (For a collection of some of his poems, click here.)

“The Pauper’s Funeral”

A pauper funeral is a funeral held for people who can’t afford to have one, or whose families can’t afford one. They are as basic as possible with no flowers, viewings, or anything we think of for a normal funeral. They still exist today, and they became more common during the first year of the covid-19 pandemic.

The speaker is sad that nobody mourns the dead pauper, no friends or loved ones or even strangers. The speaker does mourn for the pauper, but not because they are dead. The speaker mourns the life they must have lived, filled with hardships, poverty, and loneliness. Their fate, according to the speaker, was to be born into poverty and stay in poverty, a vicious cycle that is very difficult to break. At the end, the speaker bids the pauper rest, saying that their life’s troubles and struggles are now behind them.

Unmarked graves shaped like crosses in a graveyard

It’s not the fact that these types of funerals exist that’s the problem, but rather that they need to exist. Funeral prices are so high, and so many people live at or below the poverty line, that some families can’t afford to bury their loved ones. They have to rely on the government instead. Poverty is a vicious cycle, one that’s difficult to get out of. Pauper funerals are better than forcing the family to put out money they don’t have, but if you ask me, none of this should even be a problem in the first place.

“The Batte of Blenheim” (also called “After Blenheim”)

This was a real battle that happened in 1704 in Blenheim (now called Blindheim) in Bavaria (a state in southeast Germany). This happened during the War of the Spanish Succession. France and Bavaria lost against England, the Netherlands, and Austria. To learn more, click here.

In the poem, there is an old man and his granddaughter and grandson who live near where the battle took place, and it was probably set in the same time Southey wrote it in (1796). The grandson finds a skull and asks his grandfather what happened and what it was, and the grandfather tells them a bit about the battle. Deaths of women and children, burned properties and fields, dead soldiers rotting in the sun, etc. The children were horrified, and even the grandfather admitted he had no idea what good came out of the war.

Black and white photo of the Battle of Blenheim with smoke and soldiers fighting on horseback

Southey was strongly against war of any kind. He wasn’t against rebellion—he was in support of the French Revolution—but he hated war. I couldn’t find sources explicitly stating why, but based on the poem, I would suggest that he hates war because little good comes from it. Civilians become soldiers and die for a cause they may or may not believe in, other civilians are caught up in the war, places and property are destroyed, and those at the top rarely suffer from war’s impacts.

“Inchcape Rock”

Inchcape Rock is off the coast of Scotland, and it was responsible for many shipwrecks. Sailors could only see the rocks during low tide; during high tide, they wouldn’t know until it was too late. A lighthouse was built and finished in 1810 to help this problem. (This poem was written in 1802.)

This poem tells the story of how the Abbot of Aberbrothok installed a bell at Inchcape Rock to warn sailors of the rock when the ride was high. (It is unclear whether this is true, or just something Southey made up.) The waves would hit the bell, and the sailors would hear it and know to stay away. But one day, the pirate Ralph the Rover came and cut the bell away. It fell into the ocean and sank. Not long after, as he and his crew were sailing, a thick fog came in and obscured their sight. Then, their ship hit the Inchcape Rock, and sank, taking the crew with it.

Bell Rock Inchcape Lighthouse and the Inchcape Rock

The moral of the ballad is that people shouldn’t commit crimes or do anything bad to someone. If they do, bad things will happen to them in turn. It doesn’t happen like this in reality (I wish it did), but the message is still clear. Humans have committed crimes and terrible deeds since the beginning of our existence, yet we never seem to learn our lesson. Southey was trying to teach it here, but I doubt a poem—or anything else—would really change people’s minds. The sentiment is nice, though.

Southey was overshadowed by other writers, such as William Wordsworth, but his poems and other writing are definitely worth checking out.

For more on poetry, click here.