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Rogue War Hero to Naval Role Model: Robert Southey’s Life Of Nelson (1813)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 26, Number 2, Winter 2011
pp. 180-198 | 10.1353/abs.2011.0012

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The Life of Nelson was completed this morning. . . . This is a subject which I should never have dreamt of touching, if it had not been thrust upon me. I have walked among sea terms as carefully as a cat does among crockery; but, if I have succeeded in making the narrative continuous and clear—the very reverse of what it is in the lives before me—the materials are, in themselves, so full of character, so picturesque, and so sublime, that I cannot fail of it being a good book.

—Robert Southey to Rev. Herbert Hill, The Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey

In concluding Life of Nelson, the popular biography of England’s most famous admiral, Robert Southey shifts from life writing to hagiography. Nelson, whose repeated signal victories over the French had made him a national hero, became a British icon of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The spectacular defeat of Napoleon’s navy in 1805 at Trafalgar proved Britain’s naval supremacy, guaranteed its safety from a long-feared land invasion, and, by claiming Nelson’s life mid-battle, assured the hero’s immortality as one of the worthies in the pantheon of British military history. With a shift in narrative voice from third person singular to first person plural, Southey, in the two final paragraphs of his biography, abandons narrative distance and speaks personally to his readers, effusing about how the hero “was suddenly taken from us” and how, until his death, “we had never . . . known how deeply we loved and reverenced him” (Life of Nelson 298, emphasis added). He describes Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar as “something more than a public calamity,” and, in his rousing final sentences, invokes the language of Catholic sainthood to describe Nelson as a “martyred patriot,” whose death in a “blaze of glory” could not have been brighter had “the chariot and horses of fire” been “vouchsafed” for his “translation” (299). In this important text, which has enjoyed lasting relevance, the soon-to-be Poet Laureate of England participates in the memory-making power wielded by biographers and creates a textual memorial to Nelson that treats, but largely understates, his flaws and that gives to readers a larger-than-life British hero. Publishing this work only eight years after the hero’s death and two years even before the conclusion of the wearingly long and fiscally draining Napoleonic Wars, Southey sought not just to register the collective public adoration for Nelson, but also to influence that perspective for successive generations. In this era of emerging nationalism, Southey argues that Nelson’s death made a forceful impact on the British psyche.

Ignored by a generation of critics, Southey himself has enjoyed increasing attention as scholars acknowledge his participation in many of the greatest political debates of his age: the French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the abolition of slavery, the Reform Bill, and the industrial age.1 The renewed attention to Southey, though, has not sufficiently considered the importance of Life of Nelson. Charles Mahoney, who, along with Kevin Gilmartin, has chipped away at a long-standing characterization of Romanticism as a monolithically radical period, studied Hazlitt’s response to the Romantic renegades relatively recently. Mahoney traces Southey’s “apostasy” from republican ideals, but he fails to identify the role that the successful Life of Nelson played as a catalyst for Southey’s Laureateship. Conspicuously absent among the recent essay collection edited by Lynda Pratt, which seeks to restore Southey’s position in literary studies, is an essay devoted to Life of Nelson. The importance of the biography was acknowledged by David M. Craig, who outlines the development of Southey’s political sympathies from the early days of the French Revolution to the end of the Napoleonic Wars and beyond. Craig points to Southey’s political shift around 1803 with the failed Peace of Amiens, and his newfound belief that Britain needed to marshal a military spirit in order to defeat France and defend British liberty. In that context, Craig reads the Nelson biography as a celebration of patriotism and an example of the profusion of naval hero eulogies, but he resists anything more than a surface...

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