Robert Southey was Bristol’s most illustrious poet. Born in Wine Street in 1774 originally he was a radical and used to go against the establishment at every opportunity, for which he was fined two shillings and ordered to use the public conveniences in future. Southey was educated at the prestigious Westminster School. However his radical bent soon came to the fore and he wrote an article in an influential magazine which condemned the humiliating practice of flogging at the school. The headmaster was livid and permanently expelled Southey instantly; and undeterred he still went ahead with the jumble sale in the school grounds.
Southey was held in the same esteem as Byron, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge; but his reputation did not endure as long because whereas those poets remained radical, Southey became conservative. In 1813, for instance, the Government in an attempt to cleanse the salacious image of poetry, presented Southey with the task of cleaning it up and conferred upon him the title of Britain’s Poet Launderette, which Southey proudly retained until his death in 1843. It brought him more kudos, but he never seemed to possess any loose change thereafter.
Southey took the responsibility of his appointment very seriously and was determined to clean-up poetry in the UK. He decided to commence by inviting all the leading lights in the field to Bristol to lecture them upon the subject. Although many argued that he could’ve made a start by painting over the walls at the Coach Station in the Horsefair. Keats, Shelley, Byron and Coleridge duly visited Southey. These men were like The Beatles of their day and everywhere they went in Bristol they were accompanied by hundreds of screaming girls. Southey apologised for this and said that next time they came he would take them on a route that avoided all the back-street abortionists.
Southey impressed upon the poets the necessity to think of clean environments such as launderettes whenever they composed verse thereafter. Lord Byron, who was used to airing his dirty laundry in public, said that the type of launderettes he preferred had their washing powder imported from Columbia and the pipe-work from Turkey; but he would give it a bash. It was as a result of Southey’s initiative that some of the greatest poems in the English language were created. Here are some of them:
The Grime of the Ancient Mariner – Coleridge.
I Laundered Lonely as a Cloud – Wordsworth.
On This Day I Complete My Thirty-Sixth Rinse – Byron.
Gloves Feel-oh-Soapy – Shelley.
The Sleeve of Stained Agnes – Keats.
Dejection: An Odour – Coleridge.
The influence of Southey’s launderette inspired verse even extended into the early twentieth century with Rupert Brooke’s evocative The Sole Drier which encouraged many young men to enlist to fight for Britain in the Great War in the knowledge they would then get their washing done for them.
The most radical poets Byron and Shelley fell out with Southey big time for becoming a doyen of conservatism. Although they still admired his craft…Shelley would have admired it all the more had it been within arm’s reach when he drowned in Tuscany in 1822!
Southey although a great poet and biographer of such luminaries as Nelson, indeed he gave to the English language the word ‘autobiography’ meant to apply to biographies about the likes of Stirling Moss or Jackie Stewart, he is actually remembered now more for some of his rhymes and stories for children, such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears and What Are Little Boys Made Of? Although the latter did not help appeals for organ donations at various children’s hospitals. The one in Bristol, for instance, was inundated with snails, puppy dogs tails, sugar and spices etc. The head surgeon there was unable to save or enhance any lives through these donations, but he was able to establish a profitable sideline by opening a French Restaurant, a Confectionary Store and an Indian Takeaway.