Robert Southey is probably still best remembered as a versifying turncoat, the most reactionary and least anthologized Lake poet. He owes this reputation to the reformers of his own day, who took it amiss when he renounced his youthful dreams of radical egalitarianism and appeared to exchange them for the £300 a year he made by scribbling Court-ordered odes as Poet Laureate. By the late 1810s, opposition M.P.s were scolding him on the Commons floor for urging the suppression of just the sort of republican sentiments that he himself had committed to paper in the 1790s. Byron memorably sent him up as an apostate hack:
He had written praises of a regicide;
He had written praises of all kings whatever;
He had written for republics far and wide,
And then against them bitterer than ever;
He had sung against all battles, and again
In their high praise and glory; he had call'd
Reviewing “the ungentle craft,” and then
Become as base a critic as e'er crawl'd–
Fed, paid, and pamper'd by the very men
By whom his muse and morals had been maul'd:
He had written much blank verse, and blanker prose,
And more of both than anybody knows.
Despite being the target of such devastating attack, Southey nevertheless has had plenty of defenders over the last century and a half. Most of them have stressed his consistent commitment to humanitarian interventionism. Cuthbert Southey established this far more positive critical tradition by stressing the reforms that his father had repeatedly advocated in print: reduction of child labor in factories; addition of Anglican churches and clergymen, especially in poor urban districts; public works schemes in times of distress; land allotments for poor laborers; cultivation of waste lands by paupers; reduction of the Bloody Code and of corporal punishment in the military, along with some of the more punitive measures enshrined in the poor laws and game laws; establishment of savings banks, emigration schemes, Protestant sisterhoods of charity, and, most importantly, a national system of Anglican, state-aided popular education.