Meanwhile, at Greta Hall and London, Southey, with his industrious but uninspired pen, supported his wife Edith, his five daughters (born between 1804 and 1812), and a fondly idolized son who died in 1816 at the age of ten. After Coleridge’s passage to Malta Southey took over responsibility for Mrs. Coleridge and her children. Even Wordsworth sometimes leaned on him: when William’s brother John was lost at sea (1805) the news threw the Grasmere household into such grief that Wordsworth sent a message to Southey begging him to come down and help him comfort Dorothy and Mary. He came, and “he was so tender and kind,” Dorothy wrote, “that I loved him at once; he wept with us in our sorrow, and for that cause I think I must always love him.”110
Vanity misled him for a while; he composed epic after epic, each a failure; the times were their own epic. He resigned himself to prose, and fared better. In 1807 he published Letters from England: By Don Manuel Alvarez Espriella, and put into the mouth of this imaginary Spaniard a strong denunciation of child labor and other conditions in British factories.
I ventured to inquire concerning the morals of the people who were trained up in this monstrous manner, and found… that in consequence of herding together such numbers of both sexes, utterly uninstructed in the commonest principles of religion and morality, they were as debauched and profligate as human beings under the influence of such circumstances must inevitably be; the men drunken, the women dissolute; that however high the wages they earned, they were too improvident ever to lay by for a time of need; and that, though the parish was not at the expense of maintaining them as children, it had to provide for them in diseases induced by their mode of life, or in premature disability or old age.111
The aristocrat’s conclusion on the English economy: “In commerce, even more than in war, both men and beasts are considered mainly as machines, and sacrificed with even less compunction.”112
Southey soon found that he could not live by his pen, much less support his dependents, especially in time of war, unless he adopted a more conservative line. The change was smoothed by a governmental pension of one hundred sixty pounds a year (1807), and an invitation to contribute articles regularly to the Tory Quarterly Review. In 1813 he raised his status both as an author and as a patriot by issuing his Life of Nelson—a clear and vivid narrative based on laborious research, and written in an eighteenth-century style so simple, clear, and smooth that it carries the reader along despite obtrusions of the writer’s natural bias in favor of his hero and his country. Nelson’s infatuation with Emma Hamilton is reduced from a decade to a paragraph.
Byron, Shelley, and Hazlitt mourned when Southey seemed to lower the prestige of poetry by accepting the laureateship of England. This distinction had fallen in prestige when Pitt (1790) gave it to Henry Pye, an obscure justice of the peace. At Pye’s death (1813) the government offered the post to Walter Scott, who refused it and recommended Southey as a deserving laborer. Southey accepted it, and was rewarded by an increase of his pension to three hundred pounds a year. Wordsworth, who should have had the appointment, remarked handsomely: “Southey has a little world dependent on his industry.”113
Byron, who was later to condemn Southey to obloquy and oblivion, spoke well of him after a meeting with him at Holland House in September, 1813: “The best-looking bard I have seen in some time.”114 And to Thomas Moore: “To have that poet’s head and shoulders I would almost have written his sapphics. He is certainly a prepossessing person to look at, a man of talent…. His manners are mild…. His prose is perfect.”115 But Southey’s evident anxiety to please the holders of wealth or power brought Byron into open war against him in 1818. The unkindest cut of all came when a group of rebels secured the manuscript of Southey’s radical drama Wat Tyler (which he had written in 1794 and left unprinted), and published it with joy in 1817.
Southey retired to Greta Hall, his library, and his wife. She had more than once neared insanity; in 1834 her mind gave way, and in 1837 she died. Southey himself gave up the battle in 1843; and then, by almost universal consent, and over his own protests, Wordsworth was made poet laureate.