Updated: Mar 28
At something of a loss after finishing Lakota America by Oxford University historian Pekka Hämäläinen, I plucked Richard Holmes' biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and The Portable Coleridge from the bookcase and renewed my acquaintance with him. Of the major English Romantic poets I find Wordsworth and Keats most congenial, Coleridge perhaps least, never holding much for me, although I was taken with "Kubla Khan" when we read it in high school English class. Coleridge (1772–1834) is nonetheless a prominent figure in a tradition I claim at least in part as my own and quite a character.
In the chapter on his university years, Holmes relates that Coleridge lived "a kind of double life at Cambridge, his wild expenditure on books, drinking, violin lessons, theatre and whoring (he later described this as the time of his 'unchastities') alternating with fits of suicidal gloom and depression." Not a man of practical bent, ill-suited for the clergy or teaching, the career paths open to him by virtue of his education and background, burdened by debts racked up at Cambridge, on an impulse he enlisted in the Light Dragoons as Silas Tompkin Comberbach. This did not go well. He kept falling off his horse and proved good only for writing love letters for his fellow dragoons and cleaning out stables. His brothers were allowed to buy him out from his service commitment.
Coleridge was also a notable poet and essayist, voracious reader, student of language and philosophy in Germany, political radical, enthusiast for the French Revolution and a utopian scheme he called Pantisocacy, and indefatigable hiker, tramping the countryside fueled on bread, cheese, and brandy. The Pantisocracy plan envisioned a small, self-governing community of friends holding land and property in common for the use of all, men and women alike, laboring together for two or three hours a day, with a library of good books and leisure hours devoted to study, liberal discussions, and education of their children. In this he was joined by Robert Southey, a radical young poet who would grow up to be a crusty old conservative known today chiefly as an object of scorn in Byron's satirical verse:
Oh, Southey! Southey! cease thy varied song!
A bard may chaunt too often and too long:
As thou art strong in verse, in mercy spare!
A fourth, alas! were more than we could bear.
The babe unborn thy dread intent may rue:
"God help thee," Southey, and thy readers too. ("English Bards and Scotch Reviewers")
Poor Southey is subjected to further skewering in the dedication to "Don Juan."
Coleridge and Southey were to wed the Fricker sisters, Edith and Sara, emigrate to America, and set up their community on the banks of the Susquehanna. In Southey's rapturous vision, "When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticize poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough." The scheme foundered on disagreement over details—Southey proposed servants to perform manual labor; Coleridge dissented—fundraising that went nowhere, and Coleridge's flightiness as he was distracted by publication of his sonnets, prospects for a career in journalism, and other possibilities. Decisiveness and discipline were not part of his makeup.
Wildly impractical as the Pantisocratic plan was, it was one of a number of idealistic ventures of its type circulating at the time. Others were promoted by men as distinguished as the scientist Joseph Priestley and Thomas Cooper, who ended his career as president of South Carolina College and was described by John Adams as "a learned, ingenious, scientific, and talented madcap."
Coleridge and Wordsworth met in early 1795 and soon formed a friendship in which, writes Harold Bloom, "Coleridge gave Wordsworth rather more than he took, intellectually and poetically, but in return Wordsworth gave Coleridge something necessary out of his own massive (though still turbulent) emotional strength." Their collaboration on Lyrical Ballads, with a Few Other Poems, first published anonymously in 1798, marked a decisive turn in English poetry. The ballads included Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey" was among the other poems. In the estimation of Bloom, writing in 2004, "Historically considered, this remains the most important volume of verse in English since the Renaissance, for it began modern poetry, the poetry of the growing inner self." Before Wordsworth, Bloom writes,
poetry had a subject. After Wordsworth, its prevalent subject was the poet's own subjectivity. Before Wordsworth, any poet, professional or amateur, would in some sense choose a subject in order to write a poem. After Wordsworth, this is not longer true, and so a new poetry was born.
Bloom is typically interesting, and of strong opinion, on the relationship between the poets (I have not yet gotten to what Holmes has to say on the subject).
Coleridge's poetry influenced Wordsworth, and helped Wordsworth attain his characteristic mode. It is not too much to say Coleridge's poetry disappeared into Wordsworth's. We remember Lyrical Ballads (1798) as Wordsworth's book, yet about a third of it (in length) was Coleridge's and "Tintern Abbey," the crown of the volume except for The Ancient Mariner, is immensely indebted to Coleridge's "Frost at Midnight." Nor is there much evidence of Wordsworth's admiring or encouraging his friend's poetry.
Coleridge's poetic output was always erratic. Per Bloom, his best poetry was "all written in the year and a half in which he saw Wordsworth daily (1797–1798); yet even it, with the single exception of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, was fragmentary." Bloom concludes,
Prematurely aged [in 1816], his poetry over, Coleridge entered into one last phase as critic and philosopher, upon which his historical importance depends…It remains to ask, what was his achievement as a poet, and extraordinary as that was, why did his poetry effectively cease after about 1807? Wordsworth went on with poetry after 1807, but mostly very badly. The few poems Coleridge wrote from the age of thirty-five on are powerful but occasional. Did the poetic will fail in him, since his imaginative powers were always fresh.
My Coleridge project is still early stages, up to the age of twenty-two or twenty-three in the Holmes biography. Beyond that I rely for this brief sketch on I.A. Richards' introduction and Coleridge's letters in The Portable Coleridge and Bloom's introductions to Coleridge and Wordsworth in his anthology The Best Poems of the English Language. I am curious about what I will find in the poems when I return to them after a long absence. Even if they hold no more than I found in the past, I think the adventure will be worthwhile, maybe even a joy, and hope these introductory remarks convey some sense as to why I feel that way.
Harold Bloom, The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, HarperCollins Publishers, 2004
Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions, Viking Penguin, 1990
The Portable Coleridge, edited and with introduction by I.A. Richards, Penguin, 1950