By Andrew Mitchell.
THE MOVE OF DOROTHY and William Wordsworth to Alfoxden House from Racedown, to be near Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Nether Stowey, North Devon in 1797, signalled what has been described as the annus mirabilis of English Romanticism. Dorothy, on first meeting Coleridge, had described him as, “…a wonderful man, his conversation teems with soul, mind and spirit…”
Limitations to the co-operative capacity of both poets soon emerged. During one of their long walks together, usually with Dorothy ‘his exquisite sister’, they planned a joint poem on the murder of Abel. When it came to the composition, Wordsworth was unable to write to someone else’s ideas, whilst Coleridge demonstrated an easy facility. The Ancient Mariner, another jointly proposed poem, produced the same result, as detailed below.
A second limitation was the religious perspective of each poet. Coleridge, said of Wordsworth at the time, “…he loves and venerates Christ and Christianity – I wish he did more…”
A third limitation was Coleridge’s assumption, that in order to be a great poet, Wordsworth must produce a major philosophical poem, The Recluse. The poem was never written, providing an irritant to Coleridge, who regarded Wordsworth’s smaller lyrics as a distraction from the main purpose of Wordsworth’s creative life. It was a mental burden to Wordsworth and the source of a sense of failure throughout his life.
A fourth limitation was to be the personality of each poet, which on the one hand promoted the close association, but on the other, at a deeper psychological level, was to be a highly significant factor in the eventual breakdown of the friendship. To understand how personality came to be such a significant influence on their relationship, we must return to their childhood experiences.
BOTH WORDSWORTH AND COLERIDGE lost a parent at the age of eight. Wordsworth’s mother died of pneumonia in 1778, Coleridge’s father of a heart attack in 1781, just before Samuel’s ninth birthday. Ultimately, these events were to have profound effects on both poets’ lives. There was some shunting about of the Wordsworth children following their mother’s death, between maternal grandparents in Penrith and their father’s house in Cockermouth. Their father, John, was a regional agent for Sir James Lowther and on their father John’s death in 1783, his children were not only orphans but penniless. John Wordsworth had spent over £4,000 in pursuit of his employer’s business and Sir James, soon to be Lord Lonsdale, refused to honour the debt, resulting in a court case lasting years. The Wordsworth children became the rather unwelcome responsibility of grandparents and uncles. Dorothy was sent to Halifax to live with relatives, where she seems to have thrived, but missed her three brothers, William especially. The boys, William, Richard and Christopher, all continued at Hawkshead Grammar School, a well respected school, where Ann Tyson became their substitute parent, in what appears to have been a warm and caring atmosphere, which allowed William to roam the countryside at all hours of the day and night.
By comparison, the effects of Coleridge’s father’s death were to be more profound. Samuel was the youngest of eleven children. Some of his older brothers had already grown up and left home. His father had been both vicar and school headmaster at Ottery St Mary in Devon. With the loss of his father’s position and income the family finances became precarious. Samuel was found a place at Christ’s Hospital School in London, a foundation for the sons of needy clergymen, where he met Charles Lamb. From that time on, Coleridge retained a deep sense of his bereavement and would refer to himself as an orphan. This perspective was reinforced by the refusal to allow him back to Ottery during summer and Christmas vacations. He seems to have visited only three to four times in nine years.
Both Hawkshead Grammar School and Christ’s Hospital School sent some of their brightest pupils to Oxford and Cambridge, but there the comparison seems to end. Hawkshead was a well regarded and humane school, whereas Christ’s Hospital was in the charge of James Bowyer, a sadistic flogger of his pupils. Samuel Coleridge was already exhibiting mood swings, between being withdrawn and wildly exuberant. William Wordsworth was inclined to be perverse and stubbornly self willed, which exasperated his uncles. What distinguishes both of them at this stage is the respective freedom Wordsworth had to work out not only his education, but the intense visionary element of his countryside walks, within the confines of a secure home background which Ann Tyson provided with a positive and progressive school. His visionary introspection may also have been intensified by the death of his parents.
Coleridge had a much bleaker experience. He was discovered by Thomas Middleton, Deputy Grecian, a senior boy destined for Cambridge, reading Virgil for pleasure in the School cloisters. So far, Coleridge had spent his school days avoiding the attention of authority. Hearing of this episode, James Bowyer sent for him and flogged him. He was, from then on flogged to work to his capacity, with a place at Cambridge or Oxford in mind. The consequences were to be lifelong and masochistic. Coleridge submitted himself to authority figures, ostensibly willingly, but with deep inner psychic conflict for the rest of his life.
BOTH POETS WENT UP to Cambridge to different colleges at a time dominated politically by the French Revolution. Their experiences here begin to reflect real differences in personality. Puberty at that time, would on average have occurred at about sixteen to seventeen years, so adult personality was just emerging at the time they began university.
Crucial to an understanding of the relationship between both poets is an appreciation of their very different modes of thought. Wordsworth developed as an authoritarian thinker, the ‘sublime egotistical’, increasingly dogmatic, showing self-aggrandizement, paranoia and intolerance with increasing age. (See Milton Rokeach’s The Open and Closed Mind for psychological details of a theoretical perspective not dependent upon any particular political orientation.)
Wordsworth (Cambridge 1787-1790) initially excelled at his studies, but towards the end of his first year became disillusioned with the academic system, regarding it as corrupt. He had by then, also experienced the other side of Cambridge life, the drinking, wild parties and the prospect of women. He rejected both, coming to regard himself as ‘a chosen one’ and in his second and third years, followed what he later described as his own course of studies, including modern literature and by sister Dorothy’s reports, some knowledge of French, Spanish and Italian. The embryonic authoritarian trait which runs through his adult life emerges here, probably at least partly inherited as a characteristic, especially when realising that John Wordsworth, the legal representative of Sir James Lowther, who had spent £4000 on asserting his employer’s authority over North West England, was buried without a single friend to mourn him. The rejection of corrupt authority also provides an excuse for William to take charge of his own education. It presages other times of withdrawal during his life, when he becomes self-absorbed. Wordsworth took some exams at the end of his university days, but not the coveted Tripos, thereby leaving with a pass degree, much to the displeasure of his uncles.
Coleridge (Cambridge 1791-1794) immediately went round to meet Thomas Middleton on his arrival in Cambridge, establishing a continuation of school authority and demonstrating his dependent personality. With the benign support of Middleton, his first year there was one of brilliant academic achievement, including a prize for Greek poetry, much to the delight of his family. Middleton left Cambridge after Coleridge’s first year and with him went all prospect of continued academic success. Without the necessary authority figure, Coleridge was unable to function within the institution. He became distracted by social life both in Cambridge and London and participated in radical university politics including the defence of William Frend, a Jacobin supporter of the French Revolution. His life oscillated between wild extravagances and women on the one side, followed by remorse on the other. This behaviour typically represents bipolar mood swings, the most bizarre episode of his student days being his enlistment in 15th Light Dragoons. He hid from both family and debts for two months as Trooper Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, only to be unmasked by his correction of a passing officer’s misquotation of a Latin tag. Due to being saddle sore from limited riding experience, he was dispatched for a month to Henley Pest House to supervise the nursing of another dragoon who hallucinated with fever from smallpox. The whole event was, of course, followed by protestations of remorse and his family paid the £150 of debts between them, along with the fee of £40 for his army discharge as ‘Insane’. Despite this, he was within two months embarked on a walking tour of Wales, not with his nose fixed upon his books. Coleridge left Cambridge without completing his degree.
During this walking tour to Wales he met Southey in Oxford and they hatched the idea of twelve couples establishing a settlement on the Susquehannah River inland of Pennsylvania, to be known as Pantisocracy, from the Greek, pant/isocratia, an all governing society. The tall, self centred and domineering Southey was attracted to Coleridge, whose greater intellect and imagination had found someone to provide the authority figure he craved. Drawn into these plans were the Fricker girls and their mother. Southey was intent on marrying Edith Fricker, despite opposition from family who exercised control over his financial future. Another of the sisters, Sara became linked with Coleridge as part of these plans, though Coleridge also had a long standing friendship with Mary Evans, whose family had befriended him (one of many substitute families he became part of throughout his life) whilst he was at Cambridge.
COLERIDGE AND SOUTHEY ESTABLISHED their first commune in a single room in Bristol. Bristol businessmen and Unitarians were to become significant financial backers of Coleridge over future years and the long standing friendship with Tom Poole who ran a tannery business and lived at Nether Stowey, dates from this time. Coleridge vacillated for months over both Mary and Sara, finally writing and proposing to Mary who rejected him saying, ‘There is an eagerness in your nature, which is ever hurrying you into the sad extreme..’ Under the influence and according to Coleridge, the insistence of Southey he courted and would marry Sara Fricker (October 1795), destined to become one of the saddest extremes of his life. It was just a month before their marriage that Southey rejected and left the commune, married his Fricker girl and sailed for Lisborn. Within days, Coleridge met Wordsworth at the house of John Pinney in Bristol (September 1795). Besides their shared literary interests were those childhood experiences of parental loss, which would without doubt, have helped to create their close friendship.
Tom Poole found Sara and Samuel Coleridge an empty two room cottage at one end of the village of Nether Stowey beneath the Quantock Hills. In the garden at the back, Coleridge grew vegetables and kept hens and a pig. It was a very basic existence, with the days divided between writing and raising produce. Poole gave Coleridge access to his library, at his own house located behind the cottage. From here Coleridge published his first newspaper ‘The Watchman’, in an attempt to support his wife and family. Initially, the couple seem to have been happy. Though what Charles Lamb refers to as Mrs Coleridge’s attempts to curb his wanderings were not entirely successful.
Wordsworth had made two trips to Revolutionary France. The first was a walking tour soon after the fall of the Bastille. The second followed on from his Cambridge days, as it was assumed by family that he would take Holy Orders when he became twenty three. To fill in the gap he headed to Orleans in France and learnt French from Annette Vallon. They fell in love, she conceived a child and he left before the birth of his daughter Caroline, which probably occurred whilst he was in Paris during Robespierre’s Reign of Terror. On his return to England he had to ask his uncles for money to send to Annette. This further reduced his standing in the family and the curacy waiting for him at twenty three was withdrawn. He considered the army as an alternative career, as he held the belief that he was meant to command people.
Following a walking tour of the West Country with the Calvert brothers, William and Dorothy were allowed to use the Calverts’ home at Windy Brow near Keswick. This was the first time they had any kind of home together. Then the Pinney brothers offered them the use of Racedown Lodge, Dorset in 1795. They were to live here in almost compete isolation for two years, one of those periods when Wordsworth withdrew into himself. Some commentators suggest that he was on the verge of a complete breakdown which Dorothy nursed him through. This seems to be the place where he determined to make poetry his career. It was here that Coleridge came to meet them on 5 June 1797. He ‘leaped over a gate and bounded down a pathless field’ as Dorothy worked in the garden. Coleridge soon had them both at Nether Stowey, never to return to Racedown. Enquiries were made by Tom Poole and the Wordsworths acquired the rental of Alfoxden House, a short distance from Nether Stowey.
SOME OF THE MOST significant poetry of the English Romantic Movement was written between Alfoxden House, Nether Stowey and along the rivers and sea coast of North Devon. Between June 1797 and September 1798 the Lyrical Ballads were completed along with Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, The Ancient Mariner and the first part of Christabel. Dorothy, William and Coleridge often wrote as they walked. Even setting out at sunset to walk to the coast and watch the moon upon the sea, or following a stream down its watercourse to the coast. This was the time of Napoleon’s projected invasion of England and their activities were noted and monitored by a Home Office spy, who saw besides the portable stools they took for sitting on, their detailed reconnaissance of river, stream and sea, and heard their strange and sinister references to ‘Spy Nosy’ (Spinoza).
Coleridge’s attitude to his friendship with Wordsworth puzzled his friends; ‘Wordsworth is a very great man…..I feel myself inferior…’ Hazlitt on first meeting Coleridge described how, with his verbal capacity and adroit linking of diverse subjects his conversation, ‘appeared to me to float in air, to slide on ice’, as his stout body moved to his speech, eyes revolved and protruding lips smiled. He could hold any literary salon in awe. Hazlitt’s first meeting with Wordsworth suggests he was a very different person; ‘gaunt and Don Quixote like. He was quaintly dressed…something of a roll in his gait…a severe worn pressure of thought about his temples, a fire in his eyes..an intense, high forehead, a Roman nose, cheeks furrowed by strong purpose and feeling, and a convulsive inclination to laughter…He talked in a mixture of clear gushing accents, a deep guttural intonation, a strong tincture of the Northern burr.’
Tom Poole was to accuse Coleridge of being in ‘prostration’ before Wordsworth. The Wedgewood brothers, who had given Coleridge a £150 gratuity for life, echoed these sentiments, all three questioning the influence that Wordsworth was having on Coleridge. It took ten years for Coleridge to admit that this was a period in his life of ‘voluntary self-humiliation’. The authoritarian figure requires submissive helpers to execute their plans. Coleridge provided Wordsworth with ‘the material for much of his greatest poetry’ as Jonathan Wordsworth suggests. He did this as the submissive underling in the process of making Wordsworth a great poet. In return, the Wordsworths offered Coleridge the emotional support he craved and told him he had a great intellect and was a good poet.
When we examine the compilation of the Lyrical Ballads a further picture emerges. Coleridge was, at this time, in negotiation with the publisher Cottle to bring out a third edition of his poems. These were to include, This Lime Bower, Frost at Midnight and The Ancient Mariner which was still being edited. He had also just begun Christabel. Kubla Khan was probably already written, but no reference occurs in his notebooks to the date of writing (probably October 1797).
THE MARINER HAD BEGUN as a joint enterprise, on a long November walk, to which Wordsworth said he contributed the idea of the Wedding Guest, the death of the bird and the ship navigated by dead men. But he was unable to develop the ballad spontaneously as Coleridge then did, so it became Coleridge’s poem. If all this work had been included in Coleridge’s third edition of his poems, his reputation as a poet would have been secure; except that Wordsworth suggested a joint project with an anonymous title page, which would advantage him as he had published less. We do know that Coleridge declared to Cottle, “Wordsworth’s name is nothing – to a large number of persons my name stinks.”How far Coleridge’s self-abnegation before Wordsworth was a factor in publishing the Lyrical Ballads anonymously we will never know, but we do know that the consequences of this choice were to be far reaching, particularly for Coleridge. The significance of the Lyrical Ballads in the history of English poetry is not at issue here.
There were twenty-three poems in the first edition of the Lyrical Ballads. Of these, nineteen were by Wordsworth and four by Coleridge. Coleridge allowed his Ancient Mariner to front the anonymous publication, along with three other poems. These took up in total seventy pages out of two hundred and ten. Wordsworth included The Idiot Boy, The Thorn and Tintern Abbey. Despite the fact that Dorothy had some influence on the development of Coleridge’s Christabel and that the printer had already prepared some pages for press, there was a letter from Wordsworth unilaterally cancelling its publication in the Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge was left with a weakened third volume of poems going out under his own name, which received some praise. He would have to wait a further nineteen years before the various strands of his writing were brought together in published form in Sibylline Leaves. Coleridge was himself to comment on his contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, ‘..my compositions, instead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpolation of heterogeneous matter.’ By the year 1800 and the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was firmly in control. Names of authors appeared with each of the poems. Coleridge’s Mariner was relegated from the front of the book and contained a footnote which some critics believe Coleridge did not see before publication, indicating that Coleridge wanted the poem suppressed and that it had ‘great defects’; having an indistinct character who is only acted upon, events with no necessary connection, laborious imagery and a metre unfit for a long poem.
In 1796 Coleridge had a severe bout of neuralgia and used between twenty five and seventy drops of opium to contain the pain. The use of laudanum at this time was prevalent, without any real understanding of its consequences. Opiates cause both physical and psychological dependence. The physical dependence comes in the form of chemical changes to cell composition which makes any complete withdrawal of the drug both painful and potentially life threatening. Hence the contemporary treatments involving substitutes like methadone. Opiates block the synapses, connections between nerve endings.
KUBLA KHAN WAS MOST probably written at Ash Farm between Linton and Porlock in October 1797. It was, as Coleridge states, ‘the first occasion of my having recourse to opium’ for literary purposes. Developed from Purchas’s Pilgrimage (1616) the resulting dream sequence and poem was interrupted by the infamous ‘person on business from Porlock’. This, though, is unlikely to have been the full cause of the loss of the dream, as memory following drug intake is often distorted and specific to the drug induced state. What is more likely is that Coleridge was losing the effects of opium as his interruption from Porlock came to the door. His only recourse to retrieving the memory would have been to take another dose of opium, but this would probably have had to be a little stronger to achieve the same effect. Tolerance to opiates rises rapidly and this creates dependence in a very short time. What has to be asked is why Coleridge felt the need to take opium for creative purposes in the first place. The clue seems to be his statements about ‘the giant Wordsworth’ and the continuous creative pressure of Wordsworth’s presence. Needing to submit, but at the same time feeling threatened by this submission, he may have begun to use drugs to ease the pressure and continue to write. The result was not the creative outcome he had anticipated but, ‘disgust, despondency and utter prostration of strength’ as a result of the onset of opiate dependency.
Between 1798 and 1799 the Wordsworths and Coleridge visited Germany. The Wordsworths separated from Coleridge who headed for the university town of Ratzeburg and all the intellectual stimulation he could find. The Wordsworths stayed in Goslar, where they were cold and hungry through a bitter winter. Allowing for the conditions, Coleridge’s comment on their situation must bear some weight, Wordsworth ‘seems to have spent more time in writing English than in studying German – No wonder! – for he might as well have been in England as at Gosler, in the situation that he chose with his unseeking manners.’ The differences of approach to the German visit highlight both personalities. Coleridge, faced with a new culture embraces it and ends up going on a walking tour before returning to England. Wordsworth, homesick and alienated, sits in his freezing lodgings and dreams of the Lake District and childhood. Here The Prelude was born out of the rejection of a foreign culture. His state of mind was even paranoid enough for him to believe that despite their obvious poverty, his landlady was swindling them.
Upon their return, Wordsworth moved to Dove Cottage, Grasmere, and Coleridge to Greta Hall, Keswick. The closeness of the relationship was however being taxed by increasing differences. Coleridge at this time comparing himself to Wordsworth was to say that, ‘he is a true poet – I am only a kind of metaphysician.’ The increasing dependence on opium and the ascendency of Wordsworth prompt his statement to Godwin in 1801, ‘The poet in me is dead.’ It is the utter self absorption of Wordsworth which Hazlitt describes as, ‘nothing but himself and the universe – he lives in the busy solitude of his own heart.’ By 1803 Coleridge said, ‘I saw him more and more benetted in hypochondrial fancies, living wholly among devotees – having even the minutest thing, almost his very eating and drinking, done for him by sister or wife.’ Added to this was his wife’s sister, Sara Hutchinson, the idealised Asra of Coleridge’s poems, who also acted as scribe and amanuensis within the household. Coleridge was unable to face his own wife, though he adored his children.
WORDSWORTH ASCRIBED THE DECLINE of Coleridge’s poetry to the lack of a happy home background. Whilst this is obviously a factor, it represents a possible self-deluding excuse on Wordsworth’s part. Driven increasingly to opium and ‘strong drink’ with only the idealisation of Sara Hutchinson as his female comfort (she seems to have preferred Wordsworth and may have been his lover, a bedroom scene Coleridge thought he saw) Coleridge becomes an isolated figure, who leaves for the Mediterranean in April 1804, with the manuscript of The Prelude thrust into his hands on departure.
For both poets there were family tragedies with the deaths of children. In Wordsworth’s case, two within months and also Dorothy’s many years of senility, shaking him to the core. Gradually there came the slow, steady progress to the great poet status he desired, claiming, that with his four hundred sonnets he was the natural heir to Milton (The Prelude being published posthumously). Increasingly authoritarian, he even became a supporter of the reactionary Lowther family who had engineered his youthful poverty. A young John Keats, attempting to put a question to his hero, had his sleeve pulled by Mrs Wordsworth, “Mr Wordsworth is never interrupted.” On hearing from company, that the latest Waverley Novel was on Rob Roy, Wordsworth read them his poem ‘Rob Roy’s Grave’ and followed it with the comment, “I do not know what more Mr Scott can have to say upon the subject”. There was the dinner, long after the break-up of their friendship, where both Wordsworth and Coleridge were present, one at either end of the dining table. Crabb Robinson eavesdropped on both conversations, Wordsworth was quoting his own poems, Coleridge was quoting Wordsworth. Keats, for all his youth, summed up Wordsworth’s progress through the London salons as leaving an impression of “egotism, Vanity and bigotry.” With each successive collected edition of his poems, the printer would be bombarded with alterations, bringing all the poems into line with the present persona. So that early Jacobin work was ultimately transformed into Christian sentiment. After Southey’s demise in 1843, he became Poet Laureate and died in 1850 as the saintly poet of the early Victorian era, who talked religious principles with the incipient Oxford Movement.
For Coleridge lay a darker course. Before he left Grasmere, he was already a difficult person to accommodate into a household, with the constant craving for opium and the evenings of heavy drinking and late rising. He was to become the lodger in a string of households, many of which coped with his difficulties with saintly determination. The idealised and distant Asra seems to have remained his principal female muse, whilst many infatuated young men were drawn into his company, each in turn to be disenchanted, probably by his dependent habits and mood swings. His lecturing cycles were brilliant, a pattern for the age, but his writing devolved latterly into bouts of plagiarism. Yet, after the publication of many of his poems including Kubla Khan and Christabel between 1816 and 1817, his literary reputation became more secure. He lived perpetually in the torment that his own genius as a poet had been given to another man and in his nights he was pursued to the end of his life in 1834 by vengeful school masters, intent on flogging him, nightmares from which he woke screaming.
Andrew Mitchell is a poet, dramatist and broadcaster based in Sheffield. He is the author of Darwin – A Voyage of Ideas, a series of illustrated poems chronicling Charles Darwin’s life.
Also in The Fortnightly: Coleridge as a poet, by Edward Dowden.