By Seamus Perry
I frequently think: what was Coleridge doing at this time of the year? And his private notebooks often tell us. The Spring of 1802, for example, was a delightful one, and his eyes and ears were brilliantly alert, especially to birdsong: ‘The yellow Hammer sings like one working on steel, or the file in a Brazier’s shop’; ‘The Thrush. Gurgling, quavering, shooting forth long notes. Then with short emissions as if pushing up against a stream’. As the distinguished literary critic Humphry House once observed, no-one was better attuned to ‘by-ways beauty’ than Coleridge, not even Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose vivid, philosophical, quirky nature notes so often remind us of Coleridge’s. Which might be more than a coincidence, incidentally, since Hopkins and Ernest Hartley Coleridge, the poet’s grandson, were at school and then at Balliol together; and it is an intriguing possibility that E.H.C. might have shown his friend the notebook that has stayed within the family.
Like Hopkins, too, a delight in natural wonders often played itself against a background of deep if incoherent dejection. In the Spring of 1802 Coleridge’s thoughts were turning to childhood, not very happily. ‘N.B. The great importance of breeding up children happy to at least 15 or 16’, he wrote in the notebook, offering his own experience as negative proof of the principle: ‘when not quite well having all those uneasy feelings which I had at School / feelings of Easter Monday &c—’. What those might have been the notebook (which was, at least most of the time, for Coleridge’s eyes only) does not disclose; but it is tempting to think that they must have involved some painful disjunction between an outward festivity and a deeper private unhappiness. Easter was the season in the Christ’s Hospital year when the boys processed to the City, the philanthropy of which principally sustained the school, and Easter Monday, in particular, was the date of their annual visit to the Royal Exchange. Charles Lamb later recollected the sort of reception which the boys received:
‘the City at Easter, with the Lord Mayor’s largess of buns, wine, and a shilling, with the festive questions and civic pleasantries of the dispensing aldermen, which were more to us than all the rest of the banquet; our stately suppings in public, when the well-lighted hall, and the confluence of well-dressed company who came to see us, made the whole look more like a concert or assembly than a scene of a plain bread and cheese collation…’
Lamb’s account makes the proper noises while managing to convey a certain excruciating social awkwardness to the proceedings, one which we can imagine Coleridge shared.
Coleridge had not been bred up ‘happy’, and one feature of this, as he sadly recalled in ‘Frost at Midnight’, was his confinement within the cloistered space of Christ’s Hospital, where he ‘ saw nought lovely but the sky and stars’. Now, in the glorious Spring of 1802, he was witnessing lovely things a-plenty, and all in the enriching company of the Wordsworths and the Hutchinson sisters, with one of whom, Sara, he was falling in love: the world could not have assumed a more festive aspect. But, as Coleridge lamented in his long manuscript poem to Sara (dated 4 April 1802 though surely the work of more than one night that Spring) the outward delights worked only to show that in some crucial and deep-seated way he was not up to them:
In this heartless Mood,
To other thoughts by yonder Throstle woo’d,
That pipes within the Larch tree, not unseen,
(The Larch, which pushes out in tassels green
It’s bundled Leafits) woo’d to mild Delights
By all the tender Sounds & gentle Sights
Of this sweet Primrose-month – & vainly woo’d
O dearest Sara! in this heartless Mood
All this long Eve, so balmy & serene,
Have I been gazing on the western Sky
And it’s peculiar Tint of Yellow Green –
And still I gaze – & with how blank an eye!
It is a poem of great sadness, as goes without saying, but it is at the same time a poem of quite marvellous acuity: who on earth in English poetry had ever looked at a sunset like that before? In a very Coleridgean way, unhappiness becomes the precondition of something wonderful, which is no less vividly realised for being presented as sadly beyond the grasp of the poet. As with Hopkins, an alertness to nature’s wayward loveliness manifestly testifies to continuing powers and so brings with it an oblique kind of reassurance. A full consolation always turns out to be more elusive, but still you couldn’t say this was a poetry of hopelessness: hope is half-glimpsed, like the piping thrush, ‘not unseen’.
Seamus Perry is Tutor and Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford, and a Trustee of the Wordsworth Trust. He is the editor of Coleridge’s Notebooks, A Selection.