Coleridge and Godwin: A literary friendship

by Pamela Clemit
‘No two persons can be conceived more opposite in character or genius than [Coleridge and Godwin]’, wrote Hazlitt in The Spirit of the Age (1825). He placed them side-by-side in his ‘Gallery of Contemporary Portraits’, as if to intensify each by the proximity of the other. In person and on paper, their differences drew them together.

Like most educated young radicals of his generation, Coleridge could not avoid Godwin’s bombshell of a book, An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793). Godwin began with Paine’s argument that the government was a necessary evil, but ended up arguing for its ‘utter annihilation’. Coleridge’s instinctive reaction was hostile. He openly criticized Godwin’s atheism and apparent immorality. By the end of the decade, as Godwin’s public reputation declined, Coleridge turned towards him.

Godwin’s idea of political reform was a good conversation: ‘The true instruments for changing the opinions of men are argument and persuasion.… If then we would improve the social institutions of mankind, we must write, we must argue, we must converse.’ He and Coleridge conversed frequently during the winter of 1799-1800, and corresponded for several years after that. Their letters stood in for a larger conversation, sustaining friendship at a distance, a friendship sometimes more intense and with different qualities to what was possible face-to-face.

By 1799, Godwin was no longer the purely rational thinker of the first edition of Political Justice. After revising his treatise (twice), he rejected systematic enquiry in favour of attention to individual experience, turning his hand to educational writings, biography, and fiction. He now acknowledged the role of sympathy and feeling in moral judgements. He courted Mary Wollstonecraft in 1796 and married her in March 1797, but she died seven months later (leaving him with two little girls to bring up). She converted him to her ‘culture of the heart’. After meeting Godwin for the second time in late 1799 (the first was in 1794), Coleridge wrote to Southey: ‘Godwin is no great Things in Intellect; but in heart & manner he is all the better for having been the Husband of Mary Wolstonecroft.’ Is it too much to suggest that, in Coleridge, Godwin found a person whose intellectual and emotional stature could fill some of the void left by his loss?

Coleridge had returned home from Germany in late July 1799 and had made various plans for future projects without settling to anything. However, his co-authorship (with Southey) of The Devil’s Thoughts, a poem satirizing contemporary moral and political hypocrisy, indicates the way his thoughts were tending. In September of that year he wrote to Wordsworth in terms that suggest his own desire to return to the public realm: ‘I wish you would write a poem … addressed to those, who, in consequence of the complete failure of the French Revolution, have thrown up all hopes of the amelioration of mankind, and are sinking into an almost epicurean selfishness, disguising the same under the soft titles of domestic attachment and contempt for visionary philosophes.’ By 27 November Coleridge had moved to London to make his own contribution to ‘the amelioration of mankind’ as a writer for the anti-ministerial Morning Post. Three days later he began visiting Godwin, the most prominent ‘visionary philosophe’ of the day.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, drawn by George Dance, 21st March 1804, The Wordsworth Trust

Both men were fascinated by, though never entirely at ease with, each other. According to Godwin’s diary, they met every few days from the start of December 1799 to the end of the following March, when Coleridge stayed at Godwin’s for three days before moving north to the Lake District. They both regretted the separation. Coleridge repeatedly urged Godwin to come and stay at Keswick. Godwin (having just returned from six weeks in Ireland) didn’t go, but lamented the loss of ‘the opportunity of engrafting your quince upon my apple-tree, & melting & combining several of your modes of feeling & deciding, into the substance of my mind’. He declared: ‘I feel myself a purer, a simpler, a more unreserved & natural being in your company than in that of almost any human creature.’ Coleridge attributed this to his ‘own ebullient Unreservedness’ and ‘the circumstance, that my affections are interested deeply in my opinions’.

The bond of affection never disappeared. Once Godwin was down, it was safe for Coleridge to support him.  ‘Every man in his heart is in favor of your general principles’, he wrote to Godwin in October 1800. By June 1801 he had come round to Godwin’s early rationalism: ‘your Retractations [in the second edition of Political Justice] have been more injudicious than the assertions or dogmas retracted.’ When he read the pamphlet, Thoughts Occasioned by Dr Parr’s Spital Sermon (1801), in which Godwin replied to attacks by former friends, he wrote warmly of Godwin’s dignity in adversity: ‘I feel remorse ever to have spoken unkindly of such a Man.’

Coleridge, perhaps because of his own intellectual changeability, appreciated the quality of Godwin’s mind: ‘To the World it would appear a Paradox to say, that you are all too persuadible a man; but you yourself know it to be the truth.’ He identified Godwin’s tendency to undermine his own arguments, finding ‘in whatever you published … some one outrageously imprudent, suicidal Passage’. Coleridge was probably thinking of the ‘one hateful Paragraph’ in Thoughts, in which Godwin declared that the death of a newborn child was preferable to a life in which vice and misery were the only checks to population, as Malthus had argued. But his comment also recalls one of the most audacious propositions in Political Justice. Given the choice of saving Archbishop Fénelon or his chambermaid from a burning palace, Godwin argued, the truly benevolent individual would save Fénelon, because of his superior value to humanity—even if the chambermaid were one’s wife or mother. Both propositions, wrested free of their contexts, entered popular consciousness as examples of Godwin’s inhumanity.

Godwin in turn was so drawn to Coleridge that he made notes on his life up to 1799 for a future biography. He was intrigued by Coleridge’s childhood precocity: ‘accustomed only to the conversations of grown persons, he becomes arrogant & conceited.’ The adult Coleridge ‘always longed to know some man whom he might look up to, by that means to increase his sentiment of the importance of our common nature’, a trait which the ‘all too persuadible’ Godwin may have recognized. Later he wrote privately: ‘I could write a character of Coleridge—the solemn—the superemphatical—the mass of immeasurable complacence in his own rare & unfinished conceptions …. Look to his writings—the Deeper he dives, the more absolutely beyond all comprehension.’

Coleridge made great plans for what Godwin should write, and offered advice on what he did write. In 1800, Coleridge wrote to Humphry Davy that he and Godwin agreed that ‘the Poet is the Greatest possible character’. In 1801, Godwin embarked on his massive Life of Geoffrey Chaucer, published in two quarto volumes in 1803. The work’s dual focus may be partly due to Coleridge’s advice ‘to make the Poet explain his Age, & to make the Age both explain the Poet, & evince the superiority of the Poet over his Age’. Godwin set out to portray the life and personality of Chaucer in terms of the totality of influences to which he was subject from birth. But at the same time, he endorsed a view of the ‘master geniuses’ of poetry as ‘seem[ing] to belong to no age, but to be the property of the world’. Coleridge later praised Godwin’s biographical design, which, he declared, ‘has given us if not principles of Aesthetic, or Taste, yet more & better Data for Principles than had hitherto existed in our Language.’

Godwin tried to reciprocate. He supported Coleridge the political journalist by introducing him to prominent public figures. On at least two occasions in the winter of 1799-1800 Coleridge accompanied Godwin to Horne Tooke’s famous dinner parties at Wimbledon, where he met the leading reformist politician, Sir Francis Burdett, among others.

In later years, when Coleridge was writing for the Tory Courier, he asked Godwin to arrange meetings with Henry Grattan and John Philpot Curran (‘the Fox and Sheridan of Ireland’). Yet Coleridge was more interested in their eloquence than their political views. In March 1811, anticipating dinner at Godwin’s with Grattan (‘a red letter day’), he remarked of the latter: ‘all his speeches are attested by that constant accompaniment of true Genius, a certain moral bearing, a moral dignity—His Love of Liberty … has no smatch of the mob in it.’ A few months later, he read the debates of the Irish Parliament in preparation for an evening at Godwin’s with Curran. He declared himself ‘so impressed with the distinction of Irish from English Eloquence, in Flood, Curran, and Grattan compared with Fox, Pitt, and Wyndham’, that he intended to write an essay on the subject. The essay never appeared.

For Godwin, the quality of his interaction with Coleridge arose ‘partly because we have thought a good deal of the same subjects; but not less because we have pursued dissimilar objects, & contemplated the same objects in a dissimilar spirit’. Though they drifted apart in later years, each left a permanent imprint on the mind and the writings of the other.

Pamela Clemit is Professor of English at Durham University and a Senior Research Fellow in the Faculty of English, University of Oxford. She is editor of The Letters of William Godwin, 6 vols. in progress (Oxford University Press, 2011-), among other things. Volume II: 1798-1805, which includes some of the letters quoted in this piece, appeared in 2014. 
Follow her on Twitter @Godwin_lives.