Coleridge and the Pantisocratic pipe-dream

by Simon Court

One of the more spectacular experiments to emerge from the early Romantic movement was the idea of “Pantisocracy” which was the brain-child of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, assisted by his fellow poet and friend Robert Southey, who with youthful enthusiasm devised in 1794 a highly ambitious utopian scheme for an egalitarian society. Akin in many ways to setting up a hippie commune in the 1960s, the intention was to abandon the prejudices and constraints of life in England and, armed with the principle of anarchy and the assumption of human perfectibility which had been recently articulated by William Godwin in Political Justice, establish a community on the banks of the Susquehanna River, Pennsylvania. That the project came to nothing, and remained confined to the purely theoretical, may be unsurprising, but its failure came at a heavy personal cost to Coleridge, and cast a shadow over the rest of his life.

In 1794, Coleridge, a twenty-one-year old studying at Jesus College, Cambridge, set out on his first walking tour and, on arriving in Oxford, first met Robert Southey in his rooms at Balliol College. Southey, a tall, forbidding and idealistic twenty-year-old, was studying anatomy, and had already become well-known for his radical republican and atheistic views. They took to each other instantly, discussing such “metaphysical subjects” as Godwin’s theory of publicly shared property, Joseph Priestley and the American emigration movement, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the “back to nature” movement. These discussions and influences led to what Coleridge was later to call “Pantisocracy” (derived from the Greek pant-isocratia, an all-governing society). It was an intoxicating cocktail of progressive ideas, which envisaged a society of commonly owned property, communal labour and equal government by both men and women, whilst all delighting in idyllic pastoral seclusion.

Within three weeks of their first encounter on 17th June, Southey and Coleridge were embarked on canvassing support for their venture: Southey would return to his native Bristol, Coleridge would go to Wales, with a view to meeting again to plan how to finance the scheme (initially earmarked for Kentucky) by selling their current literary works. Yet the differences in their characters had already become apparent: whereas Southey was all earnest seriousness, prone to despondency, who told his brother, with a desperate edge, how “this Pantisocratic system has given me new life new hope new energy”, Coleridge was expressing the vision with blistering exhibitionism, imagination and light-hearted flights of fancy.
Thus we find him at the King’s Arms, Ross, scratching democratic verses on the shutters and, he later recalled, speaking in “wine-cheer’d moments” to the locals who are “nobler than King’s or king-polluted Lords”, and at Llanfyllen, where he “preached Pantisocracy and Aspheterism [meaning general ownership of property] with so much success that two great huge Fellows of Butcher-like appearance, danced about the room in enthusiastic agitation”.

But for all that it was Southey who produced the most striking and ludicrously impractical image of the Pantisocrats in action, when he declared, with totally unguarded optimism (and reminiscent of the ‘Lumberjack Song’ in Monty Python):

“When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticise poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough.”

By mid-August further details of the Pantisocratic plan had been sketched out: there were to be twelve couples, who would set sail from Bristol the following spring, each man providing capital of £125, and expecting to labour on commonly held land for only up to three hours a days. A classically utopian picture was captured by a (sceptical) friend, Tom Poole:

“The produce of their industry is to be laid up in common for the use of all, and a good library of books is to be collected, and their leisure hours to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of their children”.

This generation of children, rationally educated with enlightened principles and untainted by the corrupting values of European civilisation, such as selfish materialism, would be freed from the main source of human evil, namely private individual property, and retain an innocence in the rural “cottag’d vale”. Even animals would live harmoniously with humans in this natural world: where, Coleridge enthuses, “I call even my Cat Sister in the Fraternity of universal Nature”.

The reality, of course, proved far more complicated to realise. Southey had introduced Coleridge to the Fricker family, who had all become engulfed by the Pantisocratic tidal wave, including the twenty-four-year-old Sara, who was handsome, witty and hot-headed. Although Coleridge was on the rebound from Mary Evans, he was attracted to Sara and, encouraged by Southey (who was himself pursuing Sara’s sister Edith) he and Sara became close. Southey clearly intended that both Sara and Edith were going with them to Pennsylvania, and what should, perhaps, have been merely a brief flirtation between Coleridge and Sara took on greater idealistic significance as, Coleridge later observed, it was easy to mistake “the ebullience of schematism for affection, which a moment’s reflection might have told me, is not a plant of so mushroom a growth”.

Coleridge returned to Cambridge for the autumn term, during which talk of Pantisocracy spread across the whole university as he argued furiously for his utopian vision. Yet one of Coleridge’s surprisingly practical recognitions was the need for all Pantisocrats to stop further “academic” indolence, and spend the winter getting their bodies into shape, “full tone and strength”, and learn the “theory and practice of agriculture and carpentry”. That this collective call to the gymnasium and the farm was never taken up is, of course, in itself revealing.

By Christmas the ideals of the project came under increasing strain. Southey argued that the servants who were to go with them should perform all the manual labour, and the women should exclusively raise the children and do the domestic work. Coleridge dismissed this succinctly enough as “nonsense”, and contrary to first principles. But Coleridge was himself clearly struggling with the commitment to go to the United States with Sara, and was still agonising over Mary Evans (who he continued to write to and who had argued against the plan) until Mary confirmed that she had got engaged, after which he agreed to live with Southey in Bristol.

Coleridge felt, with some bitterness, that Southey did not appreciate that the urgent push for emigration with the Fricker sisters had contributed to him forcibly breaking off his love for Mary, “as if it had been a Sinew of my Heart”. Sara herself considered another suitor, and Coleridge worried about marrying a woman he did not love. On 29th December 1794 he said that he would “degrade her, whom I call my Wife, by making her the Instrument of low Desire – and on the removal of a desultory Appetite, to be perhaps not displeased with her Absence!” However he said he was prepared to marry Sara as part, in effect, of the Pantisocratic cause: “I will do my Duty”.

During the course of 1795 the intensity of the friendship between Coleridge and Southey cooled, as they both faced continuing financial difficulties. The ambitions of emigrating had faded away, with Southey seeking the more modest task of purchasing a common farm in Wales, but Coleridge was dismissive, fearing that private resources would not be abandoned and that “we were to commence partners in a petty farming trade”. Yet although Coleridge angrily denounced Southey’s decision to leave Bristol in September to return to the financial security of his mother’s home as a “low, dirty, gutter-grubbing” compromise, and managed to convince himself that he would carry the mantle of the last of the true Pantisocrats, we find that all he achieves is to live in a cottage by the sea overlooking the Bristol Channel with Sara, whom he had married in October 1795. The pantisocratic pipe-dream was over, but the consequences of marriage remained.

Coleridge’s marriage to Sara quickly became an unhappy one (in 1799 he fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, the sister of William Wordsworth’s wife), and in 1802, writing of his marriage, he lamented that “Never… did the stern match-maker bring together two minds so utterly contrariant… Alas!” He eventually separated from Sara in 1806.

It is ironic that although Coleridge and Southey never went to Susquehanna, by 1796 some 2,000 others had, though many returned disillusioned. Reflecting back on the “stormy time” when “for a few months America really inspired Hope, & I became an exalted Being”, Coleridge recounted in 1809 how he had placed his hope “in a small Company of chosen Individuals, and formed a plan, as harmless as it was extravagant, of trying the experiment of human Perfectibility on the banks of the Susquehanna; where our little Society, in its second generation, was to have combined the innocence of the patriarchal Age with the knowledge and genuine refinements of European culture: and where I had dreamt of beholding, in the sober evening of my life, the Cottages of Independence in the undivided Dale of Industry……Strange fancies!”
A tax lawyer by profession and living with a novelist and two cats, Simon Court indulges his passion for history by diving into the Bodleian Library at every opportunity. He has previously written about the English Civil War and has also written a biography of Henry VIII for the ‘History in an Hour’ series. When not immersed in the past he can be found in the here and now, watching Chelsea Football Club.