Did Wordsworth really betray Coleridge?: The strange events of 27th December 1806

by Adam Roberts

Coleridge wrote two poems with the title ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’ (‘To William Wordsworth’); one in English and another in Latin. The title includes a  piece of Greek wordplay: ἀξία or ἀξίος (‘the worth or value of a thing’  L&S) plus λόγων (genitive plural of λόγος, word); hence ἀξίο-λόγων,  the worth or value of words, words’ worth. Presumably this  piece of archness was concocted as a parallel to Coleridge’s own piece of nominal Grecianism, ἐστηση (‘S.T.C’), which means ‘he has stood’, and which crops up a lot in Coleridge’s notes, letters and even his poems. The  English ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’ is a measured, respectful response to hearing Wordsworth’s early drafts of the Prelude:

This be the meed, that thy song creates a thousand-fold echo!
Sweet as the warble of woods, that awakes at the gale of the morning!
List! the Hearts of the Pure, like caves in the ancient mountains
Deep, deep in the Bosom, and from the Bosom resound it,
Each with a different tone, complete or in musical fragments—
All have welcomed thy Voice, and receive and retain and prolong it!
This is the word of the Lord! it is spoken, and Beings Eternal
Live and are borne as an Infant; the Eternal begets the Immortal:
Love is the Spirit of Life, and Music the Life of the Spirit!

Pretty dull.  Ah, but the Latin one is a far more anguished, accusing piece of poetry, relating to Coleridge’s personal resentments and
jealousies. So bear with me.

The broader context is that Coleridge, unhappily married, yet with divorce an impossibility legally and personally, had fallen deeply in love with Sara Hutchinson, the younger sister of Wordsworth’s wife Mary Hutchinson.  This was a desperate, unreciprocated passion that wrenched Coleridge. He poured his misery into entries in his notebook and sometimes into poems, disguising her identity under the flimsy anagram ‘Asra’. There were long stretches of tantalising physical proximity through the first few years of the 1800s, then Coleridge moved to Malta, in part as a deliberate break with Sara and an attempt to cauterise his infatuation. It doesn’t seem to have helped. On his return from the Mediterranean he several times visited the Wordsworths, and therefore Sara, who was living with them, and found himself still as smitten. On the 22 December 1806 Coleridge and his 10-year-old son Hartley arrived at Coleorton to spend Christmas with the Wordsworths. Coleridge had now effectively separated from his wife. He was fond of a drink, consuming large quantities of opium, and he experienced a flare-up in his passion for ‘Asra’.

The proximate cause of the Latin ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’ poem is twofold. One, we intuit from the poem itself, is that Wordsworth rebuked his friend for his manner towards Sara Hutchinson. Perhaps he pointed out that Coleridge, separated but not divorced, could not offer her marriage, and stressed the indecency of any adulterous liaison (this last, if it happened, must have been a stabbingly ironic touch for Coleridge, for reasons that will become apparent in a moment). Whatever Wordsworth said, it clearly stung Coleridge.

The second thing that happened stung him more, although details are rather opaque. Something deeply traumatic for Coleridge, certainly, although as Richard Holmes notes in his Coleridge: Darker
the events are ‘very difficult to reconstruct’. On the
morning of Saturday 27th December Coleridge (perhaps having been up all night, and perhaps in an exhausted, opiated or drunken state) appears to have gone into Sara’s room, seen something, and run away—literally run out of the house, over the fields, and into a tavern, where he stayed all day drinking and scribbling pages of desperate prose in his notebook under the portentous heading ‘THE EPOCH’. He later tore these pages out and destroyed them, but the event stayed with him, and later notebook entries often refer to it. Here are a couple of examples of what I mean. See if you can piece together from them what it was that Coleridge saw in Sara Hutchinson’s room that morning:

[September 1807] O agony! O the vision of that Saturday morning!—of the Bed—O cruel! is not he beloved, adored by two—& two such Beings.—And must I not be beloved near him except as a Satellite?—But O mercy, mercy! Is he not better, greater, more manly, & altogether more attractive to any but the purest Woman? And yet, he does not pretend, he does not wish, to love you as I love you, Sara!

‘He’ is Wordsworth; the two beings who adore him are presumably Sara and Mary, neither of whom adore poor old Coleridge. Half a year later STC wrote this:

[May 1808] O that miserable Saturday morning! … But a minute and a half with ME and all the time evidently restless & going—An hour and more with Wordsworth—in bed—O agony!

The ‘in bed‘ is written in English but with Greek characters, a code
Coleridge often used when he wished to disguise something in his notes. This seems clearer. There’s not much a man can do with an evidently unenthusiastic woman in a minute and a half, out of bed, beyond some fumbling and kissing; but a different man, married to that woman’s sister though he might be, could do a lot more with her, in bed, for an hour and more. Were Wordsworth and Sara clothed when Coleridge stumbled in upon them? Well, since Coleridge later wrote of his agony at seeing, that morning, (again in his Greek code) ‘Asra’s beautiful breasts uncovered’, presumably not. Now, as Holmes points out, Coleridge also devoted a lot of time and energy in his notebooks to trying to convince himself that what he had seen was only a ‘phantasm’, an opium hallucination, a ‘morbid Day-Dream’ (‘a mere phantasm and yet what anguish,  what gnawings of despair, what throbbings and lancinations of positive Jealousy!’). This, though, looks to me more like the energetic attempt at self-delusion of a desperate man. Ockham’s razor might suggest that whilst Coleridge probably was the worse for wear (he would hardly have stumbled unannounced into Sara’s bedroom otherwise), he nonetheless saw what he saw: Wordsworth and Sara naked in bed together. It wouldn’t, after all, be the first or last time in human history that a man had sex with his wife’s sister; and the existence of Wordsworth’s illegitimate daughter with Annette Vallon, to say nothing of the more lurid rumours surrounding his love-life, indicate that he was not what one might call an entirely sexually continent individual.

This then is the context for the Latin ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’:

Me n’Asrae perferre jubes oblivia? et Asrae
Me aversos oculos posse videre meae?
Scire et eam falsam, crudelem, quae mihi semper
Cara fuit, semper cara futura mihi?
Meque pati lucem, cui vanam perdite amanti,
Quicquid Naturae est, omne tremit, titubat?
Cur non ut patiarque fodi mea viscera ferro,
Dissimulato etiam, Vilme, dolore jubes?
Quin Cor, quin Oculosque meos, quin erue vel quod
Carius est, si quid carius esse potest!
Deficientem animam, quod vis, tolerare jubebo,
Asrae dum superet, me moriente, fides
At Fidis Inferias vidi! et morior!—Ratione
Victum iri facili, me Ratione, putas?
Ah pereat, qui in Amore potest rationibus uti!
Ah pereat, qui, ni perdite, amare potest!
Quid deceat, quid non, videant quihus integra mens est:
Vixi! vivit adhuc imraemor ASRA mei.

This means:

You command me to endure Asra’s neglect? and Asra’s
eyes turned from me, something I see very well for myself?
To know her to be false, cruel, who to me has always
been dear, who always will be dear to me?
I must endure this light: I’ve vainly loved a false woman,
at which the whole of Nature trembles and stutters?
Why not order my own bowels stabbed with a sword,
and then pretend, William, that it does not hurt?
Why not tear out my heart, or my own eyes, or something else
that is even dearer, if anything could be dearer!
I’d command my weary soul to endure anything,
if only Asra, though it killed me, remained faithful.
But I’ve seen the funeral of her fidelity! and I’m dying!—Reason
is too easily defeated, you really think Reason can help me?
Ah, perish the man who can subordinate love to reason!
Ah, perish any man who does not love to perdition!
What’s decent, what’s not, let the sane decide on that:

My life is over! Though ASRA lives on, unmindful of me.

‘The funeral of her fidelity’ in line 13 is rather weak-beer, I’m afraid.
The Latin makes reference to the inferiae, which were ‘sacrifices in
honour of the dead’ or ‘sacrifices to the dead’ [Lewis and Short]. Richard Holmes, in his Penguin Selected Poetry  translates the line ‘I
have seen the last rites of her faithfulness’, which is a little too
decorous I think. Coleridge may be thinking of the similar line in Angelo Poliziano’s Silvae, where Achilles sacrifices victims to
the dead with ‘savage fury’; in which case an even more forceful
translation might be justified: ‘I have seen her fidelity sacrificed on the altar of the dead’.

The main thing to note is that this hardly counts as an original
composition by Coleridge. It is, rather, a Frankenstein text stitched
together from various bits and pieces of other Latin poets. ‘Perferre
jubes’ (‘commanded to endure’) is from Horace’s Epistles 1:13 line
7; ‘aversos oculos’ (‘eyes turned away’) is from Vergil’s Aeneid
(1:482 and 6:469); ‘semper cara’ (‘always dear’ or ‘always beloved’) is a standard phrase, seen often on gravestones and so on. More to the point, the second half of the poem consists of passages lifted wholesale from another poet.

Quin Cor, quin Oculosque meos, quin erue vel quod
Carius est, si quid carius esse potest!
Deficientem animam, quod vis, tolerare jubebo,
Asrae dum superet, me moriente, fides

is word for word from Ariosto’s  ‘Ad Petrum Bembum’ [Carmina, 7], the poem written in the early 1500s to his friend, the Italian scholar, poet and later Cardinal Pietro Bembo (1470-1547):  there’s only one change, as Coleridge alters (wrenches, rather) Ariosto’s  ‘Dum superet dominae me moriente fides’ to replace ‘dominae’, ‘my lord’,
with Asra’s name (‘Asrae dum superet, me moriente, fides’). The same poem also provides lines 15-16:

Ah pereat, qui in Amore potest rationibus uti!
Ah pereat, qui, ni perdite, amare potest!

[‘Ad  Petrum Bembum‘, 23-24]

This couplet is Ariosto’s specific rebuke to his friend’s advice, recorded in Bembo’s prior poem ‘Ad Melinum’, that he shouldn’t get too worked up over his girlfriend’s infidelity:

Ah pereat, quicunque suae peccata puellae
Obiciit et flentem sustinuisse potest

Ah, perish the man who is moved by his girl’s transgressions,
Able to withstand her denials and tears

(I take the last line to mean ‘who is not able to withstand etc’; or
perhaps ‘you should be able to withstand’ …). Bembo’s advice is:
don’t get too worked up over the fact that your girl has slept with
somebody else. Ariosto’s reply, slightly comically inflated in its
melodramatic repudiation of his pal’s advice, is that he is too deeply in love for such cynicism, and would rather die a heartbroken death than subordinate his passion to mere common-sense and reason.

Coleridge’s appropriation of these lines is interesting (‘appropriation’ rather than plagiary, since he never actually published this poem). It positions Wordsworth as, in effect, the Bembo character: so perhaps Wordsworth’s admonishment was not as I speculated above, but was more worldly-wise, more Bembo-esque: ‘be reasonable, my friend. So what if we went to bed together, she and I? It is not the end of the world. Try to keep it in perspective. No I’m not in love with her, we’re just having a bit of fun’ and so on. That would certainly explain the specifics of the Latin that Coleridge then wrote.

I’m not sure how plausible this is, mind you. One of the oddest features of the whole ‘THE EPOCH’ business is that after this hysterical and upset Saturday, Coleridge continued staying with the Wordsworths; and indeed that William and his wife and Dorothy and Sara Hutchinson and Coleridge all settled down in the kitchen on Sunday evening the following week to listen to Wordsworth read passages from the Prelude. To me, this suggests a rather different narrative: that Wordsworth told Coleridge ‘I don’t know what you think you saw, addled on opium and sleeplessness as you were, but there’s nothing going on between Sara and myself’; and that Coleridge, perhaps very remorsefully, agreed that he’d had a horrible vision, a phantasm and so on, and then spent (literally) decades trying to convince himself that this was the truth.

And calling this poem, as I do above, a Frankenstein-text is a little
unfair. This was the way public schoolboys were taught to write Latin verse: consulting a Gradus to discover appropriate words and phrases in order to stitch these together into a whole poem. This was needful less in terms of digging out appropriate vocabulary. Turning an English sentiment into Latin is not hard; what’s hard is turning it into Latin that adheres to one or other of the exacting metrical patterns in which such verse must be written, and this is what the Gradus is especially helpful with, since it lists words and whole phrases already marked-up with long and short syllables, elisions and so on. That Coleridge, in the Biographia, later mocks contemporary Latin poets (like George Canning) for, well, doing exactly that is only slightly inconsistent with his practice here. And, we must add, stealing a whole chunk of Ariosto would have incurred the wrath of any schoolmaster who spotted the theft.
Though, to repeat myself, Coleridge never published this poem.

The Ariosto context strongly suggests, though, that Coleridge’s Latin ‘Ad Vilmum Axiologum’ is more than a response to some mild Asra-related scolding by Wordsworth. It is a much more visceral (as per the phallic imagery of being ‘viscerally’ penetrated in line 7) reaction to witnessing a woman one had thought ‘chaste’ sacrificing her sexual fidelity on the altars of death. Strong stuff.

This post was originally written for Adam’s Coleridge blog – http://samueltaylorbloggeridge.blogspot.co.uk
Adam Roberts is Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of Landor’s Cleanness (OUP 2014) and recently published a new edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria (Edinburgh Univ. Press 2014). He is presently preparing an edition of Coleridge’s Lectures on Shakespeare, also for Edinburgh.