by Edward Platten
When the American poet and essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, travelled to Great Britain, he met the two poets whose collaborative work Lyrical Ballads has been said to have begun a new age of poetry. The Romantic movement, though it can also be said to have started a while before, certainly rose to prominence after the great poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote their first collection together. But, as Emerson’s account of the two personalities shows to us, the collaboration was a strange one. In fact, in the first volume of Lyrical Ballads, Coleridge’s name didn’t even appear. As was typical of the man, he was either too lazy or too embroiled in his opium addiction to contribute many works to the volume, and only produced two that would feature.
Coleridge was the first of the collaborators whom Emerson would meet, and, as his account on their meeting shows, he was, like many others, baffled by the man. Borges writes that:
Emerson tells about how he went to visit him and how Coleridge spoke about the essential unitary nature of God, and after a while, Emerson told him that he had always believed in the fundamental unity of God. He was a Unitarian. Coleridge said to him: ‘Yes, that’s what I think,’ then kept talking, because he did not care about his interlocutor.
Emerson would then go on, after a brief tour of Scotland, to meet Wordsworth, who he found to be more immediately impressive, though quite rude. There are many stories about Wordsworth’s vanity and how he was difficult to talk to. Borges writes about their meeting that:
Emerson… paid him a visit and made an observation, and Wordsworth refuted him immediately – as was his habit, because no matter what anyone said, he would assert the opposite – and ten minutes or a quarter of an hour later, Wordsworth expressed that same opinion that he had found absurd. Then Emerson politely told him, ‘Well, that is what I told you a while ago.’ And then Wordsworth, indignant, said, ‘Mine, mine, and not yours!!’ And the other understand that one could not converse with a man with such a character.
Instead of being disappointed, however, Emerson came to admire the vain Wordsworth. He was, after all, a man easy to admire. One day, both poets went out on a walk and Wordsworth told him that, using only his memory, he had composed thousands of lines of verse along the same path, and only committed them to paper later on. Such a mind would impress anyone, but what most distinguishes Emerson’s meetings with these two men is, I think, how Wordsworth sought discussion, even though he only discussed matters for the sake of argument, and to prove himself right – whereas Coleridge was a man one could only listen to, rather than talk to.
Emerson was surely disappointed by Coleridge, yet, if he had read what others had written about the man, he may have expected such a result. Coleridge was a man that baffled even his closest friends. His life and his actions were frequently absurd. Some were humorous, some quite tragic, but all of them have created an impression of a man that serves to elevate his works. As Borges wrote: “One of a writer’s most important works – perhaps the most important of them all – is the image he leaves of himself in the memory of men, above and beyond the pages he has written.” Coleridge never was as great a poet as Wordsworth, and if Emerson sought a poet it was only natural that he admired Wordsworth the more, but when we think of Coleridge we think of more than a poet, we think of a representative of a kind of spirit, like a character from a novel.
Coleridge’s life has informed us of the spirit of the Romantic movement as much as, if not more than, the few poems he left us with.
Unlike Emerson, who found Wordsworth to be the more impressive man, the ‘Lake Poets’, – that is, the illustrious literary set both Wordsworth and Coleridge were a part of – all of them, besides from Wordsworth, would be more likely to name Coleridge their master. He was a genius. A man whose breadth of reading and erudition was so immense that he seemed to have read every book. Yet, if Emerson had only read the accounts of Coleridge as a person, and not as a poet, he may have been able to better understand why he was considered to be such a genius.
For many, the way in which Coleridge spoke was unintelligible. Wordsworth, whilst talking to Emerson, said that he had wished Coleridge would take more care to be understood with his writing. The same can be said for his way of talking. Coleridge’s meeting with Emerson, as will be shown, was typical of the way he would treat his guests. Coleridge’s student, or it could be said, his disciple and fellow opium addict, Thomas De Quincey, wrote of Coleridge that, whenever he spoke, it was as if he were tracing a circle in the air. By this he meant that as he talked he would go further and further away from the subject. This would go on for hours without the need of an interlocutor, and, in the mean time, some of those listening would get up and leave, perhaps with the same baffled expression as I imagine Emerson had. But, at the end, those who had lasted would realise that his talk had, remarkably, returned to the point of the discussion.
This absurd way of talking is just one of the few mysteries that surround our impression of Coleridge. The events of his life were just as absurd. Despite being a great student at Cambridge University, for some reason not yet truly understood, and I doubt we ever will really understand this man, he enlisted in a regiment of dragoons. He spent the next four months falling off his horse and never actually learned to ride. Unhappy about this, one of his officers was said to have walked in on him writing poems in Greek on one of the barrack walls, all of which expressed his despair at his impossible fate as a horseman – a fate that he had chosen himself. His only use in the regiment was in the writing of love letters for the other men to send home to their wives. “I am,” he once wrote, “the least equestrian of men,” which is a sentiment many of the officers must have agreed with, as he was officially discharged from the regiment for being “insane”.
Coleridge then returned to Cambridge and began plans to start a weekly journal. To fulfil this task he travelled around England in an attempt to get people to subscribe. He recounts that, on one of these trips, he arrived in Bristol and spoke with a gentleman. This gentleman asked him if he had read the newspaper, to which Coleridge replied that he didn’t think it was his duty as a Christian to read the newspaper – whilst at the same time trying to get the man to subscribe to his. It is stories like this that establish Coleridge as a comical figure. There is another story told about him, that, when asked to join in a conversation, his first act was to take great care with the filling of his pipe, half with tobacco and the other half with salt. He became ill in spite of this, for he was not even in the habit of smoking.
Besides from wine, opium and prostitutes, Coleridge was in the habit of declaring that he would write ambitious works, such as a history of philosophy, and a history of English literature. These, like many of his best poems, were either left unfinished or barely started. He would write to his friends – even though they knew he was lying, and even though he knew, that they knew, he was lying – that the work was well under way. His friends made a few attempts to try and focus his genius on to something. With his friend, Robert Southey, he wrote a play called The Fall of Robespierre, and another on Joan of Arc, yet he would make the protagonist talk about subjects such as the Leviathan and magnetism, of which the saint would certainly not have spoken about. His friends then tried to give him an outlet for his genius through lecturing. These lectures were well subscribed to and well advertised, yet, when the date arrived, Coleridge would either not turn up, or speak about anything but the subject of the lecture. And the times he did turn up, he would speak about everything including the subject of the lecture. But these were only rare occasions.
Another odd tale about the man begins with his marriage. Borges tells us that:
Coleridge married fairly young. The story is that he visited a house where there were three sisters. He was in love with the second one, but he thought that if the second one got married before the first – that is, according to what he told De Quincey – this could wound the sexual pride of the first. And so, out of a sense of delicacy, he married the first, even though he was not in love with her. It is no big surprise to learn that the marriage failed. Coleridge had nothing to do with his wife and children and went to live with his friends.
All of these stories are quite funny. Though I can’t help but feel a little bit sad about the last one. In one of my favourite poems, ‘Frost at Midnight’, Coleridge muses on how he hopes for a better life for his son, Hartley. He writes:
Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side,
Whose gentle breathings, heard in this deep calm,
Fill up the intersperséd vacancies
And momentary pauses of the thought!
My babe so beautiful! it thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to look at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in far other scenes! For I was reared
In the great city, pent ‘mid cloisters dim,
And saw nought lovely but the sky and stars.
But thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds,
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! he shall mould
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.
Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee,
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness, or the redbreast sit and sing
Betwixt the tufts of snow on the bare branch
Of mossy apple-tree, while the night-thatch
Smokes in the sun-thaw; whether the eave-drops fall
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles,
Quietly shining to the quiet Moon.
It would be impossible to write a poem with such tenderness without true feeling. Thus, to think that he didn’t bother with his children, whilst being undoubtedly full of paternal love for them, is quite heart-breaking. Coleridge was the first person in English to use the term ‘bi-polar’, and whilst he used it to mean ‘androgynous’, we may use it now to talk about his mental state. One cannot be an opium addict and a parent at the same time. His erratic character, and his sharp decline when in the grip of his addiction, disallowed him of the many joys of life.
Coleridge died in 1834, but his friends had the impression that he had died long before. The essayist, Charles Lamb, once a schoolmate of Coleridge’s, wrote a famous passage where he says that, on the subject of Coleridge’s death: “I greave that I could not grieve.” Borges writes that, “Coleridge had turned into a kind of aesthetic ghost for many of [his friends].” He lived a purely intellectual life. He was a man for whom the world on the inside was far richer than the world on the outside. He did not have an interest in other people, but that is not to say he was misanthropic, only that he was one of those curious people who care more for ideas than anything else.
Though many of his poems were left unfinished, those that we have are some of the most captivating and musical in the English language. I would happily concede that Wordsworth is the greater poet, but I do believe that Coleridge was among the greats himself, with or without his association to Wordsworth. And, even despite his poetry, his life and his character are far more poetic, even, perhaps, far more emblematic of our popular notions of what it is to be a poet, than Wordsworth’s – and that – just as it is for Oscar Wilde – is enough for posterity – as Borges wrote:
the truth is, there is something in Coleridge that seems to fill the imagination to overflowing. It is life itself, filled with postponements, unfulfilled promises, brilliant conversations. All of this belongs to a particular kind of human being.
That human being is the Romantic. And whatever Romanticism is, its spirit owes a little to Coleridge.
Edward Platten is a writer from Kingston Upon-Hull who is currently doing research on Poetic Inspiration in order to obtain a Masters Degree. In his spare time he writes for the blog: www.forbooksake.wordpress.com about interesting stories and ideas associated with literature. He aspires to one day study for a PhD and lecture at a university.
This post first appeared on his ForBooksSake blog https://forbooksake.wordpress.com/