Notes on Coleridge’s Sense of Humour
A talk given by Chris Wakefield at the Coleridge Anniversary Lunch of 2011
(also published in the Friends of Coleridge’s “Bulletin” Winter 2011)
SPECULATING ABOUT COLERIDGE’S PERSONALITY is an excellent diversion. Float any idea, and you can be sure that somewhere in his sixty-one years of endless talk and ‘fly-catching’, there will be something that supports your view. Thus arguing that Coleridge was funny is not much of a challenge: there is amusement by the cartload to be had from his letters, notes and poetry, as well as from the recollections of friends and acquaintances. Easily enough, dare I say, for a minor anthology. Coleridge could (still can) make you smile at his silly poems, tall tales, excruciating puns, or self-mocking personal dramas, and indeed, almost all contemporary eulogies to his brilliance make appropriate genuflexions to his wit.
But Coleridge was funny in funny ways. If you pick through the evidence, some interesting themes emerge, which I believe bring into sharper focus certain elements of the way he would present himself in public, which can help colour-in the kind of man he was, and what it was like to be in his company. That is the extent of my ambitions for this short talk―a little colouring in of some details on the various portraits that Coleridge scholars have painted over the years.
I mentioned the praise that Coleridge’s humorous side attracted from his admirers. Characteristically, the knee-bending in this direction is seldom as acute as it is for his other accomplishments. Here, for example, is Joseph Cottle (STC’s friend and publisher in his the late 1790’s)―“Those who remember him in his more vigorous days, can bear witness to the peculiarity and transcendant power of his conversational eloquence. It was unlike anything that could be heard elsewhere; the kind was different, the degree was different, the manner was different. The boundless range of scientific knowledge, the brilliancy and exquisite nicety of illustration, the deep and ready reasoning, the strangeness and immensity of bookish lore, were not all; the dramatic story, the joke, the pun, the festivity, must be added.” So most of the funny stuff is, in Cottle’s view, “an addition”, rather than a central feature of STC’s genius.
Dr. James Gillman was in-house physician and genial host for the last eighteen years of Coleridge’s life. His assessment, in a reverential biography, was much the same as Cottle’s―“There is one part of Coleridge’s character not to be passed by, although so overlaid by his genius as rarely to be noticed, namely, his love of humour and of wit, of which he possessed so large a share. As punsters, his dear friend Lamb and himself were inimitable. […]. Coleridge was more humorous than witty in making puns―and in repartee, he was, according to modern phraseology, ‘smart and clever’.”
Even Charles Lamb, Coleridge’s most loyal friend and admirer, carefully measured his praise of Coleridge’s comic abilities. Lamb knew a thing or two about humour, having been a “comedy writer” for the Morning Post―he was obliged to invent six jokes a day (at 6d a joke!). Add to that his intimate friendship with Coleridge, and you will appreciate the weight his view carries. Here he recalls a “wit combat” between Coleridge and Charles Valentine LeGrice, with both of whom he was friends at Christ Hospital School in the 1780s, “which two I behold, like a Spanish great galleon, and an English man-of-war; Master Coleridge, like the former, was built far higher in learning, solid, but slow in his performances. C.V.L., with the English man-of-war, lesser in bulk, but lighter in sailing, could turn with all tides, tack about, and take advantage of all winds, by the quickness of his wit and invention.”
There are also quite a few comments that would rate as less complimentary. Hazlitt, for example, found Coleridge’s wit ‘heavy’ , and De Quincey is clearly amused more by the man, rather than his attempts at humour, but perhaps the most coruscating assessment is that of Thomas Carlyle, who was present at some of the Highgate soirees, and who, in the main, found Coleridge’s talking riffs dreary and tedious. “Coleridge was not without what talkers call wit” he writes, “and there were touches of prickly sarcasm in him […]; he had traits even of poetic humour; but in general he seemed deficient in laughter.” Carlyle craved just “one right peal of concrete laughter” to rupture the “Kantean haze-world” and “air-castles” that filled the atmosphere in the parlour at the Grove. “None such ever came” he lamented.
“Deficient in laughter”?―how can that be? Coleridge was always making an effort to amuse―“I laugh more, & talk more nonsense in a week, than most other people do in a year…” he tells John Thelwall, “… & I let puns inoffensively in the presence of grave men, who smile, like verjuice putred.” Well, the grave men obviously aren’t falling about helplessly at STC’s puns―but he doesn’t seem too concerned about poor audience reaction. In fact there are occasions when he is quite content to push his luck in this way, even to the point of annoyance. In a letter to John Prior Estlin in 1796, Coleridge is excited by a sudden urge to be amusing―“I would overwhelm you with an Avalanche of Puns & Conundrums loosened by sudden thaw from the Alps of my Imagination”, and as promised he sweeps us through some fairly awful jokes, starting with, “If a Woman had murdered her Cousin, and there were no other proof of her guilt except that she had an half-barrel Cask in her possession―how would that convict her?―Answer: It would be evident that she had kild-er-kin.” Then he pauses to pre-empt the reception he expects from Mrs Estlin… “As I know that now (Mrs Estlin) cannot mortify me by pretending not to enjoy the joke, she will laugh most intemperately…”; then, to optimise the impact of the next side-splitter, he recommends “… do not ask her the next (joke) till a quarter of an hour’s intermission…”. But the next comes fast on the heels of murder: ‘why Satan sitting on a house-top would be like a decayed Merchant?―Answer―Because he would be imp-over-a-shed.’
Where he scored better as a humourist was as a raconteur of unreliable personal histories. Coleridge obviously enjoyed these, and they were of a piece with contemporary humour. For that very reason De Quincey treads on them as “Joe Miller-ish” amusements. The events that inform the stories are probably real enough but they are always imaginatively reworked for dramatic and humorous effect. There are plenty of examples―but one will serve as advertisement for the rest. On his tour of Wales in 1794 in the company of Joseph Hucks, Coleridge stops at an Inn and entertains the local clientele:
At Bala is nothing remarkable except a Lake of 11 miles in circumference. At the Inn I was sore afraid, that I had caught the Itch from a Welch Democrat, who was charmed with my sentiments: he grasped my hand with flesh-bruising Ardour―and I trembled, lest some discontented Citizens of the animalcular Republic should have emigrated. Shortly after, into the same room a well drest clergyman, and four others―among whom (the Landlady whispers me) was a Justice of Peace and the Doctor of the Parish―I was asked for a Gentleman―I gave General Washington―The parson said in a low voice― (Republicans!)―After which the medical man said―damn Toasts! I gives a sentiment―May all Republicans be gulloteen’d!―Up starts the Welch Democrat―May all Fools be gulloteen’d―and then you will be the first! Thereon Rogue, Villain, Traitor flew thick in each other’s faces as a hailstorm―This is nothing in Wales―they make calling one another Liars &c―necessary vent-holes to the sulphureous Fumes of the Temper! At last, I endeavored to arbitrate by observing that whatever might be our opinions in politics, the appearance of a Clergyman in the Company assured me, we were all Christians―tho’ (continued I) it is rather difficult to reconcile the last Sentiment with the Spirit of Christianity. Pho!―quoth the Parson―Christianity! Why, we an’t at Church now? Are we―The Gemman’s Sentiment was a very good one―‘it shewed, he was sincere in his principles!’―Welch Politics could not prevail over Welch Hospitality―they all except the Parson shook me by the hand, and said I was an open hearted honest-speaking Fellow, tho’ I was a bit of a Democrat.
Hucks’ account of the same event is disappointing―the row takes place as described, but, far from intervening, he and Coleridge “soon withdrew ourselves from the scene of contention, and left the combatants to settle the point in the best manner they could”. Coleridge’s revisions are fairly implausible, but at least he now has a part in the action, and the story improves as a result. In most of his tall tales, Coleridge puts himself centre-stage.
Even better than the stories were silly verses, and here too there are plenty of examples. In this example STC was asked to make an entry in a commonplace book―and later tells his friend J H Green what he would like to have done
A portly Dame, whose Good man has done well for himself in the Carcase-Butcher Line, would fain have something, in the Ottigraph way, from me in the splendid Book which by a somewhat Italianized mode of pronunciation she calls her Olbum or Awlbum―Would this do?
Parry seeks the Polar Ridge:
But rhymes seeks S.T.Coleridge
Fit for Mrs Smudger’s Olbum
Or to wipe her Baby’s small bum.
Toilet themes are well represented in the genre…
This Goslar Ale is stout and staunch;
But sure ‘tis brewed by Witches!
Scarce do you feel it warm in paunch,
‘Odsblood, ‘tis in your Breeches!
I think the essence of Coleridge’s humour comes to life, in my mind at least, by summoning an image of the man in action in his late twenties, a compilation from the many painted and written portraits. Slightly above average height and thin (at that age), he has unkempt black shoulder length hair, a slack, fleshy lower lip below an ever open mouth with gap teeth in view. His large eyes suggest a simple perplexity. Dorothy Wordsworth thinks him “plain”, and her brother William sees, ‘a face divine of heaven born idiotcy’. That face fits perfectly with the puns and conundrums we suffered earlier, and complements the try-hard jokes and the egocentric, boyish taste in humour.
An oddity which might well be related is Coleridge’s erratic walking. It isn’t mentioned a great deal but it certainly bothered Hazlitt, who describes it in detail as weaving from side to side, unable to maintain a straight course. It’s a metaphor too apt to ignore, of course, but it might also point to STC’s lack of awareness of social niceties. Caught up in his talk, he has ‘lost track’ of his companion, and of any responsibility to keep a pace and direction, convenient for the both of them. Enthusiasm compromises his ability to regulate his social conduct― he “catches fire” as his ideas run away with him.
From all of this, we might suggest that a piece is missing from Coleridge’s set of social skills, a deficiency exposed in his efforts at, and taste in, humour. His friends and supporters respond to his efforts with affable tolerance. This is how you treat a child―how you react to a precocious boy making bad jokes. Those who valued Coleridge for his extraordinary talents, were prepared also to take on board the would-be humourist as part of the package. And Coleridge was, apparently, fine with that. While he was not socially inept, the range and sophistication of his social accomplishments was, I believe, limited by some indefinable qualitative difference in constitution and awareness that was, at the same time, the source of his genius. He wanted to be appreciated, to be the centre of attention―something he could do with relative ease just by talking. His inclination was to amuse, and he did certainly afford much amusement to those who knew him. But no matter how hard he tried (and he did keep trying)―his reputation as a humourist was always much diminished by his other achievements.
In conclusion, I want to make sure you go away with the right idea about Coleridge and his sense of humour. All the foregoing pays attention to the damaged part of an otherwise archangelic presence. If you buy in to the whole package, as did his friends, then his humour instantly shines more brightly. And as I am here among his friends, let me re-run a piece of quintessential Coleridge fun for you…
Having been seated beside Coleridge at a dinner of the British Association in 1833, Sir William Rowan Hamilton listened entranced to Coleridge’s “sweet and wondrous stream of speech”. A Coleridge devotee, Hamilton wondered whether STC remembered his visits to Highgate…
“Presuming he had forgotten those former visits of mine, which however he assured me that he had not done, I said to Coleridge on being placed beside him [ ] at Cambridge that I had read most of his published works: but by way of being very honest, I added, ‘But sir, I am not sure that I understand them all. ‘The question is, sir’ said he, ‘whether I understand them all myself.’
Coleridge the Magus.
A talk given by Nick Pruce at the Coleridge Anniversary Lunch of 2010
I have entitled this talk “Coleridge the Magus” because I want to consider how Coleridge spread his spell, what that spell was (and is), how it affected his contemporaries and successors, and how it still affects us today. It was Carlyle, of course, who called him “ a kind of magus, girt in mystery and enigma” and I will discuss later whether this description was intended as a compliment. The other day, though, I came across an essay about “The Magus”, a novel by another son of Wessex, John Fowles, which is not about Coleridge at all. The writer of the essay said that he had found it difficult to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief while reading the novel: the same “willing suspension of disbelief” which Coleridge said, in Biographia Literaria, constituted “poetic faith”. That a writer’s coinage has entered the language is not so unusual, but the fact that the connections have been made seems to suggest “a thousand circlets” spreading out from a flower-head falling in a pool, an image that Coleridge would have recognised!
How, then, did Coleridge spread his spell? First of all, despite his illnesses, his nerves, his procrastinations and his perfectionism – Keats said that he was “…incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge” and his daughter Sara said that “He could not bear to complete incompletely, which everybody else does” – he wrote. For publication he wrote poetry, plays, journalism, political pamphlets, literary criticism, biography and autobiography; he wrote a prodigious number of letters; and for himself he wrote his notebooks; he wrote about theology, social theory, economics, education, civil liberties and constitutional law. I have kept these lists shorter than they might be because lists are not intrinsically interesting. They could be much longer. However, I will add one more edited list. I have taken it from the acknowledgements at the beginning of Volume IV of Coleridge’s Notebooks. It includes thanks to experts on hydroponics, musical boxes, mesmerism, the migration of nightingales and Ramsgate street cries, all of whose help was sought in the decipherment and understanding of the Notebooks. My original list contained seventeen items, and I had only written down the most unusual ones. He wrote a lot and he wrote and thought about a wide range of subjects. He was not alone in that. That is what writers do. So where was the magic?
The contemporary reception of his writing was not always ecstatic. Southey, not admittedly a sympathetic critic by 1798, wrote of “The Ryme of the Ancyent Marinere” that “Genius has here been employed in producing a poem of little merit”. Hazlitt’s judgement on “The Friend” – two year’s worth of painfully produced hard work on Coleridge’s part – was that “prolixity and obscurity are the most frequent characteristics.” When Coleridge wrote to Lord Liverpool, who was Prime Minister at the time, about false philosophy, Lord Liverpool reflected, “Mister Coleridge’s object is to rescue speculative philosophy and make it best suited to the interests of the State; at least, I believe this to be Mister Coleridge’s meaning, but I cannot well understand him.” I wonder if any modern thinkers write private letters to David Cameron about false philosophy, comprehensibly or not? Southey, Hazlitt, Lord Liverpool – and they were not the only critical voices. Even Byron, who thought “Christabel”: “…the wildest and finest that I ever heard in that kind of composition,” wrote of Coleridge “…explaining Metaphysics to the Nation/I wish he would explain his explanation.”
So far, so not very magical. But remember that the last volume of Coleridge’s Notebooks and the “Opus Maximum” were not published until 2002, so it is only in the last eight years that it has been possible for readers to have a full overview of Coleridge’s writings. In 1840, six years after Coleridge’s death, John Stuart Mill wrote that Coleridge was: “…one of the two great seminal minds of England in their age.” (the other was Jeremy Bentham); and: “No Englishman has left his impress so deeply…” But he also wrote: “The time is yet far distant when in the estimation of Coleridge and of his influence upon the intellect of our time, anything like unanimity can be looked for.” The time when everybody agrees will probably never arrive. Norman Fruman’s “The Damaged Archangel”, about Coleridge’s plagiarism, is still causing scholarly arguments forty years after its appearance. Books about all aspects of Coleridge’s life and work continue to be published every year. For example, this year saw the publication of a book about the real ancient mariner, Simon Hatley (who shot a black albatross; he also sailed with Alexander Selkirk – Robinson Crusoe – and William Dampier – on whose writings Swift drew for “Gulliver’s Travels.”) Here again is an example of the “thousand circlets”, of Coleridge’s light being cast into his future and our present, and back into our shared past.
Coleridge’s public utterances were not confined to print. In his younger days he preached in Unitarian chapels and gave lectures in which he argued against the war and against the Slave trade, but his radicalism always had a theological bent. In his middle years he lectured on philosophy and literature, though being Coleridge he did not always allow himself to be confined by his published topic. When Hazlitt first heard Coleridge preach he was impressed. He quotes Milton when he writes that Coleridge’s voice “rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes.” Then Coleridge launches into his subject “like an eagle dallying with the wind.” Hazlitt was writing this in 1823, years after he had become disenchanted with Coleridge and having shown himself capable of the most wounding criticism. Yet he continues, “…I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres…truth and genius had embraced under the eye…This was even beyond my hopes.” Hazlitt was impressed! The lectures were always a struggle. Ill health, nerves and lack of preparation meant that Coleridge was not always at his best and sometimes he failed to turn up at all. Whenever his lectures were advertised, they were well attended. Everyone knew Coleridge could talk, this was why they were sometimes disappointed by his lectures.
How he could talk! It was in his talk, his conversation, his ‘oneversazione’ that he most enchanted people. Washington Alston, who painted his portrait, wrote: “I am almost tempted to dream that I have once listened to Plato in the groves of the Academy.” Charles Lamb was even more ecstatic: “He would talk from morn to dewy eve, nor cease till far midnight… he had the tact of making the unintelligible seem plain.” Of course Lamb was an old friend from school, so to show that he was not completely dazzled, how about this exchange: “Lamb, you have heard me preach, I think?” “Coleridge, I have never heard you do anything else.” Wordsworth described Coleridge’s talk as a “majestic river,” Leigh Hunt writes of “his voice undulating in a stream of music,” and Thomas Gratton said, “I thought it would be pleasant to fall asleep to the gushing melody of his discourse.” There is a theme creeping in here, I think. Coleridge could talk for England and not everyone was a fan. Henry Hillman said of his talk: ”One third was admirable, another third was sheer absolute nonsense, and of the remaining third, I know not whether it was sense or nonsense.” Not only did he talk a lot, but he talked about a great range of subjects. Gioacchino de’Prati, an Italian exile, wrote: “Whether he was speaking on metaphysics, theology, poetry, history, or the most trifling subjects, his genius threw a new light upon the object of his discourse.” Coleridge was perhaps aware of his limitations. When Sir William Hamilton, the mathematician and astronomer, voiced his reservations of Coleridge’s metaphysically idealistic applications of biology and physics: “I am not sure I understand them all,” Coleridge replied, “The question is, sir, whether I understand them all myself.” Coleridge’s talk did not just attract intellectual admiration. Coleridge’s nephew Henry, admittedly not an impartial observer, wrote in the preface to Table Talk: “(He) charmed by innocence as well as by eloquence. Women of taste…tended to proclaim him abundantly lovable.” Another person for whom Coleridge was not just a great intellect was Anne Gillman, wife of his host, doctor and friend: “He possessed a more heavenly nature than was ever before given to Man.” She may well have had a say in the wording of his memorial tablet in Highgate Church: “His disposition was unalterably sweet and angelic.” One woman was not charmed by Coleridge the Talker. Madame de Stael found him a “master of monologue mais qu’il ne savait pas le dialogue.” Possibly a mote and beam situation there!
Coleridge wrote and preached and lectured and talked. That was how he wove his spell and as we have seen, not all his contemporaries were bewitched. Some were, however, and his successors even more so. Of his contemporaries, perhaps it is the poets who owe him the most. Not those of his own age, but the next generation. He gave his friends Southey and Wordsworth a lot, but once they had tired of his behaviour they were reluctant to acknowledge the artistic debt they owed. Who knows, if they had stuck with him and his ideas they might have written better, avoided the contempt of the Young Turks and not ended up as Poets Laureate! Byron’s: “Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,/And representative of all the race.” must have hurt; and Shelley’s “To Wordsworth” – “Thou wert as a lone star…/Thus having been, that thou shouldst cease to be.” could have been a mortal blow, at least to his self-esteem. What did the next generation owe to Coleridge? We do not always need to work it out for ourselves. Scott recognised the influence of “Christabel” (which he had heard recited before it was published) on “The Lay of the Last Minstrel” and Byron wrote to Scott that he was “partly in the same scrape myself.” ““Siege of Corinth” leant on “Christabel” – “was it the wind through some hollow stone,/sent that soft and tender moan?” – a close, though unintentional resemblance.” It is a question of atmosphere –witchery by daylight – as much as anything, and we can follow this feeling into Keat’s “Eve of St Agnes” in which a room is “Pale, lattic’d, chill and silent as a tomb.” as well. The exotic world that Coleridge conjures up in “Kubla Khan” is often echoed in Byron; and Shelley’s “Ozymandias” also recalls its sense of power and loss: “…that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,”
Future generations of poets sought to emulate those aspects of Coleridge’s work which had been most sternly criticised at the time. A world in which “moonbeams are playing on a charnel house” is the stuff of Poe’s “The Raven” – “…this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt and ominous bird of yore.”; of Tennyson’s “The Lady of Shalott” – “The mirror crack’d from side to side”; and of Thomas Lovell Beddoes, son of Coleridge’s nitrous oxide – sniffing friend, who not only wrote about that Gothic world, but lived it: “It’s only two devils that blow/Through a murderer’s bones to and fro.” He poisoned himself at the age of forty -six and his last work, “Death’s Jest Book”, was published posthumously. Swinburne called Coleridge “the greatest poet born into this world” and lines like: “Cold eye-lids that hide like a jewel/Hard eyes…” show where his influences lay. Gerard Manley Hopkins’ ideas about sprung rhythm owe a debt to Coleridge’s thoughts on accent and quantity, and his drawing together of God and Nature would have pleased Coleridge: “He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change.” Oscar Wilde could not have contemplated writing “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” without the example of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”: “I never saw a man who looked/With such a wistful eye…” – though he does not use the ballad form as flexibly as Coleridge.
Nearer our own time we can sense Coleridge’s magic in the “moon-lit dome” of Yeats’ “Byzantium”; the fractured structure of Eliot’s “The Waste Land” echoes that of “Kubla Khan”; and isn’t Coleridge, who incorporated into his poetry his intense reaction to his own physical world, identical to Hardy’s “… man who used to notice such things” and the inspiration for Seamus Heaney’s “Seeing Things” in which “The stone’s alive with what’s invisible:”? On a lighter note, “Kubla Khan” and its creation have provided inspiration to Stevie Smith, whose “Thoughts on the Person from Porlock” include the idea that Coleridge was already stuck, that the person was called Porson, that his grandmother was one of the Rutlandshire warlocks (and not from Porlock), and that he had a cat called Flo. In Douglas Adams’ “Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency” a ghost has made Coleridge finish “Kubla Khan” and alter parts of “The Ancient Mariner” for its own nefarious purposes. Appositely, the plot features a Coleridge Dinner! Dirk Gently has to go back in time to stop Coleridge finishing “Kubla Khan” and thus save the world. And Fred Porlock (not his real name) interrupts Sherlock Holmes in “The Valley of Fear.”
“Hear the rime of the Ancient Mariner/See his eyes as he stops one of three” sounds familiar but different. It is the opening of Iron Maiden’s take on the story. The best bits of the song are where they just copy Coleridge’s words. They have the good grace to use quotation marks. They are not the only Heavy Metal band which has used STC for inspiration. How about this? “To seek the sacred river Alph/To walk the caves of ice/To break my fast on honeydew/And drink the milk of paradise” is from Rush’s “Xanadu”.
I think we can all agree that Coleridge has left his mark on poetry, whatever Hazlitt might have thought about his “nonsense verses”.
Where else did he leave his mark? He wrote “…if only ten minds have been awakened by my writings, the intensity and the benefit may well compensate for the narrowness of the extension.” He was aware of how complex his ideas were, and how difficult they were to communicate, yet he did not compromise on his ambition. The scale of this ambition is reflected in these words to John Thelwall: “My mind feels as if it ached to behold and know something great, something one and indivisible.” His daughter wrote: “He was almost always on the star-paved road, taking in the whole heavens in his circuit.” He wanted to achieve unity between the individual and society, between Man and Nature, and between Man and God. He talked of, “The only attempt that I know of ever made to reduce all knowledges into harmony…to unite the insulated fragments of truth.” Yes, he was ambitious.
His ambitions for the individual still seem desirable, and who can say they have yet been achieved? In his “Second Lay Sermon” he advocates: “making the means of subsistence more easy to each individual; securing to each individual the hope of bettering his own condition or that of his children; developing those faculties which are essential to a man’s humanity, that is, to his rational and moral being”. It seems like a good manifesto to me. He saw that “our manufacturers must consent to regulations” and followed this with a pamphlet campaign supporting a Bill to prohibit children under nine years old from working in cotton mills and to limit older children’s working hours to twelve and a half hours per day. It was defeated. Coleridge’s words about Lord Lauderdale, one of the Bill’s opponents, sound almost Swiftian in their irony: “Whether some half-score of rich capitalists are to be prevented from suborning suicide and perpetuating infanticide and soul-murder is, forsooth, the most perplexing question which has ever called forth his determining faculties, accustomed as they are well-known to have been, to grappling with difficulties.” He hated utilitarianism. “Persons are not things. Go…question the doctor whether the workman’s health and temperance…have found their level again?” At the other end of the political scale, foreign policy, he seems equally hard to disagree with: “I never think that statesman a great man who will assert that state policy cannot and ought not to be always regulated by morality.” John Stuart Mill wrote of “On the Constitution of the Church and State”: “Has the age produced any other theory of government which can stand comparison with it as to its first principles?”
Another aspect of Coleridge’s writing about man in society (though he would never have limited himself in that way), was his literary criticism. I was going to erase that sentence, because it is nonsense, except that the fact that I did write it says something about Coleridge. I wrote it because literary criticism is not about Man and Nature, and not about Man and God, which are the other two topics in this section of my talk. But of course for Coleridge these categories were meaningless. For him, poetry is about Man and Society and Nature and God. So I will include it here for convenience. When I looked at my notes I found that the first entry in the section on “Biographia Literaria” was from a letter from Coleridge to Humphrey Davy: “…the relation of thoughts to things. I have been dubitans, affirmans, negans,…imaginans et sentiens.” I.A. Richards chose it as an illustration in the first chapter of his book “Coleridge on Imagination”. I had forgotten that there was such an obvious link between Coleridge’s thinking on poetry and on science. I will limit myself to two quotations about Coleridge’s literary criticism. Richards writes: “Coleridge’s criticism requires us to reconsider our most fundamental preconceptions, our conceptions of man’s being – the nature of his mind and its knowledge.” Kathleen Coburn, the great Coleridge scholar who edited most of the Notebooks wrote: “Coleridge’s search for a criterion of poetry involved him in the wider search for a criterion of life.”
Coleridge was intensely interested in science. He was even more interested in making a bridge between science and poetry. The term “scientist” was only coined just before he died, and he would have described Davy and Beddoes and his other scientific friends as “natural philosophers”. He discussed with them burning topics like animal magnetism and the vital principle. He suggested to Davy that: “…all composition consists in the balance of opposing energies.” By emphasising their variety he linked Shakespeare (lunatic, lover and poet) with Davy (water, flame, diamond, charcoal) – now that is magic! He wrote that chemistry is the “poetry of the natural world.” When he looked at Nature it made him think. Darwin cannot have seen this, because it did not appear in print until 2002, but Coleridge wrote in his Notebook: “…the capability, to become, may be given.” He suggested that: “The dodo formed the transition from the water fowl to the Gallinaceous or Ostrich tribe.” Darwin would have been interested! Yet if he had lived to read it, Coleridge would have been as disturbed by the implications of “The Origin of Species” as Darwin knew his contemporaries would be. In the same Notebook Coleridge wrote: “The attempt to solve the problem of Existence, Order and Harmony, otherwise than by an Eternal Mind…is too revolting to common sense.”
Coleridge preached as a young man and never ceased to place religion and the Church at the centre of his thought. And his thought was surprisingly modern. John Stuart Mill wrote of “… the enlarged and liberal appreciation he extended to most thinkers from whom he differed.” I am writing this on the day that Pope Benedict arrives in Britain. Here is Coleridge: “I should not so far despair of a union between the Protestant and the now papal but still Catholic Church.” His religion and his humanity were inextricably linked. In “Aids to Reflection” he wrote: “The outward object of virtue is the greatest producible sum of happiness of all men.” His writing excited and inspired his successors. For Thomas Arnold, his ideas “…became a programme of action.” John Henry Newman, who became a cardinal, said that Coleridge contributed to the “…spiritual awakening of spiritual wants,” while a man of a very different religious stamp, F.D. Maurice the Christian Socialist, said that: “Mister Coleridge’s help has been invaluable to us.” Gladstone, commenting on the State in its relation with the Church, found Coleridge’s work “…alike both beautiful and profound.” In the twentieth century, T.S. Eliot drew on Coleridge’s ideas about the Church and State for his “The Idea of a Christian Society”, published in 1940; and on the 18th of March 2008, Rowan Williams gave a Holy Week lecture in which he quoted Coleridge’s description of the Church as a “ ‘critical friend’, in the political sphere.”
I took my title from Carlyle, and said that I would return to him. He certainly damned Coleridge with faint praise. He called him: “A man of great and useless genius.” Yet there was also affection: “I never heard him discourse without feeling ready to worship him and toss him in a blanket.” Coleridge was far from perfect, but did you know that Goebbels read Carlyle’s “Frederick the Great of Prussia” to Hitler? Or that Samuel Butler said that: “It was very good of God to let Carlyle and Mrs Carlyle marry one another, and so make only two people miserable and not four.”? Other contemporaries were more generous to Coleridge. This is de Quincey: “The largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive…that has yet existed among men.” Hazlitt, despite his hostile reviews, thought Coleridge: “The only person I ever knew who answered to the idea of a man of genius.” And Thomas Arnold enthused: “Old Sam was more of a great man than anyone who has lived within the four seas in my memory.” Leslie Stephen, in the Dictionary of National Biography, wrote that: “Coleridge alone among English writers is in the front rank at once as poet, as critic, and as philosopher.” And this is D.H. Lawrence: “I’d like to know Coleridge, when Charon has rowed me over.” And today? Well, you are all here to honour him. And I found this on a website called 3 quarksdaily.com. It is dated 12th April 2010 and is discussing Coleridge’s thoughts on perception. “He was a meta-cognitive theorist far ahead of his time…a startlingly contemporary figure.” He was indeed a magus.
READING AND PLAYING: Coleridge in Ottery
A talk given by Graham Davidson at the Coleridge Anniversary Lunch in 2009
I’ll begin on what I hope is a non-controversial note: Ottery is a lovely town―this is only my third visit, but the place is growing on me, nestling into its little hollows, homely, friendly, and the collegiate church on the hill still symbolizing a light not to be hidden. Ottery is a place to feel settled in, or to settle into―Chris told me that the happiest here are those who have lived here longest. It is of course different from Coleridge’s day, but not so different, not so changed as to be unrecognizeable; we can still feel the continuity between then, the late 1770s when Coleridge was a child here, and now, nearly some 250 years later. We, of a certain age, like that sense of continuity. We can still wander down through the fields, along the side of the Otter and look into the Pixies Parlour, and though the initials that Coleridge and his brothers carved into the rocks have gone, others have taken their place. There, in 1793, Coleridge led a troop of young ladies, and wrote a poem pretending he was the prince of pixies, welcoming them to his cell, and crowning one of them, a certain Miss Boutflour, or Beaufleur, the Fairy Queen―and Coleridge, being something of a playful flirt, noticed the rather still, quiet presence of this girl, her ‘white-rob’d Purity of Soul’ as he called it, and was determined to warm her up a bit, and as the last line of the poem says, ‘Extract a Blush for Love!’ History doesn’t tell us whether he succeeded, but he was just down from Cambridge, where he had taken to drinking and womanizing with a kind of guilty gusto, so he wasn’t very likely to have taken No for an answer.
Ottery is a place to be happy in. The household into which Samuel Taylor was born consisted of up to a dozen people, mostly older brothers, coming and going at different times. It was a household under various and considerable pressures―his parents also ran a boarding school for some twenty boys―but his mother was a great manager, and it is unlikely that he, the youngest child, noticed these pressures unduly. For his first nine years Coleridge lived in circumstances that were as normal as normal ever is. He had a mother and a father at home, an older half-sister, Elizabeth or Betsy, around the house, and companions in Nancy―five years older, but, as he later imagined her, ‘My playmate when we both were clothed alike’; and Frank, just two years older, whom he would describe as ‘the hero of all my little tales.’ So young Sam had the streets and the fields to play in, the river to bathe in, companions to play with, and a family around him. All should have been well.
But, sadly, it wasn’t. Coleridge wasn’t happy in Ottery. He wanted to be happy here, and thus he became deeply divided in his attitudes to this place and its people, and he would later look back, especially in his some of his poems, and try to discern that he had had some kind of happiness in and around this town. But most of his more honest accounts reveal a very different story. And why he wasn’t happy tells us something of what he was as a boy, and what he became as a man.
The simplest, and bleakest, account of his childhood, was written down in 1799 by William Godwin, the author of Political Justice, published in 1793. Godwin was then hugely famous, or infamous, in his early fifties, and yet something about the boyish 26 year old fascinated him, as it fascinated almost everyone else. So he jotted down Coleridge’s life as Coleridge told it to him over supper, and a few telling phrases sum up his nine years in Ottery:
The youngest son, & on that account treated by the nurse-maid of his next older brother, as an intruding rival – beaten and sickly, takes refuge in early & immoderate reading, particularly the Arabian Nights – accustomed only to the conversation of grown persons, he becomes arrogant and conceited.
That is it: the next paragraph moves onto Christ’s Hospital, where he was just as unhappy, and as we shall discover, for much the same reasons. Other accounts fill out this picture, and though the energy and ebullience of Coleridge’s writing occasionally seem to disguise the bleak truth a little, his childhood misery is his constant theme. For instance, he opens his account of his life from three to six with the paradoxical ‘My Father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling ― in consequence, I was very miserable’. That misery he then ascribes to the nurse-maid’s rejection of him, as in Godwin’s account. He saw himself as an ‘intruding rival’. There is a raw truth in these words: the last and sickly fledgling in an overcrowded nest, to be booted out so that Frank could survive. Given how old his parents were―the Rev. John was 53 when his youngest son was born, and Ann Coleridge was 45, she having borne 10 children in 18 years―that nurse-maid might reasonably have expected Frank to be the last of John and Ann’s children, and that Frank would not have any more competition in sharing the family’s resources.
We know who that nurse-maid was―Molly Newbery, whose death is recorded in the parish register on 21 July 1819, when she was 82. She was living at The Flexton, the market-place at the top of the hill, at the end of Silver Street, and interestingly, also the place to where Betsy, Coleridge’s half-sister, eventually returned from Exeter, after her husband Jacob Phillips died. She and Molly had spent many years together as John Coleridge’s second family grew up around them, and we can reasonably speculate that they were sufficiently fond of each other to live together, or close by each other, in old age.
Coleridge constantly gives Molly a bad press―‘For Molly, who had nursed my Brother Francis, and was immoderately fond of him, hated me because my mother took more notice of me than of Frank…’. He and Frank fought over food―one of the several pressures the family was subject to. Frank hated Sam ‘because my mother gave me now & then a bit of cake, when he had none — quite forgetting that for one bit of cake which I had & he had not, he had twenty sops in the pan & pieces of bread & butter with sugar on them from Molly, from whom I received only thumps & ill names.’ Those thumps are perhaps the beatings referred to in Godwin’s note. That letter was written in 1797. He believes that Molly taught Frank to spurn him, and in 1805, lonely in Malta, hearing the bells ringing on a day of festivities, he wonders why he always feels so alone on fair days and holidays, and remembers, ‘That by poor Frank’s dislike of me when a little Child I was even from Infancy forced to be by myself…’ Some thirty years later, and within two years of his death, he wrote that it was Molly’s jealousy, ‘and the infusions of her Jealousy into my Brother’s mind’ that resulted in his being, in earliest childhood, ‘lifted away from the enjoyments of muscular activity – from Play – to take refuge at my mother’s side on my little stool, to read my little books and to listen to the Talk of my Elders―I was driven from Life in Motion to Life in thought and sensation.’
This division he makes between life in motion, and another life in thought and sensation, is absolutely central to what Coleridge becomes as a poet, a thinker, and a man. Don’t, by the way, think that he means what we mean by sensation; it’s not, for him, the external stimulus of the senses; it is rather the sense of life arising from the stimulation of the mind or heart or intellect―the quality of feeling that we know when we find ourselves deeply involved in a book or a discussion. Life in motion was the life he always felt he lacked, or didn’t have enough of―and he came to associate it with the powers of poetry – remember the desolation of the Mariner when ‘Down dropt the breeze, the Sails dropt down,/’Twas sad as sad could be’ and the cheerfulness he feels when the wind breathes on him again, ‘Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze―/ On me alone it blew.’ The wind and the breeze are frequent metaphors of creativity in his writings. He loved other kinds of motion too, dancing for instance, though the puritan in him resisted it, and one of his earliest notes celebrates the exuberance of nature – he is on the Quantocks
On the broad mountain-top
The neighing wild-colt races with the wind
O’er fern & heath-flowers― (CN I 213)
The wild colts still race around the Quantocks―another continuity to be glad of. When later in life he developed this note, he called it ‘a hymn of thanksgiving’. And with this natural exuberance he connected human emotion, and when that was, for whatever reason, suppressed in him or denied to him, then he turned to the workings of his intellect, to what he called in the Dejection ode, ‘abstruse research’ or in Frost at Midnight, ‘abstruser musings’. This working of the intellect, away from motion and emotion, became his refuge when he could not find his place in the immediate world; and this ability to retreat from people and situations that did not welcome him, he first learnt as a child―taking refuge by his mother’s side, reading his little books on his little stool―and the reason for his having to retreat he always ascribed to Molly―her thumps and name-calling. It would be interesting to know what names she did call him, because it might tell us what she thought his problem was. But Coleridge is silent on that.
And yet, was Molly really the villain of the story? Not in my view. I think the cause of his unhappiness lies as much in Coleridge himself, as in his circumstances. He proved to be an exceptionally intelligent boy exceptionally early in life. He was sent to a school, close to the baker’s, run by ‘Old Dame Key’, the very image of Shenstone’s Schoolmistress, he said. We don’t know what he meant by that, but at the heart of Shenstone’s poem is a woman inflicting often unjust corporal punishment on her pupils: could Coleridge have been beaten that early in his life? If so, it would explain why being beaten was at the forefront of his memory. However, whatever the cause, at the end of that first year at school, when he was just three, he says that he could read a chapter in the Bible. Not so unusual perhaps, but with it went a clear understanding of what he was reading, and this undoubtedly is unusual. Later, at Cambridge he was famed for reading all the political pamphlets of the day, and one fellow student says that the rest of them didn’t bother to read the pamphlets themselves, because Coleridge could repeat them verbatim in the evening over a cup of negus, and then discuss their pros and cons; not just what we might call a photographic memory, but as he says of himself a ‘Memory tenacious & systematizing’ (CL I 71) And having started to read, nothing, it seems, could stop him. Coleridge describes simple cause and effect―Molly alienated him from Frank, took him away from play, forced him to sit close to his mother to avoid her thumps, and so he read. I think it’s much more a chicken and egg question―that is, his reading alienated him from Frank, from his peers, and took him into a world beyond his actual age, and play then probably seemed rather pointless to him, compared to the excitement of his reading. And then he found he couldn’t play, and moped; occasionally, as he put it, his spirits came upon him, his animal spirits, his desire for motion, and he ‘used to run up and down the church-yard, and act over all [he] had been reading on the docks, the nettles, and the rank-grass.’ He was only five. This was his only form of play, and he was by himself.
He seems to have got into the Arabian Nights quite early, before he was six. Until recently my concept of the Arabian Nights was very disneyized―anodyne fun―Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Aladin and the Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, and so forth. Then I began to read Sir Thomas Burton’s translation, and discovered what you probably all know, that they have a dark heart. The opening tale, which is the framework for the whole, is one of the darkest and most brutal, and Coleridge could not have read the many that he did without being conscious that they were all set against a background of perverse lust, ruthless slaughter and ever-impending doom. If the boy was in any way gaining an insight into human motivation via these tales, it would have been a terrifying realization. But it would also have been completely absorbing. Briefly, the opening story runs thus: two brothers, both kings, discover their wives to be unfaithful―Zaman, the younger, finds his wife ‘embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime.’ They are asleep, and without hesitation, Zaman draws his scimitar and with a single stroke cuts them both in two, closes the door, and goes off to visit his brother, Shahryar. There he sees his brother’s queen calling down from a tree ‘a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes’ whom she embraced warmly, and then, in Burton’s words, ‘he threw her and enjoyed her.’ Discovering that even the closely kept wife of a fearsome genie has had hundreds lovers, and who forces the two brothers to make love to her while her husband sleeps―she threatens to wake him unless they perform―they go back to Shahryar’s palace, where he orders the execution of the queen, and he himself goes to the Serraglio and slays all the concubines and their Marmelukes. But the worst is yet to come. So as never to be deceived again, Shahryar takes a virgin as wife every night, and has her executed in the morning to prevent what he sees as her otherwise inevitable infidelity, a habit he keeps up for three years―thus slaughtering over a thousand virgins. Shahrazad, the last of two virgins left, both daughters of Chief Wazir, who has been tasked with the daily executions, is saved from the same doom, by her nightly story-telling―after which she always goes to the bed of her husband, ‘this pious and auspicious King’ as she calls him, not knowing her fate the next day. To an adult, behind this unlikely and cruel framework, there is a touch of dark comedy. But children don’t find it easy to make the distinction between a convention and a reality. What is more, the story is, in the terms that Coleridge perhaps meant, sensational, compelling, and even a revelation of what human beings are, and the forces they are subject to. How much more absorbing, we might think, than mooching about in the churchyard by oneself, knocking down the nettles, or attempting to play rather half-heartedly with boys who don’t really want you there, and whose motivations seem petty by comparison with these wild tales.
And Coleridge’s reading wasn’t superficial The tale that he specifies as giving him nightmares, ‘the tale of a man who was compelled to seek for a pure virgin’―the phrase ‘pure virgin’ turns out to be no tautology: most of the virgins in the tale are impure of mind or heart―occurs some two thirds of the way through a modern single volume edition; an edition Coleridge might have read runs to some 12 volumes. Why that tale in particular gave him nightmares is difficult to understand, as it is one in which charm and honesty rule throughout―but it is also one which distinguishes between the superficial and the real sources of motivation, between appearance and reality. However, the disturbance that the young Coleridge felt was manifest to his father, who took an action we would consider unwise these days―he burnt the books, not just a single book, but several―a violent and extreme action in itself, which must have re-inforced his son’s sense that those volumes contained dangerous and forbidden knowledge. The effect this action has on him, though he hero-worshipped his father, is oddly parallel to the effect of Molly’s action: of hers he says, ‘So I became fretful, & timorous, & a tell-tale ― & the School-boys drove me from play, & were always tormenting me ― & hence I took no pleasure in boyish sports ― but read incessantly.’ And of his father’s, in the same letter, he says, ‘So I became a dreamer ― and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity ― and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate, and as I could not play at any thing, and was slothful, I was despised & hated by the boys…’.
Molly gets all the blame―his father none. It’s odd, and of course it points to Coleridge not quite facing up to what was really going on in his life. My impression is that in fact his intense reading, his inactivity, is upsetting everyone in the household: he was completely unlike all the other Coleridge boys, especially Frank, whom he fondly characterizes as hating books, but who ‘loved climbing, fighting, playing, & robbing orchards, to distraction’―Frank was a boy in motion, and we can see why he became the hero of all his younger brother’s little tales. Thus we can see Molly’s thumps and his father’s burning of his books as trying to achieve the same end―getting the young Sam up and moving, to make him behave like all other boys. But it simply wasn’t in his nature. He was, as he says much later in his life in respect of his brothers, ‘different in kind’.
We can see how much he was the boy he had made himself, rather than being made by others, when his circumstances changed radically after his father’s death, and he was sent to Christ’s Hospital. He saw this as a catastrophe, the home suddenly lost to him that he would never find again. But despite the depth of this feeling, his description of his early years at school in London exactly matches that of the boy in Ottery. Godwin’s account of Coleridge’s school days begins, ‘treated with contumely and brutality’; and in the late autobiographical note he presents himself as, ‘Deprest, moping, friendless… from 8 to 14 I was a playless Dreamer… Conceive what I must have been at 14―I had never played―I was in a continued low fever―my whole Being was with eyes closed to every object of present sense―to crumple myself up in a sunny Corner, and read, read, read―’. We know he had access to a circulating library, from which he took out two volumes a day, and he says he read through the whole catalogue, whether he understood the books or not. This was not a library of novels, but works of philosophy, theology, exploration and the emerging sciences―all before he was 15; when Coleridge said, at about the age of 24, ‘I have read almost everything’, this is often taken as hyperbole; but it probably shouldn’t be―almost everything there was to read, he had read.
But he was miserable, and his reading was both the cause and consequence of his misery. Happily, however, something rather wonderful happened to Coleridge when he was about 15―he found a surrogate family, and fell in love with the oldest of three daughters, Mary Evans. He calls this time, from 15 to 19, just before he went to Cambridge, ‘the aera of poetry and love’, and it was probably the happiest time of his life. And with that emotion came physical motion―Coleridge learnt to play. He describes himself as bursting forth from his misery and mopery, and going off to swim with friends in the New River in London. By contrast, we never hear of his swimming in the Otter. Wearing wet clothes put him in the sick bay, but there he was tenderly nursed by one Jenny Edwards, only two years older than himself, the daughter of a matron, and for her he wrote Genevieve, his earliest love poem.
Once he had burst forth, once he had learnt to play, Coleridge in his happiest moments was always playful―‘joyous’ is one of the words used to describe him, even in his old age. His notes and letters are full of puns, jokes and exuberant stories―he was a very good story teller―and circles of listeners always formed around him. Two kinds of life went on in him; on the one hand he could read difficult works intensely for days on end―he once described himself as ‘sunk in Spinoza… as undisturbed as a Toad in a Rock’. But he was also a hugely energetic walker, exhausting or outpacing his early companions. He loved movement, and so he understood the value and importance of play, and delighted in his own son, Hartley, dancing about in the breeze like a faery elf―the very kind of thing that as a child Coleridge himself didn’t do.
And by way of a concluding reflection, I wonder whether this conflict in him between wanting to play on the one hand, and being unable to on the other, didn’t have some bearing on where he ran away to after the minced cheese incident with Frank, when, fearing a whipping from his mother, he struggled from her grasp and ran out of the house. He didn’t run out into the garden, or down towards the Pixies’ Parlour, but out of the front door, down the sunken lane, across the Chanter’s House fields, and so to the edge of the Otter, about a furlong, that’s some 200 metres, from Cadhay bridge. A month or so ago, Chris took me to see the spot where, given Coleridge’s precise description, he almost certainly ended up, and where he pulled a dry thornbush over himself by way of an ineffective blanket. When we got there, there was a village bathing party on the other side of the river, and Chris told me that in the earlier days of the 20th C there was a bathing hut there. Another continuity to be celebrated, I thought.
And on this side of the river, on the slope where Coleridge slept, I saw a rope swing, and the bank worn bare into paths, and what looked like bmx jumps and tracks. There was also something like a barbecue pit, or a smaller version of the pixies parlour, containing plastic bottles, beer cans, crisp packets and in T S Eliot’s words ‘other testimony of summer nights’. So this is where the youth of Ottery come out to play and swim and party, I thought, and have perhaps for time immemorial; but it is also where Coleridge ran away to. And from the accounts of how the town searched for him, they seemed to have known that he had gone there. But of all the places he could have run away to, why there? We won’t ever know of course, but I just wonder if he wasn’t drawn to the place where if he could, he would have played, and where sometimes he might have gone and sat on the bank, the ‘little shilling book’ in his pocket with ‘morning & evening prayers’ printed at the back, watching, a little enviously, the other boys of the town playing on the slope below him, and he longing for a life in motion, of which he had been deprived, not by Molly, not by Frank, nor by anyone else, but by his natural and astounding genius.