Coleridge and his Friends

Coleridge was passionate about who he felt were his ‘friends’, and those elected to favour he blessed with unstinting adulation – In his days at Nether Stowey, Tom Poole is top of the heap, earning the following plaudit “Of many friends, whom I love and esteem, my head & heart have ever chosen you as the Friend—as the one being, in whom is involved the full & whole meaning of that sacred Title…” Letter of 15 September 1798 to Tom Poole.

There were many such who were attracted to Coleridge luminous company, and in whom he invested his efforts at friendship. His isolation as a boy in Ottery taught him that he must work hard to secure any sympathetic attention. At Christ’s Hospital School to which he was sent at nine years old, he discovered that his natural talents could indeed attract an audience. The following are a few of the principal characters drawn into Coleridge’s circle.

Christs Hospital School and Cambridge

Charles Lamb - Coleridge's lifelong supporter

His time at Christ’s Hospital School led to his abiding friendship with Charles Lamb. Of all Coleridge’s friends Lamb was the most devoted and constant (although even he felt irked by some of Coleridge’s unthinking criticism of his poetic style).

It was Lamb who described Coleridge as ‘an archangel – a little damaged’, and who was always vigorous in his defence. To Coleridge’s critics who, complaining that Coleridge wasted his genius, prefaced their remarks with “Poor Coleridge…” he reproved them by saying ” Do not call him ‘Poor Coleridge’ – call him Coleridge – I cannot bear to see pity applied to such a one”.

Coleridge’s Cambridge days did not lead to any lasting contacts but the moment he left it to embark on a walking tour of Wales, he met Robert Southey who was then at Oxford. The two of them immediately struck up a friendship, and began to discuss a scheme for the perfect society, which Coleridge named Pantisocracy.

Robert Southey - portrait by John James Masquerier, 1800.

Southey played a huge role in Coleridge’s life. In the mid 1790s they spent time together in Bristol discussing the Pantisocratic project and roaming around the local countryside. Through Southey, Coleridge met his future wife, Sara – sister of Edith Fricker, who became Southey’s wife. When Coleridge was on his Scottish Walk, Southey’s twelve year old daughter died of a fever, so he and his wife, grief stricken, headed north to the Coleridge’s Keswick home, for comfort and solace. They remained there eventually assuming guardianship of Coleridge’s family when he was absent (which was frequently, and eventually permanently).

He was a principal author of the notion that Coleridge has failed to properly exercise his genius for the public good, and believed that if Coleridge could just make an effort (to overcome his enslavement to opium) all would be well – he could again take up his responsibilities to the world. Southey famously quoted Hamlet to characterise Coleridge’s fate: “what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”

Southey became Poet  Laureate in 1813, remaining in post until succeeded by Wordsworth in 1843.

Bristol, Clevedon, Nether Stowey 1795-1800

From the moment he began to cause a stir as a political orator in Bristol, Coleridge attracted wider attention of the cultural elite of the day. As well as writers and artists,  this group included industrial entrepreneurs, radical religious and political thinkers, and scientists (some leading figures were all these things).

Thomas Poole of Nether Stowey. Tanner, radical and supporter of Coleridge and his family

During this same period. Coleridge met another figure who was to play a great part in long term support for him and his family.

By 1794 Tom Poole has already begun to take an interest in radical politics, much to the concern of some of his wider family in and around Stowey. When Coleridge and Southey stopped by on a recruitment tour for the Pantisocracy project, he instantly noted and was much attracted to Coleridge’s brilliance.

Not long after he found accommodation for Coleridge in Stowey, the now famous ‘Coleridge Cottage’, where the family lived until 1800.

Poole’s commitment to friendship outlasted Coleridge’s. In later life he kept up a regular correspondence with Sara Coleridge, and maintained a fatherly interest in Coleridge’s children – particularly Hartley, who had been a child at the cottage in Nether Stowey.

William Wordsworth in 1798. He met Coleridge sometime in 1795

Also at this time, Coleridge met William Wordsworth in Bristol. Coleridge was aware of Wordsworths poetry before meeting him, and they began to correspond. When they met, Coleridge’s magic talk soon drew Wordsworth into a closer relationship, and both William and his sister Dorothy, who had been living in West Dorset, moved to Alfoxden House three miles west of Stowey, in order to maintain the benefits of Coleridge’s company. The friendship was not without its problems – professional and personal, but Wordsworth was never in doubt about Coleridge’s genius. “he was” said Wordsworth following Coleridge’s death in 1834, “the only wonderful man I ever knew”.

There are many others who knew Coleridge and were drawn to his genius – among them William Hazlitt, Humphrey Davy, Thomas de Quincey, William Godwin and members of the Lloyd (later of the bank) and Wedgewood (pottery) families.