Woods
Coleridge
Woods

 

 

amuel Taylor Coleridge danced on the imaginations of his contemporaries. One of them, John Keats, after a two-mile walk with Coleridge and friend J.H. Green, feverishly wrote to his brother a list of subjects covered by Coleridge on the walk – an inventory which came to approximately twenty-one topics, ranging from poetry to metaphysics, dreams and nightmares, monsters, the Kraken and ghosts. Hauntingly Keats concludes, “I heard his voice as he came towards me – I have heard it as he moved away – I have heard it all the interval – if it may be called so” (qtd. in Coleridge 42). Shelley, though removed in Italy, was awestruck by Coleridge and cast him as “a mind, / Which, with its own internal lightning blind, / Flags wearily through darkness and despair - / A cloud-encircled meteor of the air, / A hooded eagle among blinking owls” (qtd. in Coleridge 42). However, possibly the best and boldest encapsulation of Coleridge’s character struck Henry James, who soon after reading an early biography on the Romantic, confided to his notes, “of the general responsibility of rising to the height of accepting him for what he is, recognizing his rare, anomalous, magnificent, interesting, curious, tremendously suggestive character, vices and all, with all its imperfections on its head, and not be guilty of the pedantry, the stupidity, the want of imagination, of fighting him, deploring him in the details – failing to recognize that one must pay for him and that on the whole he is magnificently worth it” (qtd. in Early Visions xvin).

His person, simultaneously garrulous, persuasive, impulsive, inquisitive, shrewd, self-mocking, self-pitying, self-glorifying, imaginative, reclusive, social and hedonistic, demands that we pay the forfeit of justice in staring at his imperfections but instead he is, and we are, made the richer in our acceptance for he was very much worth it. He wrote not only as a Romantic (for us to cast sail on his ship) but lived with all his soul as one: “I would compare the Human Soul to a ship’s crew cast on an Unknown Island” (Coleridge qtd. in Coleridge i).

Coleridge’s precocity and uniqueness of character were evident from his early years in Ottery St Mary in the Southwest of England. At just three years of age, Coleridge could read a chapter of the Bible and attended the local dame-school which he fondly remembered for the “three cakes” he was given on the walk to school (Early Visions 6).  At age six, his appetite for books was commensurate to that of his stomach, and he gobbled the entirety of his aunt’s book collection at her shop, in one instance, recalling the excitement of poring over The Arabian Nights: “I can never forget with what a strange mixture of obscure dread and intense desire I used to look at the volume and watch it, till the morning sunshine had reached and nearly covered it, when, and not before, I felt the courage given me to seize the precious treasure” (Coleridge qtd. in Early Visions 11). His imaginative stare transformed the simplest of objects into mystical experiences, where the world became his playground: from St Mary’s Church where his father served as vicar, to the River Otter where he would skip stones and follow the water’s edge till it reached the coast, Pixie’s Parlour where he engaged with fantastical Lilliputians, to the fancy he took to neighbor Northcote’s spiral staircase, with its sprawling landings and plants, which struck him as suspended in air (a structure he tried to impose upon his poetry as against the rigidity of Georgian staircases) (Early Visions 13). The nine years he spent in his hometown left an indelible impression on his all-consuming mind, where he digested and reflected on the smallest incident or observation, his physical appearance, his place in the family and in the town, and his burgeoning mind, and these impressions and memories would inform and affect him for the rest of his life.

Upon leaving Ottery St Mary, Coleridge’s travels carried him from King’s School to Christ’s Hospital to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he enrolled at the age of nineteen in 1791 (Early Visions 39). At times productive, sometimes celebrated, failure to land the Craven Scholarship (Early Visions 49) saw him “Amid the general chaos of debts and guilt and misery, so strangely shadowed by the growing confidence in his powers as a poet” (Early Visions 53). He left university, likely drank heavily in London, and enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons, unbeknownst to friends and family (Coleridge 4) – thus exercising a lifelong habit of absconding which would put him at strained relations with intimates. He would toil two years in the army before being rescued by brother George and eventually returned to Cambridge in 1794 (Early Visions 59) desperately seeking a scheme which would help conjoin aspiration, inspiration, camaraderie, a feeling of belonging and involvement; and these came to a head in Pantisocracy, a vision he would relate to fellow aspirer and friend, Robert Southey: “[Pantisocracy] requires the most wakeful attentions of the most reflective minds in all moments to bring it into practice – It is not enough, that we have once swallowed it – The Heart should have fed upon the truth, as Insects on a Leaf – till it be tinged with colour, and shew its food in every the minutest fibre” (qtd. in Coleridge 4). Friend Thomas Poole, who would later bring Coleridge to Nether Stowey, coldly described the practical intent of the project: “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, their leisure hours to be spent in study, liberal discussions, and the education of the children” (qtd. in Early Visions 72).

When the visionary commune, to be set on the banks of the Susquehanna, did not materialize, Coleridge, in dire need of faithful companionship, found himself at the end of Lime Street in Nether Stowey, Somerset, and it was his time here, amid the hills of the Quantocks, which would prove the most prolific poetic period of his life. When rebuked by Charles Lloyd’s father for his plan to live a Spartan lifestyle, without, “companions and intellectual stimulation,” Coleridge replied, “I shall have six companions – My Sara, my Babe, my own shaping and disquisitive Mind, my Books, my beloved Friend, Thomas Poole, & lastly, Nature, looking at me with a thousand looks of Beauty, and speaking to me in a thousand melodies of Love” (qtd. in Early Visions 133). The Quantocks surrounding Nether Stowey became the perfect backdrop for Coleridge’s wanderlust and fascination with Nature, but equally important was the friendship he would cultivate with fellow English poet, William Wordsworth, whom he met through a mutual publisher, Joseph Cottle. Wordsworth, tall, quiet, and reclusive was the perfect foil to Coleridge’s lustful and vivacious nature for despite the difference in disposition, the two shared in two loved pursuits: poetry and walking (Coleridge 9).

Together they ambled about the Quantocks, deliberating on “the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination” (Coleridge qtd. in Coleridge 10). Coleridge very much found the companion Nature which would look upon him with “a thousand looks of Beauty,” for it was on walks such as the 36-mile trek from Nether Stowey to Porlock, weaving its way through quaint countryside towns, up and down mild hills, that inspired Coleridge to “Kubla Kahn” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and offered muse for “Fears in Solitude,” “Frost at Midnight,” “This Lime-Tree Bower my Prison,” “The Eolian Harp,” and the dual-project, Lyrical Ballads.

After his time in Nether Stowey, Coleridge suffered through a failed marriage, declining career, increased drug abuse, and suicidal tendencies, and these carried him to Highgate for convalescence and supervision under physician, James Gillman (Early Visions i). Henry James, spotting a story in Coleridge’s biography, wrote a short piece about Coleridge’s Highgate days, which was to become The Coxon Fund, 1894.  Interestingly, if my count is correct, Coleridge, who appears as Frank Saltram, never speaks a single word, a not so subtle irony. Only once are we, the reader, face to face with Saltram, when the narrator happens upon him sitting on a bench, “I stopped short as he turned his face to me, and it happened that for some reason or other I took in as I had perhaps never done before the beauty of his rich blank gaze.  It was charged with experience as the sky is charged with light, and I felt on the instant as if we had been overspanned and conjoined by the great arch of a bridge or the great dome of a temple” (Edel 174). All we have of Saltram’s character are the impressions and hearsay of his wife, those he lived with, and those who rushed for his company, and they, simultaneously awed by his intellect and charm, and repulsed by his habit for drugs and drink and sloth, fall victim to the warning put forth by James in his notes.  Miss Anvoy, executor of the Coxon Fund to be endowed on an artist of exquisite genius, moments after claiming dislike of Saltram, remarks, “What can one do when a person has given such a lift to one’s own interest in life?” (Edel 172) On the one hand, James comments on the wonderful power of the average man: the inability and inevitability of restraining himself from plucking a flower; on the other, what a beautiful flower he was.  Coleridge’s character reclined to habits which countered his brilliance, cast a dark shadow over his glow, and it was with severe myopia those of his time neglected him, because of those habits, sacrificing him at the stake. Therefore it has become our duty to make amends, for if not, the once beautiful flower of his person, of his passion, will fade into extinction, and we, who crave in the every moment, a beacon of inspiration, to carry us, to give us some hope to hold onto, will be left alone, as he died alone.

Copyright © 2007 Siddharth Bansal, Kenyon College, All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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