The title of my post today is intended to be ambiguous: I mean to say that it is thanks to the love of his wife Mary that Percy Shelley is celebrated as a major poet, and that both he and all poetry readers must thank her for her efforts. As she wrote, ‘He died, and the world showed no outward sign. But his influence over mankind, though slow in growth, is fast augmenting; and, in the ameliorations that have taken place in the political state of his country, we may trace in part the operation of his arduous struggles’. Yet, while it is true that Percy Shelley’s post-humous fame was based on the gradual discovery that his texts were politically relevant and inspirational for later times, his writings would not have survived without Mary’s editorial intervention and her determination to make them be known.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) died shortly before his thirtieth birthday. He had published a long list of volumes (about twenty) including poetry, drama, fiction, and essays but Shelley was known only by a small circle of connoisseurs. He had no public fame in life comparable to that which his good friend Lord Byron enjoyed (if that is the correct word) though he had a high impact among those who knew him. Famously, Byron said of Percy Shelley that ‘I never met a man who wasn’t a beast in comparison to him’, which suggest he was also well liked as a person, not only as an artist of the word.

Percy drowned in the sea, near Livorno in Italy, where he lived since 1818, in a boating accident that was the product of imprudence and poor seamanship. A fierce summer storm caused his poorly build ship, the Don Juan, to sink. Percy, his friend Edward Williams, and boat boy Charles Vivien had no time to react. Shelley’s much disfigured remains washed up on the shore eventually and he was cremated on the beach following Italian quarantine laws. Legend, established by the mendacious Edward Trelawney, has it that his heart survived the burning, though Duncan Wu argues that the cherished relic is possibly a piece of the liver… No matter. His devastated widow–who was only 24 and had also lost three children–set out to make sure that the memory of her husband survived for posterity, with the help of devoted friends like Leigh Hunt.

In 1824, two years after Percy’s death, Mary published Posthumous Poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley, a lovingly assembled volume which shows her accomplished editorial skills (she worked in some cases with almost undecipherable manuscripts). Amazingly, Mary had to withdraw this book from circulation at the request of her father-in-law, Sir Timothy Shelley. He adamantly refused her the right to publicise the details of his son’s complicated private life, fearing that scandal would hurt the snobbish family. Percy’s father only relented when he was approaching ninety, apparently out of affection for his grandson Percy Florence, Percy and Mary’s only surviving child. Sir Timothy finally allowed Mary to publish in 1839 The Poetical Works of Percy Bysshe Shelley, on condition that she did not include a biography. Mary added abundant notes to the poems that can be read as a sort of covert life of the poet. She had no doubt that her notes would tell the truth about the man, for she had ‘the liveliest recollection of all that was done and said during the period of my knowing him’.

I’ll get back to Sir Timothy later but I’d like to stop first at Mary’s ‘Preface’ for the 1839 anthology. My opinion about Percy Shelley is no doubt coloured by the negative view transmitted by my dear teacher Guillermina Cenoz that he was, basically, a selfish man. She saw Frankenstein as a work which Mary wrote mainly aiming to secretly expose and punish her husband’s artistic career and personal self-centredness for the cost it meant to family life. I tend to agree with her view, for Percy’s biography is, besides, full of his palpable need to get attention from adoring women: not only his two wives (Harriet Westbrook and Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin) but also other women present in his life as intimate friends, such as Jane Williams.

It is often supposed that Percy was a practitioner of free love, and that he not only had liaisons with other women but also that he tried to have Mary involved with other men. I think this is part of our constant over-sexualization of every close relationship and that Percy was, rather, a man who craved for emotional attention. Of course, what do I know? It occurs to me, though, that if he had misbehaved in a very serious way, Mary would not have made the effort of producing the two volumes (the second edited while her health was seriously impaired). She would not have written, either, the preface for, though she speaks of fulfilling a duty, nobody really expected her to do anything for her late husband.

Mary’s preface has been accused of sanitizing Percy and offering an angelic view of the man. She called him ‘a pure-minded and exalted being’ and though she referred to his brain and not his body, her hagiography, which led to Shelley’s canonization in Victorian times, is only now being contested from a more politically-oriented stance. It is important to recall that Mary was writing under the strict surveillance of Sir Timothy and that a loving widow (she never remarried) is not probably the most impartial judge of her dead husband. I find, however, the preface as candid a view of Percy as was possible under the circumstances and I don’t think, anyway, that an artist’s widow in more recent times would produce something substantially different in tone and intention. It is also interesting to note that the efforts of Mary’s own father, William Godwin, to honour his dead wife’s legacy, Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1798) caused much outrage because of his outspokenness. This was no doubt a precedent Mary had in mind.

Mary begins mentioning the ‘obstacles’ now ‘happily removed’ which allow her to ‘fulfil an important duty,—that of giving the productions of a sublime genius to the world, with all the correctness possible, and of, at the same time, detailing the history of those productions, as they sprang, living and warm, from his heart and brain’. She will offer no comments on his private life, ‘except inasmuch as the passions which they engendered inspired his poetry’. A bit mysteriously, she writes that the time ‘to relate the truth’ has not come and she will not, anyway, offer a convenient version. ‘Whatever faults he had ought to find extenuation among his fellows, since they prove him to be human; without them, the exalted nature of his soul would have raised him into something divine’. To err is to be human, then, though we will never know to what faults Mary referred. And why should we?

Now, for the main qualities: ‘First, a gentle and cordial goodness that animated his intercourse with warm affection and helpful sympathy. The other, the eagerness and ardour with which he was attached to the cause of human happiness and improvement; and the fervent eloquence with which he discussed such subjects’. Mary launches then into presenting Percy as a man fully committed to the cause of political freedom, with utmost passion: ‘any new-sprung hope of liberty inspired a joy and an exultation more intense and wild than he could have felt for any personal advantage’. These words were written after the passing of the 1832 Reform Act, the first timid step into the widening of the franchise to all male voters in Britain, and Mary stresses that decades before, when her husband was politically active, defending any kind of freedom was a risky enterprise. Percy’s poetry reflects ‘the determination not to despair’, against the tenet that Romanticism is the expression of despair.

Mary argues that Percy’s poems are of two types: ‘the purely imaginative, and those which sprang from the emotions of his heart’. Of the second type, the ‘more popular’, she writes that they were the expression of personal feeling that, while running deep, he was ‘usually averse to expressing (…) except when highly idealized’. This is puzzling for it suggests that Percy’s ‘intensity of passion’ and ‘extreme sensibility’ were better manifested in the poems than in person. Mary refers to finding fragments of unfinished poems with manifestations of his deep self of which she was not aware but, then, every person leads a secret emotional life not even available to their spouses. Interestingly, she mentions that Percy himself valued the ‘metaphysical strain’ expressed in the less popular poems above the personal effusion: ‘He loved to idealize reality; and this is a taste shared by few’, though she trusts that there is plenty in his Platonic poems ‘that speaks to the many’.

Mary, born in 1797, was forty-two when she wrote the preface, thirteen years older than when Percy died. She grants that ‘there is the stamp of such inexperience’ in all his production, for ‘the calm of middle life did not add the seal of the virtues which adorn maturity to those generated by the vehement spirit of youth’. On the other hand, Mary notes that her husband was a ‘martyr to ill-health’, attributing his heightened sensitivity to ‘constant pain’, which made this ‘perfectly gentle’ man often irritable and overexcited. Mary reports that the day before his untimely death Percy declared ‘If I die to-morrow I have lived to be older than my father’, meaning that his body had accumulated in less than thirty years more sensibility and feeling than many others could expect to have in much longer lives. Live fast, die young… and leave a sadly destroyed body and an inconsolable widow. A tragedy, really.

Percy Shelley’s family background is that of the gentry portrayed in Jane Austen’s novels. Percy’s paternal grandfather, Bysshe Shelley, was 1st Baronet of Castle Goring (a baronetcy is the lowest title in the aristocratic hierarchy; baronets are commoners with a right to be called Sir). His upward social mobility and that of his son Timothy were secured by means of rewarding matches with rich heiresses (the same tactic followed by Byron and his father). It is often forgotten that upper-class patriarchal masculinity treated sons as chattel to be traded with other equally powerful families, and this is what Percy resisted.

Initially the relationship with his father was good, as proven by the fact that Sir Timothy financed the first four volumes his son published (two collections of poems with one of his sisters, two gothic novels). A disastrous turning point happened, however, when Percy, then nineteen, married sixteen-year-old Harriet, a schoolmate of his sister Helen and the daughter of a coffee-house owner. If the Westbrooks thought the match would guarantee their daughters’ financial and personal happiness they were quickly deceived. Sir Timothy reduced Percy’s allowance to a minimum and the couple survived, together with her sister Elizabeth, mainly by borrowing much above their possibilities. To make matters even worse, Percy had got himself expelled from Oxford shortly before eloping with Harriet for having written the pamphlet ‘The Necessity of Atheism’. He had no degree, no qualifications, and no way of entering any of the gentry-sanctioned careers for men.

Romantic legend has presented the relationship between Percy and Mary as the stuff of beautiful, romantic legend but nothing could be further from the truth–it was, at least at the beginning quite a sordid affair. Percy originally met Mary when she was fourteen and he, then nineteen and recently married, a visitor in William Godwin’s home. Mary’s father was happy enough to receive money from his admirer but he was outraged when, two years later, Percy abandoned Harriet to elope with Mary, then sixteen, to Europe. They may have married there but if this happened then Percy became a bigamist. Harriet had his second child (Charles, the elder was Ianthe) a few months before Mary had her first with Percy, Clara. Mary and Percy could finally marry legally in England in 1816 a few weeks after Harriet drowned herself in Hyde Park’s Serpetine. She was then heavily pregnant, probably from a lover, not Percy. Sued by Elizabeth, Harriet’s sister, Percy lost custody of his two children, who were put in foster care. One can imagine Sir Timothy’s disgust as his son’s behaviour, though he did not come to the rescue in any way, leaving Harriet’s children unattended.

In the preface Mary writes that Percy ‘spurned’ his privileges because he foregrounded his ideological duties. ‘He was generous to imprudence, devoted to heroism’, she writes. I will not deny his idealism but it is important to note that once Sir Bysshe died in 1815, Percy became the beneficiary of an annuity of about £1000. This was not much in relation to the lifestyle of his social circle, which is why Mary and he eventually moved to Italy, where they frequently coincided with Byron. When Percy died, Mary depended on her work as a writer (she published other novels, not only Frankenstein) and on the rather limited help which Sir Timothy gave her for the upkeep of Percy Florence. It seems that one of his conditions was that she never used her name in her publications, to prevent any connection with the surname Shelley (see

The anonymous author of the article I have referenced calls Sir Timothy a ‘mean-spirited, hard-hearted’ man and a ‘forsaker of genius’, an expression I have found nowhere else on Google. This seems a fair judgement particularly since Sir Timothy was indeed aware of his son’s literary talent. The life he intended for Percy was a repetition of his own: a political career as an MP in some rotten borough under the protection of an aristocratic patron and marriage to a landowning heiress. It is easy to see why an idealistic youth like Percy would reject this plan but, of course, the downside of his rebelliousness is that Shelley always depended economically on the men of his family, both his father and his grandfather. This great defender of the workers of England never worked to earn a living, though I grant that he did much work on the literary front. In contrast another idealist young man decided decades later to make the most of his father’s money by running his factory and embezzling funds to start a political revolution. I mean, of course, Friedrich Engels (1820-1895).

Shelley’s idealism and commitment to the cause of freedom are, then, respectable but also the product of his class and privileged circumstances. Mary celebrated her late husband in her preface and the two anthologies but I wonder how she felt about Harriet. It is hard not to sympathise with this poor woman and her children. As a worker’s daughter I myself have a great deal of mistrust against upper-class individuals presenting themselves as liberators, much more so against those who never did a day’s paid work in their life. I may value Percy Shelley’s poetry (I really do) and I might accept that he was not as selfish as my teacher painted him. Still, I have many doubts about Shelley, beginning with whether he really deserved all the love Mary put into the task of ensuring his immortality. And I wonder whether he would have done the same for her.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


In a hilarious moment of the two-part documentary The Scandalous Adventures of Lord Byron (2009) presenter Rupert Everett discusses with Donatella Versace–as they wait for her butler to announce dinner at her own luxury Milan home–whether Byron (1788-1824) was really as handsome as so many contemporaneous testimonials claim. At this point, Everett has already seen diverse portraits and has even donned the same Albanian dress that Byron wears in the famous painting by Thomas Phillips, now at the National Portrait Gallery. Seeing handsome Everett look rather ridiculous in it, the spectator might conclude that Byron was indeed a man of good looks and even better poise. Also, a man who controlled each portrait that was made of him as we control our image in our Instagram accounts. He wanted specifically to look manly, a man of action and not a poet, as Everett notes, and also disguise a limp caused in childhood by polio.

Everett and Versace note that notions of beauty were very different in the early 19th century, suggesting that Byron’s physical appearance would not seem so extraordinary today. I find this quite tantalizing! Everett quips that, on the other hand, Byron must have looked stunning at a time when having all your teeth while still young was not common. At a later point in this second episode the tone changes and becomes a bit less flippant. Rather subtly, Everett’s comments start defending the view that by the time when Byron died, aged only 36, he was past his prime. The infection that killed him was an accident of life, perhaps one preventable, but the documentary hints that Byron’s choice of malaria-infested Missolonghi as his home in Greece was somehow suicidal. It is implied in short that had Byron lived on his life would have been a sad, gradual fall into physical decadence. This is, at the same time, part of the Byron myth: live fast, die soon, and conquer eternal fame. I’m not sure about leaving a beautiful body to bury.

In life, Byron enjoyed fame but he was mostly beset by celebrity and by notoriety–and, of course, scandal. It is fit that Everett, an openly gay man with a pansexual past, presents Byron’s biography, for George Gordon (this is his actual name) was a product of the sexual prejudice of his time or, rather, of its hypocrisy. Just as it seems impossible to discuss Coleridge without mentioning his drug addiction it seems impossible to discuss Byron without alluding to his sexual adventurousness. Likewise, whereas no biographical sketch of Wordsworth is complete without his sister Dorothy, no portrait of Byron can be offered without associating him with his half-sister Augusta Leigh (his father’s daughter by a first wife).

Byron might scream to high heaven that they did not commit incest and that Augusta’s third child Medora was her husband’s and not his but we would still doubt his word, for that is what celebrity and scandal are about: constructing people as we want them to be, not as they are. With lights and shadows: incest may be too much even for us but the pansexual man Everett describes is more to our taste. Funnily, as we dismantle the sexual prejudices of Byron’s time (serious enough to land you in jail for sodomy), we have started criticizing the man for not being handsome enough, and even for being at times in his life rather overweight. Duncan Wu, in particular, offers an image of an effeminate, flabby, shortish, stout Byron totally at odds with the connotations that the word ‘handsome’ awakes in our minds.

Byron was an aristocrat and though not an extremely rich man (he lived on borrowed money, mostly, like most of his class), he led a life of ease and luxury that seems to belong in the 18th century rather than the early 19th. He may be celebrated as a great national hero in Albania and Greece but his mildly Whig politics in defence of nationalism (and even at one point of the anti-Industrial Revolution luddites) are not based on very strong beliefs. It seems, rather, than in a world in which nobody cared for anyone beyond the national borders, Byron’s curiosity and personal presence in remote lands was in itself welcome as a heroic act. His contribution to the independence of Greece was, at best, very marginal and he seems to have been seen during his time at Missolonghi in the early 1820s as just a rich English lord that could be easily milked for his money, if you excuse the expression. He did not die a hero’s death in battle as one might expect from all the exaltation but simply write verse that vaguely endorsed the right of Greece to be a free nation again, on the strength of what it used to be in the classical past. He died, as I have noted, of a fever variously attributed to an imprudent ride in the rain or a bug caught from his pet dog.

If abroad he was a hero, at home Byron was a celebrity of the kind that the Daily Mirror enjoys praising and demolishing in equal parts today. And this what happened to this man: he found himself suddenly famous, as he wrote, after the immense success that the first two cantos of Childe Harold (1812) were, only to be completely ostracized just four years later. In 1816 Byron had to leave England for ever following the scandal of his separation from his wife Annabella because of the rumours about incest with Augusta. Byron was probably one of the worst husbands on record and the separation makes complete sense: his wife, whom he had married for her money as his father had married his two wives, just could not endure the constant humiliation of Byron’s active extramarital life. What is hypocritical is the scandal. Byron often claimed that he had never seduced any woman because he didn’t have to: basically, the women of the Regency period that chased him were the first groupies in literary history, and no wonder, since Byron has often been compared to a rock star. One of the harassers, Lady Caroline Lamb, defined Byron as ‘bad, mad, and dangerous to know’ but probably this is who she, not him, was.

The good looks, the hectic search for sexual pleasure, the journeys to distant lands, the scandalous married life, the more than likely homosexuality and the incest with Augusta… all these are sufficient not for one but for several celebrities. What makes Byron a radically different celebrity from those plaguing our time is that his fame was based on his poetry, for which he did work much harder than he pretended. The sales of his work from Childe Harold onward were in the first years high enough to push best-selling poet Walter Scott out of the market, to the point that Scott became a novelist (though he published anonymously his early novels as if ashamed that they were a second-rank, mercenary product). Byron was particularly well-known because of his narrative verse and he continued enjoying that success even after he had been socially ostracized, from his exile in Switzerland, Italy and finally Greece. To understand how relatively lucky he was, we need to think of the far more tragic fate of Oscar Wilde, a man as flamboyant and sexually curious as Byron but who could not escape, as Byron did, the harsh action of British homophobic legislation. Wilde’s exile in the late 1890s was a much sadder story indeed but, then, he was no aristocrat.

Byron’s main cultural legacy, beyond his poetry and even beyond Literature, is the Byronic hero, a construction that was appended to his own person by his readers whether he wanted it or not. We cannot know what Byron was really like but just as his looks his personality also elicit doubts. He insisted for years that he was not Harold, the character that first expresses the Byronic temper which other male characters inherited–restless, moody, pessimistic, curious about people yet a loner, interested in pleasure but little capable of sustained love. Yet, Byron eventually gave in and granted that in many ways the Childe’s pilgrimage was his own, and Harold a thin mask for himself. Indeed, Byron is all over his poetry, also as Manfred and Don Juan and most of his main male characters, but this is not at all singular. Look at how Wordsworth mined his own youth for The Prelude. I see the appeal of the Romantic construct and why the Byronic hero soon surfaced in many other narratives (mainly novels and plays) giving us Heathcliff, but also Dracula, and even Christian Grey. What puzzles me is what kind of audience Byron had and how they could follow him at all.

I have just finished reading Childe Harold, the four cantos, and I’m not sure how to describe the experience. Last week I told my students that Romantic poetry was published in its time with no footnotes and that the original readers did not expect a critic to decode the meaning, or any obscure passages, for them. We had read the passages in Lyrical Ballads by Wordsworth introducing some of his poems but they were aimed at describing the circumstances that inspired each poem, not the poem itself. Likewise regarding Coleridge and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”. We listened in class to Ian McKellen’s beautiful reading of this long narrative poem (about 30 minutes) and though I stopped now and then to make sure students could follow the plot, in general the text was well understood. I’m not in favour of that kind of teaching that turns reading poetry into a forensic exercise, of which you can find plenty on YouTube (a lot from India, for whatever reason!) and I’d much rather my students enjoy the poems they should know about. With Byron, however, I simply don’t know what to do. The booklet we are using includes all of Manfred and Don Juan’s first canto and not Childe Harold but even so the point is the same one: Byron’s poetry is just too obscure for us today, here and in my second-language, second-year classroom.

I did try to read Childe Harold without checking Byron’s own lengthy notes (mostly on points of History, always showing an amazing erudition) or the notes of his editor, which also included notes to Byron’s notes!! It was just impossible: it was like reading through glasses that would suddenly cloud and blind me, but also suddenly disappear altogether, a veritable rollercoaster. Thankfully, Rupert Everett’s documentary follows the journeys by Byron reflected in this long poem and I could make sense more or less of where Harold was at given points but without that aid (and the notes) I would have been quite lost. To my surprise, even though I expected a very intimate portrait of the Byronic hero to connect the diverse observations of the pilgrim, I found the stanzas oddly detached except in the few passages (mainly in canto four) where Harold bemoans his fame and wonders what it will be like once he dies. I positively missed Wordsworth, whom Byron very much disliked, in the stanzas about the landscapes and even the cities. And I had a really tough time understanding allusions to personalities of the 1810s even with the editor’s excellent notes. There was also the problem of when to read the notes, for they constantly interrupted the flow of the lines. I eventually settled on reading them after each stanza. When I came across six stanzas without notes, it felt like being on a sailing ship with a full gale.

Reading the negative comments on Walter Scott’s first novel, Waverley (1814), I came across a disgruntled reader who, hating this pompous piece of fiction as much as I do, proposes that we ‘decanonize’ Scott. I think that we are already in the process of decanonizing Scott, who has not been included in our second-year 19th century courses here at UAB since at least 1994. Preparing the lectures on Byron I realised that I wasn’t even sure when to tell my students about Scott: now, commenting on his poetry together with Byron’s, or later when we teach Jane Austen. It is very clear to me that an English graduate must know who Scott was but I would not include one of his novels in the syllabus, for that would probably alienate rather than interest students. What I fear is that we have reached the same point with Byron: students must know who he was and what he did, but can they read his poems at all? Perhaps the lyrical pieces like ‘She Walks in Beauty’ but this hardly gives a glimpse of the giant he was.

Arguably Byron (and Scott) are a case not so much of decanonization but of increasingly difficult readability. It’s not the same. Robert Southey may be canonical but we just do not include him in our syllabi, either his poetry or his person, whereas, I insist, knowing about Byron and Scott is essential. This is a typical conundrum for all teachers: how should we teach? On the basis of literary archaeology or on the basis of accessibility? It used to be the former in the ancient times when philology reigned but the more pragmatic current approach tells me that Byron is approaching if not total at least partial decanonization.

I’m not sure that I’m sorry… but that must be my class (and gender) prejudice against privileged male aristocrats, no matter how handsome.

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It has become commonplace to see Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) through the lens of his drug addiction, which is why it is perhaps quite wrong to begin this post in this way. His case, however, must be contextualized and his addiction treated as an ailment similar to that currently killing 130 Americans every day and plaguing hundreds of thousands more (see With an important difference: whereas in Coleridge’s time the addiction to opium, and mainly to its derivate laudanum, was poorly understood in the 21st century our experience of drug abuse is already very extensive. This did not prevent greedy pharmas in the 1990s from flooding the market with potent analgesics said no have no side effects while they fooled the corresponding Government agencies.

Coleridge, like most current victims of the American opioid overdose crisis, suffered from chronic pain (connected with rheumatism) and simply needed relief. He most emphatically did not take drugs for recreation and if he had any visions attached to their use, this was not the outcome of any experiment–it was a side effect. Trying to make his body more comfortable Coleridge fell into a downward spiral of drug abuse that even his closest friends misread as vice. Wordsworth broke his long friendship with Coleridge for that reason (though they later reconciled) and if we have such vast textual production from him this is only because one Dr. Gillman took pity on his unfairly abhorred patient. This man and his family provided Coleridge with a home at their Highgate residence in London between 1816 and 1834, helping their illustrious guest to control his addiction as far as possible and allowing his mind to shine free from that burden (at least temporarily) to write, among others, his Biographia Literaria.

A constant in Coleridge’s life is an insatiable craving for knowledge. His father was an Anglican reverend but also the headmaster of the local King’s School at Ottery St Mary’s, Samuel’s birthplace in Devon. From Coleridge’s remembrance of his early childhood as a constant stream of reading, we may deduce that the father encouraged this activity. Reverend Coleridge died when Samuel was 8 and the boy, the youngest of ten siblings from two marriages, was sent to boarding school, at Christ’s Hospital (in London), an experience he did not relish in general. With one important exception, recalled in Biographia Literaria: in that school he “enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master, the Reverend James Bowyer”.

This man not only gave his young students a formidable education in the classics–combining them with Milton and Shakespeare–but was also an adamant editor of his pupils’ written work, teaching them to aim at precision. As Coleridge recalls, “he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words”. Bowyer did not take half measures: if two faults were found, “the exercise was torn up, and another on the same subject to be produced, in addition to the tasks of the day”. Coleridge still had in adult age nightmares about this man’s severity but he acknowledged his “moral and intellectual obligations” to him. He and his classmates, Coleridge adds, reached University as “excellent Latin and Greek scholars, and tolerable Hebraists”, though this was “the least of the good gifts, which we derived from his zealous and conscientious tutorage”. Reverend Bowyer, though not the kind of teacher we celebrate today, gave his brilliant student Samuel the foundations he needed for his extremely rich intellectual life.

Not all went well at Cambridge for Coleridge, for he never got a degree. Besides, he wasted one year of his youth in the King’s Light Dragoons, a regiment where he secretly enlisted as ‘Silas Tomkyn Comberbache’. He was discharged by reason of insanity (as the regiment papers attest), though other sources note that he was just the most inept soldier ever. Others claim that his brothers rescued Samuel from a personal crisis possibly provoked by an amorous disappointment when one Mary Evans rejected him.

Biographer Richard Holmes explains that Coleridge had many talents but he was above all a fascinating talker. Also, a rambling one, which means that his listeners were often amazed but also confused by the fast flow of his ideas. Coleridge was unable to write them down as they left his mouth and, besides, his manuscripts are known to contain many borrowed ideas he did not acknowledge or, in plain words, many plagiarisms. In any case, whereas Wordsworth’s main talent was as a poet, Coleridge was a much vaster intellect.

To my surprise, he was for a while an itinerant Unitarian preacher and seems to have regarded himself mainly as a theologian, though this is by no means how we think of him today. He was a philosopher deeply influenced by German idealism (which he imported into Britain), a psychologist avant la lettre specialised in the works of the Imagination (or creativity) and of literary creation, and a great literary critic (who, among other achievements, rescued Hamlet from the trash-can of literary history). Wordsworth gave us in The Prelude a whole treatise on the making of the poet, and Coleridge gave in his prose work Biographia Literaria an even more extensive exploration of the same topic. Some of his passing remarks have become key concepts in current culture: the notion that when we read Literature we ‘willingly suspend our disbelief’ comes from a remark in Biographia about Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads.

The question of Coleridge’s source of income must also be considered for, as I have been arguing here, although Romanticism creates a literary market that enables authors like Walter Scott or Lord Byron to invent the very idea of the best-seller, it also depends on leisure afforded thanks to rents or, in this case, patronage. Coleridge abandoned his duties as a Unitarian minister (in 1798, when he published Lyrical Ballads, aged 26) because his friend Thomas Wedgwood provided him with an annuity. Wedgwood, credited today with possibly being the first British photographer (see, was the son of Josiah Wedgwood, founder of the world-famous pottery firm that carries his name. Josiah was a most gifted businessman but also a patron of causes such as abolitionism and his son, also named Josiah (Tom’s brother), continued the family tradition of offering patronage to some artists. Apparently, the annuity was withdrawn in 1812, following the outing of Coleridge as a drug addict (this is attributed to Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater but this book came out in 1821). There is an article (available from JSTOR) about the Wedgwood annuity but this is more detail than I can supply here. I simply don’t know, then, how Coleridge survived after 1812 but my guess is that Tom still helped, and other friends. I don’t know either what the arrangement was with the ultra-friendly Dr. Gillman. Interestingly, patronage used to be regarded as a potentially humiliating relationship of dependence–hence the word ‘patronizing’–but is now back with crowdfunding and platforms like Patreon. Today, I’m speculating, Coleridge could have made a living in this way, though he could also have been offered an academic position as resident poet, or creative writing teacher. Remember he had no degree and could never have become an Oxbridge don.

Coleridge’s private life was not very happy–or, rather, it was rich in friendship but not so rich in women’s love. He married in 1795, aged 22, a girl called Sara Fricker simply because his good friend Robert Southey (the poet) had married her sister Edith. Both couples intended to found a utopian project in Pennsylvania called Pantisocracy, but the mad scheme simply collapsed. Sara and Samuel had four children and separated in 1808, when he was 36. She lived with her sister’s family and later with her son Derwent (check They never divorced.

It is odd to think of Sara struggling to make ends meet while her husband enjoyed the beautiful English landscape or stayed away for one year in Germany, all with the Wordsworths. Their baby Berkeley died while the father was away and he did not return home for the funeral. The elder, Hartley, was a constant problem for her parents. I should have thought that Dorothy Wordsworth was Samuel’s secret love, and the most evident way to bond with William beyond friendship but, apparently, Samuel fell in love instead with William’s sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson (his wife Mary’s sister). Actually, this happened in 1799, before William married Mary, and the unrequited love story continued for many years. Sara also lived with the couple (and with Dorothy) until her death in 1835 and there was much occasion to meet. She was a good friend to Samuel but, for whatever reason, she never returned his love (see She never married. Samuel died, in 1834, having engaged in no other significant relationship with a woman.

Samuel Coleridge did not have a very high opinion of himself. He refers in Biographia Literaria to his “constitutional indolence, aggravated into languor by ill-health; the accumulating embarrassments of procrastination; the mental cowardice, which is the inseparable companion of procrastination, and which makes us anxious to think and converse on any thing rather than on what concerns ourselves”. His bouts of depression and the constant effect of the drugs (and of the many attempts at withdrawal) certainly could not have helped to develop steady work habits but he was certainly a far more laborious individual than he credits himself for. Under the Wedgwoods’ patronage he spent that frantic year in Germany, furnishing his head “with the wisdom of others. I made the best use of my time and means; and there is therefore no period of my life on which I can look back with such unmingled satisfaction”. He took lectures in diverse universities on an astonishing variety of subjects as he improved his German. And he never stopped learning, which is why Coleridge had opinions on all subjects. He comes across, in short, as a man in intense conversation with himself, of which the rest of his contemporaries were witnesses rather than participants (except Wordsworth for a time). We possibly have in his writings only a mere fragment of what his mind could do.

I haven’t yet mentioned any of Coleridge’s poetry. I’m still processing Iron Maiden’s fifteen-minute-song based on ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’, and the heavy-metal crowds singing the lines in a concert (check the video on YouTube). Amazing, really. Also, the wonder of listening to Benedict Cumberbatch read “Kubla Khan”. That’s the beauty of today’s digital world: it offers much more than kitten videos and ranting if you only care to seek it.

Coleridge would have loved the internet since he was, in a way, his whole life a student–an academic outside academia, so to speak, and not only a poet. He led a precarious life on the financial front and his body kept his mind chained to drug abuse for long years. Even so, he managed to produce extremely relevant literary and intellectual work out of insatiable curiosity. This is why it is so painful to read the many comments that accompany the videos on the Romantics on YouTube.

Not the Iron Maiden video, which everyone watches for pleasure, but videos such as Peter Ackroyd’s BBC mini-series ‘The Romantics’, which many students watch as compulsory homework. A man, as disappointed as I am by the rejection of education, bemoans the ‘lack of intelligence’ of the students who complain that Ackroyd’s series is boring. An irritated college student replies that not enjoying something does not mean that you’re not intelligent. I agree: it means you’re not curious–and this is the most common curse today. The albatross around the necks of most students. Coleridge, as his year in Germany shows, was immensely curious. Luckily for him, he had patrons that allowed him to take his curiosity as far as he could and, so, he connected ideas in new ways that have shaped our own world. I wonder what he would make of those who, given the chance to learn by their parents and all of society, reject it–though I think I know.

Romanticism was, let’s recall this, in rebellion against many traditional ideas but, as Coleridge’s case shows, it was a very well-read rebellion, passionate both in feelings and in thoughts. This is something to remember: education empowers individuals and, ultimately, changes the world. Boredom should play no part in this equation. I very much doubt that Coleridge was ever bored. Or boring.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web:


I shared with my ‘English Romantic Literature’ class the video showing Jon Cheryl perform his musical version of William Blake’s ‘The Tyger’ ( and also Michael Griffin’s song ‘London’ ( based on Blake’s eponymous poem. We agreed that both songs are cool and that, by definition, an author whose work can be enjoyed in this up-dated way is cool. Blake is, no doubt, cool as Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters are cool. Other authors are uncool, and I believe that William Wordsworth belongs to that class.

Julien Temple, who was once a cool Brit director (he shot many music videos for stars like David Bowie), made in 2000 a film called Pandemonium about Wordsworth and Coleridge’s friendship during the time of the French Revolution. Wordsworth was played by John Hannah (how uncool is that?) and Coleridge by Linus Roache (cooler!). The script writer was Frank Cottrell Boyce who later wrote the, definitely, very cool account of Manchester in New Order’s heyday 24 Hour Party People (2002). I haven’t seen Temple’s Pandemonium but an instance of how hard it is to make its subject matter cool is that, apparently, the end credits roll to the sound (or noise) of Olivia Newton-John’s song “Xanadu” (1980) which vaguely alludes to Coleridge’s “Kubla Kahn”. Viewers’ reviews on IMBD are mostly positive (despite the middling 6.6 average rating) and the film might be worth spending two hours of your life on seeing it. Yet, one of the most enthusiastic commendations reads: “A splendid effort which will likely be most appreciated by those into classical literature–particularly 19th century poetry”. This is like recommending, just to name a random first-rate movie, The Right Stuff (1983) mainly to people who are interested in the history of NASA. A movie either works or it doesn’t, and if it appeals to a highly specialised academic audience it doesn’t. A more candid viewer writes “With its utter disregard for the historic record, Pandemonium attempts to do for England’s greatest Romantic poets what Monty Python and the Holy Grail did for the Arthurian legends–but (sadly) without the wit or the humour”.

In Pandemonium, in any case, and also in their friendship, coolness fell on the side of Coleridge with Wordsworth playing second fiddle; he always seems to have been the kind of guy you know is not really into it even when you’re having the greatest fun together. The wonder is not that their friendship started, for opposites attract each other, but that it lasted for so long and that it was even retaken after a serious falling out. I very much suspect that without cool Coleridge–and most likely without Dorothy Wordsworth, the adoring sister–Wordsworth would not be Wordsworth as we know him today. He would be perhaps Robert Southey (who?).

Much of Wordsworth’s uncoolness has to do with his living to old age and in good health. I am aware that this sounds callous and that the Rolling Stones are living proof that one can be a youthful rebel well beyond youth: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are both 76. If Byron and Shelley had lived to old age instead of dying in absurd, preventable circumstances at, respectively, 36 (infection caught from his dog) and 29 (drowned for sailing in bad weather), they would have probably behaved like Jagger and Richards. The problem with Wordsworth is that he only had that rock-star profile by association with Coleridge and, once he married his childhood sweetheart Mary Hutchinson in 1802, aged 32, he became the anti-Romantic myth: a steady family man. Even his fathering an illegitimate daughter ten years before, during his stay in post-Revolution France, announced that this is who Wordsworth was at heart. He was rash enough to embark on a passionate affair with a Frenchwoman called Annette Vallon, the pretty daughter of a barber-surgeon, but also prudent enough not to marry her when she got pregnant. He was, it seems, a responsible but detached father for the girl, Caroline, but she was kept apart from her English siblings.

Keeping a family of five children, a wife and a sister (Dorothy never married) on the money made by selling poems is not easy. To be precise, Wordsworth never really lived on his modest earnings as a poet. To be even more precise, Wordsworth mainly lived off rents generated by family legacies. His father, a lawyer, was the legal representative of an aristocrat and it was the money this man paid to settle a long-standing debt that generated the rents allowing Wordsworth to marry. Wordsworth, incidentally, had a BA from Cambridge and his family, specially the uncles that paid for his education after he was orphaned at age 13, expected him to become a parson. He, however, would take no profession. Only in 1813, at the tender age of 43, did Wordsworth accept an appointment as post-master and Stamp Distributor for Westmoreland, rewarded by a yearly stipend of £400 per year, which finally ensured the financial stability of his family. They moved then to a beautiful house, Rydal Mount, near Ambleside in the Lake District, where the Wordsworths lived between 1813 and 1850 (it’s now open to visitors). However, the celebrity Wordsworth who received there an endless stream of visitors was not the same man who had written the poetry he was known for but someone else, his mature counterpart.

By the time Wordsworth published Ecclesiastical Sonnets (1822) the transformation was complete. His daughter Catherine and his son Thomas died both in 1812–she in June, he in December–and this must have been a terrible blow, no matter how often we tell ourselves that in past times parents assumed that some of their children would die in childhood. In fact, Wordsworth took the position as a civil servant to make sure that his remaining three children could enjoy the best of lives. Yet something went amiss at the time in his poetical career, as most critics agree, because of his job. It took me a while to understand what exactly Wordsworth did. Anne Frey explains in British State Romanticism: Authorship, Agency, and Bureaucratic Nationalism (Stanford University Press, 2010, p. 55) that Wordsworth did have an office in town and performed numerous professional duties, though not those of a full-time job. “While certainly compatible with Wordsworth’s idea of himself as a professional poet, however”, Frey writes, “the job necessarily took away some time away from Wordsworth’s vocation”. Frey’s sly wording suggests that Wordsworth was not really a professional poet but she struggles not to reveal a basic fact: his poetry emerged from youthful leisure (no matter how hard he worked at his verse) and was far less compatible with an adult working life. In contrast, Blake managed to produce his poems after his daily work routine as an engraver was over, which does sound professional.

I came across a very illuminating article by Andrew Klavan (originally published in 2009 in Romanticon and reproduced here: titled “Wordsworth’s Corpus Reflects the Growth of a Conservative’s Mind”. Klavan grants that “Wordsworth’s conservatism hardened as he grew into middle age, sometimes becoming small-minded”. In 1829 (he was then 59) he protested against the Catholic Relief Act which allowed Daniel O’Connell to be the first Irish Catholic to serve as MP. Wordsworth was a strict Anglican all his life and Anglicans like him feared very much the impact of Catholicism on politics and social life. He did not support, either, the 1832 Reform Act, the first to extend franchise among English men (though only within narrow limits). This is typical: the youthful supporter of revolution becomes an adult conservative when changes in family, personal and professional life make political, economic and social stability desirable. In even simpler terms: one becomes more conservative the more one has to lose. Klavan contends, nonetheless, that Wordsworth regained part of his revolutionary fire later on. In 1846, aged 76, he gave his support to the democratic Chartist movement, though warning that rioting would not help the cause. By then, of course, he was a gentleman pensioner of leisure finally free to indulge in his youthful ideals. And the times were no longer Romantic but Victorian.

Wordsworth was given in 1842 a Civil List pension of £300 a year; he resigned then from his position as Stamp-Distributor. Next year, 1843, he was appointed Poet Laureate, aged 73, replacing Robert Southey and after having received honorary doctorates (by the Universities of Durham and Oxford) in the late 1830s. In the last years of his career as a poet, at the height of his celebrity, Wordsworth worked on his massive autobiographical poem ‘The Prelude’ which was only published post-humously in 1850 by his wife Mary. Actually, Wordsworth started writing this autobiographical poem back in 1798, the year when, aged 28, he published Lyrical Ballads with Coleridge, and kept adding blank verse lines to it until it grew to 14 books, a total of 7863 lines. This does not mean that the poem covers Wordsworth’s whole life–as the title suggests, it deals mainly with its first decades and it is, on essence, a poem on the ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’ as the subtitle announces. There is complete critical consensus that ‘The Prelude’ is Wordsworth’s greatest poem but you should read the comments by readers at GoodReads before considering whether you want to read it. I must confess that I have failed to find a valid reason to go through so much verse and no, I’m not ashamed to make this confession even though I teach English Literature. Some other time, perhaps.

No Romantic poet is complete without an oddity in his biography and in Wordsworth’s case this is supplied by Dorothy’s constant presence. There were other three siblings (John drowned at sea in 1805) but she and William, born only one year earlier, seem to have been constant childhood companions until their father died in 1783. The girl, aged 12, and the boy, 13, were then sent to the homes of different relatives and were only reunited in 1795, when she was 24 and he 25. They never separated again, sharing their diverse homes even when William married Mary. Many have read their relationship as incest and a few sexist scholars have even blamed hysterical Dorothy for it, presenting her as a needy woman who hindered William’s path with her demands. This sexualized view of their siblinghood is, I think, plain silly and only reveals that sex occupies too much space in our minds. William and Dorothy were comfortable with each other, they shared many ideas and observations also present in his poems (as her journals have proved), and were perfect companions at a time and in a society when a man and a woman could enjoy friendship in total freedom only as siblings. Mary welcomed her sister-in-law to the family home and the couple took good care of Dorothy when, in the 1830s, she became an invalid. She died in 1855, outliving William by five years. It’s a bitter-sweet tale.

A surprised GoodReads reader sentences “Turns out I like ‘The Prelude’ a lot. But I still wouldn’t invite Wordsworth to a party at my place”–yet another sign of his uncoolness. Wordsworth might then be a category to himself: the kind of author you profoundly respect but do not enthuse about; the type you admire because you can see the man is making an effort. He is not Milton–I still haven’t met a person who would like to meet Milton for coffee much less at a party–but he is not either, definitely, Blake. He is Wordsworth.

Coolness moves in mysterious ways.

I publish a post every Tuesday (follow @SaraMartinUAB). Comments are very welcome! Download the yearly volumes from: My web: