SAMUEL COLERIDGE AND THE ROMANTIC POWER OF CURIOSITY

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 https://www.drugabuse.gov/drugs-abuse/opioids/opioid-overdose-crisis). 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 https://scihi.org/thomas-wedgwood-first-photographer/), 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 https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2017/07/29/romantic-but-hardly-romantic-sarah-frickers-life-as-coleridges-wife/). 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 https://wordsworth.org.uk/blog/2017/11/01/sara-hutchinson-coleridges-asra/). 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: https://ddd.uab.cat/record/116328. My web: https://gent.uab.cat/saramartinalegre/

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