Samuel Taylor Coleridge
The cliched image of the Romantic poet is of a solitary tortured genius; it is ironic that the work of the poets collectively regarded as the ‘Romantic School’ is marked by collective and co-operative effort as much as by individual creativity. For none of the great figures of Romantic poetry is this so true as it is for Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The first-rate poetic output of this extraordinary, multi-faceted man lasted only a few years, from approximately 1797 to 1802, and he has even been regarded by some historians and critics as ‘merely a channel for the work and ideas of others’ (Jasper, 8) rather than as a creative figure in his own right. It is as if his own creative character has become lost in the extraordinary wide-ranging and complex interplay of relationships between poets, thinkers, writers and critics which swirled around him. It is also the case that Coleridge’s own self-image was a vulnerable one, and that he depended upon the encouragement of others and was accordingly undermined when criticism or indifference, rather than encouragement, was forthcoming. As one modern critic has commented, ‘Coleridge’s opinion of himself depended excessively on how others viewed him’ (Modiano, 33).
In this essay, we will seek to establish a balanced view of Coleridge as a highly creative individual in his own right, and the role which others – notably William and Dorothy Wordsworth and Charles Lamb – played in influencing him as poet, thinker and critic.
In 1791 William Wordsworth published two volumes of verse, ‘Descriptive Sketches’ and ‘An Evening Walk’. These two works acquired a number of admirers for the young poet, among them being Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge had been a student at Cambridge from 1791 to 1793, and upon reading ‘Descriptive Sketches’ had declared that ‘seldom, if ever, was the emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary horizon more evidently announced’ (Coleridge, 1954, I, 56). The two already shared some acquaintances (indeed, one of Coleridge’s contemporaries at Cambridge was William Wordsworth’s brother, Christopher) and they eventually met in the autumn of 1795. Either on this occasion or shortly afterwards, Wordsworth shared his poem ‘Guilt and Sorrow’ with Coleridge, and the latter recorded the effect it had upon him:
the union of deep feeling with profound thought; the fine balance of truth in observing, with the imaginative faculty in modifying the objects observed; and above all the original gift of spreading the tone, the atmosphere, and with it the depth and height of the ideal world around forms, incidents, and situations, of which, for the common view, custom had bedimmed all the lustre, had dried up the sparkle and the dew drops. (Coleridge, 1954, I, 59)
Thus from the beginning Coleridge had been struck by Wordsworth’s ability to unify thought and feeling in his poetry and to open the eyes of his readers and listeners to humanity and nature in their commonplace guises, as if seeing them for the first time. At the time of his exposure to Wordsworth’s revelation of the nature of the poetic imagination, Coleridge was highly susceptible to such insights. His time at Cambridge had been fraught with the difficulties associated with mounting debts, academic disappointments and an intoxication with radical politics; he had briefly enlisted in the Dragoons, returned to Cambridge only to leave without taking his degree, become enamoured of the idea of establishing an ideal ‘pantisocratic’ community in America, only to see that idea founder on the rocks of practicality, and become engaged to be married. He had initially been very much under the sway of the poet Robert Southey, but the collapse of the pantisocratic dream and tensions over his marriage had opened a breach between the two. It was at this point that William Wordsworth entered Coleridge’s life, filling the gap which Southey had left (Holmes, 1989, 102). It has been said of Wordsworth’s role in Coleridge’s life that no other figure ‘engaged his admiration more and none caused him as much anguish and perilous self-doubt’ (Modiano, 33).
It was in March 1797 that Wordsworth visited Coleridge at Nether Stowey in Somerset and inaugurated a period of close and productive friendship. During 1797-8 Coleridge, benefiting from his close association with the Wordsworths, experienced a sustained and successful burst of creative energy such as he never knew again. Coleridge was unstable, inventive, restless; Wordsworth seems to have provided the solidity and stability that Coleridge needed if his insecure muse was to flourish. It was in July 1797 that he wrote ‘This Lime-Tree Bower’, beginning a period of fluent and inventive composition that was to culminate in the planning and composition of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ in the summer and early autumn of 1798. It has been argued that Wordsworth was largely responsible for the evolution of Coleridge’s verse towards a ‘plain style’, and while other influences – notably that of the poet William Lisle Bowles (1762-1850) and of his friend Charles Lamb – played a role in Coleridge’s adoption of a clear, vernacular style in the poetry of this period (Holmes, 1989, 36), it is evident that Wordsworth’s influence was paramount in clarifying his ideas and bringing them to the point of actual creation. It was during this period that Coleridge wrote of Wordsworth as ‘The Giant Wordsworth’ and asserted that ‘my awe of his intellectual powers has increased even to this hour’ (Holmes, 1989, 191). There were differences between the two, on religious matters, and on the role of the supernatural in poetry (a distinction between their approaches that is evident in the final form of the ‘Lyrical Ballads’ but, as Holmes writes, ‘these differences, like their temperamental ones, were wonderfully fruitful at this stage’ (Holmes, 1989, 191).
By the spring of 1802 those temperamental differences were increasingly having a disruptive effect on the relationship between the two poets. Coleridge’s health and mental state had declined from the creative energy and ebullience of 1797-8. He had suffered much illness in the winter of 1801-2, he had become increasingly reliant on opium, he had fallen hopelessly in love with Sara Hutchinson, and he had become increasingly convinced of the loss of his own creative powers. When he visited the Wordsworths at Grasmere in March 1802 they were very concerned at his condition and pressed him to return to stay with them at Keswick later in the month (Holmes, 1989, 317-8). It was while Coleridge was staying with him in Keswick that William Wordsworth composed ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood’. This poem suggests loss, a fading of initial poetic inspiration:
It is not now as it hath been of yore;-
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.
(Wordsworth, 1996, 460)
It seems that there has been a change in Wordsworth’s view of nature, and this change has involved a loss. The loss is not complete, however: ‘I hear, I hear, with joy I hear!’ he declares of the call of natural beauty (Wordsworth, 1996, 460). Wordsworth remains confident of his ability to be inspired by nature in his poetic work.
This poem, composed at a time when Wordsworth and Coleridge were together, must have been a subject of discussion for the two poets, and Coleridge may very well have seen an echo of his own condition for he, too, felt that his creative power of response and record had deserted him. Unlike Wordsworth, however, he did not have the resources of a tranquil and happy domestic life to fall back on; nor did he find his loss of creative power temporary and impermanent, as did Wordsworth. When Coleridge wrote a long, unhappy letter to his love, Sara Hutchinson, his analysis of personal unhappiness and creative failure, haunted by Wordsworth’s ode, took on the form of an answering ode. When the Wordsworths first heard the verse-letter a few days later, it increased their concern for their friend: ‘Coleridge came to us,’ wrote Dorothy in her Journal for 21 April 1802, ‘and repeated the verses he wrote to Sara. I was affected with them, and was on the whole, not being well, in miserable spirits’ (D. Wordsworth, 1941, 135-6). As Coleridge worked on the poem over the following few months the directly autobiographical references to his domestic unhappiness were edited out and the ode became more a consideration of the nature of imaginative power, and its loss.
But now afflictions bow me down to earth:
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But oh! each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of Imagination. (Coleridge, 1912, 366)
Coleridge here reveals the degree to which he considers himself deprived of the understanding of and response to the phenomena of nature ‘which oft have raised me, whilst they awed, / And sent my soul abroad’ (Coleridge, 1912, 363). Whereas Wordsworth feels that he can still be moved emotionally and imaginatively by nature, Coleridge despairs because he seems to have lost any capacity…