Coleridge: The Rest of the Story

Updated May 6, 2020 | Infoplease Staff

The Rest of the Story

Coleridge lived for thirty-six years after he left Stowey for Germany in 1798. His fame as a poet grew as the world became acquainted with and learned to feel the peculiar charm of his poetry, and he was even more famous, for a while, as a literary critic and a moral philosopher. But they were years of weak-willed wandering, of vast hazy plans and feeble performance, lighted only here and there by glimpses of fragmentary accomplishment, and that seldom in poetry. Keats died at twenty-six, leaving behind him a body of poetry hardly less wonderful than Coleridge had fashioned at the same age; and another poet sang of him:

"The bloom, whose petals, nipt before they blew,
Died on the promise of the fruit, is waste."

In Coleridge the poet died at nearly the same age, almost as completely as if the man himself had passed "within the twilight chamber ... of white Death"; and "Dejection" is that poet's dirge. The remaining years need therefore but few words.

Coleridge had taken opium, perhaps as early as his school-days, for relief from neuralgia. He had recourse to it in March, 1796, for sleeplessness; in the following November, for relief from violent nervous pains; and near the close of the Stowey period, in May, 1798, when the vagaries of Lloyd, the estrangement from Lamb, domestic anxiety, and physical suffering had reduced him to a state of extreme nervous wretchedness, he again took refuge in opiates, of which "Kubla Khan" is partly the result. He returned from Germany in 1799, worked for a while on a newspaper in London and on a translation of Schiller's "Wallenstein," and in the summer of 1800 removed to Keswick in Cumberland, in the Lake Country, where the Wordsworths had already established themselves. Here, in the autumn of 1800, he strove to finish "Christabel," and did finish the second part. In the winter and spring he suffered from a complicated illness, in which he again had recourse to laudanum; and from the spring of 1801 he was confirmed in the opium habit, sinking often to pitiful depths of moral and physical misery. He was in the Mediterranean, chiefly at Malta, from 1804 to 1806. His wife and children remained at Keswick, where Southey and his family had become co-tenants with them of Greta Hall. Southey, it might almost be said, took care of Coleridge's family henceforth; for Coleridge had begun to find his own fireside an intolerable place as early as 1802, lived little at home, and made a formal separation from his wife in 1808,-though they saw each other occasionally after that and the Wedgwood annuity continued to be paid to Mrs. Coleridge. In 1809 he was living with the Wordsworths at Grasmere, where he wrote several numbers of a politico-philosophical paper called "The Friend." About the close of 1810 he was taken in hand by a Mr. and Mrs. Morgan of Hammersmith, near London, under whose care he kept the opium in check sufficiently to give his famous lectures on the "Principles of Poetry" in the winter of 1811-12, and another series in the early summer on Shakespeare. In the winter following, his play of "Remorse," a recast of the "Osorio" of 1797, was acted in London with some success. In the winter of 1813-14 he lectured, in a "conversational" fashion, at Bristol. He also wrote irregularly for the London papers during these years. But his studies, since his return from Germany, had been directed to metaphysics, and especially to the philosophical bases of poetry and theology; and the last twenty years of his life, at least, were occupied with plans for a great philosophical work covering these two fields of thought. One of the fragments of the great work that actually came to light, the Biographia Literaria, seems to have been sent to the printers in 1815. A collected edition of his poetry was also begun while he was under the Morgans' care.

From 1816 till his death in 1834 he lived in comparative peace, if not in happiness, with a Mr. Gilman of Highgate near London, an apothecary. Gilman and his wife were able so far to wean him from the drug, or to regulate his use of it, that he brought to the birth something of his vast plans in criticism and philosophy, notably the Biographia Literaria (1817) and the "Aids to Reflection" (1825). The beginning of his stay with Gilman was also marked by the publication of "Christabel" and "Kubla Khan" (1816), and of a collected edition of his other poems (including "The Ancient Mariner," considerably revised) under the title "Sibylline Leaves" (1817). But the poems that were not finished in the first great period at Stowey remained unfinished. He talked divinely ("an archangel a little damaged," Lamb said), and both by his talk and his metaphysical writings profoundly influenced the literature and philosophy of the century, both in England and America; but the poet in him was dead.

"Sense of past youth, and manhood come in vain,
And genius given, and knowledge won in vain;
And all which I had culled in woodwalks wild,
And all which patient toil had reared, and all
Commune with thee had opened out—but flowers
Strewed on my corse, and borne upon my bier,
In the same coffin, for the self-same grave!"[1]

It would be a mistake to ascribe the paralysis of Coleridge's powers of constructive imagination exclusively to laudanum. Rather the resort to narcotics and the inability to control his creative faculty are alike symptoms of a temperamental malady which had its roots in his nature close to the seat of that special faculty. Under a favorable conjunction of outward circumstance and inward state, imagination came; it possessed him, and he labored in it, happily. Afterwards he could revise what he had shaped, analyze it philosophically, perfect some details of it, but he could not proceed in the creative act after the inspiration had left him. His own description of his nature-"indolence capable of energies"-is accurate as far as it goes. The opium, resorted to often, no doubt, to quicken the dreams in his brain as well as to relieve his bodily suffering, helped to enfeeble his will; but the "indolence" was in him before he became addicted to opium, and he was never "capable of energies" at the call of duty, but only at the call of his "shaping spirit," over whose coming and going he had no control.

Poetically it is perhaps as well. Had he been like his friend Wordsworth in strength and steadiness of purpose-which is to suppose him another nature than he was-his life would have been happier and more edifying, but he would hardly have given us anything better than "Christabel" and "The Ancient Mariner." Romantic poetry of the higher type is essentially the creature of mood. Even Wordsworth's long and conscientious labors produced but a small bulk of poetry of this character, amid dreary reaches of uninspired preaching. Coleridge waited-in despondency often, in self-upbraidings, in the temporary deception of opium dreams with their consequent misery-for the return of the spirit; and it did not come.


From the lines addressed to Wordsworth after hearing him read "The Prelude," in 1807.

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