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A Footnote To Coleridge Post by :passion72 Category :Essays Author :Maurice Hewlett Date :November 2011 Read :1961

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A Footnote To Coleridge

Coleridge is one of our great men who require many footnotes, for there are characteristics of his which need all the extenuation they can get. How comes it, for instance, that he could write, and not only write but publish, in the same decade, and sometimes in the same year, poetry which is of our very best, and some which for frozen inanity it would be hard to equal anywhere? How could a thinker of his power of brain cover leagues of letter-paper with windy nonsense and mawkish insincerity? And finally, of what quality was the talk of one whose social life was entirely monologue? To the first of these questions Wordsworth perhaps helps with an analogy, but not very far; for it is certain that Wordsworth's opinion of the importance of his own verses was inflexible, whereas Coleridge, having another medium of expression, was by no means so insistent upon publishing. Upon the second, it may be observed that when a philosopher is at the same time a poet, and therefore his own rhapsodist, it is probable that he will charm the understanding of many, but certain that he will bewitch his own. The certainty is clinched when the rhapsodist is without the humorous sense. It was the possession of that which enabled Charles Lamb, who loved him, to see him "Archangel, a little damaged," and even in one dreadful moment of his life to reprove him for a too oleaginous sympathy. Lamb, in fact, was always able to view his friend with clear eyes. In a letter to Manning, enclosing "all Coleridge's letters" to himself, he says that in them Manning will find "a good deal of amusement, to see genuine talent struggling against a pompous display of it." No criticism could be sounder. But Coleridge never wavered from the belief that he was in no phase of his being an ordinary man. If his thoughts were not ordinary thoughts, his imaginings not ordinary imaginings, then his stomach-aches were not ordinary stomach-aches, but strokes of calamity so grievous as to demand from him copious commentary and appeals for more sympathy than is ordinarily given to ordinary men. And, strange to say, he received it. There was that in the "noticeable man with large grey eyes" which drew the love of his friends and the regard of acquaintance. His talk had the quality of his Ancient Mariner's; one could not choose but hear. The accounts which we have of that, however, are mainly sympathetic; it is not so certain how it affected hearers who were not predisposed.

Lately a book has been published, or rather republished, which illustrates Coleridge's relations with a world outside his own. A House of Letters (Jarrolds--N.D.), containing a selection of the memoirs and correspondence of Miss Mary Matilda Betham, includes a good many letters from Coleridge, and some few from Charles Lamb which have not so far been recorded elsewhere. Miss Betham, who was born in 1776, was a miniature painter by profession, and so far as can be judged by reproductions a good one. She was a poetess, too, and the compiler of a Biographical Dictionary of Celebrated Women. In 1797 she published a volume of Elegies, which in 1802 was sent to Coleridge by his friend Lady Boughton, and of which a short piece, "On a Cloud," transported him. He addressed immediately a blank-verse exhortation "To Matilda Betham, from a Stranger," dated it Keswick, September 9th, 1802, signed it "S.T.C.," and sent it off.


Matilda! I have heard a sweet tune play'd
On a sweet instrument--thy Poesie,


it began; and went on to hope--


That our own Britain, our dear mother Isle,
May boast one Maid, a poetess indeed,
Great as th' impassioned Lesbian, in sweet song,
And O! of holier mind, and happier fate.


That was what he called twining her vernal wreath around the brows of patriot Hope. He concluded with some cautionary lines whose epithets are irresistibly comic:


Be bold, meek Woman! but be wisely bold!
Fly, ostrich-like, firm land beneath thy feet.


And for her ultimate reward--


What nobler meed, Matilda! canst thou win
Than tears of gladness in a Boughton's eyes,
And exultation even in strangers' hearts?


It is a wonderful thing indeed that, having composed The Ancient Mariner (1797), Love (1799), Christabel (1797-1800), and Kubla Khan (1798), he should slip back into this eighteenth-century flatulence--but Coleridge could do such things and not turn a hair.

Nevertheless, to a young poetess, a bad poem is still a poem, and means a reader. An acquaintance invited in such terms will thrive, and that of Miss Betham and the Stranger ripened into a friendship. She went to stay at Greta Hall, painted portraits of Mrs. Coleridge and Sara, and of some of the Southeys too. Through them she became acquainted with the Lambs, and if never one of their inner circle, was a familiar correspondent, and had relations with George Dyer, the Morgans, the Thelwalls, Montagues, Holcrofts and others. Altogether Lady Boughton's bow at a venture brought down a goodly quarry for Miss Betham, but many waters were to flow under the restless philosopher before he could swim into her ken again.

It was in 1808, in fact, when he was living in London (at the Courier office, 348, Strand), and in the midst of his second course of lectures, that the intercourse was renewed--or rather it is there that A House of Letters enables us to pick it up. We find him then writing in this kind of strain to Matilda:--

"What joy would it not be to you, or to me, Miss Betham, to meet a Milton in a future state, and with that reverence due to a superior, pour forth our deep thanks for the noble feelings he had aroused in us, for the impossibility of many mean and vulgar feelings and objects which his writings had secured us!"

The Americans call that sort of thing poppycock, which seems a useful phrase. No doubt there was more of it, though it is precisely there, without subscription or signature, that the Editor of A House of Letters thinks fit to conclude. He has much to learn of the duties of editorship, among other things, as we shall have to note before long, reasonable care in recording and printing his originals. Upon that letter, at any rate, post if not propter, Miss Betham proposed to the philosopher that he should sit to her, and that, with some demur, he promised to do. An appointment was made to that end, and punctually broken. Then came this letter of excuse, which should have been worth many a miniature, being indeed a full-length portrait done by a master-hand:--

"Dear Miss Betham,--Not my will, but accident and necessity made me a truant from my promise. I was to have left Merton, in Surrey, at half-past eight on Tuesday morning with a Mr. Hall, who would have driven me in his chaise to town by ten; but having walked an unusual distance on the Monday, and talked and exerted myself in spirits that have been long unknown to me, on my return to my friend's house, being thirsty, I drank at least a quart of lemonade; the consequence was that all Tuesday morning, till indeed two o'clock in the afternoon, I was in exceeding pain, and incapable of quitting my room, or dismissing the hot flannels applied to my body...."

This was no ordinary philosopher; but the chapter is not yet full.

He left Merton, he says, at five, walked stoutly on, was detained an hour and a half on Clapham Common, "in an act of mere humanity," and finally reached Vauxhall.

"At Vauxhall I took a boat for Somerset House: two mere children were my Charons; however, though against tide, we sailed safely to the landing-place, when, as I was getting out, one of the little ones (God Bless him!) moved the boat. On turning halfway round to reprove him, he moved it again, and I fell back on the landing-place. By my exertions I should have saved myself but for a large stone which I struck against just under my crown and unfortunately in the very same place which had been contused at Melton (sic) when I fell backward after learning suddenly and most abruptly of Captain Wordsworth's fate in the Abergavenny, a most dear friend of mine. Since that time any great agitation has occasioned a feeling of, as it were, a shuttle moving from that part of the back of my head horizontally to my forehead, with some pain but more confusion."

The unction of that blessing called down upon his persecutor is truly Coleridgian. "Melton" is the Editor's rendering of Malta, where Coleridge was when he heard of John Wordsworth's drowning in 1805. He had then kept his bed for a fortnight, or so he told Mrs. Coleridge.

Apparently no meeting took place, as yet another letter, dated 7th May, relates how instead of going to New Cavendish Street, where Miss Betham lived, he went to Old Cavendish Street, where she did not. "I knocked at every door in Old Cavendish Street, not unrecompensed for the present pain by the remembrances of the different characters of voice and countenance with which my question was answered in all gradations, from gentle and hospitable kindness to downright brutality." Further promises and assurances are given, and in July, as we learn from a letter of Southey's, the good Matilda was still high in hopes that her sitter would eventually sit. Her hopes could not have come from Southey, who had none. "You would have found him the most wonderful man living in conversation, but the most impracticable one for a painter, and had you begun the picture it is ten thousand to one that you must have finished it from memory." He was right. When his lectures were over, in June, Coleridge went to Bury St. Edmunds, and by the 9th September he was in Cumberland. "Coleridge has arrived at last, about half as big as the house," Southey writes to his brother on that day. There he cogitated and there began The Friend, and there the separation from his wife was finally made.

After the separation, very characteristically, he was less separated from Mrs. Coleridge than he had been for many years. In 1810 he was still in the Lakes, in the summer of which year his wife gives news of him to the poetess. "Coleridge has been with me for some time past, in good health, spirits and humour, but the Friend for some unaccountable reason, or for no reason at all, is utterly silent. This, you will easily believe, is matter of perpetual grief to me, but I am obliged to be silent on the subject, although ever uppermost in my thoughts, but I am obliged to bear about a cheerful countenance, knowing as I do by sad experience that to expostulate, or even to hazard one anxious look, would soon drive him hence." Then comes a sidelight on the Wordsworths. "Coleridge sends you his best thanks for the elegant little book; I shall not, however, let it be carried over to Grasmere, for there it would soon be soiled, for the Wordsworths are woeful destroyers of good books, as our poor library will witness."

But all this was too good to last, and as everybody knows, it did not. In October Coleridge left the Lakes with the Montagues, and almost immediately after that the rupture with the Wordsworths occurred, which involved also the family at Keswick. Southey's letter to Miss Betham giving her an account of the affair has been published by Mr. Dykes Campbell, and is misplaced in A House of Letters. The unfortunate philosopher set up his rest with the Morgans, friends of the Lambs, at Hammersmith; and there he was in February, 1811, when Miss Betham conceived her project of getting him as a lion at the party of her friend Lady Jerningham.

Lady Jerningham, blue mother of a bluer daughter (Lady Bedingfield) and sister-in-law of the "Charming Man" of Walpole's and the Misses Berry's acquaintance, was a friend of Miss Betham's of old standing. Several letters of hers are in A House of Letters, but many more of her daughter's. Whether it was her ladyship's or Miss Betham's proposal there's no telling now; but Miss Betham, at any rate, did not feel equal to the job, and called in Charles and Mary Lamb to help her. Mary, in the first instance, sounded the philosopher, and with success. I quote from Mr. Lucas's edition of the Lamb letters, as the editor of Miss Betham's misreads and misprints his original. "Coleridge," she writes, "has given me a very cheerful promise that he will wait on Lady Jerningham any day you will be pleased to appoint. He offered to write to you, but I found it was to be done to-morrow, and as I am pretty well acquainted with his to-morrows, I thought good to let you know his determination to-day. He is in town to-day, but as he is often going to Hammersmith for a night or two, you had better perhaps send the invitation through me, and I will manage it for you as well as I can. You had better let him have four or five days' previous notice, and you had better send the invitation as soon as you can; for he seems tolerably well just now. I mention all these betters, because I wish to do the best I can for you, perceiving, as I do, it is a thing you have set your heart on."

Charles was next brought in. Mr. Lucas gives his letter (I. 429) to John Morgan, which says, "There--don't read any further, because the letter is not intended for you, but for Coleridge, who might perhaps not have opened it directed to him suo nomine. It is to invite C., to Lady Jerningham's on Sunday."

Finally, Coleridge went to the party, and apparently in company, though it is not clear in whose company. This is what Lady Jerningham thought about it:--


"My dear Miss Betham,--I have been pleased with your friends, tho' (which is not singular) they sometimes fly higher than my imagination can follow. I think the author ought to mix more, I will not say with Fools, but with People of Common Comprehension. His own intellect would be as bright, and what emanated from it more clear. This is perhaps a very impertinent Remark for me to venture at making, but your indulgence invited sincerity."

That letter, I think, whose capitals are particularly graphic, throws the whole party up in a dry light. One can see the rhapsodist talking interminably, involving himself ever deeplier in a web of his own spinning; the great lady gazing in wonder. It is one of the very few impartial witnesses we have to his conversational feats. Nearly all the evidence is tainted either by predisposition in his favour or the reverse. Hazlitt, a mainly hostile witness, says that he talked well on every subject; Godwin on none. One suspects antithesis there. He reports Holcroft as saying that "he thought Mr. C. a very clever man, with a great command of language, but that he feared he did not always affix very precise ideas to the words he used!" Then we have Byron, who wrote for effect, and whose aim was scorn. "Coleridge is lecturing. 'Many an old fool,' said Hannibal to some such lecturer, 'but such as this, never.'" Tom Moore, who met Coleridge at Monkhouse's famous poets' dinner-party, goes no further than to allow that "Coleridge told some tolerable things:" but what Tom wanted was anecdote. Directly Coleridge began upon theory Moore was bored. He shuts him down with a "This is absurd." Rogers was present at that party, but we don't know what he thought about it. He admits that Coleridge was a marvellous talker, however. "One morning when Hookham Frere also breakfasted with me, Coleridge talked for three hours without intermission about poetry, and so admirably that I wish every word he uttered had been written down." But it was not always so well. He says elsewhere that he and Wordsworth once called upon him. Coleridge "talked uninterruptedly for about two hours, during which Wordsworth listened with profound attention, every now and then nodding his head. On quitting the lodging, I said to Wordsworth, 'Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge's oration; pray, did you understand it?' 'Not one syllable of it,' was Wordsworth's reply."

Keats' account is capital. He met the Sage between Highgate and Hampstead, he says, and "walked with him, at his alderman-after-dinner pace, for near two miles, I suppose. In those two miles he broached a thousand things. Let me see if I can give you a list--nightingales--poetry--on poetical sensation--metaphysics--different genera and species of dreams--nightmare--a dream accompanied with a sense of touch--single and double touch--a dream related--first and second consciousness--the difference explained between will and volition--so say metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness--monsters--the Kraken--mermaids--Southey believes in them--Southey's belief too much diluted--a ghost story--Good morning--I heard his voice as he came towards me--I heard it as he moved away--I had heard it all the interval--if it may be called so."

Charles Lamb's is even better. On his way to the city he met Coleridge, and "in spite of my assuring him that time was precious, he drew me within the door of an unoccupied garden by the roadside, and there, sheltered from observation by a hedge of evergreens, he took me by the button of my coat, and closing his eyes, commenced an eloquent discourse, waving his right hand gently, as the musical words flowed in an unbroken stream from his lips. I listened entranced; but the striking of a church-clock recalled me to a sense of duty." Charles cut himself free with a pen-knife, he says, and went off to his office. "Five hours afterwards, in passing the garden on my way home, I heard Coleridge's voice, and on looking in, there he was, with closed eyes--the button in his fingers--his right hand gracefully waving." A good story, at least. This was no company for Lady Jerningham, who demanded clarity, and probably had a good deal to do.

Lastly, we have Coleridge's own confession to Miss Betham that "Bacchus ever sleek and young," as at this time Lamb called him, "pouring down," he went on to say, "goblet after goblet," must have outdone his usual outdoings. Here is the best he can say for himself:--

"True history will be my sufficient apology. After my return from Lady J.'s on Monday night, or rather morning, I awoke from my short sleep unusually indisposed, and was at last forced to call up the good daughter of the house at an early hour to get me hot water and procure me medicine. I could not leave my bed till past six Monday evening, when I crawled out in order to see Charles Lamb, and to afford him such poor comfort as my society might perhaps do in the present dejection of his spirits and loneliness."

There is much more to the same effect; and surely it is not often that a philosopher, or even a poet, will treat his post-prandial dumps (to call them so) as a stroke of adverse fortune. Coleridge takes it as an act of God. "This, my dear Miss Betham, waiving all connexion of sentences, is the history of my breach of engagement, of its cause, and of the occasion of that cause." There is much of Mr. Micawber here.

And here, so far as A House of Letters can help us, Coleridge's correspondence with Matilda Betham ends. It may well have been the end indeed. From that date onwards the wreck of the thinker and poet slid swiftly down the slope appointed, until he came up, after many bumps, in the hospitable Highgate backwater where he was to end his days. It was a wonderful London which within the same twenty years could harbour three men, like Blake, Coleridge and Shelley, in whom the incondite spirit which we call genius dwelt so near the surface of conscious being, and had such freedom to range. With Blake and Shelley, however, once over the threshold, it was untrammelled--and with Blake at least entirely innocuous to society, except to one drunken soldier who richly deserved what he got. But with Coleridge, throughout his career, one sees it struggling like a fly glued in treacle, pausing often to cleanse its wings. The fly, you adjudge, walked into the treacle. But Coleridge always thought that it was the treacle which had walked over him.


(The end)
Maurice Hewlett's essay: Footnote To Coleridge

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