“How Coleridge does rise up, as it were, almost from the dead!” wrote Dorothy Wordsworth in 1808. It was only two years since he had returned from the extended travels in the Mediterranean that were intended to cure all his ailments, physical and mental. He was thirty-six, and since the return, looking stout and—they all thought—altered for the worse, he had been reunited with his children and, reluctantly, with his wife; found himself ever more in love with Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson; had some kind of difficult confrontation with Wordsworth himself; struggled with his dire finances; written a little poetry; and, of course, taken opium, in the form of easily obtained laudanum. Wordsworth and his circle, after the deep friendship of their early years, had already begun the process of writing him off as hopelessly irresponsible—hence Dorothy’s surprise that Coleridge was to give a well-subscribed course of lectures in London.
Richard Holmes’s first volume of this outstanding biography was titled Early Visions, as against this second and final volume’s Darker Reflections. Even absolute beginners in Coleridgiana will be aware, then, that this latter half of Coleridge’s life is to go, on the whole, downhill. Yet the extraordinary thing, as Dorothy Wordsworth saw, was how often he was on his feet again after crashing blows—breakdowns, near bankruptcies, publishers’ betrayals, tragedies in love and in friendship. Through it all, until old age smoothed things down a little, he never ceased to be a deeply unhappy man.
When at the end of Early Visions Coleridge is seen leaving England in 1804 on the merchant ship Speedwell, en route to the Mediterranean, he was on a kind of health cure. The illnesses were: an intolerable marriage, his unassuageable love for “Asra” (Sara Hutchinson), and opium addiction. Holmes in that volume outlined Coleridge’s childhood as the youngest in the large family of an impoverished clergyman’s widow, his naive early social ideals and his young marriage, the publication of journalism and first poems, and the momentous meeting, in 1797, with Wordsworth.
The rest—at any rate, the next few years—is literary history, and bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, as we know. But the marriage soon turned sour; Wordsworth’s poetic influence became more patronizing. And it was as early as 1798, Holmes suspects, that Coleridge was taking the first steps toward addiction, to the laudanum that he took for rheumatic pain. He never ceased to protest innocence in the matter. “I have never loved evil for its own sake,” he was to write in his notebook while traveling; “no! nor ever sought pleasure for its own sake, but only as the means of escaping from pains that coiled round my mental powers, as a serpent around the body & wings of an Eagle.”
The story of nineteenth-century opium addiction seems, to our age, extraordinary because it was not more widespread. Of the same substance as morphine and heroin, opium was known …