“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 to Greeks and Romans, mentioned by Chaucer and Shakespeare, and by the seventeenth century was a normal household remedy in England. Doctors were cautious with it, because there was some awareness that it could be addictive; but, after all, what else was there for the tormenting toothache, the stubborn insomnia, the fit of hysterics? In her fascinating Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968), Alethea Hayter examines some of the writers known to have taken a considerable amount on occasion—Scott, Bulwer Lytton, Dickens, Mrs. Gaskell, Elizabeth Barrett Browning—and also makes it clear that never to have taken laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol and so no doubt doubly delicious) could in Coleridge’s time have been the equivalent of never to have taken aspirin today. Babies, even, were dosed with Godfrey’s Cordial or Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup. Why, then, was not the whole country totally addicted to the stuff?

Perhaps in the same way that only a fraction of people who enjoy unrestricted alcohol today become alcoholics. Or the constipation accompanying opium-taking may have been a deterrent (Coleridge had the most massive bowel struggles and eruptions). But it is all the more puzzling in that it is the early stages of taking the drug that are described as so pleasant* ; only when addiction sets in is it craved just to alleviate withdrawal pains. When Coleridge maintained that he had no idea at first that it could become addictive, he was perhaps being a little disingenuous. What he had no idea of, perhaps, was that it would fit in so well with his self-destructive drive.

The psychiatric label “addictive personality” may be relevant. Does it just mean the person who craves relief because his suffering is especially intolerable; or does it describe Coleridge’s longing for support, comfort, encircling arms around him? One important encouragement to addiction, though Coleridge might have denied it, was surely his fascination with what we would now call alternative states of consciousness. He was a pioneer dreamer. Dream, trance, hypnagogic reverie, all these visions of the inner eye that he recorded in his notebooks were the essence for him of poetry, of Romanticism, of his principle of formative imagination. Opium could only have fostered them.


However—what we learn from Holmes’s account of his Mediterranean travels is Coleridge’s other side: how efficient he could be, and how good an impression he made at this time of his life. Perhaps, as he maintained, if he had had a happy marriage and the “decent competence” (i.e., money) that a gentleman could expect, he would indeed have had a different life? Within a few weeks of his arrival in Malta he had won over the governor with his conversation, sent reports on the surrounding countries back to Downing Street, and accepted a salary and accommodation within the governor’s palace. He dealt on the government’s behalf with a dangerous conflict in Naples, moved back to Malta to become second-in-command there, survived tropical temperatures and an earthquake, and was strongly urged to stay on.

In his notebooks, though, he was writing,

I am to the outward view of all cheerful, & have myself no distinct consciousness of the contrary; for I use my faculties, not indeed as once, yet freely.—But oh [Asra]! I am never happy,—never deeply gladdened—I know not, I have forgotten what the Joy is of which the Heart is full as of a deep & quiet fountain overflowing insensibly; or the gladness of Joy, when the fountain overflows ebullient—STC.

His eventual return to England, after much indecision, precipitated him back into the dreaded marriage and the proximity of Asra, as well as to an uneasy sense of estrangement from Wordsworth. When he began to give his London lectures in 1808 they were a typical mixture of triumph and disaster: terror at first made him fall seriously ill, yet, once recovered, he spoke eloquently and paved the way for many more. His subject, “The Principles of Poetry,” embodied his central belief in the structuring power of the poetic imagination—the Romantics’ manifesto. Here, as throughout the book, Holmes is able to elucidate for fainthearted readers of Coleridgean prose just how deeply felt and elaborated this belief was.

Before the end of the series, however, he was ill again—and rose again, this time with plans to start a new journal, The Friend. “I am sorry to say,” wrote Wordsworth,

that nothing appears more desirable than that his periodical essay should never commence. It is in fact impossible—utterly impossible—that he should carry it on…. I give it to you as my deliberate opinion, formed upon proofs which have been strengthening for years, that he neither will nor can execute anything of important benefit either to himself, his family or mankind. Neither his talents nor his genius mighty as they are, nor his vast information will avail him anything; they are all frustrated by a derangement in his intellectual and moral constitution….

He was right, and not right. The Friend, which Coleridge edited with Asra’s help in 1809 and 1810, ran for nearly a year; Holmes, who loves his Coleridge, insists that “within its Amazonian jungle of tangled, unparagraphed, discursive prose, lay limpid pools of story-telling, criticism, memoir-writing and philosophic reflection.” But then came the real death-blow from Wordsworth.

The relation of these two men could on its own fill a book the length of Darker Reflections. Reading of the break of 1810, it is an effort to remember the intensity of their early friendship: that The Prelude was written to Coleridge, the “dear Friend,” that Dorothy Wordsworth’s journal simply calls the unnamed work “poem to C.” Could Wordsworth have written his one great poem without a sense of the listening, supporting friend? Later on, after seeing the position of Coleridge’s more or less abandoned family, he had perhaps the right to decide the man was hopeless; all the same, one cannot reach the end of Darker Reflections without finding Coleridge’s generosity and self-mocking humor more likable than Wordsworth’s stiff probity. (But we have not had to be woken by Coleridge’s nightmares, observe his secret visits to the chemist, or, like Dorothy, make his bed at all hours of the day.)

The disaster followed from Wordsworth’s talk with Coleridge’s acquaintance Basil Montagu, who proposed to take Coleridge in as house guest for the winter. Privately, Wordsworth strongly advised him not to. Montagu therefore placed Coleridge without warning in a different London house, and with extreme foolishness passed on Wordsworth’s damning remarks—with some implication that he had been asked to do so. They included, so Coleridge believed, the phrases “absolute nuisance,” “rotten drunkard,” and “no hope of him.” To make things worse, Asra, who was the sister of Wordsworth’s wife, had already been spirited away from the Wordsworth household for her own good. Coleridge was truly devastated.


He was taken into the household of more kindly friends, the Morgans (what Holmes calls his “cuckoo-like propensities” were so often generously met that he cannot have been such a dreadful guest). The sequel, a couple of years later, is somewhat comical. Thanks to Coleridge’s indiscretion, the falling-out of the two Lake Poets had become gossip for literary London. Wordsworth decided he must come to London himself to clear his reputation. Letters and declarations were sent out; friends took sides. Coleridge cried a great deal, Wordsworth not at all. A kind of reconciliation was arranged by go-betweens, and the two were to meet on polite terms again in their lifetimes. But the emotional cord was cut. A description given by their mutual friend Crabb Robinson shows the two poets at a soirée given by Charles Lamb. At one end of the room was Coleridge, declaiming to an audience the beauties of Wordsworth’s verse; at the other end was Wordsworth, declaiming…the beauties of Wordsworth’s verse.

The long-drawn-out passion for Asra, so closely involved with his emotions about Wordsworth, was dismissed by Dorothy Wordsworth as no more than selfish fantasy: “His love for her is no more than a fanciful dream—otherwise he would prove it by a desire to make her happy. No! He likes to have her about him as his own, as one devoted to him….” Was this all there was to it? For at least ten years, the obsession dominated Coleridge’s life, constantly returned to in his notebooks. She represented for him everything that was understanding and benign, the opposite of his incompatible wife: an inner glade of “sinuous rills” and greenery where he could retreat from a very lonely life. He was sociable, he was talkative—but lonely. He himself questioned his own feelings in a little-known verse quoted by Holmes, where he asks, “And art thou nothing?” Just a mirage, seen by the woodsman climbing through a snow-mist at dawn?

No. She was not a kind of human opium; so many of his writings about her have the touch of true feeling. He felt her present to him, he wrote, “even as two persons at some small distance in the same dark room: they know that the one is present, & act & feel under that knowledge—& a subtler kind of sigh seems to confirm & enliven the knowledge.” Meeting her at Grasmere after his absence abroad: “Love, passionate in its deepest tranquillity, Love unutterable fills my whole Spirit, so that every fibre of my Heart, nay, of my whole frame seems to tremble under its perpetual touch and sweet pressure, like the string of a Lute.” Later in life, comparing his loss of Wordsworth with that of Asra, he felt that “the former spread a wider gloom over the world around me, the latter left a darkness within myself…a Self emptied.”

He seems to have had no other real love affair, and Asra did not marry. We do not know enough, of course, about the childhood that underlay his vulnerability; not much more than that his father died suddenly when he was eight and that his mother, Holmes guesses, was not exactly adored by her ten children. (Coleridge did not go to her deathbed, even though she asked for him.) There must have been a shortage of attention and affection as well as money, which fostered his longing for a future love.

I have never seen the evening Star set behind the mountains but it was as if I had lost a Hope out of my Soul—as if a Love were gone & a sad memory only remained.—O it was my earliest affection, the Evening Star.—One of my first utterances in verse was an address to it as I was returning from the New River, and it looked newly-bathed as well as I.—I remember the substance of the Sonnet was that the woman whom I could ever love, would surely have been emblemed in the pensive serene brightness of that Planet—that we were both constellated to it, & would after death return thither.

If anything written by Coleridge breathes loneliness, it is this.

Wordsworth, by the end of his childhood, had lost both his parents; but he believed he survived the loss:

The props of my affections were remov’d,
And yet the building stood, as if sustain’d
By its own spirit!

making from his native landscapes a kind of mythic family for himself. He wrote the best of his poetry in The Prelude’s descriptions of childhood; then left it behind. Coleridge stayed the spoiled but deprived youngest child. He knew that imagination should keep a childlike quality, and drew on it for the fairy-tale power of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. The two innovators of Romanticism looked at childhood as it had not been looked at before; but they used it quite differently.

How Coleridge—the first user, so far as I know, of the word “psychoanalytical”—would have loved to discuss all this on the psychoanalytic couch! How he would have talked; what dreams reported! He pushed his own self-knowledge a long way. In later years he came to see even his celebrated eloquence as self-defense, “most commonly excited by the desire of running away and hiding myself from my personal and inward feelings…. I fled in a circle still overtaken by the Feelings, from which I was evermore fleeing, with my back turned toward them” (“Like one, that on a lonesome road/Doth walk in fear and dread,/And having once turned round walks on,/And turns no more his head;/ Because he knows, a frightful fiend/ Doth close behind him tread”?). He detected in his very sensitivity a “species of Histrionism” which he compared to an actor’s.

Would he have discovered, on this hypothetical couch, how success itself made him shrink back in guilt and distress? This was to happen in 1813. First, his play Remorse, a melodrama of the Spanish Inquisition, had been a success at Drury Lane; then he had carried out a wonderful piece of rescue work for his benefactors the Morgan family, who were facing bankruptcy. Then he collapsed. For months he was in a state of real breakdown, with the usual drug complications.

Ahead of him was a last twenty years, in the household of a good friend and doctor in Highgate village, now a suburb of London. He gave more lectures, reaffirmed in the Biographia Literaria his progress from materialism to confidence in human possibility, reacquainted himself with his grown children, was caricatured by Peacock in Nightmare Abbey as Mr. Flosky the German Transcendentalist, designed his own tombstone. In Holmes’s account, he becomes prematurely aged, visited, as the sage of Highgate, by John Stuart Mill, Carlyle, Rossetti, James Fenimore Cooper, Emerson, Harriet Martineau, and many others. Keats’s encounter with him is celebrated:

I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In these 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 by a sense of Touch—single and double Touch—A dream related—First and Second Consciousness—the difference explained between Will and Volition—so many 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 heard it all the interval—if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate. Goodnight!

Up in the north, Wordsworth in immense respectability was writing “Ecclesiastical Sketches” (“From the Introduction of Christianity to Britain, to the Consummation of the Papal Dominion”). He was to outlive Coleridge by sixteen years, and to be Poet Laureate for the last seven of them.

Though Coleridge was undoubtedly a celebrity, contemporaries’ opinions of him still varied. He was a reprobate still, he was “one of the few immortals,” he was a moulting eagle—no, a “hooded eagle among blinking owls.” (His own bird metaphors for himself were a “starling self-encaged,” a nightingale trying to sing against the noise of a waterfall.) A friend of Charles Lamb who called him “poor Coleridge” had been rounded on: Lamb could not abide, he said, to hear “poor Coleridge.” “I can’t bear to hear pity applied to such a one.”

In a postscript to volume one of this fine biography, Richard Holmes discusses how we would estimate Coleridge now if he had died during his 1804 voyage—as he might well have done—and there were no volume two. He would be seen, Holmes says, as one of the brilliant Romantics who died young (no reprobate, no stout old gentleman prosing away in Highgate). He would be valued for his early poetry, for journalism chronicling the French Revolution, for his introduction of German ideas to England, and for his notebooks and letters.

But, as Holmes says, biography cannot choose; it must conform to the “complication, strength, and strangeness” of life. One could propose that, poetically, both Coleridge and Wordsworth died soon after the turn of the century; Coleridge was the one who castigated himself for a wasted life—but who reads Wordsworth’s sonnets to the river Duddon or “Ecclesiastical Sketches”? Whether it is a worse fate to become self-important or a drug addict is hard to say. Coleridge did little more harm to the world than his fellow poet.

Except to one person. Coleridge’s two younger children hardly knew him, and could be proud of him. Hartley, the oldest, was first adored by his father, dropped, taken up again; grew up brilliant, eccentric, sad. He left his father in a London street in 1822 and never saw him again. His sole book of poems was dedicated to Coleridge.

This Issue

June 10, 1999