The big drops start

John Bayley

  • Coleridge: Early Visions by Richard Holmes
    Hodder, 409 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 340 28335 1
  • Wordsworth: Romantic Poetry and Revolution Politics by John Williams
    Manchester, 203 pp, £29.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 7190 3168 0
  • Sara Coleridge, A Victorian Daughter: Her Life and Essays by Bradford Keyes Mudge
    Yale, 287 pp, £18.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 300 04443 7

‘Few moments in life so interesting,’ Coleridge noted, ‘as those of an affectionate reception from those who have heard of you yet are strangers to your person.’ The occasion was his meeting in the autumn of 1799 with the Hutchinson sisters – Mary, Sara and Joanna – at their brother Tom’s Yorkshire farm. Coleridge laid himself out to charm them and succeeded. The middle sister, Sara, whom he would call Asra, to set her apart from his own wife Sara, became his prime female figure of worship and consolation. Mary was to have a long and tranquil married life with Wordsworth. Joanna continued to live with her brother Tom.

Wordsworth, too, was of the party, and so was his sister Dorothy. But Wordsworth does not really enter the moment. The striking thing about the relation of the two is how accessible Coleridge remains to us today – in it, and in himself: how inaccessible Wordsworth. By the time Coleridge arrives at the Yorkshire farmhouse he is as familiar to us as anybody today, in our own acquaintance, and as readily and easily comprehensible. Wordsworth is left behind in history, a figure in the past and in the words of a book, a peak hidden in the mist of the egotistical sublime. Impossible to imagine him scribbling down that comment on the interesting moments in life, yet anyone today might do it. The life in Coleridge seems permanently, confusedly, perpetually present – and never more so than in this almost incredibly vivid biography. Richard Holmes has a genius for the job, as he showed fifteen years ago in his biography of Shelley. In a sense, there is no need to bring Coleridge to life, but in this compelling narrative of those early years of the poet Holmes makes us seem actually to be living with him, sharing in the stream of his consciousness in a way that would be quite unthinkable with Wordsworth.

Coleridge remains himself, whereas Wordsworth has vanished into his own poems; they seem like monuments of a bygone diction and mode of feeling, extruded by the calm but overpowering will to be ‘a great poet’. The mind of Man, ‘my haunt and the main region of my song’, as Wordsworth called it, remains paradoxically in a museum of concept, together with what Basil Willey long ago described as that ‘widespread desire’ in the 18th century ‘to equate the moral and the physical world’. Wordsworth’s willed emphasis on the role of nature, and its beneficence, now seems utterly beside the point. Wordsworth’s language, like the natural objects it describes, has parted company with us today, all the more so from Wordsworth’s determination to employ the language ‘really used by men’.

I love a public road: few sights there are
That please me more – such object hath had power
O’er my imagination since the dawn
Of childhood, when its disappearing line
Seen daily afar off, on one bare steep
Beyond the limits which my feet had trod,
Was like a guide into eternity,
At least to things unknown and without bound.

That brings before us what roads once were, and are no longer: as so often with Wordsworth, the hiatus between past and present seems complete, the nature of lakes and mountains having changed more subtly but as completely as that of roads. Only the pieties of literary sympathy – which can and should be learnt and practised – can bring them back to us, just as the pieties of religious practice could and should depend upon keeping the past alive on its own terms.

The valuable thing about John Williams’s book on Wordsworth’s poetry and politics is the way it accepts, perhaps without meaning to, the historicity of its subject, and examines it with a care and insight that are not in the least concerned with our own contemporary needs and responses. Even Sun and Moon are not the same orbs today as they were then for the poet. The Sun was a pledge of life and its responsibilities,

And from like feelings, humble though intense,
To patriotic and domestic love
Analogous, the moon to me was dear.

An engaging and indeed endearing thought, but one not likely to strike a poet of today such as Larkin, for whom, in ‘Sad Steps’, the Moon has the kind of immediacy, and absurdity, that also suddenly beams on us in Coleridge’s description in ‘The Nightingale’.

Williams is excellent on Wordsworth’s own sense of history, and the way it surfaces with a kind of steady radicalism in unexpected contexts, even in something as laboriously mock-heroic as ‘Benjamin the Waggoner’. Nelson, as Williams points out, was no hero to Wordsworth (to Coleridge he certainly was), in spite of the pantheonic celebrations of ‘The Happy Warrior’, and Williams is very acute on the ways in which his political preoccupations in the poems ‘have become submerged or “displaced” through the introduction of alternative forms of discourse’. This would be a way of saying that discourse was itself the thing that mattered to Wordsworth, whereas to Coleridge the sense of consciousness, and all that it implied, was what was all-important. Although Coleridge almost certainly suggested to Wordsworth the idea of poetry as ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’, he instinctively felt that art betrayed itself by excessive shaping and reflection. Wordsworth’s roads and lakes and mountains look today like pictures, mounted in perpetuity, and perpetuating a time when scenery had not sunk to the grisly status of ‘areas of outstanding natural beauty’. The ‘environment’ that Wordsworth matched with his own being and his own will to be a great poet has been preserved – denatured, that is – as much by the efforts to save it as by the more natural consequences of pollution and over-population. The public road through Grasmere and Dunmail Rise is no longer a safe place to compose verses.

To Coleridge’s vision this is irrelevant.

My pale cheeks glow – the big drops start –
The rebel Feeling riots at my heart!

And paradoxically it is feeling – in the most immediate sense – that inspired those wonderfully accurate and yet visionary glimpses in his Notebooks, word-pictures that are equal to his finest achievements as artist and poet. Ullswater resembled, and no doubt still does, ‘a large Slice of calm silver – above this a bright ruffledness, or atomic sportiveness – motes in the sun? – Vortices of flies? – how shall I express the banks waters all fused Silver, that house too its slates rainwet silver in the sun, – its shadows running down in the water like a column.’

Coleridge became a fell-walker on a scale more heroic even than Wordsworth and Wordsworth’s sailor brother John. As Stephen Gill acutely points out in his recent Wordsworth biography, an excellent companion piece to Holmes on Coleridge, ‘Coleridge actually needed action, not the tranquillity of a domestic cot but excitement, whether it be from the demands of London or the dangers of Scafell.’ Like Dostoevsky, he needed to be in a desperate situation to work his best, or indeed to work at all. Wordsworth made the comment that Robert Southey, Coleridge’s brother-in-law, ‘writes too much at his ease’, but the criticism could equally have applied to Wordsworth himself, not because Wordsworth found composition easy – it gave him the psychosomatic pains which only afflicted Coleridge when he was barren and idle – but because he needed passive rural tranquillity and the loving ministrations of his sister and later his wife.

Domesticity appalled Coleridge: he would do anything to avoid it – travel round Germany, rush off to London or the Lakes. He passionately needed love, the kind of love his mother, busy and efficient wife of the schoolmaster rector of Ottery St Mary, had neither time nor inclination to bestow on the youngest of her eight children: but he had the bad luck to marry a level-headed, unromantic, intelligent girl who needed and could supply domesticity but who had no insight into her spouse’s need to be petted and mothered, nor the temperament to do it spontaneously and to enter into his joys and fears. Sara Fricker, the girl from Bristol, whose younger sister married Southey, partner in the idealistic scheme of Pantisocracy in which a community of work and love was to flourish on the banks of the Susquehanna, seems as much our contemporary as Coleridge himself; and her story has been told with great sympathy in Molly Lefebure’s The Bondage of Love. Accustomed as we are to the notion of sexual and emotional incompatibility, their relation is to us all too familiar, down to the telling episode in which Sara spilt a saucepanful of boiling milk over her husband’s foot, thus preventing him from going on a ramble over Quantoxhead with Lamb, William and Dorothy; and incidentally producing the poem ‘This Lime Tree Bower My Prison’. ‘Prison’ was the word, almost synonymous for Coleridge with cottage or home; and the charm both of the Lime Tree Bower poem and ‘Frost at Midnight’ largely consists in the restless pleasure with which he moves in thought and composition out of a static situation. In their ecstatically overdone domesticity and household pleasures there is something mawkish about both poems, for Coleridge, like most husbands in his situation, was always prepared to lay on the appearances to deceive his friends, and in the context of poetry, his readers. It is doubtful whether he deceived himself.

The endless rebound of the sacred river in ‘Kubla Khan’, the flying progress of the Ancient Mariner, the tumultuously androgynous Geraldine of the ‘Christabel’ fragment, were the symbol and embodiment of Coleridge’s need for action. It is fascinating to compare his Notebook entries with those of Dorothy Wordsworth, for the latter’s calm, precise and beautiful observations have the effect of creating and bringing the reader back to herself, a self all the more quietly egocentric for being as inaccessible today as that of her brother, as much a part of a style and a period. It is impossible to imagine the actuality of William and Dorothy, their being and conversing together, but the scenes that must have gone on in the Coleridges’ kitchen are not for an age but for all time. Funnily enough, the moment when Dorothy comes closest to us is her borrowing of Sara’s clothes – to the latter’s suppressed and silent fury – when she came into the Coleridge cottage drenched from a romantic walking expedition. A true child of the age, she did it without reflection or permission, and Sara never forgot the exasperation of it. Sara would not have made a good Pantisocrat. Neither would Coleridge. But William and Mary made a model loving community of two, one naturally taking and the other as naturally giving. Coleridge touchingly envied that relation, as he envied the later one with Mary and Sara Hutchinson, into which Dorothy herself fitted with such apparent serenity. Dissension seems closer to us than loving accord, and no doubt this is why the reader today finds the Coleridges more present to experience than the Wordsworths: yet there must have been something magical in that Quantock spring and autumn, inaugurated by Coleridge running down the hill at Racedown and jumping the gate to meet William and his sister for the first time. ‘A wonderful man,’ she wrote in her diary. She fell in love with him so far as her love for William allowed: it was a symptom of that love to take Sara’s clothes without permission. Sara must have seen that.

And no doubt she was soon aware of her husband’s later infatuation with her namesake, Sara Hutchinson, whom Coleridge rushed off to visit at her brother’s farm, Gallow Hill.

The fire, Mary, you and I at Gallow Hill; or if flamy, reflected in children’s round faces – ah whose children? – a dog – that dog whose restless eyes oft catching the flame of the fire used to watch your face, as you leaned with your head on your hand and arm, – your feet on the fender – the fender thence – fowls at table – the last dinner at Gallow Hill, when you drest the two fowls in that delicious white Sauce ... ten thousand links.

These erotic Notebook entries – sex breathes in the very capital letter he gives to the sauce – are as astonishing in their own way as the notes on scenery, and as uncannily capable of giving the dishevelled feel of the moment. ‘Asra’ and her sister, children, dog, dinner and the fender (ankles in the firelight) nestle all together in the warm bosom of imagination, wild with all regret. Poetry came too, the first lengthy and immediate version of the ‘Dejection’ Ode, in which Coleridge poured out his love for Asra, his self-pity, Dorothy and William and his schooldays and marriage (‘two unequal Minds ... two discordant wills’), and the equally spontaneous and inflexible honesty that went with emotion and self-pity in the immediacy of Coleridge’s feeling.

O Sara! we receive but what we give,
  And in our Life alone does Nature live.
Our’s is her Wedding Garment, our’s her Shroud.

The poem in its first dishevelled state, before Coleridge had censored and regularised it, filled Dorothy Wordsworth with dismay. ‘The sunshine, the green fields and the fair sky made me sadder, even the little happy sporting lambs seemed but sorrowful to me.’ Coleridge’s poem, and Dorothy’s reading of it, brought them both to the real discovery of romantic experience – that it’s all in the mind – a discovery as momentous for later poets, for Keats, Shelley, Baudelaire, as it was dire and depressing for these first sanguine explorers. William, characteristically, would not have it: for him, will was more important than consciousness and sensation, and within two years he had made his own manifesto in the ‘Immortality’ Ode. The assertions in that poem (‘the soothing thoughts that spring/Out of human suffering ... years that bring the philosophic mind ... the human heart by which we live’) cannot be called insincere, but they are arrestingly, even fascinatingly determined to protect the ego that constructs them. Wordsworth had to shut his heart and vision to Coleridge, and to the abyss which Coleridge’s immediacy and involuntariness opened up before the philosophic mind, and its will to write great poems.

Ah whose children ... ’ In the first version he poured out Coleridge tasted dejection even in the loving identification he had with his own. ‘How they bind/And pluck out the Wing-feathers of my mind,/Turning my error to Necessity.’ He had avoided that necessity by remaining a busily happy student in Germany while his wife Sara struggled with Hartley’s ailments at Nether Stowey and bore little Berkeley, who soon died. Coleridge’s sincerity was of a quite different kind from Wordsworth’s – not being of the will – but it is equally trustful in his identification with all children, warmth, maternity and his own desire to be petted and loved. Why should not Asra attend their new child’s birth? he demands of his wife, ‘because you will hardly have another opportunity ... of learning to know her, such as she really is’. By the time Sara must have known her husband, such as he really was, and the request could hardly have been a welcome one. In later years, Coleridge was a kind and anxious father to his surviving sons, even when the eldest, Hartley, showed all the signs of going his father’s unstable and alcoholic way, but he seems to have taken little interest in his daughter, the youngest Sara, whose name ambiguously commemorated both the ladies in his life.

This was the more ironic in that the third Sara was not only his most gifted and intelligent child, but became the most devoted to her father, his works and reputation. A true Victorian, author of two books before she was 22, Sara Coleridge was convinced, and not altogether without justification, that her father’s message and example was what the new age needed. In their different ways, Carlyle and Tennyson showed that they agreed with her, and Dr Mudge’s admirable study reveals the Coleridgean legacy embodied in a daughter who both revered her father’s memory and helped to keep alive in her editing and her promotion of him the spirit and presentness of his extraordinary being. This is a penetrating study of a dutiful daughter, too dutiful, perhaps, for her own good, but surmounting the paternal legacy of depression, opium and hysteria as few other offspring of the romantic hereditas would have been able to do. Young Sara probably earned the right to report rather maliciously to her husband, as she did, of the depression and sterility in the home of the aged Wordsworth – ‘settled dulness – the bard shorn of his vigour and his gentleman-like courtesy of manner. For on both points I remember him very different from what he is now.’

‘The transfer of attention from works of literature to modes of signification ... ’ Frank Kermode’s comment on modern criticism, in his essays, Appetite for Poetry, goes to the heart of the matter: attention is transferred today, not only to epistemological theory where the works are concerned, but away from the living and breathing personality of their authors. A biography as good as that of Richard Holmes shows us not only what Coleridge was like but how and why his words are like him: and that greatly increases our pleasure in them, and our understanding. Coleridge would have hated modern literary theory because it reads codes not persons and divides words from things. Things, like the ‘5 to 18’ spots spied on a sycamore leaf, meant a lot to him and to his powers of enquiry and composition. We may feel a sense of sadness and envy today at the possibilities in experience that seemed open to him – God, medicine, science, religion, travel, spirits and the supernatural. The universe, as Baudelaire was to say of the child in us all, seemed equal to his vast appetite. It has shrunk a good deal since then. But Coleridge’s consciousness still continues, as he once fondly saw his son Hartley, ‘singing, dancing to itself’.