Seamus Perry

On 15 June 1794, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, prodigious, garrulous and chubby, his brilliant undergraduate career in tatters, set out from Cambridge in the company of a steady companion called Hucks, picturesquely intent on a walking tour of North Wales. Their route took them through Oxford, where they looked up one of Coleridge’s old schoolmates, who took the visitors to see a notorious democrat at Balliol called Robert Southey. It was an encounter that, Southey would recall, ‘fixed the future fortunes of us both’. The tourists had planned to stop in Oxford for three or four days but ended up staying three weeks. When they finally set out for Wales, Coleridge’s head was buzzing with Southey and Southey’s audacious politics, which seemed to chime so excitingly not only with his own but with the progressive spirit of the age. ‘Few persons but those who lived in it,’ Southey wrote thirty years later, ‘can conceive or comprehend what the memory of the French Revolution was, nor what a visionary world seemed to open upon those who were just entering it. Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race.’

Each saw in the other, or thought he did, an agent of that millennial regeneration and the perfected image of himself. Coleridge had found a ‘Sheet Anchor’, ‘a down-right, upright Republican’ with an ‘undeviating simplicity of Rectitude’. Southey was quite as impressed by him, ‘a Cantab … whom I very much esteem & admire, tho’ two thirds of our conversation be spent in disputing on metaphysical subjects’ – which presumably implies that Coleridge did two-thirds of the talking. In truth, as events would quickly show, their kinship did not go very deep. Coleridge’s republicanism was a kind of spilt religion, inspired by the mystical sense of universal fraternity he had absorbed from the Unitarian Joseph Priestley and the dissenting circles he had moved in at Cambridge; Southey’s, on the other hand, was bookish, a heady and incoherent mix of Gibbon and Rousseau and Voltaire, stirred up with the modish radicalism of Godwin – none of which Coleridge ever cared for much. Nevertheless they had soon sorted out a plan for their lives. Equipped with a party of like-minded followers and wives, they would set up a communistic kibbutz on the banks of the Susquehannah river in Pennsylvania, where, since there would be no private property and hence no incentive to misbehave, they might confidently look forward to a good life of honest toil, philosophising and poetry. Coleridge, thinking a new word necessary for so innovative a departure in human affairs, christened the scheme ‘Pantisocracy’.

It sounds now like a comic interlude in a more serious sort of literary life; but many people (including Priestley) emigrated to America at around this time. Long before Coleridge arrived on his doorstep Southey had dreamed despondently about escaping England and starting afresh. ‘Is it not rather disgraceful, at the moment when Europe is on fire with freedom … to sit and study Euclid or Hugo Grotius?’ he complained in a letter. Now Coleridge had arrived, and in the interests of utopia Southey promptly paired his comrade off with a fiancée he had to hand: Sara Fricker, the vivid and quick sister of his own intended, the much more docile Edith. A startled Sara was introduced to her new young man as he returned, bedraggled and sunburned, from the tour of Wales – ‘a dreadful figure’, as she remembered, though admittedly ‘eloquent and clever’. And so Coleridge abandoned Cambridge and Southey Oxford, and they moved to Bristol, Southey’s home, where they set about trying to raise funds for the passage. Southey offered a series of lectures on history, and Coleridge one on religion, and they co-authored a docu-drama, The Fall of Robespierre, which gamely sought to render recent events across the Channel in high old style: ‘Shudder, ye representatives of France,/ Shudder with horror’ and ‘O prodigality of eloquent anger!’ and so forth. Coleridge was ambivalent about Robespierre, as many British progressives were, but Southey was altogether more robust, reportedly exclaiming when he heard news of Robespierre’s execution: ‘I had rather have heard of the death of my own father.’

Of course they never made it to Pennsylvania, which was probably just as well. (In his shaggy-dog history of ideas, Madoc, Paul Muldoon imagines the high-minded debacle that would have ensued had they ever got there.) Fiery Southey grew cooler and cooler. He began by suggesting that the party might perhaps work up to the full American dream by way of a small farm in Wales (Coleridge was incredulous); then toyed with the idea of entering the church (Coleridge was horrified); and finally, after coming into an annuity, rethought his position on common ownership and withdrew altogether. Coleridge was magnificently contemptuous about this lurch into conventionality and wrote him a scorching letter: ‘O Selfish, money-loving Man! What Principle have you not given up?’ Left with no degree, no money and few prospects, and with the unexpected burden of a marriage that Southey had engineered for him, Coleridge not unnaturally felt hard done by; but the fault was as much his own in having mistaken so wishfully the nature of his man. For Southey’s deepest instincts were really as far as could be from the reckless spirit of adventure that the enterprise required. Whatever wild noises he made as an undergraduate, Southey was always ruled by a rage for order: his youthful utopianism was one fantastical expression of this; his later fervid conservatism was another; and, in a different way, the remorseless domestic stability that characterised most of his adult life was another still. The fiasco of Pantisocracy had brought out crucial differences between the two men which each had refused to see: as William Haller said long ago in his astute and still highly readable Early Life of Robert Southey (1917), the scheme was thrilling to Coleridge as a philosophical experiment, while appealing to Southey chiefly as a set of rules.

Coleridge, ever eager to find in others the well-adjustedness that he missed so badly in himself, mistook Southey’s vehemence as a sign of emotional strength; but Southey’s obsessive need for control could only ever have been a characteristic of someone whose inner life was permanently poised on the edge of the craziest turbulence: he is one of Eng. Lit.’s great neurotics. For Coleridge, as for Wordsworth, the human personality was something like a vast river or a growing tree: a single strong autonomous thing, yet responsive and continuously developing. For Southey, it was more like a suit of armour or an exoskeleton. His gift for self-suppression was amazing, in part no doubt because he had been forced to perfect it so early. His first years were spent in the stuffy house of an aunt, a hygiene fetishist whose childcare regime consisted mostly of enforcing long periods of inaction so as to avoid any possible contact between infant and dirt. She insisted that the boy sleep in her bed, and there he would lie immobile for hours until she was ready to get up. ‘Once, indeed, I had a mimosa-sensibility,’ he wrote, while still a young man, ‘but it has long been rooted out,’ and it’s true that most of his life was spent trying to ensure that his acquaintance with himself was as superficial as possible. Coleridge, to whom self-analysis was stock-in-trade, found the case absorbing, if repellent, and in the privacy of his notebook he would often analyse his brother-in-law. He recognised Southey’s character as heroic in one way, while remaining convinced that there was something less than fully human about it too:

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