‘We poets in our youth’

Redcliffe_Church_via_OBI.tumblr

(George Shepherd, Via https://www.oldbookillustrations.com/ )

‘The weather was brilliant’, the Reverend Francis Kilvert recorded in his diary, Friday 24 October 1873, when he attended the Bristol Music Festival. ‘We walked first to St Mary Redcliffe Church and remained to service in the beautiful Lady Chapel at 11 o’clock.’[1]

This imposing church, some of it dating back to the twelfth century, is about a mile from where I sit at this moment. Bristol boasts a giddily multifarious literary-historical line-up, those who have lived, visited or worked here ranging from Richard Hakluyt, Maria Edgeworth and Thomas Lovell Beddoes to Walter Savage Landor, Angela Carter and Charles Tomlinson. Edmund Burke was Member of Parliament, Humphry Davy experimented with laughing gas (often on himself) and Daniel Defoe may have met Alexander Selkirk, the ‘original’ of Robinson Crusoe, in a tavern in King Street. But traces of English Romanticism show up particularly strongly in any blood sample taken from the city’s literary history, and St Mary Redcliffe’s is a name that recurs often.

On this day, 4 October, in 1795, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, poet—recently, though briefly, having served with the Fifteenth Light Dragoons under the name Silas Tomkyn Comberbache—was married to Miss Sara Fricker in St Mary Redcliffe. He was not quite twenty-three, she a year or two older. The marriage would not be a conspicuous success but, in and around this year, Coleridge was meeting and often enchanting other figures who would be crucially important to his life and art.

‘SOUTHEY! thy melodies steal o’er mine ear
Like far-off joyance, or the murmuring
Of wild bees in the sunny showers of Spring –
Sounds of such mingled import as may cheer

The lonely breast, yet rouse a mindful tear’.[2]

Coleridge and Southey first met in Oxford in June 1794. Coleridge and his travelling companion, Joseph Hucks, had just begun a walking tour which would extend to more than five hundred miles in just over a month. The three-day stopover was transformed into a three-week stay, essentially because of this encounter between Coleridge and the twenty-year-old Southey, who ‘wrote bad poetry at tremendous speed’ and, though a self-proclaimed atheist and democrat, ‘with strong Jacobin sympathies’, was at that stage destined for the church.[3] Southey was a Bristol man, born above the family draper’s shop in Wine Street in August 1774, educated at Westminster School and then Balliol College. Coleridge’s friendship with him—like his friendships with several other men of letters—would be prone to convulsions, smarts and sorties but it started out with a tremendous velocity.

Coleridge

(Coleridge, 1975, by Peter Vandyke: © National Portrait Gallery)

By the time he and Hucks moved on from Oxford, Coleridge had established with Southey plans for a community on the banks of the Susquehanna river in Pennsylvania, which would sustain itself through farming (two or three hours’ daily labour) and would be grandly based on the principles of ‘Pantisocracy’, a Coleridgean coining, from Greek roots, meaning, more or less, government by all. The ‘astonishing’ speed with which this all happened ‘was testimony not only to the transforming effect they had on one another, but to the very weak foundations upon which the whole enterprise rested.’[4]

Within the next three months, Coleridge would meet Thomas Poole, radical, philanthropist and essayist, then living in Bristol, who would become a lifelong friend; and his future wife, Sara Fricker.

‘My gaze! Proud towers, and Cots more dear to me,
Elm-shadowed Fields, and prospect-bounding Sea.
Deep sighs my lonely heart: I drop the tear:
Enchanting spot! O were my Sara here.’[5]

In August and September, Coleridge composed other poems looking forward to his marriage: ‘The Eolian Harp’, the first of his celebrated ‘Conversation’ poems; and ‘Lines Written at Shurton Bars’, in which he ‘even dares to anticipate metaphorically the soon-to-be-enjoyed sexual congress with Sara (‘And so shall flash my love-charg’d eye/ When all the heart’s big ecstasy/ Shoots rapid through the frame!’).[6]

Still, there were hints for Sara of the absences and unreliability to come:

‘O Peace, that on a lilied bank dost love
To rest thine head beneath an olive tree,
I would, that from the pinions of thy dove
One quill withouten pain ypluck’d might be!
For O! I wish my Sara’s frowns to flee,
And fain to her some soothing song would write,
Lest she resent my rude discourtesy,
Who vowed to meet her ere the morning light,
But broke my plighted word—ah! false and recreant wight!’[7]

In August or September 1795, Coleridge met William Wordsworth, in Bristol: most likely at the house of John Pinney, a hugely wealthy merchant whose fortune was founded on sugar and slaves.

(The University of Bristol Library Special Collections include the Pinney family papers: accounts, letter-books, family and estate papers, mainly relating to Dorset and the West Indies, 1650-1986. See https://www.bristol.ac.uk//library/resources/specialcollections/archives/#pinney )

WW-Robert-Hancock-1798

(William Wordsworth, 1798, by Robert Hancock: © National Portrait Gallery)

In that same busy period, he quarrelled with Southey: though they were reconciled in the autumn of the following year, their Pantisocracy scheme, hardly surprisingly, fell through. And, less than six weeks after the Coleridge wedding, on 13 November 1795, Southey also married—also in St Mary Redcliffe Church. His bride was Edith Fricker, a sister of Coleridge’s wife.

In later years, when the Southeys lived in Keswick, at Greta Hall, they also supported Sara Coleridge and her children. And where was Coleridge then? In London, perhaps; or Germany; or South Wales; or Scotland; or Malta; or Sicily; or Italy. In September 1798, Lyrical Ballads, the landmark volume by Wordsworth and Coleridge, was published in Bristol by Joseph Cottle. Thereafter, Coleridge nursed an increasingly hopeless love for Sara Hutchinson (whom he addressed in print as ‘Asra’, not quite an unbreakable code), sister to Mary—whom Wordsworth would marry in 1802; there were quarrels and reconciliations; unfinished poems; accusations of plagiarism; lectures, marathon conversations, table-talk—and opium.

The early celebration of French revolutionary principles fell entirely away in the cases of both Wordsworth and Coleridge—and fell away even more steeply, perhaps, in that of Robert Southey, with whom Byron’s ‘Dedication’ to Don Juan was concerned (the first two Cantos appeared in 1819), though he had begun his ‘Preface’ with a swipe at Wordsworth’s unintelligibility and here jabbed at Coleridge’s recent preoccupations.

Byron-Thomas-Phillips

(Byron by Thomas Phillips)

Bob Southey! You’re a poet – Poet Laureate,
And representative of all the race;
Although ‘tis true that you turned out a Tory at
Last, yours has lately been a common case.
And now my epic renegade, what are ye at
With all the Lakers, in and out of place?
A nest of tuneful persons, to my eye
Like ‘four and twenty blackbirds in a pye,

Which pye being opened they began to sing’
(This old song and new simile holds good),
‘A dainty dish to set before the King’
Or Regent, who admires such kind of food.
And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,
But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,
Explaining metaphysics to the nation;
I wish he would explain his explanation.[8]

There were major achievements still to come from Coleridge, though, barring his restless revising, few of these were in the field of poetry, after the first years of the nineteenth century, and some—the Notebooks—would be barely visible in his lifetime. Wordsworth too, after the publication of Poems in Two Volumes (1807), is generally viewed in terms of poetic decline. In ‘Resolution and Independence’, written in the first half of 1802, though not published until 1807, Wordsworth’s narrator thinks of Chatterton, ‘the marvellous Boy’, whose brief life and tragic death were inextricably linked to St Mary Redcliffe Church, where his father was sexton and found the papers in the Muniment Room which led to Chatterton’s ‘discovery’ of the poet Thomas Rowley.[9] The same stanza concludes with two famous lines:

We Poets in our youth begin in gladness;
But thereof comes in the end despondency and madness.[10]

And yes, ‘sadness’ would have scanned—and would have rhymed too. But it just wouldn’t have cut the mustard, somehow. . .

References

[1] Francis Kilvert, Kilvert’s Diary, edited by William Plomer, Three volumes (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938, reissued 1969). Volume Two (23 August 1871—13 May 1874), 386.

[2] ‘To Robert Southey of Balliol College, Oxford, Author of the “Retrospect”, and Other Poems’, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, The Complete Poems, edited by William Keach (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 74.

[3] Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), 61-62.

[4] Tom Mayberry, Coleridge and Wordsworth: The Crucible of Friendship, revised edition (Stroud: Sutton Publishing, 2000), 22-23.

[5] ‘Lines composed while climbing the left ascent of Brockley Coomb, Somersetshire, May, 1795: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 80.

[6] Rosemary Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 74-75; Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 87-88, 89-91.

[7] ‘Lines in the manner of Spenser’: Coleridge, The Complete Poems, 81.

[8] Lord Byron, Don Juan, edited by T. G. Steffan, E. Steffan and W. W. Pratt (London: Penguin Books, 1996), 37, 41. Southey accepted the post of Poet Laureate in 1813. Byron had assisted Coleridge financially, sending him £100 in February 1816: Ashton, The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 295. On the Pye joke, see an earlier post: https://reconstructionarytales.blog/2017/08/21/sorrows-joys-magpies/

[9] On Chatterton, see Richard Holmes, ‘Thomas Chatterton: The Case Re-opened’, in Sidetracks: Explorations of a Romantic Biographer (London: Harper Collins, 2000), 5-50; Alistair Heys, editor, From Gothic to Romantic: Thomas Chatterton’s Bristol (Bristol: Redcliffe Press, 2005).

[10] William Wordsworth, edited by Stephen Gill (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 232.

 

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