'I have done nothing', 1803
Birthday thoughts, with a dash of rhubarb
I slept again with dreams of sorrow & pain, tho’ not of downright Fright & prostration. I was worsted but not conquered…
Today, 21st October 2022, happens to be the 250th anniversary of the birth of one of my literary heroes: Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834).1 I’ve mentioned him in Histories before, for his role as a pioneer of mountaineering (and the person who first used that word), and journal-writer Anne Simson Chalmers rhapsodised about an encounter with him. I developed my fondness for ‘STC’, as he styled himself, when studying literature at university, but I was as much ‘inspired’ by his prose on all manner of subjects, his love of long-distance walking in rugged landscapes and, er, his chronic procrastination as I was by the poetry for which he is best known (including The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, of course, and the infamously incomplete ‘Kubla Khan’).
By all accounts Coleridge was an exasperating person to know – he was legendary for his luminous conversation on anything and everything, although one can imagine he could also bore the hind legs off a donkey at times; he was a dreadful hypochondriac, even allowing for his physical poor health (which he famously alleviated with the use of opium); and in modern terms he was almost certainly bipolar, which would explain much of his wild mood swings and proneness to depression. Even his closest friends and collaborators, particularly William Wordsworth, were driven to distraction by him, and after the fireworks of their early collaborations (Lyrical Ballads in particular), not helped by STC’s erratic love life, relations between the these two giants of literary Romanticism cooled considerably.
He didn’t lack self-awareness, mind. In a letter recollecting his childhood to his friend Thomas Poole in October 1797, Coleridge wrote:
I took no pleasure in boyish sports, but read incessantly… I became a dreamer, and acquired an indisposition to all bodily activity; and I was fretful, and inordinately passionate, and as I could not play at anything, and was slothful, I was despised and hated by the boys; and because I could read and spell and had, I may truly say, a memory and understanding forced into almost an unnatural ripeness, I was flattered and wondered at by all the old women.
And so I became very vain, and despised most of the boys that were at all near my own age, before I was eight years old I was a character. Sensibility, imagination, vanity, sloth, and feelings of deep & bitter contempt for all who traversed the orbit of my understanding were even then prominent and manifest.
I’m not going to tell Coleridge’s life story in detail here,2 though, but rather dip into some of his personal prose writings. His prose extended across millions of words, from lectures to essays on literature, philosophy and theology, from the sort-of-autobiography Biographia Literaria to many pieces he wrote for the journals he created, The Watchman and The Friend. But there was also a vast amount of other material, let alone his lively and insightful letters. Some of his conversational and reflective highlights were captured in The Literary Remains of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit by his nephew Henry Nelson Coleridge3 (who also married STC’s daughter Sara). In the preface to the 1836 Table Talk, HNC commented on his uncle and hero:
It would require a rare pen to do justice to the constitution of Coleridge’s mind. It was too deep, subtle, and peculiar, to be fathomed by a morning visitor. Few persons knew much of it in any thing below the surface; scarcely three or four ever got to understand it in all its marvellous completeness. Mere personal familiarity with this extraordinary man did not put you in possession of him; his pursuits and aspirations, though in their mighty range presenting points of contact and sympathy for all, transcended in their ultimate reach the extremest limits of most men’s imaginations…
His mere reading was immense, and the quality and direction of much of it well considered, almost unique in this age of the world… The early age at which some of these acquisitions were made, and his ardent self-abandonment in the strange pursuit, might, according to a common notion, have seemed adverse to increase and maturity of power in after life: yet it was not so; he lost, indeed, for ever the chance of being a popular writer; but Lamb’s inspired charity-boy of twelve years of age continued to his dying day, when sixty-two, the eloquent centre of all companies, and the standard of intellectual greatness to hundreds of affectionate disciples far and near…
Coleridge himself—blessings on his gentle memory!—Coleridge was a frail mortal. He had indeed his peculiar weaknesses as well as his unique powers; sensibilities that an averted look would rack, a heart which would have beaten calmly in the tremblings of an earthquake. He shrank from mere uneasiness like a child, and bore the preparatory agonies of his death-attack like a martyr. Sinned against a thousand times more than sinning, he himself suffered an almost life-long punishment for his errors, whilst the world at large has the unwithering fruits of his labours, his genius, and his sacrifice.
Much more of STC’s casual writing came to light from the 1960s onwards thanks to the indefatigable work of Kathleen Coburn, general editor of The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, among which are huge volumes (sitting on my shelves as I type this) of Coleridge’s ‘marginalia’ (the notes he obsessively wrote in the margins of the countless books he read) and his fascinating notebooks, of which a breathtaking 72 volumes have survived. A later editor of a selection of these, Seamus Perry, described them as “a work, by turns, of philosophical profundity, descriptive beauty, verbal brilliance, and human comedy… perhaps the unacknowledged prose masterpiece of the age”.
The extracts below focus on his 31st birthday – when he was living in Greta Hall in Keswick – including a well-known passage which blends vivid natural description with personal agonising in a way only Samuel Taylor Coleridge knew how!4
Slanting Pillars of Light, like Ladders up to Heaven, their base always a field of vivid green Sunshine. This is Oct 19, 1803. Wed Morn, tomorrow my Birth Day, 31 years of age! O me! my very heart dies! This year has been one painful Dream. I have done nothing! O for God’s sake, let me whip & spur, so that Christmas may not pass without some thing having been done – at all events to finish The Men & the Times [he is referring to articles he had written about William Pitt and Napoleon], & to collect them & all my Newspaper Essays into one Volume, to collect all my poems, finishing the Vision of the Maid of Orleans, & the Dark Ladié, & make a second Volume & to finish Christabel [another of his famously unfinished works]. I ought too, in common gratitude, to write out my two Tours, for Sally Wedgwood. [Sarah Wedgwood was the founder of the first anti-slavery society for women and daughter of the pottery magnate Josiah. Her brother Thomas was a friend and patron of STC, and the two men had made a tour of Wales together. The other tour might mean Coleridge’s epic 1803 solo voyage on foot across Scotland (after falling out with Wordsworth.]
The general Fast Day – and all hearts anxious concerning the Invasion [see my previous note on fast days here]. A grey Day, windy – the vale, like a place in Faery, with the autumnal Colours, the orange, the red-brown, the crimson, the light yellow, the yet lingering green, Beeches & Birches, as they were blossoming Fire & Gold! & the Sun in slanting pillars, or illuminated small parcels of mist, or single spots of softest greyish Light, now racing, now slowly gliding, now stationary – the mountains cloudy – the Lake has been a mirror so very clear, that the water became almost invisible – & now it rolls in white Breakers, like a Sea; & the wind snatches up the water, & drifts it like Snow – and now the Rain Storm pelts against my Study Window!
O Sara Sara why am I not happy! why have I not an unencumbered Heart! these beloved Books still before me, this noble Room, the very centre to which a whole world of beauty converges, the deep reservoir into which all these streams & currents of lovely Forms flow – my own mind so populous, so active, so full of noble schemes, so capable of realizing them, this heart so loving, so filled with noble affections – O Asra! wherefore am I not happy! why for years have I not enjoyed one pure & sincere pleasure! – one full Joy! – one genuine Delight, that rings sharp to the Beat of the Finger! – all cracked, & dull with base Alloy!… [See my note on STC’s infatuation with Sara (‘Asra’) Hutchinson here.]
A day of Storm. At dinner an explosion of Temper from the Sisters [his sisters Edith and Mary] – a dead Sleep after Dinner – the Rhubarb had its usual enfeebling-narcotic effect. I slept again with dreams of sorrow & pain, tho’ not of downright Fright & prostration. I was worsted but not conquered – in sorrows and in sadness & in sore & angry Struggles – but not trampled down. But this will all come again, if I do not take care. Storm all night – the wind scourging & lashing the rain, with the pauses of self-wearying Violence that returns to its wild work as if maddened by the necessity of the Pause; I, half-dozing, list’ning to the same, not without solicitations of the poetic Feeling…
[A year later, the theme was similar. Coleridge wrote:]
Oct 21st. 1804 – Monday night – Syracuse… O why have I shunned & fled like a cowed Dog from the Thought that yesterday was my Birth Day, & that I was 32 – So help me Heaven! as I looked back, & till I looked back I had imagined I was only 31 – so completely has a whole year passed, with scarcely the fruits of a month! – O Sorrow & Shame! I am not worthy to live! – Two & thirty years – & this last year above all others! – I have done nothing! No I have not even layed up any materials, any inward stores, of after action!
[It goes on. But let’s reflect: in that year between turning 31 and 32, he wrote various poems, helped Wordsworth with his own, did a great deal of walking (such as walking 19 miles to Kendal in January 1804 in only 4.5 hours), visited Liverpool and London, and travelled to Gibraltar, Malta and Sicily, where he wrote the above. Not long after this he became the Public Secretary of Malta for a couple of years. Rather more than “scarcely the fruits of a month”! Happy birthday, old friend.]
Confusingly Coleridge himself incorrectly insisted his birthday was on 20th October.
Read Richard Holmes’s two-part biography for that!
Coleridge’s script was eccentric, full of crossings-out, odd punctuation and slips into the Greek alphabet – I have simplified it occasionally here for clarity, while hopefully keeping the spirit.