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Saturday 29 March 2014

Thomas De Quincey: Samuel Taylor Coleridge

File:Samuel Taylor Coleridge by Washington Allston retouched.jpg

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Washington Allston (1779-1843), 1814, from Rosemary Ashton: The Life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1997; image by Materialscientist, 11 June 2012

It was not long after this event that my own introduction to Coleridge occurred. At that time some negotiation was pending between him and the Royal Institution,which ended in their engaging him to deliver a course of lectures on Poetry and the Fine Arts during the ensuing winter. For this series (twelve or sixteen, I think) he received a sum of one hundred guineas. And, considering the slightness of the pains which he bestowed upon them, he was well remunerated. I fear that they did not increase his reputation; for never did any man treat his audience with less respect, or his task with less careful attention. I was in London for part of the time, and can report the circumstances, having made a point of attending duly at the appointed hours. Coleridge was at that time living uncomfortably enough at the "Courier" office, in the Strand. In such a situation, annoyed by the sound of feet passing his chamber-door continually to the printing-rooms of this great establishment, and with no gentle ministrations of female hands to sustain his cheerfulness, naturally enough his spirits flagged; and he took more than ordinary doses of opium. I called upon him daily, and pitied his forlorn condition. There was no bell in the room; which for many months answered the double purpose of bedroom and sitting-room. Consequently, I often saw him, picturesquely enveloped in nightcaps, surmounted by handkerchiefs indorsed upon handkerchiefs, shouting from the attics of the "Courier" office, down three or four flights of stairs, to a certain "Mrs. Brainbridge," his sole attendant, whose dwelling was in the subterranean regions of the house. There did I often see the philosopher, with the most lugubrious of faces, invoking with all his might this uncouth name of "Brainbridge," each syllable of which he intonated with long-drawn emphasis, in order to overpower the hostile hubbub coming downwards from the creaking press, and the roar from the Strand, which entered at all the front windows. "Mistress Brainbridge! I say, Mistress Brainbridge!" was the perpetual cry, until I expected to hear the Strand, and distant Fleet Street, take up the echo of "Brainbridge!" Thus unhappily situated, he sank more than ever under the dominion of opium; so that, at two o'clock, when he should have been in attendance at the Royal Institution, he was too often unable to rise from bed. Then came dismissals of audience after audience, with pleas of illness; and on many of his lecture days I have seen all Albemarle Street closed by a "lock" of carriages, filled with women of distinction, until the servants of the Institution or their own footmen advanced to the carriage-doors with the intelligence that Mr. Coleridge had been suddenly taken ill. This plea, which at first had been received with expressions of concern, repeated too often, began to rouse disgust. Many in anger, and some in real uncertainty whether it would not be trouble thrown away, ceased to attend. And we that were more constant too often found reason to be disappointed with the quality of his lecture. His appearance was generally that of a person struggling with pain and overmastering illness. His lips were baked with feverish heat, and often black in colour; and, in spite of the water which he continued drinking through the whole course of his lecture, he often seemed to labour under an almost paralytic inability to raise the upper jaw from the lower. In such a state, it is clear that nothing could save the lecture itself from reflecting his own feebleness and exhaustion, except the advantage of having been precomposed in some happier mood. But that never happened: most unfortunately he relied upon his extempore ability to carry him through. Now, had he been in spirits, or had he gathered animation, and kindled by his own motion, no written lecture could have been more effectual than one of his unpremeditated colloquial harangues. But either he was depressed originally below the point from which any re-ascent was possible, or else this re-action was intercepted by continual disgust from looking back upon his own ill-success; for, assuredly, he never once recovered that free and eloquent movement of thought which he could command at any time in a private company. The passages he read, moreover, in illustrating his doctrines, were generally unhappily chosen, because chosen at haphazard, from the difficulty of finding at a moment's summons those passages which his purpose required. Nor do I remember any that produced much effect, except two or three, which I myself put ready marked into his hands, among the Metrical Romances edited by Ritson.

Generally speaking, the selections were as injudicious and as inappropriate as they were ill delivered; for, amongst Coleridge's accomplishments, good reading was not one; he had neither voice (so, at least, I thought) nor management of voice. This defect is unfortunate in a public lecturer; for it is inconceivable how much weight and effectual pathos can be communicated by sonorous depth and melodious cadences of the human voice to sentiments the most trivial; nor, on the other hand, how the grandest are emasculated by a style of reading which fails in distributing the lights and shadows of a musical intonation. However, this defect chiefly concerned the immediate impression; the most afflicting to a friend of Coleridge's was the entire absence of his own peculiar and majestic intellect; no heart, no soul, was in anything he said; no strength of feeling in recalling universal truths; no power of originality or compass of moral relations in his novelties: all was a poor faint reflection from jewels once scattered in the highway by himself in the prodigality of his early opulence -- a mendicant dependence on the alms dropped from his own overflowing treasury of happier times.

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859): Samuel Taylor Coleridge (from the series Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets), in Tait's Edinburgh Magazine, 1834

File:Thomas de Quincey by Sir John Watson-Gordon.jpg

Thomas De Quincey: Sir John Watson-Gordon (d. 1864), n.d.; image by Dcoetzee, 30 March 2009 (National Portrait Gallery, London)


Ed Baker said...

sounds like De Quincey could be sitting in on & writing about ANY of our present-day versions of the Royal Institutions' non-stop blathering, "credentialed",
lecturing Experts ?

(or is that... Institute

TC said...

"The nucleus of Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets was the series of articles [De Quincey] wrote for Tait's Magazine on the death of Coleridge in 1834. Though Coleridge was dead, his friends and relations were living, and De Quincey's frankness did not go down well... According to Carlyle, Southey, 'a picture of Rhadamanthine rage', called De Quincey 'a calumniator, cowardly spy, traitor, base betrayer of the social hearth' and urged the diminutive Hartley Coleridge to 'take a strong cudgel, proceed straight to Edinburgh, and give De Quincey, publicly on the streets there, a sound beating'. Wordsworth even advised Coleridge's literary executor to write to Tait to stop further instalments of the articles from appearing. In 1836, as a rather mean riposte, the Coleridge family tried to get [Joseph] Cottle to cut out of his reminiscences of the poet any reference to De Quincey's loan of £300 to Coleridge, on the ground that he did not deserve favorable mention after writing such a piece."

-- David Wright

Nin Andrews said...

It's very sad and very believable, down to the last detail.

TC said...

Thanks Nin.

When one looks closely into the actual personal interrelations between the so-called "Romantics", as indeed into the actual personal interrelations between the members of any "School", "Group", or strength-in-numbers-if-not-always-in-the-work social formation built upon the production of works of art, there is often much that is quite sad (artists being humans, after all) -- though the truth of that fact is often overlooked, neglected, or simply disregarded as boring (if known at all), by the mass of whatever contemporary "audience".

The more so, as the years go by, and people get dumber, and more hasty and simplistic in their approach to knowledge.

Worse still, it does seem from the present situation that to "emerging writers" (e.g. MFA stooges), NOT being in a group, school, team, club, etc., would appear to seriously reduce the possibility of becoming famous before the age of 30. Or perhaps that should be 25. Or 22?

De Quincey's wife had lately died, he was not in a happy state of mind, he needed the money he would be paid for the series of articles, and he was acutely aware that Coleridge had never repaid to him what in those days would have amounted to a pretty large debt -- that loan of £300. A sum like that would have gone a long way toward buying lunch, even in those days.

Nin Andrews said...

I guess it's hard to know whether the article is just slander or whether the anger allowed him to tell it like it is. Or was. But so many of my heroes in literature would not be worth listening to. There are the stories of Dylan Thomas standing up for a reading only to read one poem drunkenly and be led away. Yet he surely read beautifully.

And despite this commentary, I would have liked to have heard Coleridge read some of his great works when he was young and not too addicted, even if he did not read them well. He certainly must have heard them in his head --just so.

As to poetry today, I wouldn't know how to begin.

Mose23 said...

There's something depressing in De Quincey's kiss and tell job but it does work a disenchantment and I'm not sure that's a wholly bad thing. The work's no less great.

TC said...

It should be remembered, first of all, that De Quincey was a great admirer of Coleridge, and as a young man, under considerable stress with his own work-load at Oxford (e.g. facing exams, he was required at one point to read thirty-three Greek plays in the original, in a single week), he neglected his own interests to assist Coleridge however possible.

That loan, tendered anonymously through an intermediary, Cottle, was quickly accepted without reservation by Coleridge. Coleridge soon enough learned the source. The sum involved amounted to a quarter of De Quincey's patrimony. But when quizzed by Cottle -- "Can you afford it?" -- De Quincey lied, said he could, and, upon learning of Coleridge's acceptance of the money, promptly attempted to increase the amount to to £500. "... [De Quincey] was keen that Coleridge realized how much he admired him, but he did not want a sense of gratitude to strain their friendship," writes De Quincey's biographer Robert Morrison. "The offer was of course far more than De Quincey could afford, and it provides a telling example of his humility and generosity. Perhaps more than any other contemporary, De Quincey appreciated what Coleridge had already achieved, especially as a poet and metaphysician, and when he learned of his difficulties, he did all he could to make it possible for him to write and think."

To that end, when, a few months later, Coleridge delivered his infamous lecture series. De Quincey again did all he could to help. The first lecture, which De Quincey missed, had been a disaster. Now again "De Quincey served Coleridge as an invaluable aid. He recommended medical help, assisted him with the lectures, and on at least one occasion took him out for a walk through his favourite "Book Haunts'".

As the years passed, De Quincey's entry into the charmed circle of the Lake Poets was viewed with something like envy by Coleridge. De Quincey was simply more congenial and personable than Coleridge himself; children especially liked him, including Coleridge's son Hartley; that too evidently bothered STC. He routinely belittled De Quincey in conversation, often making jokes at his expense; he liked to make mention, for example, of De Quincey being short.

When the biographical articles came out, there was the controversy. To speak of the Lake Poets in any tone but that of reverence and awe was thought scandalous by some.

"De Quincey," writes Morrison, "was fulsome in his praise, describing Coleridge as 'the largest and most spacious intellect... that has yet existed amongst men', and highlighting his accomplishments in poetry, psychology, philosophy, biblical scholarship, and German literature. Yet De Quincey also moved with disarming frankness over the crucial areas that still haunt Coleridgean biography: his opium addiction, his political apostasy, his decline as a poet, and... his plagiarisms. 'Coleridge loses by Dequincey,' wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson, 'but more by his own concealing uncandid acknowledgment of debt to Schelling.' De Quicey's four articles constitute the first important critical biography of Coleridge, and reveal him with unmatched immediacy."

Barry Taylor said...

Coleridge - always a disappointment to those of a hagiographical bent. What you get, of course, is another painfully struggling human being. I'm never sure why we seem to expect an artist's life to be as skillfully handled as the work they're remembered by. The life materials tend to be a bit more recalcitrant, don't they?

tpw said...

Thanks for this fascinating piece, Tom, which I don't remember ever before reading. There's certainly frankness in DeQuincey's assessment of Coleridge, but no malice at all, it seems to me. In fact, I detect a real sadness and empathy on DeQuincey's part, which, given that these two are the most notorious of the opium-eaters of their age, isn't surprising. I've always thought of Hazlitt & DeQuincey as forerunners of "The New Journalism," and this piece, in its candor, humor, first-person involvement in the story, etc, shows a bit of that spirit. It is, however, painful to read of Coleridge---whose "Kubla Khan" is, to my mind, the greatest poem in English---suffering through such dire circumstances.

TC said...


Thanks very much, that's what needs to be said

It's always simpler for people who subscribe to the instant view of history to have the good and the bad, the saint and the sinner, the hero and the villain. In "entertainments" -- cartoons, movies, stories -- that's how it works. But in reality there are very rarely any of those clear distinctions, when one stops to have a close look.

TC said...


There is indeed sadness and no small trace of empathy in the piece, when one reads the whole of it, and very little malice at all -- though the truthful retrospective view may well have been dashed with a touch of rue and aloes for De Quincey. He was probably not the only former devotee to be disappointed by Coleridge's later slow tilt toward Anglican pomposity and stuffed-shirthood, but definitely the only one to have followed him all the way down the penumbral path into opium; whether or not De Quincey would have plunged ever deeper into the dark arms of that that drug without Coleridge's example at the outset of course can't be known.

(It's odd how for many who have never bothered to read either one of them, the names of both these great writers immediately trigger that one automatic response: "druggies". The drugs they used were readily available to all, and few failed to resort to them -- not for "recreational" purposes, but to relieve pain, of which there was always more than enough to go around. There were various admixture products vended by every apothecary, the most popular being laudanum, which contained cocaine as well as opiates; De Quincey, in his student days, started out with laudanum; that particular product was so widely used that when delighted latterday "scholars" who had run tests on a lock of hair plucked from the body of the dead John Keats, discovered traces of cocaine as well as opiates, it took an injection of perspective to explain to them that there were once few other useful "treatment options" for someone dying of tuberculosis. The contemporary associations of the word "addiction", anyway, continually moral and normative in origin despite the current standard platitudes re. "it's a sickness", tend to leave out the question of human suffering, which has never had a more powerful adversary than opiates, down through the ages; and if anyone currently alive believes they will escape this karmic package without at some point accepting an alliance with that anodyne, they ought to stop and ask themselves just exactly what it is that's in that hospital bedside drip.)

TC said...

And yet -- what would the poetic spirit of our language be without the many treasures of Coleridgeana?

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Sea Snakes

Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Lime Tree Bower My Prison

Charles Lamb to Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Certain Theological Propositions (1798)

Stevie Smith: Thoughts about the Person from Porlock