Poet and Son: Hartley Coleridge (1)

By John Harris | June 5, 2013

Hartley Coleridge was born on 19 September 1796. Around January 1798, his father Samuel Taylor (or STC as he preferred) wrote “Frost at Midnight,” one of his most famous poems. In that poem he mentions a plan for bringing up his son:

Thou, my babe! shalt wander like a breeze
By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags
Of ancient mountains, and beneath the clouds
Which image in their bulk both lakes and shores
And mountain crags: so shalt thou see and hear
The lovely shapes and sounds intelligible
Of that eternal language, which thy God
Utters, who from eternity doth teach
Himself in all, and all things in himself.
Great universal Teacher! He shall mold
Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask.

In “Frost,” Samuel Taylor Coleridge is careful to contextualize his speculations as “abstruse” or hard to understand. They are an

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

expression of his “idling spirit,” not of his reason. Obviously no child is going to spend any significant amount of time wandering free in the outdoors. Mostly he would be indoors and learning to speak, eat, and use the toilet. Following that he would be in school preparing for citizenship and a job. Obviously mountains and lakes are highly selective features of landscape. Fog and freezing rain — factors in Hartley’s early death — are omitted. Obviously the “eternal language” of any “universal Teacher” worth his/her salt would be understood equally by those in the city and those in the country.

Determining that his son will wander like a breeze, note the imaging of earth in sky and hear the lovely sounds of the eternal language of the universal Teacher, is a cipher for STC’s overall religious-political stance, not a declaration of serious intent. Years later, STC criticized his poetry co-conspirator William Wordsworth for not understanding this — for trying to claim that in his own poetry he was proving that living in the country was in itself morally good for you.

William Wordsworth

William Wordsworth

In the Biographia Literaria (1815), STC says that any consideration of “the desirable influences of low and rustic life” “would engender more than skepticism.” “Among the peasantry of Wales,” he adds, “the ancient mountains are pictures to the blind and music to the deaf.” His example is condescending and over-generalized, but it makes an obvious point.

It was a point that Lord Byron made in 1819 in Canto I of Don Juan, when he poked fun at the pretensions of the nature poetry for which STC, and even more Wordsworth, were famous. Juan, deprived of his loved one, goes through his own version of the process that STC is proposing for Hartley. Under nature’s influence Juan’s heart, in a “great mood,” mitigates his frustration:

Young Juan wandered by the glassy brooks,
Thinking unutterable things; he threw
Himself at length within the leafy nooks
Where the wild branch of the cork forest grew;
There poets find materials for their books,
And every now and then we read them through,
So that their plan and prosody are eligible,
Unless, like Wordsworth, they prove unintelligible.

He, Juan (and not Wordsworth), so pursued
His self-communion with his own high soul,
Until his mighty heart, in its great mood,
Had mitigated part, though not the whole
Of its disease; he did the best he could
With things not very subject to control,
And turned, without perceiving his condition,
Like Coleridge, into a metaphysician.

The metaphysics that STC is expressing in “Frost,” the philosophy contained in his formulaic reference to God as a universal teacher who is all things and contains all things and speaks an eternal language in nature, is deistic. Deism was the religion of the European Enlightenment, and is still pretty much the dominant faith of the West even if its adherents go by designations like “Christian,” “Catholic,” and “Protestant.” Deism features a God who created the universe and left. For deists, the universe is God in the sense that people have to figure God out by observation and experiment, not by taking on faith everything in some ancient book that has been pronounced sacred by a church, and not by trying to establish a kind of personal relationship with God by praying for or presuming divine intervention.

Byron himself was a deist, though the word usually applied to him in public was “atheist.” The word was applied to deists in general, including STC and Wordsworth too, as was the word “heathen” (attached by William Blake specifically to Wordsworth) in light of the fact that they seemed to be turning deism on its head by spinning a heretical religion (pantheism) out of it. Byron thought this, which is why he made fun of them. Juan in the cork grove moves quickly from abandonment to the influences of nature to a sense of transcendence and then to science and the technology and technique that derives from the study thereof:

He thought about himself, and the whole earth,
Of man the wonderful, and of the stars,
And how the deuce they ever could have birth;
And then he thought of earthquakes, and of wars,
How many miles the moon might have in girth,
Of air-balloons, and of the many bars
To perfect knowledge of the boundless skies; —
And then he thought of Donna Julia’s eyes.

Juan escapes what Byron sees as the fates of Wordsworth and STC —unintelligibility — presumably because those “many bars/to perfect knowledge” that he encounters prevent him from trying to figure out where the stars came from, and thoughts of sex flow into the resulting mental vacuum. Doubtless this happened to STC and Wordsworth too — it certainly happened to Hartley.

Deism itself is a faith — the faith in reason, and it confronts the usual conundrum of all faith. In religion, if you believe absolutely that God is all-knowing (which is pretty much denoted by the word “god”), then you have to face the fact that everything is pre-determined, so our sense of having choices to make that are important to God and upon which He will judge us is an illusion. God already knows what will happen to us. Our faith and our lives are irrelevant. Calvinists drove themselves crazy over this conundrum, deciding that life is not given to us to learn to keep God’s law, but to suffer for our original sin, the main ingredient of that suffering being insecurity about God. Catholics and other Protestants stuck with the less counter-intuitive idea that God’s ways are mysterious, but in the Bible Christ implies that you can earn your way into heaven by some combination of faith and good works. They decided to ignore the conundrum and get on with accumulating moral credit.

For scientists, the conundrum exists in the fact that, if the universe is fully comprehensible, as great scientists from Newton to Einstein necessarily assume it is, then everything is pre-determined and our sense of having a consciousness that figures things out for us and enables us to make choices is an illusion or is irrelevant to actually figuring things out. Like all animals, we act on instinct, everything we do driven by body chemistry. The conundrum creates insecurity about reason itself, an insecurity that shows itself in the social and behavioral sciences especially, when research seems to prove that humans are locked into unchangeable patterns of behavior that imply the irrelevance of consciousness. The “dismal science” of economics comes up with the “iron laws” of wages and competition. Psychology comes up with the id that cannot be educated, only suppressed. Philosophy comes up with the categorical imperative, a sort of rationalized conscience, upon which Political Science erects a kind of calculated and institutionalized charity, which Hartley was to describe as “the bleak mercy of a liberal age.”

STC and Wordsworth were to experience this insecurity about reason. They adjusted their faith over the years, focusing it on another human faculty that seemed to them to promise better but really became a kind of secular substitute for the conscience or soul: imagination.

Because of their uncertainty about reason, most scientists and philosophers (or metaphysicians as Byron has it) in the first hundred or so years of the Enlightenment, just like most people now, hedged their bets and hung on to Christ. Not the great Isaac Newton, whose discoveries inspired deism — on his deathbed, he refused to take the sacrament. But other scientists, starting with the physician John Locke, now known as the father of classical liberalism, actually thought of Christ as a fellow scientist, a social scientist.

Locke premised that the principle on which human societies are based is empathy, or what Christ called charity and named the greatest of all the virtues. Humans like all animals pursue their self-interest, but in the case of humans and some other species, the welfare of the group takes precedence and the instinct to be charitable and make sacrifices for the group is the key to survival. Another physician, David Hartley, young Hartley’s namesake, now known as the father of behaviorist psychology, developed Locke’s ideas further, explaining impulses like charity in terms of behavioral conditioning. Charity is viewed not in terms of conscious choice but in terms of animal instinct. Presently, theories of “kin selection” are being used/explored by behaviorists to explain how charity forms in individuals from birth.

STC, a mighty student of theory, a born metaphysician, was in religion a Unitarian and in politics a radical leftist. Before Hartley was born, he was engaged with a number of Unitarians, most importantly a poet and Oxford student Robert Southey, in planning a commune in America called Pantisocracy, or government by all. It was based on the idea of Jean Jacques Rousseau that property is the root of inequality, and on the anarchist William Godwin’s idea that reason alone, without faith, is an adequate guide to life. Property and work would be shared equally, so that the heart is free to love. As STC described it,

. . . each heart
Self-governed, the vast family of love
Raised from the common earth by common toil
Enjoy the equal produce.

Southey arranged for STC and himself to marry two agreeable sisters, Southey convincing a hesitant STC by offering him the prettier one. STC and Sara Fricker were engaged in September 1794 and married on 4 October 1795. Hartley was the first child of Pantisocracy, though the scheme had foundered before his birth, before his parents’ marriage even, when Southey decided that he wanted to hang onto his private property. STC considered this uncharitable and a violation of what he believed was the essential communal nature of early Christian societies. He received Southey’s new idea “with indignation and Loathings of unutterable Contempt.”

Hartley Coleridge

Hartley Coleridge


Pantisocracy was off. Hartley would have to grow up on the rural fringes of real society. As it turned out, however, when Hartley was six STC assigned Southey “vice-fathership” of Hartley when the Coleridge and Southey families shared a large house in Keswick. Hartley was brought up in a sort of Pantisocratic after-glow that was, he later said, paradise.

Along with planning a utopian community, STC did a lot of agitating for a more egalitarian society. At the time of Hartley’s birth, while free speech was to a fair extent tolerated, only men who owned valuable property could vote. All laborers, tradesmen, small holders and shop owners were left out. So STC, owning nothing, made his views known and participated in the political debate through the papers. Also he delivered sermons at the Unitarian Church and pay-at-the-door speeches in rented halls. The sermons and speeches were on topics like the slave trade, the corn laws, the Hair Powder Tax, and the French Revolution compared to the American. He also ran, from March through May 1796, a newsletter, The Watchman, that was supported by subscriptions and that spent most of its fire on the anti-assembly laws that had resulted from the war with revolutionary France. These laws made the sorts of gatherings that STC appeared at more difficult to arrange.

Besides Southey, STC had large number of supporters in Nether Stowey and the Bristol area, many of whom were to become important in Hartley’s life. They were Unitarians and free-thinkers or dissenters — Quakers, Presbyterians, Methodists or Anglicans with liberal tendencies. Prominent among them were the publisher Joseph Cottle, who regularly commissioned work from STC and loaned him money, and the Wedgwood brothers, Josiah II and Tom, sons of the famous potter. The Wedgwoods used their considerable resources to fight slavery. They experimented with Richard Arkwright’s new “division of labor” manufacturing processes and added cooperative management, thinking these would result in increased productivity. They gave STC a lifetime annuity of £150 (on which a careful married couple could live for a year) so he could pursue his poetry rather than going into the ministry. They had concerns about how far to the left he leaned. Almost as important to STC was Thomas Poole, a well-off tanner dedicated to philanthropy. He founded the Stowey Book Club and, much later, the Cooperative Bank. He, his home, his bank account, and his large library were a refuge for STC for the rest of his life.

The Unitarians held that God was one person not three and that scientific progress would bring about the millennium. Leftists, originally those who sat on the King’s left side in France’s Assembly, were supporters of a legislative assembly or parliament. Many wanted a republican form of government. Rightists backed the King. In Britain, the growth of protestant faiths, the civil war and the Scientific Enlightenment had gradually shifted this polarity to the left. Only a small rump of the right still believed in the old order: that human nature and the social structure are fixed and unchangeable because God made them that way and was “satisfied” with His work, and that progress is therefore not a matter of improving conditions on earth but of submitting to God’s will as defined by the King and his church. One spends one’s life preparing oneself for possible admittance to heaven while patiently enduring a permanently fallen state. For the extreme right, desiring change or believing in progress was to defy God’s expulsion of humans from Eden, and the lifetime sentence of suffering.

Everyone else believed in legislative government and social progress. Democracy seemed more able to manage progress. In Britain, while republicanism was popular due to the American experiment, acceptance of that form of government hinged on the outcome of the French experiment. The promise of progress was overpowering thanks to the absolute certainty science provided about some natural phenomenon like gravity, the growing probability of finding the truth on some issues through the atomic theory of chemistry, the evolutionary theory of biology, and the uniformitarian theory of geology, and the resulting shower of, on the whole, useful technology and technique like Arkwright’s factories, James Watt’s steam engines and Edward Jenner’s smallpox vaccination (which unfortunately was to kill Hartley’s soon-to-arrive baby brother Berkeley).

Politics became the art of common sense. Principle was admitted as a guide to common sense, but common sense made the final decisions. Principle became theory. The other guide to common sense was, as Locke pointed out, observation and experiment. So politicians and the public looked to scientists and social scientists for guidance. But with observation, experiment and theory goes that conundrum of faith, and with the conundrum goes fatalism. People on the right, suspicious of change, tended to the dark or fatalistic side of the conceptual impasse, responding to science like Calvinists. Those on the left, desiring change, tended to the bright or progressive side, responding like other Protestants and Catholics, pushing the conundrum aside and getting on with figuring things out, which meant entering into experiments with things and people.

On the left or positive side, Locke established rules for international commerce and for the governing of the Carolinas in America. These worked so well that the founding fathers of America wrote a constitution that enshrined his actual words about individual life, liberty and happiness as the goals of society, and the consensus of citizen opinions as the basis of governance. David Hartley, holding that sympathy and conscience are developments, by means of association, from selfish impulses, studied conditioning as a way of solving personality problems and improving human relationships. His work was important to people like STC in determining how children should be raised and educated and anti-social behavior corrected.

On the right, Adam Smith, a professor of logic at the university of Glasgow (the Scottish universities were based on Lockian principles of inclusiveness and the pursuit of learning through experiment), studied the principles of self-interest and empathy in connection with economics. Smith concluded that people pursuing their own self-interest (the desire for security, power and wealth, or for victory over competitors) generated wealth with notable efficiency. However, the law of competition, survival of the fittest, excludes any consideration of charity. Competition in a free market mandates any or all of exploitation of workers, slavery, child labor, destruction of the environment and even, when it can be gotten away with, crime — anything that puts an enterprise ahead of its competitors. The law of competition also mandates the eventual end of competition; one person would eventually win out and own everything, eliminating the benefits of competition.

Smith doubted that any government, because government is usually controlled by those who own property, could prevent this. The dismal science factored out people as people and defined them strictly as “owners” and “workers.” For all of the workers in a capitalistic system, and to a slightly lesser extent for most of the owners, there was no future. And the future for capitalism was steady progression to tyranny ameliorated by the usual vagaries of chance and by regular economic busts.

For STC and Wordsworth, the American Revolution had proven the value of the progressive approach, and they saw America as a model of progress. The French Revolution promised the same. The American founding fathers had discarded the constitutional monarchy and parliament they were used to and turned to the successful (for a time) republics of Athens and Rome as their models, believing that government of the people, by the people and for the people (defined as property owners of European extraction) would better manage the balancing act of politics — giving individuals specific, clearly-stated freedoms (of speech, property, etc.) and at the same time restraining them from enslaving and cheating one another through restrictions on ownership and trade. The Anglican Church was denationalized and church and state separated; no longer would government be riven by the absolutes of contending religious faiths. An improved political system seemed to be the result.

Jefferson even produced a Deistic Bible for America by removing miracles from the New Testament. He believed that proof of the truth of Christ’s message had to be manifest in everyday life and history. Christianity would stand and fall on the better life that following Christ’s eleventh commandment gave believers, not on some impossible tricks that Christ was said to have performed, like raising the dead and feeding the multitudes. Ben Franklin replaced devotion and prayer with prudence: “A full sack stands upright.” “Proportion your charity to the strength of your estate, or God will proportion your estate to the weakness of your charity.” Acceptance of Christian values would be based on the conviction that such values, being a part of self-interest, were as “natural” as self-interest, and America, much more efficiently than Britain, would be an ongoing experiment to prove this point.

STC’s great enemy, the enemy of all radicals and Unitarians at the time, was Edmund Burke, a politician and political scientist who thought as Smith did when it came to economics. Burke supported the American Revolution but opposed the French. Burke was liberal or “left” in that he wanted the King to be subservient to Parliament, but “right” in believing in strictly regulated change. He called himself an “Old Whig” or conservative-liberal. He is considered now a representative of what’s called classical liberalism and the founder of modern (that is progressive) conservatism. Burke believed that the Americans had split from Britain on a legitimate issue, “no taxation without representation.” Commerce, he argued, could not be conducted if the rules were subject to the whims of the King, who then controlled foreign affairs (but not the money to conduct them). Americans had called out for “the rights of Englishmen.” Burke castigated the King and Parliament for not granting them these rights.

The French Revolution was another thing. For Burke, the Revolution showed what happened when charismatic thinkers sparked experiments in social change based on a blind reliance on theory. There was no connection, for Burke, between the pragmatic and legalistic thinking of the American revolutionaries and the murderous idealism of the mobs of Paris screaming catchphrases from Jean-Jacques Rousseau about liberty, fraternity and equality. The old Whigs opposed the Revolution and supported the war against France.

STC had met Wordsworth the year before Hartley was born. Wordsworth believed in close observation, and bragged of his habit of “looking steadily at the subject.” He was a “pure” deist; accurate observation, reason alone, would result in enlightenment. He loved geometry, which he’d studied at university. His hero was Newton, “with his prism and his silent face/Voyaging through strange seas of thought, alone.” He was impressed by Godwin’s argument that all moral decisions were rational or pragmatic.

In this spirit, he’d actually gone to France, shortly after the Revolution began, to see what was going on, and had become a republican. He had visited the Bastille in Paris and hung out in Orleans with confused soldiers who didn’t know if they were fighting for the King or the Republic and were split in their preferences. He saw them coming together to build a powerful citizen army, under pressure from the armies of Austria and Prussia who were out to restore the monarchy. He was in France through the September massacres in Paris and the patriot victory over the Prussians at Valmy. He went to Paris and participated on the Girondist (moderate) side of supporters of the revolution against the radical (Jacobin side), and he’d gotten out of Paris in December 1792 just before the Girondists fell and Robespierre’s “terror” started, wherein the old aristocracy and the Girondist leadership were exterminated. The radicals used as an excuse for their takeover the intrusions of the Prussians and Austrians, and were soon to use British opposition for the same purpose.

STC, more of a spinner of theory than collector of instances, agreed with Wordsworth’s politics in general, but by 1795 was already shifting right. He had come to agree with Burke that individuals had to depend for moral and political guidance not on pure reason but on reason as embodied in slowly evolving national institutions and accepted codes of behavior. Burke had called this reason “prejudice” and argued that only it could be counted upon to assert itself under pressure of circumstance. Ideologies, carried into action, as in the Revolution, were flimsy things and collapsed or changed easily.

Wordsworth would follow along behind STC. By 1795, he was tired. He’d spent the years since France trying to fight Britain’s entering the war. His sense of the mood and situation in France told him that any war would be a disaster both for France (politically) and the Allies (militarily). France, the most populous and richest country in Europe, would vigorously fight a patriotic war, a war of self-defense, and evolve into a militaristic society. He figured if the French weren’t under pressure, sound democratic institutions would have a chance to develop.

After the French declared war, on 1 February 1793, Wordsworth started a poem, “Guilt and Sorrow,” a realistic description of the tragedies visited on the poor by war and injustice. In a later account of the poem he says he was motivated by watching the fleet preparing for war and by his studies of the American Revolution and his experience in France. Those studies and experiences told him the war would not quickly end in France’s defeat as the government was saying. In London, he attempted to start a periodical, The Philanthropist, which was to be “republican, but not revolutionary.” Failing in this, he tried to get work with one of the opposition newspapers.

He had more success with poetry, publishing that year two long, lyric nature poems, An Evening Walk (written in 1789) and Descriptive Sketches (written in 1791 – 92). These poems had already caught STC’s attention. STC recognized their limitations, but saw their potential as poetry and identified with the sociological/political content. Both were what STC called with some contempt “pastoral” poems, but the first included the story of the death by exposure of a female beggar and her children and the second ended with an expression of Wordsworth’s republican sentiments. They were pastoral poems with an element of social protest.

There is a long tradition of the pastoral in English Literature, a tradition that included Andrew Marvel, John Milton, James Thompson, William Collins, Thomas Gray, William Cowper, and Robbie Burns. Hartley Coleridge was to become a minor poet in this mode, though he is better known now for his light social verse and his recriminating self-analysis.

Pastoral poetry celebrated the comforts of landscape, primary among which are pleasant sensations and benevolent sentiments — having green thoughts in green shades, as Marvell put it in 1681. Wordsworth was becoming known for this kind of poetry, but his reputation at this time was “nothing” as STC pointed out. There was good reason for this: his inability to connect pastoral and protest. Here are some lines in “Descriptive Sketches:”

Kind Nature’s charities his steps attend;
In every babbling brook he finds a friend;
While chastening thoughts of sweetest use, bestowed
By wisdom moralize his pensive road.

Wisdom” is an abstraction that begs illustration if the poem is to be taken seriously, but the only illustration of what Wordsworth means by it comes at the end of the poem when Wordworth prays that God will strike down any king that resists the Revolution. It’s hard to see how this wisdom derives from a walk in the country, even if one does run into a dying beggar family.

Wordsworth’s poems were published by Joseph Johnson, who was to become STC’s publisher, the publisher of “Frost at Midnight.” By the time Wordsworth met Johnson, he was one of the most successful publishers in England, his success based on his ability to find new writers with new ideas who sold well. Prominent among these was the chemist Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen, who in 1791 had had to escape England for America because of his outspoken support for the French. Priestley converted Johnson from his Baptist faith to Unitarianism. Johnson specialized in science and medicine and reformist works of philosophy and history along with political journalism and dissenting theology. He published works in favor of the American Revolution and after the Revolution became Benjamin Franklin’s publisher. In 1792 he published Mary Wolstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women. He supported Wolstonecraft in her attempts to make a living through journalism, an unheard of ambition, at that time, for a woman. The year after, in the same month that he did Wordsworth’s pamphlets, he published the book that so influenced STC and Wordsworth, Godwin’s Political Justice. Wordsworth was reading it when he met STC. A few years later, Johnson published Thomas Malthus, the economist and social scientist who studied human population, following Smith in throwing into doubt the idea that any sustained human progress was possible.

Johnson was no radical. He disagreed with the methods being used by those leading the Revolution. He refused to publish Wordsworth’s pamphlet attacking writers against the Revolution (like Burke), just as, earlier, he’d refused to publish the American Tom Paine’s famous The Rights of Man (1791), the most influential argument against Burke. But Johnson would’ve sympathized with Wordsworth’s concern for the poor, expressed in both these poems. And he was Cowper’s publisher and friend. He would’ve recognized the influence of Cowper on Wordsworth and (later) STC.

By the time STC wrote “Frost,” he and Wordsworth were conscious that their political cause was failing. For most Britons, Burke’s prophesy concerning France was fulfilled in every detail. Wordsworth’s fears, that the Revolution would be waylaid by attacks on France, were also realized. Through 1795, Napoleon became important to the Directorate in Paris. He and other generals were sent to do battle with the Austrians. Napoleon campaigned against them in Italy from May 1796 to April 1797, achieving total victory and sending tons of loot back to the government in Paris. He signed a treaty with the Austrians that left Britain as the only ally still in the war. In 1798 he took Egypt but lost his fleet and returned to Paris just in time to save the government from an insurrection. He was made a dictator after a referendum that saw about 3 million people vote (1/10 of the population) for a slate on which Napoleon was the only serious candidate. Later, in 1801, Britain, tired of fighting and faced with the fact that most of continental Europe was under Napoleon’s control, agreed to a peace settlement.

Among the educated in Britain, a movement adversarial to liberalism, a sort of counter-Enlightenment, arose. This movement is said to have set back reforms planned in the aftermath of the American Revolution. Burke’s writings, in coordination with Smith’s, provided the theory behind the counter-enlightenment. STC and Wordsworth decided to withdraw. Wordsworth said later that at this time he “yielded up moral questions in despair.” STC had more pragmatic concerns. The collapse of Pantisocracy had left him with a wife and family responsibilities, and his friends and supporters were also in retreat. He needed to shut up.

So the two poets focused on their favorite activities, poetry and the enjoyment of nature. They decided that the future for them lay in the Rousseauian idea of educating humanity. They would do it through poetry. Inspired by this idea, they planned a joint publication that later became The Lyrical Ballads(1798). They walked the rolling Quantock Hills, south of the Bristol Channel, composing poetry for this book. Sara, left alone with Hartley much of this time, worried, and Southey was jealous.

But the Lyrical Ballads is considered now to be the greatest single book of lyric poetry ever published in English. It is thought by critics to have started a new epoch of poetry in its focus on, as Wordsworth put it in the book’s advertisement, the “natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents.” That natural delineation was based on behaviorism. The book also featured a more straightforward language, which Wordsworth described as “the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society.” It was poetry for the people, about the people and, in that the poets (especially Wordsworth) claimed to be among and attentive to the people, by the people. If there was ever an example of the power of poetry to effect change people’s attitudes and habits, it is the Lyrical Ballads.

At the beginning of their partnership, STC had been on the whole the better poet. The best of his poetry was driven by a coherent and deeply felt theory that brought together the protest and the pastoral. STC used behaviorism to show, albeit very generally, how Nature’s “charities” like the “babbling brook” led to “wisdom,” or how the green thought evolves from the green shade. Behaviorism also provided a vocabulary of familiar words used in slightly new ways — words like “sensations,” “feelings,” “ideas,” “affections,” “reason,” “understanding,” and “will.” This poetry presented landscape not as a pleasant indulgence or refuge or as a setting for the suffering of the poor but as a cause. God is in the babbling brook and in the mind that perceives it, and through conditioning the mind becomes more and more like God’s mind, which, as Christ the Scientist assures us, is the essence of charity or love.

STC had taken another step. He’d found in the poems of Cowper a congenial form for his poetry: a blank-verse meditation (a poetic personal letter) addressed to a silent auditor. Starting in August 1795, STC wrote six poems in this style, in the following order: “The Eolian Harp” (addressed to his wife Sara), “The Nightingale” and “Frost” (addressed to Hartley), “This Lime Tree Bower My Prison” (formally addressed, as a letter, to Charles Lamb, a boyhood friend from charity school who’d become a critic, essayist and humorist), “Dejection: An Ode” (addressed, originally in a letter, to Wordsworth’s sister-in-law Sara Hutchinson), and “To William Wordsworth.” Wordsworth wrote only one poem of this sort, but it is a famous one, “Tintern Abbey” (addressed to his sister, Dorothy). However, he was soon to start an epic conversation poem, The Prelude, addressed to STC.

In the earliest of his conversation poems, “The Eolian Harp,” written during his honeymoon, STC took his first steps in applying behaviorist concepts to experience. He comes up with the analogy of the wind harp or lute, an analogy that he and Wordsworth were to use often:

And that simplest Lute,
Placed length-wise in the clasping casement, hark!
How by the desultory breeze caress’d
Like some coy maid half yielding to her lover . . . .
O! the one Life within us and abroad,
Which meets all motion and becomes its soul,
A light in sound, a sound-like power in light,
Rhythm in all thought, and joyance everywhere —
Methinks it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world so fill’d;
Where the breeze warbles, and the mute still air
Is Music slumbring on her instrument . . . .
And what if all of animated nature
Be but organic Harps diversely fram’d,
That tremble into thought, as O’er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the Soul of each, and God of all?

The harp in the wind represents the mind in nature in terms of David Hartley’s theory of sensations as vibrations on the nerves that build to thought (here compared to music). The mind is part of the natural world and plays in tune with it, and all of nature is full of “imaging” as the shapes of the clouds match the shapes of mountains in “Frost.” The harp is “simple,” while the wind is “plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze.” “Plastic” then meant “creative.”

Psychology then as now was involved in the “nature/nurture” controversy that goes back to Plato and Aristotle. In the early poems of STC and Wordsworth the mind was a “blank slate” as in Aristotle, Locke and Hartley. The mind was written on by experience. STC’s musings on Hartley’s upbringing echo this premise. They also echo the latest educational theory. The most famous treatise on education at the time was Emile, a novel by Rousseau. It is certainly not behavioristic in theory — in fact it is built on the Platonic idea that the mind has innate forms and ideas and creates experience — but it indicated that the only way to a happy society was by training kids so they felt secure and valued. You did this by helping them find their own talents and abilities at their own pace. One of the abilities they would find by the very process of paying attention to and accommodating them was the ability to empathize, which would lead them to reject what Europeans were calling “civilization,” and to desire a return to more natural (primitive) social organizations.

So young Hartley would have the maximum of freedom from social restraint, as Rousseau advised, and be encouraged by his parents to find and cultivate any special talents. Accordingly, Hartley was home-schooled until he was eleven. At the same time, Hartley would be taught to the best of his abilities what he needed to survive in the modern world. This in Hartley’s case turned out to be languages, one of them, Greek, taken up early as STC decided that was where his son’s talents lay. Rousseau thought that kids should not be introduced to logic, rational discourse or conventional morality until they were ready, but STC saw evidence that Hartley was ready for the first two when he was about six years old. Hartley liked to argue, and was and remained confident of his intellectual abilities.

Hartley would also be monitored closely, especially in childhood, to make sure that he remained empathetic as he learned to survive and inter-relate with other humans. STC himself would monitor his own reactions to Hartley to be sure his observations were accurate and ministrations leading in the right direction. As with Pantisocracy, impurities had to be kept out of the experiment or at least minimized. Even as STC through his studies of Platonic philosophers like Rousseau, George Berkeley and Immanuel Kant “matured” in his ideas about the growth of the mind, even as he developed misgivings about Hartley’s progress, he pretty much stuck to the plan indicated in “Frost” as long as he could. The only modification (not a surprise for those who knew STC) was that Southey and Sara actually taught Hartley, with the occasional bit of advice from STC.

At 11, Hartley went to school in order to learn to take his place in an imperfect world. The school, and later Oxford University, said he was well prepared for his studies, meaning, presumably, that he was well on his way to adapting to the real world.

Hartley’s importance to STC’s metaphysics, to proving that people could be conditioned to charity and love by the administering of these virtues, is indicated by the fact that “Frost” first appeared as the final poem in a pamphlet that Johnson published at the same time as Cottle published the Lyrical Ballads. The book contained two other poems written around the same time as “Frost” and “Nightingale” but not thought good enough for the Lyrical Ballads. These were poems like Wordsworth’s early poems, parts of them completed under his influence. They were not conversation poems, uttered in a tone of intimacy and candidness. They were polemical, advocating nature worship and assorted causes like fighting slavery, aristocracy (class) and the accumulation of wealth. Like Wordsworth’s early poems, they drew no connection between nature and protest. Only “Frost” draws that connection and so is convincing. Hartley was, accordingly, placed before the reading public as representing the promise of human perfectibility.

Hartley later, in 1833, in dedicating his book of poems to STC, took up the issue of the hopes and plans expressed in “Frost,” and indicated that he was aware of his importance as an experiment:

The prayer was heard: I “wander’d like a breeze”,
By mountain brooks and solitary meres,
And gather’d there the shapes and phantasies’
Which, mixed with passions of my sadder years,
Compose this book. If good therein there be,
That good, my sire, I dedicate to thee.

In a note to this poem, Hartley quotes the 11 lines of “Frost” quoted at the beginning of this article and remarks: “As far as regards the habits of my childhood, these lines . . . were almost prophetic.” He goes on to say about his father’s words, “But poets are not prophets.”

This comment, and Hartley’s reference to the “passions of my sadder years,” indicates his painful awareness that the experiment had not been successful past his childhood. His perfect childhood had, as he saw it, led to a permanent childhood. If he’d heard the eternal language of the Universal Teacher, he’d learned nothing from it that enabled him to deal with other people. For Hartley, wandering like a breeze across the landscape was mainly a means of isolating himself, even from his parents. Drinking helped too. Hartley communicated with people mostly through his poetry, and nothing like the experiences and insights documented by Wordsworth are evident in Hartley’s poems.



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