Poet and Son: Hartley Coleridge (6)

By John Harris | July 17, 2013

In 1832 Hartley Coleridge went to Leeds, a fairly large city near the Lake District. He’d been commissioned by Francis Bingley, a publisher, to write some biographies of eminent northerners and to compile a two-volume collection of his own poems for publication. Hartley stayed with Bingley, writing the biographies and preparing the poems. He didn’t finish all the poems and got only halfway through the biographies, a fact for which he assumes total responsibility, saying in the Advertisement to his biographies: “The Lives contained in this volume were originally intended to form part of a much larger series of provincial biography. From causes, in which the author alone is concerned and for which he alone is responsible, the publication is for a time suspended.”


Hartley Coleridge.

Hartley Coleridge.

Hartley may have been, as he usually was, slow in producing results, though some of this could have been a difficulty in accessing sources. What seems really to have happened is that Bingley went bankrupt, an event that couldn’t have been Hartley’s fault. Hartley went back to Grasmere, and Bingley released him from his contract to produce more biographies and the second volume of poems, but stated he would be interested in seeing these should his business get back on its feet and should Hartley finish the biographies and more poems and want them published.

The poetry book was, as we have seen, favorably received, and for good reason. The biographies appeared as Biographia Borealis, published in 1833 in London by Whitaker and in Leeds by Bingley, and dedicated by Hartley to the Earl Fitzwilliam. It contains the lives of 13 prominent figures from the north of Britain, including two writers Andrew Marvell and William Congreve. The book enjoyed, as Derwent put it, “considerable reputation” and “may even be said to be popular.”

Hartley’s introduction to his Biographia states that he means to treat his subjects as human beings, not as objects that, like workers, are used to produce the nation’s wealth without any thought as to their humanity:

We cannot be supposed to censure the study of history. We only mean it to be properly balanced by studies which tend to keep the eye of man upon his own heart, upon the sphere of his immediate duties, of those duties where his affections are to be exercised and regulated and which, considering man as a person, consider him as sentient, intelligent, moral, and immortal. For simply to think of a man as a sentient being is inconsistent with that hard-hearted policy which would employ him, reckless of his suffering or enjoyment, like a wedge or a rivet, to build up the idol temple of a false national greatness; to regard him as intelligent, or rather as capable of intelligence, condemns the system that would keep him in ignorance to serve the purpose of his rulers, as game cocks are penned up in the dark that they may fight the better; to regard him as moral, corrects the primary conception of national prosperity; and to revere him as immortal commands peremptorily that he shall never be made a tool or instrument to any end in which his own permanent welfare is not included.

The echoes of Kant’s formulation of the categorical imperative and of Smith’s theory about the wealth of nations are obvious, as is Hartley’s approval of the former and disapproval of the latter. Hartley’s will be a conscience-based biography, a biography focused in Christ’s formulation of “do unto others” and its illustration in the parable of the good Samaritan. It will avoid the dark, necessitarian side of the scientific conundrum and appraise the lives of public and literary figures in terms of their observance of “immediate duties” — those to their families, friends and people in need — rather than in terms of their actions as public figures — actions that must be based on expediency or common sense.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (STC) made some comments on his copy of Biographia Borealis. They appear in Derwent’s 1852 edition of the work. It’s near certain that Hartley would have known about them. The comments show overall approval but express serious qualifications on specific points. One of the comments, on the life of Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Cromwell’s military leader, calls into question Hartley’s conscience-based approach. In that life, Hartley writes: “It was a most ungentlemanlike act of the weekly-fast-ordaining Parliament or their agents to open Charles’s letters to his wife, and all historians who make use of them to blacken his character ought to forfeit the character of gentlemen.”

STC comments, “How could a faithful historian avoid it? The Parliament had acted ab initio on their convictions of the King’s bad faith . . . . And was Henrietta an ordinary wife . . . or . . . rather the He-queen’s She-king, a commander in the war, meddling with and influencing all his council. I hold the Parliament fully justified in the publication of the letters; much more the historian.” It seems that, while the intrusion of Parliament into the sphere of Charles II’s domestic affections turned Hartley’s gorge, STC was much more inclined to find it to be an instance where the Golden Rule was not applicable and where “reason” could prevail.

On other less central matters, STC took issue with Hartley, in his life of Congreve, referring to “old Heywood, the prose Shakespeare.” STC says, “This note has less of Hartley’s tact and discrimination than, from such a subject, I should have expected. Surely a prose Shakespeare is not only an over-load for old Heywood, but something not very unlike a square circle.” The first point seems true, the second a confusion of the two uses of the word “poetry,” one to mean writing of the utmost value, the other to mean writing that exhibits measured meter and rhyme. STC also objected to Hartley’s objection to Congreve’s idea of confining a novel to the old classical unities, “as if one should make tea or brew small beer in chemical nomenclature.” Hartley’s analogy is witty, but STC has a point when he says, “And might not a novel, and a very good one in its kind, be written on such a plan . . . ? Had Congreve said that a good novel must be so written, then indeed H. might have slapped him.”

Obviously STC was very interested in his son’s work. Probably he would have been inclined to get involved in it, as he had always wanted to do. But by 1833 he was ill — an illness diagnosed after his death a year later by the doctors who performed the autopsy he had requested. The cause of death was a heart considerably enlarged and weakened by the rheumatic fever he suffered in his youth. Gillman and the doctors who did the autopsy concluded that STC’s lifelong condition was the reason he became and remained addicted to opium.

STC died on 25 July 1834. His will, drawn up in 1829, instructed his executors, led by the physician Joseph Henry Green (who had for some time been assisting STC with the development of his “Polar Logic”), to convert all his property to cash and with that money and the money from the payout of his life insurance (Green had been paying the premiums) to purchase stock and pay the dividends to his wife until she died, and after that to his daughter until she married, and after that equally to Hartley, Derwent and Sara. In 1830 he added a codicil concerning Hartley, one that says a fair amount about how he appraised Hartley’s personality and situation:

Most desirous to secure, as far as in me lies, for my dear Son Hartley Coleridge the tranquility indispensable to any continued and successful exertion of his literary talents, and which from the like character of our minds in this respect I know to be especially requisite for his happiness; and persuaded that he will recognize in this provision that anxious Affection by which it is dictated — I affix this Codicil to my last Will and Testament . . . . I hereby request [my executors] to hold the sum accruing to Hartley Coleridge from the equal division of my total bequest between Him, His Brother Derwent and his Sister Sara Coleridge after their Mother’s decease — to dispose of the Interest or proceeds of the same portion to or for the use of my dear Son . . . according to . . . my Object . . . namely the anxious wish to ensure for my son the continued means of a Home, in which I comprise Board, Lodging and Rainment — providing that nothing in this Codicil shall be so interpreted as to interfere with my son, Hartley Coleridge’s freedom of choice respecting his place of residence or of his power of disposing of his Portion by Will, after his own decease, according as his own Judgment and Affections may decide.

In short, STC felt that Hartley was an important writer and like STC himself dependent for a sense of personal fulfillment on his writing. But Hartley was incapable of managing his practical affairs in such a way as to guarantee his ability to continue writing. STC knew that his wife would carefully distribute money to Hartley, paying for his “essentials” but not dumping any inordinate sum on him that he would either drink or give away. However, after her death the distribution of his share of the investment proceeds would need to be monitored by someone, and that someone would be Green or his “survivors.” STC was cautious, in the way he wrote his codicil, not to hurt Hartley’s feelings and not to infringe on his freedom to chose his place of residence and decide on who would inherit the funds from his investments at his death.

So Hartley’s life continued after 1834 much the same as he’d lived it in the few years since he’d given up school teaching, except that he never left his beloved Grasmere valley again. He continued to go on occasional benders, wandering the area and sleeping in barns, ditches and the homes of friendly farmers. He got money from his mother and after her death in 1845 from his father’s executors. He earned small amounts by publishing poems and essays in various periodicals. He lived for the last dozen years of his life with a farmer and his wife in Nab Cottage, on the north bank of Rydal Water, and kept in his room STC’s sword and uniform from his disastrous stint in the dragoons.

After 1833, his poetry improved in technique but declined in vitality, its energy sapped by a disinclination to explore issues and an inclination to settle for abstractions. The following sonnet, “Prayer,” considered one of Hartley’s best, is characteristic:

There is an awful quiet in the air,
And the sad earth, with moist imploring eye,
Looks wide and wakeful at the pondering sky,
Like Patience slow subsiding to Despair.
But see, the blue smoke as a voiceless prayer,
Sole witness of a secret sacrifice,
Unfolds its tardy wreaths, and multiplies
Its soft chameleon breathings in the rare
Capacious ether,–so it fades away,
And nought is seen beneath the pendent blue,
The undistinguishable waste of day.
So have I dreamed!–oh may the dream be true!–
That praying souls are purged from mortal hue,
And grow as pure as He to whom they pray.

“Pondering sky” suggests silence. The sky is later referred to in the epithet “pendent blue,” and also as “the undistinguishable waste of day” that the “sad earth” is “beneath,” so it is a sky maybe that has cleared after a rain but is darkening at evening. The picture is vague, as perhaps the scene was. The “sad earth” is personified; it has an “eye.” The look in its eye is like “Patience slow subsiding to Despair.” “Patience” and “Despair” are capitalized; they are personifications of abstract qualities that may have had some tangible presence to Hartley in that he had a visual image, from other literature and art, of them. But to most readers they are merely abstractions.

Hartley seems to be thinking about, not experiencing, what he’s looking at. Thinking doesn’t lead to epiphanies unless you’re a mathematician, scientist or philosopher. The image presented of the smoke is good, especially “soft chameleon breathings,” but referring to the sky as “rare, capacious ether” is another abstraction. The conclusion, with its references to souls and prayer, is again abstract, though perhaps less so to someone already committed to the code (likely Christian). Finally, the scenario described is not particularly urgent or original — the poet, depressed, hopes to save himself through prayer, the content of which prayer is unspecified. So are the reasons for his depression.

I again find the “occasional” poems more interesting, though few of them are as polished as the above sonnet. These poems show what Hartley actually felt — what he meant in poems like the above by his allusions to prayer and hope. The “dream” that Hartley associates with prayer is the “faith” that there is a benevolent God who listens. In “The Anemone,” he says,

I was a child
Of large belief, though froward, wild,
Gladly I listened to the holy word
And deemed my little prayers to God were heard.
All things I loved, however strange or odd
As deeming all things were beloved of God.
In youth and manhood’s careful, sultry hours
The garden of my youth bore many flowers
That now are faded; but my early faith
Though thinner now than vapor, spectre wraith,
Lighter than aught the rude wind blows away
Has yet outlived the rude, tempestuous day . . . .

Hartley’s faith is vague; he is a child of the enlightenment in that he has little interest in the assorted formulations of theology and configurations of worship. He’s not much concerned to read God’s mind, especially in terms of the Bible. But he finds no enlightenment either in terms of the nature and human nature, as his father and Wordsworth once did. The evidence of the hand of a benevolent God is not at all overpowering. In this regard, Hartley sees himself as a “bad angel:”

There is a fable that I once did read,
Of a bad angel, that was someway good,
And therefore on the brink of Heaven he stood,
Looking each way, and no way could proceed;
Till at the last he purged away his sin
By loving all the joy he saw within.

Hartley saw heaven or “joy” (his father’s constant reference in the conversation poems) in terms of childhood, the children cast up from Wordsworth’s ocean of souls and playing happily on its shores. Dozens of his poems are addressed to children, seeing them as perfect, representing an innocent goodness to which adulthood must adhere and aspire:

True love is still a child, and then most true
When most it talks and does as children do.

What children do and why they do it is shown in “To Margaret, on Her First Birthday:”

One year is past, with change and sorrow fraught,
Since first the little Margaret drew her breath,
And yet the fatal names of Sin and Death,
Her sad inheritance, she knoweth not.
That lore, by earth inevitably taught,
In the still world of spirits is untold;
‘Tis not of Death or Sin that angels hold
Sweet converse with the slumb’ring infant’s thought.
Merely she is with God, and God with her
And her meek ignorance. Guiltless of demur,
For her is faith a hope; her innocence
Is holiness: the bright-eyed crowing glee
That makes her leap her grandsire’s face to see,
Is love unfeign’d and willing reverence.

Here a set of abstractions, conjectures and allusions (to the myth that children’s smiles in sleep derive from their communion with guardian angels) is grounded in the final image of a child lunging in joy for her grandfather.

Deriving hope from the actions of children is, however, a matter of faith. Children don’t just smile in their sleep; they also frown and cry out in fear. The only proof that Hartley comes up with, for the idea of childhood as a state of happiness or as an indication of a pre-existent ideal state, is negative:

For sure the Lord of Justice never would
Have doom’d a loyal spirit to be shorn
Of its immortal glories — never could
Exile perfection to an earth forlorn.

It’s by focusing on domestic affections that faith is maintained. Hartley’s example is his uncle Southey — on whom Hartley in his essays is extremely hard for no good reasons (usually the reasons have to do with Southey’s tendency to compile books out of other books and to live a circumscribed life, two habits that could be said to characterize Milton and even Shakespeare). But Southey for all his faults understood, instinctively, that affection is the basis of morality. In “To Robert Southey,” with its subtitle “Neither the Esquire, the Laureate, nor the LL.D, but the good man, the merry man, the poet, and the doctor,” Hartley says,

His love of kin was all the more profound
Not wide in surface, but in act intense:
Affection still a dutiful reality,
The ground and law, and soul of all morality. 

Yet keeping still his little heart at home,
He wander’d with his mind in realms remote,
Made playmates of the Fairy, Sylph, and Gnome,
And knew each Giant, Knight, and Wight of note,
Whate’er of wonderful the East and North,
Darkly commingling, gender’d and brought forth.

Sweet thought he found, and noble, in the story
Of the Wehr-Wolf and sweet Red Ridinghood,
Shudder’d at feast of Ogre, raw and gory,
And watch’d the Sleeping Beauty in the wood.

Southey led Hartley into this world:

My Fairy Land was never upon earth
Nor in the heaven to which I hoped to go;
For it was always by the glimmering hearth
Where the last fagot gave its reddest glow
And voice of eld wax’d tremulous and low.

So Hartley expressed his quiet distrust in reason. Unfortunately he never, after his youth, wrote fairy tales or children’s literature as Southey and his father could be said to have done. STC’s dream poems had a direct influence on The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Sara Coleridge’s Phantasmion, a fairy-tale novel, a pioneering work that included songs, some of which became very popular. They had no effect on Hartley who, unlike his uncle, father and sister, wrote only about myth.

Hartley left reason to scientists, for whom he had, unlike his father, a great admiration and respect. He believed that science was progressively explaining nature. We’ve seen what he had to say of Dalton. In another poem he speaks of Adam Sedgwick (1785 – 1873), a geologist who proposed the Devonian period in the geological time scale, and later, based on studies of Welsh rock strata, the Cambrian. Hartley mentions his work in the sonnet “Dent” [a reference to Sedgwick’s home town]. Sedgwick is described as roaming Wales, “Where old Gorgonian time has turned to stone/Long thorny snake and monstrous lithophyte.”  Sedgwick was deeply religious and only reluctantly came to acceptance of the uniformitarian theory of Charles Lyell and James Hutton, a theory that rejected the idea of geological formations and fossils being the result of upheaval and compaction caused by Noah’s flood. In 1844, Sedgwick defended uniformitarian geology against the Dean of York, an act that took great courage. Hartley is filled with admiration: “if certain persons had their will/The fate of Galileo had been thine.” Hartley also presented Wordsworth with Lucretius’s On the Nature of the Universe, with an inscription praising the atomic theory of nature and justifying Lucretius’s suicide — using Virgil’s argument that an understanding of nature results in an understanding and unfearful acceptance of death.

The abstruse musings that seem to have interested Hartley as a boy, when in 1815 he squirreled away some of his father’s philosophy books and put them in his room at the Morgans’, were not indulged in by Hartley in manhood. In one sonnet, addressed to his recently dead father and sent to his mother, Hartley explains why he can’t write the “essay on his father’s life and genius” (as Derwent described it) that the family thought he should write:

Thy great idea was too high a strain
For my infirmity, how shall I dare
Thy perfect and immortal self to paint?
Less awful task to “draw empyreal air.”

In short, he couldn’t handle the Prometheus poem and the other projects recommended by STC, so he’d better avoid the essay on STC and continue to paint pictures in the air. Derwent explains that the Prometheus poem in particular was a disaster for Hartley precisely because STC got involved. STC, Derwent says, took “much interest in the work, seeing it as profoundly philosophical,” as an allegory, in fact, with Jupiter representing law, and Prometheus reason. “The youthful Telemachus shrank from the attempt to bend his father’s bow.”

In politics, Hartley was, like his father in the end, conservative. He was also not interested. He described politics as “the mean mischief of the present time.” It may have been his father’s example that turned him off, a feeling that what Martin Amis calls “the rumpus-room of delusion and credulity that form Coleridge’s early years” was not just caused by opium but by the tendency of his father to be absolutely convinced by his own blarney at the time, especially his political and philosophical blarney. The fact that this blarney was sometimes propped up by plagiarism caused STC’s family, including Hartley, a great deal of trouble after STC’s death when they set out to edit his works. Hartley might have been afraid that in STC’s latter-day political pronouncements his delusions were continuing in practice even if they had faded in theory. In politics you can easily be right in theory, but wrong in the application of that theory.

STC, right to the end of his life, was deeply engaged in politics, as were Wordsworth and Southey, and was continually facing rather convincing charges, from top-ranking journalists like Hazlitt, of inconsistency and hypocrisy. The prominent issue at the end of STC’s life was the Reform Bill, an attempt to make Parliament more democratic by expanding the right to vote slightly (from 3.2% of the population to 4.7%) and getting rid of rotten boroughs. STC was advancing his usual line that this would be alright, except that it represented a trend. The Commons would slowly take precedence over the Lords and the number of liberally inclined members would increase since you would need less property to register and less property meant less of a conservative attitude — less of a sense of responsibility towards society, and more of an inclination to apply theory. The vote, STC thought, should not be extended until gentlemen were better educated — and STC had published lots of questionable advice on how to provide this education, publishing works like Aids to Reflection and the Statesman’s Manualto help gentlemen in power keep their minds on the Bible (as interpreted by the Anglican Church).

Wordsworth was more direct, announcing that reform was “a greater political crime than any committed in history.” But his was an extreme opinion even for conservatives; the Tories were actually divided on reform, a fact that weakened them in the face of the mass’s demand for it. Mobs were marching and burning property — the entire center of Bristol was torched.

The pressure had built up through the years since the French Revolution. Once Napoleon was defeated the English conservatives were momentarily supreme under the leadership of Wellington, the hero of Waterloo. But the French, as if they had not learned their lesson, began moving towards a republican form of government, and the Americans were going from success to success under theirs. At the time STC died, the last of the Bourbons were living in exile in England and Napoleon’s remains were enshrined in Paris. The king was in exile and the revolutionary was a national hero. Thomas Macaulay, a liberal parliamentarian and historian, advised Parliament, “Reform, that you may preserve. The danger is terrible. The time is short.”

Hartley, unlike STC, said nothing, other than a characteristic quip that gentlemen (and that word was important to him) would likely be scarcer in a reformed parliament that they had been in an unreformed one.

STC, for all of his life after he wrote “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” referred to himself as “the mariner.” He was thinking of his sense of guilt about the “rumpus room” of his life and of his message of love for all things great and small. But if anyone was the mariner it was Hartley. STC continued to probe feelings of hopelessness (ultimately for him lack of faith), in a few good poems from his last few years, poems like “Constancy to an Ideal Object” (that object being Sara Hutchinson), “Work without Hope,” and “Phantom or Fact.” Hartley started early on this theme and continued with it until the end of his life. It was part of his main message, though never expressed as effectively as his father did. He had the best answer to it, though: “he prayeth best who loveth best.” STC may have said it, but Hartley did it.

Hartley was also, like the Mariner, a wanderer, condemned to a life without home or family. This was only partly because of his “crime” that made him avoid absolutely, not just sporadically as with STC, his family. Of course it wasn’t just his sense that he had betrayed the hopes of his family and friends that caused him to isolate himself. Extremely short, odd-looking, and incapable of anything but writing as a way of getting sex, attention and money, he didn’t have a chance when it came to starting his own family, though if his female admirer at Brathay Hall is to be believed he might have ignored his quaint scruples about playing the sympathy card and in this way, with a bit of luck, gained a (lucrative) conquest.

She regarded him as a saint, the impression left by the Ancient Mariner himself, but never by the Mariner’s creator.  Hartley doesn’t seem to have had the glittering, mesmerizing eye, but then neither did his father, who was known to be a bore in public. Lamb is famous for being buttonholed by STC on the street and, not far into STC’s blather, hauling out a penknife, cutting the button off his coat, and carrying on down the street — to a wedding, maybe. Hartley’s focus on affection is much more convincing than STC’s on love. Affection implies good actions; love can inflict torture.

The reaction of Wordsworth, known to be aloof and condescending, to Hartley, has to be described in terms of affection. He watched over Hartley, and there’s no evidence that he ever made the most prominent of judgments against him, which was, as Derwent reported with considerable impatience and anger, that Hartley was his own worst enemy. He seems not to have loaded Hartley with advice. Wordsworth’s assumption that Hartley would have liked the idea of lying in his grave beside him and his family sounds correct. Hartley would’ve been proud. He worshipped Wordsworth’s poems and was influenced by them much more than he was by his father’s. He associated Wordsworth, through his poems mainly though he must have been conscious of it also in Wordsworth’s interactions with him, with friendliness — an affectionate interest in others, even those he didn’t know.

But maybe Wordsworth did know Hartley, and very well. Maybe Wordsworth saw Hartley as his better side — not the better poet, but the better person, a distinction that Wordsworth had been forced by the end of his life to recognize. Hartley was, as STC’s letter to Dawes implies, the entirely successful product of the Enlightenment education that STC, with Wordsworth’s obvious support, had planned for him. Hartley would’ve without doubt been proud to lie beside Wordsworth, but Wordsworth likely felt equally proud that he would spend the earthly equivalent of eternity lying beside Hartley.



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