V. COLERIDGE: 1794–97

He was a cross between lively nerves and hesitant will. He loved Mary Evans of London, but shrank from the task of maintaining her in her wonted style; she liked his rich and ebullient spirit, but had no faith in its earning power. She turned away, and he resigned himself to Sara Fricker, who, plain and penniless, could keep house and bear children, but could not inspire odes.

To finance his prospective marriage and his lingering dream, he delivered more lectures in Bristol, charging a shilling for each admission (January to June, 1795). These Conciones ad Populum were recklessly radical: they denounced the Established Church as the servant of the rich and knowing no Lord but the lord of the manor. They condemned the war with France as an attempt to suppress the Revolution and turn back the march of history. They excused the Terror as a response to “Pitt’s War,” and they denounced the “Gag Bills” as governmental efforts to silence the public will. They drew small though enthusiastic audiences, but on the proceeds Coleridge took Sara Fricker to the altar (October 4, 1795).

In that same autumn he first met Wordsworth. William was only two years older than Samuel, but he had experienced the Revolution, had seen utopia in the flesh. He shared the younger man’s dread of a Bourbon restoration, but he could not interest himself in Pennsylvania; the battlefield of ideas was in Europe; and as to the splendor of the Susquehanna, why not be satisfied with the glory of the English Lakes? Coleridge was only half convinced, but he put it in his tablets to watch this William grow, and perhaps learn from him how to ride the rapids of life.

He filled many tablets with gleanings from the books and souls he met. He read widely, eagerly, and in a dozen fields, about men, animals, plants, sciences, religions, philosophies, nations, literatures, arts. His was one of the hungriest, most absorbent, and most retentive minds of which we have any record. His memory became a storehouse from which he drew, to the end of his life, for images, ideas, phrases, arguments, even paragraphs. Too often he neglected to mention, or pleasantly forgot, the source of his catch, and carelessly mingled his own notions with borrowed goods. In the end the weight of his stores, and their unmanageable variety, were too great for a mind wedded to freedom and divorced from order. The storeroom nearly collapsed under its stores.

Perhaps to relieve his memory, or to feed his wife, he hit upon the idea of printing and selling a magazine almost entirely written by himself. He buttonholed his acquaintances, and conscripted his lecture auditors, as potential subscribers, and scattered a “Prospectus: That all may know the TRUTH, and that the TRUTH may make us FREE. On Friday the 5th day of February 1796 will be published No. 1 (price four pence) of a miscellany to be published every eighth day, under the name of The Watchman, by S. T. Coleridge, author of Addresses to the People.”16 Here in print, as in his lectures, he spoke as a bridge-burning radical against the war, slavery, shackling of the press, and especially against sales taxes as falling cruelly upon the common man.17 But he did not recommend universal adult suffrage, male or female. “We should be bold in the avowal of political truth among those only whose minds are susceptible of reasoning; and never to the multitude, who, ignorant and needy, must necessarily act from the impulse of inflamed passions.”18 —Coleridge found it unbearable to fill thirty-two pages every eight days with his own pen; increasingly they depended upon alien gleanings not always acknowledged. Some watchful readers protested. Circulation fell, debts rose. After ten numbers The Watchman died.

On September 1, 1796, Coleridge’s first child was born. He named him David Hartley, from the English protagonist of the associationist psychology. Here was a delectable face, but another mouth to feed. Meanwhile he himself was feeling ailments of heart and lungs, and was relying more and more upon opium to ease the pain. He was near the end of his resources when a friendly liberal, Thomas Poole, offered him, at the nominal rent of seven pounds a year, a small house near his own at Nether Stowey, near Bridgewater. On December 31, 1796, Coleridge, Sara, and David moved in. Sara made the place comfortable and clean. “S. T. C.” worked in an adjoining garden, helped to care for Poole’s poultry and pigs, and wrote memorable, nonnegotiable poetry.

About this time, according to a memory always rich and adorned, “Kubla Khan” was conceived, and for the most part written, in a miraculous dream:

In the summer of 1797 the Author, then in ill-health, had retired to a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton…. In consequence of a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, from the effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that he was reading… in Purchas’s Pilgrimage: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were enclosed with a wall.” The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines,… without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.

This famous preface has been interpreted as a fable with which Coleridge deceived himself or others into accepting the immaculate conception and brief continuance of “Kubla Khan.” However, it is not unknown that an author, after manufacturing phrases during the day, should continue to do so in a dream; but almost always these jewels sink into unconsciousness as the sleeper wakes. Perhaps in this case the opium induced not only the dream but the delusion that the composition was part of the dream. In any case Coleridge, with his characteristic skill of rhyme and alliteration, transformed Purchas’ prose into one of the most tempting torsos in the English language.

Perhaps a more important event than “Kubla,” in Coleridge’s year 1797, was an invitation to visit the Wordsworths at Racedown. He excused himself to Sara and David, and started off to walk nearly all the intervening miles. He sighted his goal on June 6, and ran excitedly across a field to his brother poet’s door. When William and Dorothy opened it, and their hearts, to him, a new epoch began in these three lives, and one of the most fruitful collaborations in literary history.

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