In April, 1800, having completed his assignment with the Morning Post, Coleridge came to Grasmere for a three-week stay with the Wordsworths. Dorothy told him that she had found a pleasant haven for him and his family in a large house called Greta Hall, some three miles out of Keswick. Coleridge went, saw the place in the glory of summer, found in one room a library of five hundred volumes, many of them grist to his mill, and enthusiastically signed the lease. In August, 1800, he took his wife Sara and son Hartley from Nether Stowey to their new home. There, on September 14, Sara gave birth to another boy, whom they named Derwent from a nearby lake and stream. Soon the winter revealed to them their mistake: the cold and rain aggravated Coleridge’s tendencies to asthma and rheumatic fever, and the geographical separation from her relatives deepened the melancholy of his wife, so often left alone by her husband’s wanderings of body and mind.
Frequently he left her to walk the three plus thirteen miles to Keswick and Grasmere to enjoy the stimulus of Wordsworth’s conversation and Dorothy’s affectionate attentions; and only less frequently Wordsworth and Dorothy walked north to brighten Coleridge’s day. In November, 1800, Sara Hutchinson came down from Gallow Hill for a stay of several months with Mary, William, and Dorothy at Dove Cottage; and there Coleridge resumed his pursuit of her. With unintentionally cruel simplicity, he confessed to his wife his love for the second Sara, and asked for permission to love them both. Day by day she retreated from him into motherly cares, and he into his brooding and his books.
He tried to complete the ballad-story “Christabel,” which he had begun in 1797; but he found no “fine frenzy” in him, and left the tale unfinished. Scott and Byron praised it in its manuscript form, and may have taken some hints from it in theme, meter, and mood; finally (1816), at Byron’s urging, Murray printed it. It is a haunting relic of a vanished charm.
After a year at Greta Hall, Coleridge, his health and funds exhausted, felt that he could not survive another winter at the Lakes. He was glad to receive an invitation to join the staff of the Morning Post as an editorial writer. On October 6, 1801, he went to Grasmere to say goodbye; on the 9th Dorothy and Mary walked with him to Greta Hall; on the 10th he left for London, and Mary and Dorothy walked back to Grasmere. Dorothy wrote in her journal: “C. had a sweet day for his ride. Every sight and every sound reminded me of him, dear dear fellow … I was melancholy and could not talk, but at last I eased my heart by weeping—nervous blubbering, says William. It is not so. O how many, many reasons I have to be anxious for him.”53
Arrived in London, Coleridge worked hard writing “leaders,” in which his growing conservatism went well with the policy of the Post, the chief organ of the semiliberal Whigs—anti-ministry but pro-property. He condemned slavery and the “rotten boroughs” (which regularly sent Tories to Parliament), denounced the government for rejecting Napoleon’s offer of peace (1800), and almost ruined Pitt with a merciless analysis of the Prime Minister as a statesman and as a man. However, he defended private property as the necessary base of a progressive but orderly society, and argued that that government is best which makes “each man’s power proportionate to his property.”54 He wrote vigorously and effectively; the circulation of the Post rose substantially during his stay.55But that year of hectic work contributed to the breakdown of his health. When he returned to Greta Hall (1802) he was physically and morally exhausted—the body ailing, the husband alienated, the lover rejected, the will a slave to opium.
He had begun to take the drug as early as 1791, aged nineteen.56 He used it to quiet his nerves, to reduce pain, to induce sleep, to retard—or conceal from himself—the deterioration of his heart and lungs, perhaps to resign himself to defeat. And when elusive sleep came at last, it became a host to frightening dreams, which he hinted at in “The Pains of Sleep” (1803):
the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me;…
Desire with loathing strangely mixed,
On wild or hateful objects fixed;
Fantastic passions, maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all.57
His notebooks tell of an imaginary people on the moon “exactly like the people of this world in everything except indeed that they eat with their Backsides, and stool in their mouths;… they do not kiss much.”58 Like most of us he had dreams of fear, but in his case so vivid that sometimes he wakened the household with his screams.59
Perhaps his ailments and drugs, though sometimes confusing his thought and weakening his will, opened to him areas and vistas of perception and imagination closed to normal minds. In any case his range of knowledge was unsurpassed in his generation, leaving Wordsworth, in this respect, far behind. He humbled himself before Wordsworth, but Wordsworth could seldom talk about anything but his poems, while Coleridge’s conversation, even in his decay, had a range, vivacity, and interest that impressed Carlyle, and might even have silenced Mme. de Staël. What awed him in Wordsworth was the older man’s concentration of purpose and steadiness of will; Coleridge was more and more substituting the wish for the will and imagination for reality.
He marveled at his modesty, but he was intensely self-conscious, found himself (but in this like Wordsworth and ourselves) the most interesting of all subjects, and was secretly and aggressively proud. He called attention to his honesty, his austere moral code, his indifference to money or fame; but he longed for honors, plagiarized happily,60 borrowed money forgetfully, left his wife and children, and allowed his friends to support them. Perhaps opium weakened his sexual capacity, and allowed him to mistake fancy for performance.
In April, 1804, seeking to reduce his asthma and rheumatic fever with the Mediterranean air and sun, he accepted a loan of a hundred pounds from Wordsworth,61 and sailed to Malta, then a crucial but disputed bastion of British power. He took with him an ounce of crude opium and nine ounces of laudanum. On the voyage, May 13, he wrote in his notebook a desperate prayer:
O dear God! give me strength of soul to make one thorough Trial—if I land at Malta / spite of all horrors to go through one month of unstimulated Nature…. I am loving and kind-hearted and cannot do wrong with impunity, but O! I am very, very weak—from my infancy have been so—and I exist for the moment!—Have mercy on me, have mercy on me, Father and God!62
For almost a year he seemed to recover his self-control. In July he was appointed private secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, governor of Malta, and in January, 1805, he was advanced to the more responsible post of public secretary. He worked hard, and revealed surprising powers of judgment and application. Then, after a year of service, he was so exhausted that he relapsed into drug addiction. He left Malta, traveled in Sicily and Italy, and returned to England (1806). By that time he was more than ever dependent upon opium, checking its soporific action with brandy.
On October 26, 1806, he met the Wordsworths at an inn in Kendal. “Never,” wrote Dorothy under that date, “did I feel such a shock as at first sight of him”; so fat that “his eyes are lost” in his swollen face, and only a momentary gleam appeared of the former “divine expression of his countenance.”63 He went on to Keswick, and asked his wife for a separation. She refused. He left her, taking with him son Derwent, six years old. He transferred to his wife his Wedgwood annuity,64 but Josiah Wedgwood withdrew his share of this in 1813. Southey, established in Greta Hall since 1803, took over the care of his sister-in-law. Coleridge was tided over the crisis by a gift of a hundred pounds sent anonymously by his fellow addict De Quincey, and by the lectures that he gave at the Royal Institution in 1808, 1809, and 1810.
In that year the great friendship ended. Its basis had been mutual inspiration to poetry; that ceased when the font of poesy dried up in Coleridge after 1800 through physical weakening, soporific opiates, marital alienation, and enthrallment by philosophy. Wordsworth had encouraged the exchange of Muses by suggesting to Coleridge that his genius favored prose. Coleridge had been offended by learning that all three Wordsworths had cautioned Sara Hutchinson against encouraging his advances. The divergence became a chasm when, in a letter of May 31, 1809, Wordsworth warned Poole not to involve himself too heavily in Coleridge’s new magazine (1809–10), The Friend. “As one of Coleridge’s nearest and dearest friends,” Wordsworth wrote:
I give it to you as my deliberate opinion, formed upon proofs that had been strengthening for years, that Coleridge neither will nor can execute anything of important benefit either to himself, his family, or mankind. Neither his talents nor his genius, mighty as they are, nor his vast information, will avail him anything; they are all frustrated by a derangement of his intellectual and moral constitution. In fact he has no voluntary power of mind whatsoever, nor is he capable of acting under any constraint of duty or moral obligation.65
This is merciless and extreme, but Wordsworth had told Coleridge as much in a letter a few weeks before.66 The matter was made worse when, according to Coleridge, Basil Montagu told him that Wordsworth had advised him not to let Coleridge lodge with him, since Coleridge, by heavy drinking and otherwise, had made himself “a nuisance” at Grasmere.67 Wordsworth later (1812) assured Coleridge that Montagu had misquoted him. Coleridge pretended to accept the explanation, but the broken strings could not be repaired, and the historic friendship died.