XIII. THE SAGE OF HIGHGATE: 1816–34

In April, 1816, Coleridge, nearing physical and mental collapse at the age of forty-three, was received as a patient by Dr. James Gillman, of Highgate, London. Coleridge was then consuming a pint of laudanum per day. Southey, about this time, described him as “half as big as the house”; his frame loose and bent; his face pale, round, and flabby; his breath short; his hands so shaky that he could hardly bring a glass to his lips.97 He had some loyal friends, like Lamb, De Quincey, and Crabb Robinson, but he rarely saw his wife or children, lived mostly on pensions or gifts, and was losing his last hold on life. Perhaps the young physician had heard that Byron and Walter Scott had ranked this broken man as England’s greatest man of letters;98 in any case he saw that Coleridge could be saved only by constant and professional surveillance and care. With the consent of his wife, Dr. Gillman took Coleridge into his home, fed him, treated him, comforted and cured him, and kept him till death.

The recovery of Coleridge’s mind was astonishing. The doctor so marveled at the extent of his patient’s knowledge, the wealth of his ideas, and the brilliance of his conversation that he opened his doors to a growing circle of old and young men to whom the “damaged archangel” talked at random, seldom with full clarity or logical order, but with unfailing wit, zest, and effect. Fragments of these conversations, preserved as Table Talk, still strike a spark: “Every man is born an Aristotelian or a Platonist.”

“Either we have an immortal soul, or we have not. If we have not we are beasts; the first and wisest of beasts, it may be, but still true beasts.”99

He was not content to be among the first and wisest of beasts. As he neared death he sought comfort in religion, and, as if to make sure of his bargain, embraced it in its most orthodox available form, the Church of England, as the pillar of English stability and morality; and hopefully he wished it everlasting life: Esto perpetua! His essay On the Constitution of the Church and the State (1830) presented them as two mutually necessary forms of national unity, each protecting and helping the other.100 He (and Wordsworth) opposed the political emancipation of British Catholics, on the ground that the growth of “popery” would endanger the state by developing a conflict of loyalties between patriotism and religion.

He took full advantage of the conservatism natural to old age. In 1818 he had supported Robert Owen and Sir Robert Peel in their campaigns for restrictions on child labor, but in 1831 he opposed the Reform Bill that was to break the hold of the Tories upon Parliament. He advised against the abolition of West Indian slavery.101 He who, more than most philosophers, had studied and supported science, rejected the idea of evolution, preferring “the history I find in my Bible.”102 In the end his capacious and far-reaching intellect yielded to ailments of body and will, and he fell into a timid fear of every innovation in politics or belief.

He lacked the steady patience to achieve constructive unity in his work. In the Biographia Literaria (1817), he had announced his intention to write an opus magnum—the Logosophia —that would be the sum, summit, and reconciliation of science, philosophy, and religion; but all that flesh and soul would let him contribute to that enterprise was a medley of fragments labored, chaotic, and obscure. To such a pass had come the mind that De Quincey had described as “the most capacious,… subtlest, and most comprehensive… that has yet existed among men.”103

In July, 1834, Coleridge began his adieus to life. “I am dying, but without expectation of a speedy release…. Hooker wished to live to finish his Ecclesiastical Polity,—so I own I wish life and strength had been spared me to complete my Philosophy. For, as God hears me, the originating, continuing, and sustaining wish and design in my heart were to exalt the glory of his name; and, which is the same thing in other words, to promote the improvement of mankind. But visum aliter Deo [God saw otherwise], and his will be done.”104 Coleridge died on July 25, 1834, aged sixty-two. Wordsworth was shaken by the passing of “the most wonderful man he had ever known”; and Lamb, best friend of all, said, “His great and dear spirit haunts me.”105

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