The Fall of Robespierre was a collaboration undertaken with Southey, whom he met at Oxford in June 1794, while on a walking tour from Cambridge. With Southey he hatched another escape route, a utopian scheme for immigration to America, where a small group was to found a commune on the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. The ideals of Pantisocracy, as they called their project, involved shared labor and shared rewards. Servitude in this setting was exalted as “aspheterism,” a Christian selflessness. “Religious Musings” envisions the dismal historical world which they hoped to escape, as well as their aspiration:
‘Tis the sublime of man,
Our noontide majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wondrous whole!
This fraternizes man, this constitutes
Our charities and bearings!
Pantisocracy occupied Coleridge’s energies and continued to influence his sense of vocation for some time after the scheme’s collapse in 1795. A communitarian ideal remained essential to his writing, as to the life he now proposed to live.
For he left Cambridge, without taking a degree, in December 1794, in the midst of this communitarian enthusiasm and was soon thrown back on his own resources. In the course of the next year Coleridge delivered a series of lectures on politics and religion in Bristol, where Southey had connections. He considered various journalistic enterprises and made influential friends, including Joseph Cottle, a local publisher, who was interested enough in his poetry to advance him living expenses against copyright. The volume of Poems on Various Subjects (including four sonnets by Lamb and part of another by Southey) which Cottle would publish in 1796 represents a rite of passage. Behind him, the young author’s school verse, sonnets, and rambling effusions trace a course of aimless poetasting. Before him, in “The Eolian Harp” (included in the 1796 volume as “Effusion xxxv”) and in “Religious Musings” (which concluded the volume), something is stirring. The former, addressed to Sara Fricker, whom he married in Bristol on 4 October 1795, looks forward to the conversational line which he would develop and share with Wordsworth. The latter, on which he claimed in a letter to “build all my poetic pretensions,” is an affirmation of Christian principle in troubled times. Both poems are broadly communitarian in aspiration.
Coleridge expanded on “Religious Musings” over the next two years. A section of it was published as “The Present State of Society” in The Watchman, a periodical which Coleridge conducted through ten issues (1 March-13 May 1796). Its contents were various, including reports from Parliament, foreign intelligence, and responses to current issues. The loaf was leavened with bits of poetry, some of it the editor’s own.The Watchman failed despite Coleridge’s strenuous efforts to enlist subscribers, but it bears witness to his seriousness of purpose. This conjunction was where Coleridge staked his claim. Poetry as a vatic art in the service of a general social revival: the restless England of George III, reeling from the shock of American and French revolutions, was surely prepared to listen. The scientific and political culture which had emerged in the 1770s was gaining force among the dissenters, Unitarians in particular, whom Coleridge cultivated in and around Bristol. They were his constituency and his means of support. He spoke to them in sermons and lectures, through The Watchman and also, as he hoped, through his verse.
His move with Sara to Clevedon, Somersetshire, along the Bristol Channel, in October 1795 was a change of air though not of social context. From here he continued his attack on the king and his ministers, returning occasionally to Bristol to lecture or walking to Bridgwater to speak at the Unitarian chapel. At his cottage he wrote “The Eolian Harp,” a meditative poem different in every way from “Religious Musings” and the real inauguration of his mature voice. In its primitive form, as the effusion of 1796, it reflects the conflict between natural response—“the sense of beauty in forms and sounds,” as he put it in the Biographia Literaria—and higher responsibility. Nature as an animated, omnipresent life force, a benevolent companion, is memorably characterized through the image of the wind harp, which is identified with the poet’s “indolent and passive brain.” Poetic imagination is simply an instrument of this Nature, one “organic harp” among others in its universal symphony. In the exemplary setting of the new life he was undertaking, the claims of enlightenment thinking succumbed to faith.
“The Eolian Harp”establishes the terms of this important conflict, which was not simply intellectual but broadly social in implication. For pantheism was associated with the progressive scientific culture for which the empirical world of nature was simply reality itself. A personal God had no empirical reality. Unitarians and various sorts of deists adhered to a divinity which was known through sensation: a Nature god of sorts. This was Coleridge’s intellectual milieu, and he tried out its ideas in his Bristol period. Yet his enduring commitments showed through. The community espoused in the conclusion of “The Eolian Harp” is not the egalitarian utopia of scientific aspiration, but “the family of Christ.” The ideals of Pantisocracy triumph over the temptations of the new science. In his extensive correspondence of the period Coleridge proclaimed himself a Necessitarian for whom everything had a place in the divine scheme. “The Eolian Harp” shows how the lure of an alternative vision of human experience dominated by sensation could provoke an equal and opposite reaffirmation of first principles to the contrary. A traditional faith was confirmed through temptation.
Community after the collapse of Pantisocracy meant a wife and family, impassioned friendships based on shared concerns, and the company of kindred spirits. Thomas Poole, a prosperous tanner of good family in the tiny Somerset village of Nether Stowey, became Coleridge’s closest associate in the uncertain period following his return to Bristol in 1796. The arduous and ultimately futile enterprise of The Watchman led him to seek a steady haven where he might work and write in sympathetic surroundings. Supporting Sara and their newborn son, Hartley (born September 1796), was a priority: “Literature will always be a secondary Object with me.” There was something desperate in such a resolution, and it proved hard to keep after their move to a small thatched cottage in Nether Stowey at the end of 1796.
“This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” composed from Poole’s cottage garden the next year, relates to the community which he made there. Poole had proved a loyal friend and steady companion; his patronage was crucial to the success of the resettlement. Wordsworth, whom Coleridge had met in Bristol some time before, came to visit with his sister, Dorothy, and they soon occupied a substantial house at Alfoxden, walking distance from Nether Stowey. Charles Lloyd lived at Coleridge’s cottage for a time, providing steady income in exchange for tuition. Lamb, the old friend from Christ’s Hospital, and the youthful Hazlitt joined Cottle and other Bristol connections to make up a real if transient community of socially interested parties. All were writers at least by aspiration; all were involved in the reformation of English values for which “romanticism” has since come to stand. The lives they were leading on the fringes of conventional society would become the subject of their work.
So it was in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” which describes a walk some of them took one day in Coleridge’s absence. The jealous Sara had spilled a pan of boiling milk on his foot, excluding him from the company of Dorothy and William Wordsworth, as well as Charles Lamb, on a jaunt in the surrounding spur of low hills—combes, in local parlance—the Quantocks. From his confinement in the garden, he celebrates the pleasures of the natural world as seen from within this harmonious community of like-minded individuals. The detailed evocation of their itinerary marks the apogee of his response to landscape. In the end, the poet’s imagination triumphs over his separation: his bower reveals pleasures of its own; Nature is hospitable to human response. Sensation proves adequate to human need; Nature is a providential resource against isolation. The poem’s conclusion dwells on the joy of companionship in such a world.
Coleridge’s new community was instrumental in bringing him to such feeling, and to such expression. This proved to be the most satisfying arrangement he would ever enjoy. It was the setting of his verse breakthrough, of the annus mirabilis in which most of his enduring poems were written. Here he built on the achievement of Clevedon, writing reflectively about his inner life in a social environment which excited and encouraged the questions he was asking. Was the human place in nature a merely passive one, comparable to the wind harp’s? Was natural beauty sufficient to our moral needs? And more speculatively, what was the meaning of nature conceived as an organ of divine will? How did this bear on our idea of society?
These questions haunt the reflective idiom which he developed in the course of this residence of a year and a half at Nether Stowey, with storm clouds brewing on the horizon. The topographic realism of “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison” reverts via Wordsworth’s An Evening Walk (1793) to James Thomson and The Seasons (1730), but the voice at work here is that of “a man speaking to men,” in the parlance of the “Preface” to the 1800 edition of Lyrical Ballads. Speech replaces stale poetic convention from the start. The character of the poet lies at the center of the exercise. The self-consciousness of Wordsworth’s poetically premature ramble is turned to good effect in Coleridge’s effort at something true to the occasion. The sense of occasion is conveyed in fresh blank verse, not the rattling heroic couplets of Wordsworth’s first extended production. The prickly personifications and moralizing eye of “An Evening Walk” are vestigially present in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison,” but the effect is not of conventional chatter. Coleridge’s diction is clear and direct for the most part, his apostrophes natural to the drama of the situation which he develops.
Walking was more than recreation for the writers’ colony in the Quantocks. It provided the fresh air which their assumptions required. If Nature were to be their muse, and the source of their living values, it would have to be observed in all its sorts and conditions. Coleridge’s plan for an expansive treatment in verse of the course of a brook from source to river shows how his walks in the nearby combes contributed to his reflection on the human condition. “The Brook” as he conceived it would mix “description and incident” with “impassioned reflection on men, nature, society.” He traced a local stream to its wellsprings, recording occasional images in his notebook, but these are all that survive of an ambitious and characteristic project of the period.
Wordsworth’s move to Alfoxden in the summer of 1797 stimulated further projects. At loose ends Coleridge found in Wordsworth a catalyst for his thinking about poetry. The year following his friend’s move to the area would prove to be his most productive, and the beginning of a collaboration which culminated in the Lyrical Ballads volume. On his own telling, his conversations with Wordsworth during this year “turned frequently on the two cardinal points of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colors of imagination.” The first point may be described as Wordsworthian, the second as basically Coleridgean. Imagination was already one of his preoccupations; he was interested in Erasmus Darwin’s idea that “the excess of fancy is delirium, of imagination mania.” Extraordinary states of mind, or casts of spirit, color his major poems of this period of innovation, and the effects which he achieved through them have earned enduring recognition.
Most extraordinary of all, in the eyes of later readers, is “Kubla Khan,” an opium-induced, orientalizing fantasia of the unconscious. It is important to recognize that Coleridge himself claimed nothing for this production’s “supposed poetic merits.” He did not publish it until 1816, under financial pressure as usual and at the urging ofLord Byron, and only as an appendage to the more substantial “Christabel,” which Wordsworth had excluded from the second edition of Lyrical Ballads (1800). The poem was not liked even then. As a “psychological curiosity” it was interesting to its author mainly as evidence of a state of extreme imaginative excitement. “Kubla Khan” had nothing to do with the reflective idiom to which Coleridge was committed. It might be verse, but it was not good poetry.
The story of its genesis is one of the prodigies of English literature. In the course of a solitary walk in the combes near the Bristol Channel in the fall of 1797, Coleridge took two grains of opium for the dysentery which had been bothering him for some time. He retired to an old stone farmhouse some distance from Porlock, where he fell asleep while reading an old travel book, Purchase His Pilgrimage (1613), by Samuel Purchase. He awoke hours later to record the extraordinary train of images which arose during his opiated stupor. The act of composition was interrupted by a “person from Porlock”—often conjured by later poets as a figure of life intruding on art—and it proved impossible to continue afterward. Much ink has been spilled over these circumstances, but their oddity makes them generally plausible, even considering Coleridge’s habits of prevarication.
If they are significant at all it is because they epitomize his reputation as the truant phantast of romantic legend. He did much to encourage it, certainly, but he lived to regret what his friends made of him and to defend himself against charges of idleness and premature decay. The Coleridge phenomenon, as it might be called, has been recounted in every literary generation, usually with the emphasis on wonder rather than disappointment, though sometimes—among moralizing critics, never among poets—with a venom which recalls the disillusionment of his associates. Henry James’s story, “The Coxon Fund” (1895), based on table talk of the genius who became a nuisance, is indicative of both attitudes. The Coleridge phenomenon has distorted Coleridge’s real achievement, which was unique in scope and aspiration if all too human in its fits and starts.
The compelling imagery of “Kubla Khan” might be regarded as preparation for “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” conceived soon after on a walk to the port of Watchet on the Bristol Channel in the company of Wordsworth and his sister. Some time before, John Cruikshank, a local acquaintance of Coleridge’s, had related a dream about a skeleton ship manned by spectral sailors. This became the germ of a momentous project in which Wordsworth acted as collaborator. The plot was hatched on the walk, according to Wordsworth’s own later recollections, and it was he who conceived of the tale of crime and punishment which Coleridge would treat, in Christian terms, as a story of transgression, penitence, and atonement. Wordsworth also claimed to have suggested that the Old Navigator, as Coleridge initially called him, kill an albatross and be set upon by the “tutelary spirits” of Cape Horn, where the deed is done. He contributed some few lines of verse to the poem in addition.
The collaboration on “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is interesting on several counts. It underlines the collective enterprise involved in the inauguration of the new poetic idiom which would eventually be called Romantic. Creation of this kind is more than a matter of oracular power. It has much to do with rational inquiry and exchange. Further, the episode gives some idea of the working relations between Coleridge and Wordsworth at the moment when the scheme for Lyrical Ballads (1798) was being hatched. Their constant companionship on walks, at Alfoxden and elsewhere, gave rise to extended discussion of poetry present and past. Both proved open to suggestion; both grew as poets through their conversations. Most of what is known of this process is known through the Lyrical Ballads volume and its later “Preface.” The conclusions which it expresses, in Wordsworth’s voice more than Coleridge’s, have long been seen as foundations of modern poetry.
The genesis of the “Ancient Mariner” is more than the story of one poem. It is the story of a project. In Coleridge’s own account of events, they decided on two sorts of poems for Lyrical Ballads : “In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions, as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. And real in this sense they have been to every human being who, from whatever source of delusion, has at any time believed himself under supernatural agency.”