I expect neither profit nor general fame by my writings; and I consider myself as having been amply repayed without either. Poetry has been to me its own 'exceeding great reward': it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the Good and the Beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me.
Coleridge, from preface to Juvenile Poems, 1796
How a lofty dream fades in the mist of bleak reality
I have neither money or influence and I suppose, that at last I must become a Unitarian minister as a less evil than starvation - for I get nothing by literature.
Coleridge in a letter to John Thelwall, 14 October 14 1795
At twenty-four, Coleridge saw the ministry as his only possible escape from poverty. His studies at Jesus College, Cambridge had started four years prior. With the college seen as a training ground for the Anglican clergy - and as a vicar's son -, it seemed predestined that Coleridge too was headed for 'the sacred office'.
He opposed this prospect as he became ever more involved in the radical political and theological movement inside and outside university. He engaged zealously in discussions about the French Revolution and social changes necessary at home. These ranged from the abolition of the slave trade and the law excluding non-Anglicans from public office. He debated, lectured, won a prestigious university poetry prize with a poem in Greek against the slave trade, drank excessively, visited prostitutes and got deeply into debt.
After two years at university, the wheels truly fell off Coleridge's carriage. He came second in competition for the Craven Scholarship, finishing his chances of an academic career. Under the influence of his Unitarian friends and fellow political radicals, he had strayed too from Anglican doctrine. The conventional clerical therefore no longer held any attraction. These setbacks plunged him into physical and mental crisis. He was felled by an inflamed jaw where one of his teeth had to be pulled. Typically for the time, opium was prescribed for the pain. He asked his elder brothers to pay off his debts then squandered the money, living in London for three days 'in all the tempest of Pleasure.' He left the details of that tempest to our imagination. In a desperate attempt to quell financial ruin, he spent his last pennies on a ticket in the Irish lottery. Of course, this came to nothing. It was inevitable that one day all anchors would break loose.
On Sunday night I packed up a few things, - went off into the mail – staid about a week in a strange way, still looking forwards with a kind of recklessness to the dernier resort of misery – An accident of a very singular kind prevented me – and led me to adopt my present situation.
The 'accident of a very singular kind' that kept him from putting an end to his own life (that is, if he is not boasting here), was a chance meeting with a recruiting officer from the 15th Light Dragoons. Desperate Coleridge was conscripted as a volunteer hussar. After receiving his carbine, riding boots and stable jacket, he began his military training by cleaning out the stables. As a cavalryman, he immediately turned out to be a hopeless failure. He absolutely could not get along with horses. Saddle sores and boils were a constant plague: 'dreadfully troublesome eruptions, which so grimly constellated my Posteriors'. In his own words, Coleridge was 'a very indocile equestrian'. Mockery and harassment were spared him, because he wrote love letters for his illiterate comrades and told them exciting stories from Thucydides' account of the Peloponesian war.
His superiors realised they could never mould this young man into a decent horseman and made him a nurse. He was allowed to take care of a comrade who had smallpox, then a usually fatal disease, in a room of the pest house. Water and food were placed outside the door. For fourteen days and as many sleepless nights he fed and washed the patient and tried to relieve his fever and delirium attacks. Both men survived the ordeal.
The army adventure lasted four months and ended when Coleridge's brothers managed to obtain his discharge after six weeks of negotiating the ransom. He returned to Cambridge, took a few exams, but gave up after a month, and started a long hike with a friend. On their way to Wales, via Oxford, they met Robert Southy, student, poet, political radical, 'atheist and democrat' (as he called himself), who told them about his dream of emigrating to America. He wanted to establish a utopian community with friends. The plan excited Coleridge immediately. In the following months, both men elaborated the scheme. Their idea was that a group of twelve men would acquire a piece of virgin land in the Susquehanna Valley, Pennsylvania. They would settle with their families and live on what they grew from the soil. They would divide the proceeds of their efforts among themselves. Private property was abolished. Further, they would live in freedom of religion and political affiliation. Raising their children far from corrupt society with its malicious influences, would grow them into a generation of individuals free from fear and selfishness.
In their dreams, the two idealists saw themselves working six hours a day, devoting these and the remaining hours of the day to poetry and philosophy. As Robert Southy wrote:
When Coleridge and I are sawing down a tree we shall discuss metaphysics: criticize poetry when hunting a buffalo, and write sonnets whilst following the plough.
Coleridge came up with a name for the endeavour and its philosophy: Pantisocracy, a combination of the Greek words panti (all), isos (equal) and kratein (to rule, to govern).
A long letter from Coleridge to Southy, dated 21 October 1794, contains a number of passages that shed light on their discussion about the implementation of their project. First of all, Coleridge sums up in one sentence what he hoped to achieve on the banks of the Susquehanna:
Wherever men can be vicious, some will be. The leading idea of pantisocracy is to make men necessarily virtuous by removing all motives to evil – all possible temptation.
The next paragraph of the same letter can be read as a pantisocratic credo:
All necessary knowledge in the branch of ethics is comprised in the word justice: that the good of the whole is the good of each individual, that, of course, it is each Individual's duty to be Just, because it is in his interest. To perceive this and to assent to it as an abstract proposition is easy, but it requires the most wakeful attentions of the most reflective mind in all moments to bring it into practise. It is not enough that we have once swallowed it. The Heart should have fed upon the truth, as Insects on a Leaf, till it be tinged with the colour, and show its food in every minutest fibre.
Coleridge advocated a community imbued with virtue and justice, to be acquired through simple living and 'deep reflection'. We may assume this is also what Southey endorsed, but disagreements were inevitable. Coleridge details one of these we read in the same letter as above. He swipes at Southy's 'new idea' that involved one Shed and his wife Sally, two black slaves of Southy's Aunt, Mrs. Tyler. They would join the pantisocratic community of equals, but little less equal than the others. As Southy wrote: 'Let them dine with us and be treated with as much equality as they would wish, but perform that part of labour for which their education has fitted them'. The suggestion is clear: for Shed and Sally, the plough and sink would do; they were not reared for the loftier pursuits of philosophy and poetry. Coleridge responds as if stung by a wasp: 'Southy should not have written this sentence', and 'I will most assuredly go with you to America, on this plan, but remember, Southy, this is not our plan, nor can I defend it.
Differences of opinion, doubts about feasibility and lack of funds for the crossing and the purchase of land diluted the pantisocratic dream within a year. Southy, Coleridge and their fellow pantisocrats were neither the first nor the last to see their lofty ideals fade in the mist of bleak reality.
Their dream had appeared so beautiful. Looking back at this period, fifteen years later, Coleridge writes:
What I dared not expect from constitutions of Government and whole Nations, I hoped from Religion and a small Company of chosen Individuals, and formed a plan, as harmless as it was extravagant, of trying the experiment of human Perfectibility on the bank of the Susquehanna; where our little Society, in its second generation, was to have combined the innocence of the patriarchal Age with the knowledge and genuine refinements of European culture.
This longing for a simple and virtuous life in a small 'Company of chosen Individuals' inspired by religion, would resound three years later in the words, quoted earlier, of the ancient mariner:
O sweeter than the marriage-feast,
'T is sweeter far to me,
To walk together to the kirk
With a goodly company! -
To walk together to the kirk,
And altogether pray,
While each to his great Father bends,
Old men, and babes, and loving friends
And youths and maidens gay!
The longing for a ‘home’ in an intimate company ran deep with Coleridge. When he was nearly ten years old his father died. Within a year his mother sent him to Christ’s Hospital. The contrast between his father’s rural rectory in Ottery St Mary and the London boarding school was enormous. The six hundred boys living there suffered a brutal regime. Savage flogging and humiliation by teachers and senior boys were commonplace. The food was miserable - mostly bread, thin porridge and bad beer, hardly ever vegetables - and there was always too little of it. ‘Oh, what a change,’ Coleridge would later write, ‘depressed, moping, friendless, poor orphan, half starved.’ He often took refuge in a sunny corner, shutting his eyes, imagining himself at home.
Coleridge’s loneliness and want of home in his teens infected him with a lasting yearning for a place and company where he could find warmth and feel secure. Such a place he would not find on the banks of the Susquehanna River. Nor would he find shelter with Sara Fricker, the woman met through Southy who was to join the American venture. Coleridge married her ten days before writing to his friend John Thelwall that he was considering taking up Unitarian ministry. He would have preferred otherwise, but marriage creates obligations. There had to be bread on the table, and he could not survive from his pen alone.
To be continued...
No life without unexpected turns. Coleridge escaped the ministry. His marriage to Sara Ficker would founder. His friendship with the Wordsworths would sustain serious damage.
Coleridge would lead a life of wandering. Like his ancient mariner he passed 'like night, from land to land'. The sheltering home he always looked for seemed far out of reach. He would find it, though, albeit not before twenty years after awakening from the pantisocratic dream. And in a completely different form than he could ever have imagined.
But more about all this later.