The leading writers of the second generation of English Romantics—George Gordon, Lord Byron; Percy Bysshe Shelley; John Keats—died at the peak of their careers. The major figures of the first generation of English Romantics were not so fortunate. William Wordsworth sank into respectability and unmemorable verse, and Coleridge descended further still. In the “Postscript” to the first volume of his Coleridge biography, Coleridge: Early Visions, 1772-1804 (1989), Richard Holmes observes that had Coleridge died in 1804, as many expected he would, his reputation would have been high as both poet and prose writer. Coleridge had written all but one of his blank verse “Conversation Poems” and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798). He had composed, though not published, “Kubla Khan,” and he had produced a substantial body of journalism, translations, letters, and nature writing.
In 1804 Coleridge stood in the middle of the journey of his life. The second half of that journey would take him through some very dark woods indeed. Among the shadows besetting Coleridge was his love for Sara Hutchinson, sister-in-law of Coleridge’s closest friend and early literary colleague, William Wordsworth. Coleridge had married another Sara, née Fricker, but that marriage had proved unhappy; Coleridge would separate from his wife in 1806 shortly after he returned to England from Malta, where he had gone to recover his health. Sara Hutchinson was living with the Wordsworths at Grasmere, and Coleridge joined them upon leaving his wife. Hutchinson did not reciprocate Coleridge’s feelings, and on March 5, 1810, she left Grasmere to live with her brother in Wales. Her departure devastated Coleridge, who soon afterward left the Wordsworths as well.
Coleridge’s departure resulted from his loss not only of Hutchinson’s affections but also of Wordsworth’s. Together in 1798 they had published their revolutionary Lyrical Ballads, that herald of English Romanticism. By 1807 their friendship was cooling, in part because of Coleridge’s feelings for Hutchinson; Coleridge believed that Wordsworth was his rival, and at one point he fled Wordsworth’s house after seeing, or thinking he saw, Wordsworth in bed with Sara. Coleridge’s opium addiction also contributed to the rift between the former friends. After listening to Wordsworth’s reading of the thirteen-book The Prelude: Or, The Growth of a Poet’s Mind (not published until 1850), Coleridge wrote the last of his “Conversation Poems,” this one addressed “To William Wordsworth.” Here Coleridge praises his fellow poet, but in other verses Coleridge wrote he was less flattering. Wordsworth opposed Coleridge’s decision to deliver a series of lectures in 1808 and to publish a periodical, The Friend (1809-1810, 1818).
In a letter to Thomas Poole in May, 1808, Wordsworth stated that Coleridge had so undermined “his intellectual and moral constitution” that Coleridge would never again “execute anything of important benefit either to himself, his family or mankind.” Some two years later, on April 12, 1810, Dorothy Wordsworth, William’s sister, expressed the same sentiment in a letter to antislavery activist Thomas Clarkson: “We have no hope of him.” After Coleridge left Grasmere, he was offered a home by the Basil Montagus. Wordsworth warned them against taking Coleridge into their household. When the Montagus heeded Wordsworth’s advice and informed Coleridge of his friend’s perfidy, another light in Coleridge’s life was extinguished.
Adding to the darker reflections of Coleridge’s life was the behavior of the poet’s talented but eccentric son Hartley. In June, 1820, Hartley lost his fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford, because of his drunkenness; his subsequent efforts to support himself through journalism also proved unsuccessful. The fact that Hartley’s fecklessness mirrored Coleridge’s own added to the father’s concern.
Financial difficulties dogged Coleridge as well. In 1816 Byron persuaded his own publisher, John Murray II, to bring out a slim volume of Coleridge’s poetry containing the unfinished “Christabel,”...
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