Coleridge, Southey, and Crabbe

Andrew Sanders

Despite his strong sympathy with the ideas and achievements of the Revolution at the time of his sojourn in France in 1790, and despite the passionate radicalism of his unpublished ‘Descriptive Sketches’ of 1792 and the republican spirit of his unsent ‘Letter to the Bishop of Llandaff’, Wordsworth remained, to the general public at least, an uncommitted radical. The same could not be observed of his friends Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834) and Robert Southey (1774-1843). Both poets planned the foundation of an ideal commune, on Godwinian libertarian principles, on the banks of the Susquehanna, but this American ‘Pantisocracy’ resulted in little more substance than a pair of sonnets composed by Coleridge in 1794 (‘I other climes | Where dawns, with hope serene, a brighter day | Than e’er saw Albion in her happiest times, | With mental eye exulting now explore’). The same year saw the publication in Cambridge of the historic drama The Fall of Robespierre, signed by Coleridge but in fact a collaboration with Southey who contributed the second and third acts. This attempt ‘to imitate the empassioned and highly figurative language of the French orators, and to develop the characters of the chief actors on a vast stage of horrors’ has never been realized in a theatre.

Most of Coleridge’s early work is tinged by a similar radicalism and by an urge to proclaim a political cause. The ‘Sonnets on Eminent Characters’ contributed to the Morning Chronicle in December 1794 and January 1795 are clearly partisan, defining enemies to the cause (the Prime Minister, Pitt, a ‘foul apostate from his father’s fame’, and two further political apostates, Burke and Sheridan, ‘by the brainless mob ador’d’) and radical friends at home (Priestley, Godwin, and Southey) and abroad (the American and Polish patriots Lafayette and Kosciusko). When disillusion with France set in in the late 1790s, Coleridge viewed his own disaffection more as the end of a Wordsworthian educative process under the tutelage of true and ‘Natural Liberty’ than as apostasy.France: An Ode’, published in 1798, distinguishes the ‘spirit of divinest Liberty’, which is to be found implicitly and explicitly in nature, from the false spirit in whose name the French now enslave their Swiss neighbours. France ‘adulterous, blind, | And patriot only in pernicious toils’ is a blasphemy. Coleridge had met Wordsworth at some point between August and late September 1795 when the former’s political commitment was at its height and his denunciation of monarchy and aristocracy at its most fiery. For the next ten years the opinions of both worked co-operatively, coinciding initially in a revolutionary enthusiasm for change in society and literature and later in a compensatingly ready response to a nature charged with the glory and power of God. Whereas Coleridge helped Wordsworth to articulate his ideas, to examine their implications, and to explore unfamiliar intellectual territory (including a rejection of Godwinism), Wordsworth seems to have exhilarated Coleridge. In the period of their closest association, from the midsummer of 1797 to the end of 1798, Coleridge composed much of his best work, including the conversation poems ‘This Limetree bower my Prison’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’ and his two great visionary poems, ‘The Ancient Mariner’ and ‘Kubla Khan’. The much bruited close collaboration of the two poets on joint projects was, however, never properly realized.