Coleridge’s City

Nicola Trott [1]


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 19, Spring 2002, pp41-57)



The city, until the onset of suburbia at least, is properly one half of a binary.  It cannot be named without invoking its opposite number, the country.  And ‘Romanticism’ might be thought of as a reinvigoration of a very old debate between the relative merits of both.  The specifically ‘romantic ideology’ of the city is clear enough: it puts the city in a bad light, especially when seen by the ‘light of nature’.  And, to judge from two early examples, Coleridge is no exception to this rule.

       The first example is from The Watchman, a paper combining news, poetry, and radical dissent, which he spent much of 1796 producing, and whose sixth number, published on 11 April, analysed present-day ills as urban in origin –


By the present over-driven system of manufacturing, men are assembled in great numbers in towns and cities, for the interest and convenience of the master, but not those of the workman


– and as susceptible of a blindingly simple, and rural, solution.  Linked by a much-extended canal-system,


Thousands, and even millions, of new hands, not pent up in corrupt, and corrupting towns, but every where scattered in villages and hamlets, and employed in the pursuits of agriculture, and the more necessary manufactures, would nourish up health and happiness with simplicity of manners.[2]


Canalization equals industrialization without urbanization (the equivalent for today’s prophet would presumably be the internet).  The result: virtuous happiness.  Country life will even, Coleridge adds by way of recommending his scheme to those likely to undertake such a project, render the lower orders ‘obedient to lawful authority’.

       The Watchman reminds us that, in the romantic period, the city was for the first time known to be industrial as well as commercial.[3]  But, as we shall see, the rhetoric of the city, as a kind of dungeon in which people are ‘pent up’ for life, is of longstanding.  In Coleridge, it goes back just over a year, to a letter dated 10 March 1795 and written to George Dyer, then in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London, and feeling its ‘misanthropy’-inducing effects.   ‘It is melancholy to




think’, responds Coleridge, ‘that the best of us are liable to be shaped & coloured by surrounding Objects – and a demonstrative proof, that Man was not made to live in Great Cities!’  The problem Coleridge is worrying away at is twofold.  If people are formed by their surroundings and those surroundings are bad, then so will they be.  And if it is nature that is morally beneficial (as well as politically convenient), then the reverse must be true of the town:


The pleasures, which we receive from rural beauties, are of little Consequence compared with the Moral Effect of these pleasure – beholding constantly the Best possible we at last become ourselves the best possible. […] Thompson in that most lovely Poem, the Castle of Indolence, says –


‘I care not, Fortune! what you me deny –

You cannot rob me of free Nature’s Grace! […]’ –


Alas! alas! she can deny us all this – and can force us fettered and handcuffed by our Dependencies & Wants to wish and wish away the bitter Little of Life in the felon-crowded Dungeon of a great City!- [4]


The urban dungeon, though full of felons and unanswered ‘Wants’, is in another way empty, having been defined by what it is not, by its lack of the beautiful in whose presence ‘we at last become ourselves the best possible’.  Coleridge later came to apply this account of a nature-deprived existence to his own life as a London schoolboy; and Wordsworth, for one, took him at his word, making it the basis of the country-city divide between them both which takes place in Book VIII of The Prelude (ll. 602-9).  It is worth noting, however, that, like The Watchman, the letter to Dyer predates the close relationship with Wordsworth and the pro-ruralist influence their friendship undoubtedly had.  In both passages, the official line is clear, and rests on the proverbial understanding that God made the country, and man made the town.  That utterly conventional distinction is made remarkable, in the first instance by Coleridge’s improbable plan for canal-expansion, in the second by his associationist and necessitarian psychology and his anxieties about its ethical consequences.

       Coleridge’s early animadversions against the city and idealizations of the country are conventional, moral, and (perhaps knowingly) naïve.  However, the letter to Dyer also gives amusingly mixed signals.  Almost in the same breath that he is holding forth about ‘the bitter Little of Life in the felon-crowded Dungeon of a great City!’, he is also creeping up on it by degrees:


We certainly shall not come to London without a certainty of Employment – but what I most ardently wish, is to be employed in some department of Literature which does not require my Residence




in Town.  Is it possible that I could gain an employment in this new Work, the Citizen? […] In short, we wish and mean to live (in all the severity of Economy) in Wales – near some Town, where there is a speedy Communication with London – / Can any Thing be procured, which may employ us there? – […] A Friend of our’s is soon coming to London – who will convey to you a little Pacquet from me […] (CL i 155)


The allure of London is almost palpable.  So is the worry about obtaining paid work, enlivened, as an earlier letter to Dyer shows, by an element of peer rivalry with the indefatigable Southey, who is already ‘exerting his Influence to procure a situation in London’ – as a correspondent, or so he hopes, on the Telegraph.  Not to be outdone, Coleridge assures Dyer, in late February 1795, ‘I am now about to write to Scott at the Telegraph Office to know if I can get a Reporter’s Place’ (CL i 152 and n.1).  By 10 March, it is the launch of ‘the Citizen’[5] – an eminently towny concept and, like Dyer, London-based – which might provide him a post.  By 4 July 1796, he thinks to have ‘accepted [...] with a heavy & reluctant Heart’ a proposal to write for the Morning Chronicle, bidding melodramatic, Othello-echoing ‘farewell’ to ‘Philosophy’, ‘the Muse’, and ‘literary Fame’, ‘for’, as he tells Poole, ‘I love Bristol & I do not love London’ (CL i 226-7).  Staying in the country is at this stage partly a lack of the ‘Employment’ that would bring him to the capital, partly a point of principle – of hanging on to the remains of ‘Pantisocracy’, in the form of a rural community out of reach of metropolitan corruptions (CL i 155).

       Coleridge, then, could be said to be divided between a Wordsworthian and an Elian paradigm, or between the country- and the city-dwelling sides of his character.  This is a division that goes back to his own roots and origins, to being a country-boy by birth, but a Londoner by training.  A ‘Wordsworthian’ Coleridge writes of being ‘in city pent’, an ‘Elian’ Coleridge of the ‘melancholy’ of being ‘out of the reach of a city’: ‘Perpetual Church yard the Country to me’[6] is the striking observation of Northcote, his portraitist, rather than of Coleridge himself; but since Northcote too was a Devonshire man transported to London, some degree of identification may be presumed.  At any rate, Coleridge thought it worth recording.  Returning to London after an absence was often a strain: ‘detesting this vile City’, he moans to Southey in September 1794 (CL i 101).  But, then, he was none too enamoured of the good people of Ottery, either, confiding to brother George, on 9 February 1793, that, having ‘revisited’ Devon after years away, ‘I found them (almost universally) to be gross without openness, and cunning without refinement’ (CL i 53).

       Certainly there is a powerful ‘romantic ideology’ of the city to which Coleridge at times subscribes.  But there is also, on the contrary, his actual




experience of city life, a much more various and vivacious record.  Nor is the moral assignment of good to the country and evil to the city as axiomatic as all that: Edinburgh in 1803 prompted the comment that, ‘The passing a day or two, quite unknown, in a strange City, does a man’s heart good – He rises “a sadder and a wiser man.” ’ (CL ii 989).  Given the right conditions, the quotation from The Ancient Mariner seems to imply, the social and urban can have just as salutary an effect as the natural and rural.

       Complications, as always in Coleridge, crop up.  Perversely, I’m going to take my evidence of the complications from the poem entitled Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement.  I say perversely, because these are verses that look as though they are written in praise of country life, even as they bid farewell to such an idyllic existence:


Low was our pretty Cot: our tallest Rose

Peep’d at the chamber-window.  We could hear

At silent noon, and eve, and early morn,

The Sea’s faint murmur.  In the open air

Our Myrtles blossom’d; and across the porch

Thick Jasmins twined: the little landscape round

Was green and woody, and refresh’d the eye. 

It was a spot which you might aptly call

The Valley of Seclusion!  Once I saw

(Hallowing his Sabbath-day by quietness)

A wealthy son of Commerce saunter by,

Bristowa’s citizen: methought, it calm’d

His thirst of idle gold, and made him muse

With wiser feelings: for he paus’d, and look’d

With a pleas’d sadness, and gaz’d all around,

Then eyed our Cottage, and gaz’d round again,

And sigh’d, and said, it was a Blesséd Place. 

And we were bless’d.  (ll.1-18)


It is interesting that the paradise is not realized except by being overlooked: there is the voyeuristic flower for a start – ‘our tallest Rose / Peep’d at the chamber-window’ – soon to be followed by the human eye, which roves ‘the little landscape round’ and is ‘refresh’d’, before, in the poet’s case, being absorbed by the sight of a day-tripper from Bristol – ‘Once I saw […] A wealthy son of Commerce saunter by’ – who in turn is set looking in rather an emphatic manner: ‘he paus’d, and look’d […] and gaz’d all around, / Then eyed our Cottage, and gaz’d round again’.  All in all, there is an air of self-consciousness about this garden of earthly delights.  It seems ready-made for the ‘Reflections’ of the poem’s title and not far short, at times, of a paysage moralisé.  Take, for instance, the suggestion that the ‘spot’ might assume the allegorical name of ‘The Valley of Seclusion’.  The slight budding of disapproval or self-blame which attaches to this Johnsonian ‘Happy Valley’, far removed from care, later blossoms into accusations of full-blown Bunyanesque




sloth.  By the time the poet has recoiled from his own inclination to ‘dream away the entrusted hours / On rose-leaf beds’ (ll. 46-7), he is also moving to denounce ‘The sluggard Pity’s vision-weaving tribe!’ – sentimental poets, perhaps – ‘Who sigh for Wretchedness, yet shun the Wretched, / Nursing in some dear delicious solitude / Their slothful loves and dainty sympathies!’ (ll. 56-9).  These ethical dilemmas and derelictions shed new light on the opening verse paragraph.  Its self-consciousness about the pleasures of retirement now seems explicable partly in terms of the coming charges of escapism.  And those charges are levelled by comparison with life in the city, in the shape most obviously of its huddled masses – ‘my unnumber’d brethren’, in whose bloody ‘toil’ the poet has come to take a personal interest by line 45 (the force, I take it, of that possessive pronoun ‘my’) – but also of ‘Bristowa’s citizen’, the single and ‘wealthy son of Commerce’ who makes his sauntering appearance in line 11, and brings the first whiff of the smoke into the poem.

       Yet to mention the ‘citizen’ is to see that, for all its moral conclusiveness about the virtues of ‘Active’ life (l. 61), the poem begins by valuing the escapism that the countryside offers.  More than that, it is the rural scene that is morally edifying.  To witness love in a hut can do nothing but good, as far as Bristol capitalists are concerned.  For the city encourages a much more pernicious kind of idleness than the natural sort enjoyed by the poet and his ‘Girl’ in their retirement – that is, a ‘thirst of idle gold’.  Coleridge the rural pantisocrat has his urban plutocrat come into the country to acquire ‘sad[der]’ and ‘wiser feelings’.  This antipathy to the city gathers strength from Milton, who suggests the ‘romantic’ paradigm for a vision of urban incarceration as ‘hell’, and escape into the countryside as, on the contrary, ‘paradise’.  In Paradise Lost Book IX, the great escape is made by Satan himself, by way of an extended simile:


As one who long in populous City pent,

Where Houses thick and Sewers annoy the Aire,

Forth issuing on a Summers Morn to breathe

Among the pleasant Villages and Farmes

Adjoynd, from each thing met conceaves delight,

The smell of Grain, or tedded Grass, or Kine,

Or Dairie, each rural sight, each rural sound [...]

Such Pleasure took the Serpent to behold

This Flourie Plat, the sweet recess of Eve

Thus earlie, thus alone                   (ix 445-57)


For readers (and their proxy, the anonymous city gent), the simile is a source of refreshment; for Satan, it is a window of opportunity: these lines introduce the moment the devil has been waiting for, his temptation of Eve in the Garden of Eden.  While it draws on the troubling and paradoxical need for spectatorship in paradise, Coleridge’s poem imagines a reversal of these satanic intentions: his Bristolian is abstaining from work, ‘Hallowing his Sabbath-day by




quietness’; he doesn’t find woman on her own, but safely tucked up in a cottage with her man, and he comments on, but doesn’t seek to spoil, the couple’s happiness.  Here, then, Satan is on sabbatical, and his place is taken by a wealthy but well-intentioned burgher on a weekend break.  The background disturbance of Paradise Lost derives not so much from the Fall, as from the city: Milton’s urban hell has already cropped up in the passage from The Watchman (quoted above, and featuring ‘hands […] pent up in corrupt, and corrupting towns’); and becomes fixed, for Coleridge’s self-representation as a city of London schoolboy, during his time with Wordsworth in the West Country, in 1798.[7]

       And yet, as already mentioned, the end of Reflections is to give up ‘retirement’ altogether.  With syllogistic firmness (‘I therefore go’),[8] the poet finally determines to ‘fight the bloodless fight / Of Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ’ (ll. 60-2).  Taken as a whole, then, the poem seems to offer one narrative move – the Bristolian making a day-trip to the countryside – but is all the while contriving another, which is addressed towards the close.  It’s the Bristolian who saunters from city to country – his excursion unsettled slightly by contact with Satan as he does so – while the speaker on the other hand is on his way back to the metropolis.  What is good for the ‘citizen’ is bad for the poet; the Bristolian’s moral health depends upon one course of action – on inactivity or ‘quietness’ in fact – and the poet’s upon another – on becoming ‘Active and firm’ in a place not of retirement but of ‘honourable toil’ (ll.  61, 63).[9]   So the poem’s two paths – one rural-minded, the other urban-bound – cross over one another at the edenic scene, almost as though the two male protagonists were swapping destinations.

       On reflection, what Reflections does is to join together two ancient debates, between the city and the country, and between the active and the contemplative life.[10]  It mobilizes the traditional stand-off on either side of the debate by tracing two, contrary trajectories, one at the beginning, the other at the close, of the poem, each of which ends up in the opposite position from where it started.  The rural poet’s aim is to psych himself up to active service.  But the real source of mobility, one feels, is a division of feeling itself, about the relative merits and claims of both stances.  (It is interesting that just over two years later, Coleridge performs exactly the opposite manoeuvre to the one adopted here, reassuring his brother George, with an allegorical solemnity that verges on the tongue-in-cheek, that he has given up politics for country pursuits: ‘I have snapped my squeaking baby-trumpet of Sedition & the fragments lie scattered in the lumber-room of Penitence […]’ [CL i 397]).




       Reflections sets out as a poem in praise of country life; but the verbal phrase of the title already suggests otherwise: ‘on having left a place of retirement’, separates the verse’s time of writing from its ‘place’ or setting, and the poet’s ‘reflections’ from his ‘retirement’.  The poem itself agrees, casting the country retreat entirely in the past tense.  Only when the question arises of doing public ‘good’ (after the example of the prison reformer John Howard) does the tense change, to present historic (at line 49), to be followed by the speaker’s own possession of present and future tense experience (at lines 60 and 65).  From that final perspective, the ‘Seclusion’ can be viewed either ‘Miltonically’, as the temptation of seeking a respite from work in the city; or – bearing in mind the embryo ‘revisit’ of the poem’s coda (l.  65) – as a restorative daydream in the memory of the speaker-turned-activist.

       To step out of the poem for a moment and into some biographical background: Reflections was written as Coleridge was giving up his cottage at Clevedon, Somerset, which he had taken after his marriage in October 1795 (CL i 160), and moving back to Bristol once more, in order to be near the printer for The Watchman.  The poem is full of the promise and importance of this project, and its first appearance in print, among the Poems on Various Subjects (published 16 April 1796), occurred between numbers six and seven of The Watchman itself (Watchman, p.xliv n.5).  When this background is taken into account, it’s the wedding that forms the interlude between intensely and urbanly active phases, Coleridge having being engaged in lecturing on politics and religion in Bristol between January and June 1795 (Lectures 1795, p.xxii.), and scarcely three months into his marriage before he was off on his tour of the Midlands, to drum up subscribers (9 January-13 February 1796: Watchman, p.xxii).

       The Watchman itself is a case in point.  It superseded an ‘unrealized venture’ of Coleridge’s and Southey’s, which, significantly enough, was to have been called ‘the Provincial Magazine’ (CL i 161 n.2).  Despite his titular claim to be a radical on the watchtower, surveying the empire from its outposts, we know that ‘Coleridge drew nearly all the news for The Watchman from the London newspapers, which apparently arrived in Bristol on the day after publication’ – though naturally he put his own anti-government spin on events (Watchman, p.xli).  Not just the content of the paper, but the whole production was of urban manufacture.  The Watchman’s printer, one Nathaniel Biggs (Watchman, p.lvi), was a Bristol man; its chief promoter, Joseph Cottle, was Coleridge’s Bristol publisher.  Subscribers were found among Bristolians in the first instance,[11] and – revenue still being insufficient – were drawn from the Dissenters of Midland towns in the second (for London arrangements, see Watchman, pp.xxxiv-xxxv).  All of which suggests that professional writing was for Coleridge necessarily a city concern.  Printing, bookselling, publishing, subscribing, reporting – those things that used to be connected with ‘authorship’ and nowadays go under the rubric of ‘print culture’ – were urban




matters.  Coleridge’s letter to Dyer already, in 1795, intuits that ‘Employment’, were it to be had, lies in London; and as journalist, lecturer, public figure, his work inevitably took him to the capital.

       From this stand-point, Reflections begins to look like a poem which announces the connection of author and city.  The biographical context is also an additional complication in the country-city debate, however.  In the poem, the virtues of rural living are lessened by their remoteness from current affairs.  In life, they were intensified, and also compounded, by their association with the pantisocratic scheme for a revolutionary commune on the banks of the Susquehanna.  The plan was originally to have been undertaken in the rugged wilderness and visionary horizons of America, but by January 1795 had been brought down to earth in a killingly domestic and dreary manner: ‘For God’[s] sake – my dear Fellow – tell me’, Coleridge wrote to Southey in barely jocular desperation, ‘tell me what we are to gain by taking a Welch Farm?’ (CL i 150; cf.  i 132).  As W.H. Auden put it, rather more tersely, ‘when life fails, / What’s the good of going to Wales?’  (‘It’s no use raising a shout’).  In November, a little month after his marriage, Coleridge exploded to his quondam friend in a retrospective account of the Pantisocracy fiasco that was meant to be unanswerable: ‘In short, we were to commence Partners in a petty Farming Trade.  This was the Mouse of which the Mountain Pantisocracy was at last safely delivered!’ (CL i 165).  The mouse-mountain alludes to Horace’s Ars Poetica, ll. 136 ff., which cautions budding authors against raising unsustainable epic expectations.

       However idyllic, the blessings of the West Country were qualified for Coleridge by the failure of Pantisocracy and, with it, of the heroic and ideal pattern of country living.  They were qualified, too, one may speculate, by the very marriage which is a subject of celebration in the poem.  It was a partnership Coleridge had contracted in pantisocratic principle, and then been more or less forced to live up to in practice (see CL i 151).  The union was already under strain as early as February 1796, when the couple had no fixed abode, and Sara was uncomfortably, and complainingly, pregnant (Watchman, p.xxxv).  Backed up by the more openly stated grounds of ill health and bad weather, the failure of the match was to be the major reason for Coleridge’s repeated absences from Keswick, absences he often spent in London.  Southey’s ‘perpendicular Virtue’ (CL i 152) may have got Coleridge into matrimony; but it also increasingly kept him out of it, perpendicular virtue luckily being good enough to act the pater familias in his stead.  Like Jack Worthing in The Importance of Being Earnest, Coleridge needed a city to escape to; though, unlike Jack, he scarcely needed a younger brother to get into scrapes while he was there.  Indeed, it was to London that Coleridge fled when he found the prospect of marrying rather too much of a good thing (CL i 132) – only to be dragged back to Sara and his duty by Southey (CL i 149 and n.2; see also CL i 148 and n.2, 145).  And where else should Coleridge have holed up, when he was not to be found enjoying Lamb’s company at the Salutation and




Cat? Where, but the Angel Inn, Newgate Street – an oxymoronic position somewhere between celestiality and criminality such as Coleridge alone could contrive, and which the contemporary map of London shows to have stood opposite his old school, Christ’s Hospital.[12]

       On the brink of settling down, Coleridge retreated to the old familiar faces of his schooldays.  One of the undercurrents, then, in his attraction to life in the city, seems to have been that it took him out of heterosexual difference(s) and back into the homosocial company he’d been used to keeping at school, at university, and in the army.  Another source of attraction, though it was distinctly uncomfortable at times, was the avoidance of settling down at all.


London, 1801-2, 1804

       Coleridge in London was constantly on the move; and his experience of the city as a place of movement is circulated chiefly by letter.  Here he is writing to Humphry Davy from Greta Hall, on the last day of October 1801, hoping to get to Town despite a ‘damned Thorn’ in his leg, and if possible to sort out his accommodation in advance:


If I can, I leave this place so as to be in London on Wednesday the eleventh of next month – in London I shall stay a fortnight – but as I am in feeble health, & have a perfect phobia of Inns & Coffee-houses, I should rejoice if you or Southey should be able to offer me a bedroom for the fortnight aforesaid.  (CL ii 773-4)


We shall come back to that professed phobia of inns and coffee-houses in due course (it is repeated, again begging to be put up ‘one or two Nights’, in a letter to Poole, 15 January 1804; CL ii 1036).  Having arrived in London on the 15th November, four days later than advertised, and still plagued by the thorn, he at first stayed in Southey’s Westminster digs.  Ten days later still, and moving on once more, he informed Mrs Coleridge of his temporary whereabouts (and, inter alia, of his plans for a three-month visit to Cornwall with Tom Wedgwood):


To day I remove to my Lodging, No / 10 King Street, Covent Garden, London – but how long I shall stay there, I know not – probably not more than 10 days […] (CL ii 776)


His King Street lodging was the floor that Daniel Stuart, proprietor of the Morning Post, had taken for him in the house of his own tailor, Howell, whose wife, ‘a cheerful good housewife, of middle age’, could be relied upon to ‘nurse Coleridge as kindly as if he were her son’ (CL ii 776n.).  ‘10 days’ became a month until, on 26 December, he was off to Stowey and Poole by ‘the Bridgewater Mail’, returning only on 21 January 1802, when he stayed put until




the beginning of March – the beginning, too, of his long ‘Dejection’ in the north (CL ii 777, 781, 788n.).

       The plan, never regularized, had been to spend six months in London, and six back home in Keswick.  Instead, movements in and out of the capital feature as much as the vortex of the city itself.[13] Due to their author’s comings and goings, Coleridge’s London letters often refer to multiple addresses: on 24 January 1804, he writes to Mrs Coleridge from ‘16, Abingdon Street’, detailing his arrival at Poole’s London house.  Unable to avoid inns on this occasion, he has been booked in at ‘Waghorn’s Coffee House, just at the head of the Street, next door to the House of Lords’, but a ‘quiet domestic place’, and again provided with a surrogate ‘Mother’ (CL ii 1038).  In his letter of 19 February, also to his wife, Coleridge asks that, if an answer is required by return, correspondence be addressed to ‘J.  Tobin, Esqre, No / 7, Barnard’s Inn, Holborn’; if ‘four hours sooner, or 4 h. later’ will do, to ‘Mr Lambe, East India House, London’ – this arrangement being made as a consequence, apparently, of Poole’s ‘neglect and forgetfulness’ in passing on letters (CL ii 1068-9).  On 8 February, the Wordsworths had been given still more elaborate instructions, Coleridge having managed to draw upon the goodwill of the Secretary to the Speaker of the House of Commons (CL ii 768n.) to arrange a little scam for getting his London letters franked gratis.  Writing from the Beaumonts’s place in Dunmow, Essex, he stipulates that


They should be written in pages, & lettered up in parcels not exceeding two Ounces & a quarter each, including the Seal, and three Envelopes, one to the Speaker – under that one to John Rickman, Esqre, & under that one to me.  Terrible mischief has happened from foolish people of R’s acquaintance neglecting the middle Envelope, so that the Speaker opening his Letter finds himself made a Letter-smuggler to Nicholas Noddy / or some other unknown Gentleman.  (CL ii 1060)


A week later, and the postal directives are repeated, with Tom Wedgwood in the role of the foolish friend of Rickman, and Tom Poole filling the shoes of Nicholas Noddy (CL ii 1065).  The immediate reason for Coleridge’s exactness as to the correct protocol is his anxiety ‘that Mary & Dorothy should begin to transcribe all William’s MS poems for me’ – a demand he feels able to make in the light of his own emergency preparations for the Mediterranean: ‘Think what they will be to me in Sicily!’ (CL ii 1060).  But this letter about letters is also symptomatic of the complexity, ingenuity, and many-angledness of city life.  The Russian doll effect, of one letter inside another inside another, is a suggestive emblem of the city itself, with its multiple connections, networks, and lines of communication, both covert and open.

       The external, physical movements of Coleridge’s city relations and communications also have internal and phenomenal dimensions.  Writing ‘on




board the Speedwell’, and waiting for a wind to take him to Malta, Coleridge remarks on ‘the abruptness & suddenness of my Transitions from one state to another’:


Mercy on me! from Grasmere and the Wordsworths, to London, to drinkings, talkings, discussings, vain & noisy Exhibition / thence another Grasmere (quite another & yet essentially the same) at Dunmow [with the Beaumonts] / again to London – & again a few happy days with you & Lady Beaumont / & whither then?

(CL ii 1122)


The ‘Transitions’ in the ‘state’ of Coleridge are as much subjective as spatial.  What distinguishes the city from the country, though, is its plurality of experience: the apparently single entity ‘London’ is immediately split into plural, and multiple, activities, ‘drinkings, talkings, discussings’ – which may then be gathered together under the single and showy rubric of an ‘Exhibition’ – while Grasmere is by contrast different on every visit ‘& yet’[14] always and forever itself, ‘essentially the same’.

       Coleridge seems to have understood the polymorphousness of London, and its antithesis to life in the Lakes, almost at once.  Barely four days after his arrival in November 1801, he writes to William Godwin, dodging the request that he pay him a visit at his home in ‘Somers’ town’, and detailing the amount of business with which he is already occupied:


To day I am engaged for 2 hours in the morning with a person in the city – after which I shall be at Lambe’s – till past 7 at least – I had assuredly planned a walk to Somers’ town; but I saw so many People on Monday and walked to & fro so much, that I have been ever since like a Fish in air, who, as you perhaps know, lies panting & dying from excess of Oxygen / – A great change from the society of W. & his sister – for tho’ we were three persons, it was but one God -- -- whereas here I have the amazed feelings of a new Polytheist, meeting Lords many, & Gods many – some of them very Egyptian Physiognomies, dog-faced Gentry, Crocodiles, Ibises, &c – tho’ more odd fish, than rarae aves.[15] (19 November 1801, CL ii 775)


It is astonishing how quickly Coleridge gets connected; and how immediately, and playfully, he seizes on a theological interpretation of his city experience.  His comparison of himself to ‘a Fish in air’ finds him somewhat more than a fish out of water, the feeling of alienation and awkwardness offset by a kind of exaltation or etheriality, brought on not by a lack but an ‘excess of Oxygen’, and carrying him over into the half-satirical, half-fantastical taxonomy




of the ‘odd fish’ which follows.  London is a kind of conversion, Coleridge having ‘the amazed feelings of a new Polytheist’ in meeting its ‘Gods many’ for the first time as an adult man of letters.  With a tincture of opiate luxuriance, his polytheistic imaginings progressively – or regressively – transform London society, initially into ‘Egyptian Physiognomies’, then ‘dog-faced Gentry’, and finally ‘Crocodiles, Ibises’.

       The city speaks to the pluralist sides of Coleridge’s nature and thought.  As a corollary, it also threatens to ‘split up the Intelligible One into the peculiar attributes of Gods many’.[16] But that there is an expansion of response – as if ‘acquir[ing] a new sense’ – is clear from a teasing letter to his wife of 24 February 1802, which mentions an encounter at one of Davy’s lectures with a relative of his former love Mary Evans, before moving on to current infatuations and entertainments:


On Sunday I dined at Sir William Rush’s – and on Monday likewise – & went with them to Mrs Billington’s Benefit – ’Twas the Beggar’s Opera – it was perfection! – I seem to have acquired a new sense by hearing her! – I wished you to have been there- /.  I assure you, I am quite a man of fashion – so many titled acquaintances – & handsome Carriages stopping at my door – & fine Cards – and then I am such an exquisite Judge of Music, & Painting – & pass criticism on furniture & chandeliers – & pay such very handsome Compliments to all Women of Fashion / that I do verily believe, that if I were to stay 3 months in town & have tolerable health & spirits, I should be a Thing in Vogue – the very tonish Poet & Jemmy Jessamy fine Talker in Town / If you were only to see the tender Smiles that I occasionally receive from the Honourable Mrs Damer – you would scratch her eyes out, for Jealousy / And then there’s the sweet (N.B. musky) Lady Charlotte ----- nay, but I won’t tell you her name / you might perhaps take it into your head to write an Anonymous Letter to her, & disturb our little innocent amour.- (CL ii 789)


The very next interjection – ‘O that I were at Keswick with my Darlings! My Hartley / My fat Derwent!’ – is as equivocal a wish, perhaps, as the swift parenthetical reassurance ‘ – I wished you to have been there – ’.  Coleridge signs off as ‘faithful Hus.’, adding to this mark of fidelity the note, ‘notwithstanding the Honourable Mrs D. & Lady Charlotte’.  The letter-writer has been flirting as openly (and delightfully, too) with the possibilities of his own city persona as he has with the fantasy of aristocratic intrigues.  But ‘faithful Hus.’ notwithstanding also, there is a correspondence between the polytheistic or polymorphous resources of London and the sexually ‘innocent’ but intellectually and emotionally poly-amorous instincts of Coleridge himself.  That this letter to his wife sounds a warning-note of the kind is suggested by




another, dating to November 1802, and addressed from ‘St. Clear’s, Carmarthen’, where Coleridge is on tour with the Wedgwoods:


That we can love but one person, is a miserable mistake, & the cause of abundant unhappiness.  I can & do love many people, dearly – so dearly, that I really scarcely know, which I love the best.  Is it not so with every good mother who has a large number of Children – & with many, many Brothers & Sisters in large & affectionate Families? – Why should it be otherwise with Friends? Would any good & wise man, any warm & wide hearted man marry at all, if it were part of the Contract – Henceforth this Woman is your only friend, your sole beloved! all the rest of mankind, however amiable & akin to you, must be only [/] your acquaintance! – ? (CL ii 887-8)


Rarely has a committed monogamist delivered such a searing indictment of the marital state.  Coleridge makes this case by way of explaining his recent explosion of anger on hearing about his wife’s jealous hostility towards his friends in the Lakes.  Compared with polytheistic London, time spent in ‘the society of W. & his sister’ had once been likened to that of ‘three persons’ in ‘one God’ (CL ii 775, quoted above).  Considered in relation to a wife’s monogamous, quasi-monotheistic claims, however, it is the Wordsworths who turn into a polytheistic family of love.  But, though the argument from friends and family identifies ‘many, many’ love-objects, it fails to mention the ‘one person’ (other than Coleridge’s wife) to whom it is nonetheless dedicated.  Behind the argument for a plurality of affection, lies Coleridge’s fantasy of a singular relationship with Sara Hutchinson.

       That familiar Coleridgean drive to unity or oneness has its counterpart in the phenomenology of the city.  At the start of his first spell as leader-writer for the Morning Post – a period when wife and child were summoned to London and all they got on swimmingly (CL i 552 and n.2; 547, 553) – Coleridge chose Christmas Eve 1799 to make this half-jocular confession to Southey: ‘My Spinosism (if Spinosism it be and i’ faith ’tis very like it) disposed me to consider this big City as that part of the Supreme One, which the prophet Moses was allowed to see’ (CL i 551).  Coleridge’s vulgarism has a sting in its tail, however: that London displays only the ‘back parts’ of God (Exodus 33.23) suggests that the divine is rather harder to come by in the city than in the country.  Theologically and rationally speaking, Coleridge knows, God must be present as much in the one as in the other, but practically and emotionally there is more likelihood of ‘beholding him in a Bush, than while I am forcing my reason to believe that even in Theatres he is, yea, even in the Opera House’ (CL i 551; cf.  Exodus 3.5).  The theological difficulty (to which, at this stage, is added a Dissenter’s misgivings about greasepaint) is also experienced personally.  The multiplicity and busy-ness of London[17] sometimes all too




effectively reminded Coleridge of his own vacillation or will-lessness, ‘like a creature robbed of his free agency’ (CL ii 776; see also ii 781).  And yet even this could present opportunities of a kind.  Poole’s previously noted dilatoriness in passing on letters leads Coleridge into his own dilation upon ‘the Good & the Bad of the two different Makes of Mind’, the ‘Detail’ of which, he adds, ‘would form a not uninteresting Brace of Essays in a Spectator or Guardian’.  His digression has itself already presented a version of the genre in miniature:


Poole is one of those men who have one good quality, namely, that they always do one thing at a time, but who likewise have one defect, that they can seldom think but of one thing at a time. […] My mind is in general of the contrary make / I too often do nothing in consequence of being impressed all at once (or so rapidly consecutively as to appear all at once) by a variety of Impressions.  If there are a dozen people at Table, I hear & cannot help giving some attention, to what each one says – even tho’ there should be 3 or 4 talking at once.  (CL ii 1069)


Coleridge is generally known as a table-talker; but emerges here as a table-listener of unusual acuity, capable of attending to ‘3 or 4 […] at once’.  Although the ‘do nothing’ mentality appears to initiate a story told against himself, this Hamlet-like paucity of action becomes a ground of advantage.  The mind ‘of the contrary make’ manifests passivity in the form of simultaneous impression.  Diverse elements are drawn into a single centre of ‘attention’; and the greater the proliferation of its objects of interest, the more striking those powers of attention are.  Coleridge the networker is himself a sort of network, the means by which the city’s plurality becomes a set of inter-connected relationships.

       Coleridge’s city life is phenomenal in every sense, perhaps – and seldom more so than when he is fighting off his ‘phobia of Inns & Coffee-houses’.  Pace protestations of that kind, he had a formidable reputation for conspicuous consumption in ‘the Spring Gardens’ Coffee-house’.  As one of the Fraserians recalled in 1835,


‘Coleridge’s bill, when he stopped there, was something like that of Falstaff’s, – a halfpenny worth of bread to a hogshead of sack.  It was soda water and brandy, eighteenpence – glass of brandy, sixpence – roll of bread, twopence – glass of sherry, ninepence – brandy and water, cold, a shilling – roll of bread, twopence – pint of sherry, three shillings – mutton chop, a shilling – bottle of port, six shillings – glass of brandy, sixpence – pint of porter, threepence – roll of bread, twopence – paper, sixpence – brandy and water, seven shillings – anchovy toast, a shilling – glass of brandy, sixpence – small beer, twopence – and so forth, day after day.  Coleridge was a wet





Coleridge himself is as it were a great city-state through which an enormous traffic passes.  His bodily consumption seems to be the corporeal aspect of his assimilative turn of mind – an emblem, perhaps, for the way in which London and its society, too, are gathered into that capacious form, or, at least, housed under the single roof of its owner’s multiple persona.  For, if the city presents diverse objects of attention and affection, it also elicits the activities of an organizing consciousness.  That the city is marked by undifferentiated, or numberless, number, is a conventional feature in its representation: the list of wares and vices in Bunyan’s Vanity Fair springs to mind,[19] as does the cornucopia-dystopia of Wordsworth’s Bartholomew Fair, a place where Bunyan’s worldly market and Milton’s urban hell combine forces to symbolize nineteenth-century London (Prelude Book VII).  For Coleridge, attracted as he is by number and numbering, the plurality speaks to a perennial aspect of his own thinking; and also gives him rich new occasions for drawing the many into one.[20]

       In writing of towns, unfamiliar ones in particular, Coleridge often pursues a ‘leading Idea’ (CL ii 1055) – a method he named in connection with a plan for a volume to be written around a sequence of drawings in Sir George Beaumont’s collection (Coleridge’s habit of listing projected works is notorious; less often remarked is his habit of grouping them into series).  Take Carmarthen, for instance.  As urban centres go, this is on the small side, but then, as seen by Coleridge on tour with the Wedgwoods in 1802, Carmarthen is not so much a city as a cake – or ‘a large Town, all white-washed – the Roofs of the Houses all white-washed! a great Town in a Confectioner’s shop, on Twelfth cake Day / or a huge Show piece at a distance’ (CL ii 883).  On a slightly bigger scale, take Portsmouth, in 1804, where the leading idea is provided by the naval association of the place: ‘at Portsmouth all are mock-tars – the whole Town is one huge Man of War of Brick & Mortar’ (CL ii 1122).  Rome, in 1806, is considered both sub specie aeternitas – as when Coleridge is looking at the fountains outside St.  Peter’s –


The quiet circle in which Change and Permanence co-exist, not by combination or juxtaposition, but by an absolute annihilation of difference / column of smoke, the fountains before St Peter’s, waterfalls / GOD! – Change without loss – change by a perpetual growth […] oh! it is aweful.  (Notebooks ii 2832)


- and in the form of a single inhabitant, as when he stops to watch a native at work, making a note





To remember the fellow in the Market at Rome, twisting the necks of near 200 Goldfinches, one after another, leaving them fluttering and gasping, he meantime chit-chatting with a neighbour stallman, throwing his Head about, and sometimes using the neck-twisting gesture in help of his Oratory […]  (Notebooks ii 2815)


Coleridge numbers the goldfinches separately, then draws the man and his work into one, by observing how a ‘neck-twisting gesture’ comes in aid of ‘his Oratory’ even as his hands are unconsciously going about their parallel business of leaving the birds ‘gasping’.

       Finally, to take a broader view once more, Coleridge’s panoramic cityscapes include this extraordinary record of approaching Edinburgh, from the direction of Perth, in September 1803:


What a wonderful City Edinburgh is! – What alternation of Height & Depth! – a city looked at in the polish’d back of a Brobdignag Spoon, held lengthways – so enormously stretched-up are the Houses! – When I first looked down on it, as the Coach drove in on the higher Street, I cannot express what I felt – such a section of a wasp’s nest striking you with a sort of bastard Sublimity from the enormity & infinity of it’s littleness – the infinity swelling out of the mind, the enormity striking it with wonder.  I think I have seen an old Plate of Montserrat, that struck me with the same feeling – and I am sure, I have seen huge Quarries of Lime or Free-Stone, in which the Shafts or Strata have stood perpendicularly instead of horizontally, with the same high Thin Slices, & corresponding Interstices! (CL ii 988)


Edinburgh is about to be named last in a thin list of the ‘four Things worth going into Scotland for’ (ii 989).  All bar it are natural rather than urban objects, and it is to natural phenomena that Coleridge has turned in seeking to ‘express’ his feeling about the city itself: an analogy with ‘a section of a wasp’s nest’ is followed by a memory of ‘an old Plate of Montserrat’,[21] and by the ‘huge Quarries of Lime or Free-Stone’ he suddenly remembers to have seen for real.  Although these attempted points of comparison come from diverse areas of his life, they are all drawn from natural science, and two from geological evidence (Coleridge’s friendship with George Greenough, future President of the Geological Society, dated from his Göttingen days; CL i 520 and n.).  But the engraving of Montserrat is a work of art as well as an image of nature; and it is by a similar amalgam of mind and world that Coleridge conveys the bizarre excitement of his initial response to this ‘wonderful’ place: Edinburgh is ‘a city looked at in the polish’d back of a Brobdignag Spoon’.  It is the literary reference that comes first of all – to Swift’s imaginary country of the large, where everything is on a gigantic scale.  Coleridge’s version is doubly




askew: with yet more deliciously wild accuracy, the spoon is ‘held lengthways’, so as to get the ‘enormously stretched-up’ effect.  The vertical proportions are both instantly recognizable and comically exaggerated.  Their refusal of the horizontal is at once in and out of nature: it is a world turned round, geologically, like the quarries of stone ‘in which the Shafts or Strata have stood perpendicularly instead of horizontally, with the same high Thin Slices’.  And yet, the back of a spoon shrinks as well as stretches, just as the city itself, in ‘the enormity & infinity of it’s littleness’, seems to do, ‘striking you’, in Coleridge’s inspired reinvention of a shopworn concept, ‘with a sort of bastard Sublimity’.  This size warping links the Brobdingnag spoon to the ‘section of a wasp’s nest’ which follows: a wasp-nest is a city in miniature; and is also, in this instance, perhaps, another imaginary kingdom, this time touching on the final lines of Book I of Paradise Lost, where the outsize devils swarming around the new-built ‘capital’ of Pandaemonium are numerous ‘As bees […] about the hive’, who then by Miltonic metamorphosis shrink ‘their shapes immense’ to ‘smallest forms’ in order to crowd inside.  Edinburgh, too, is equivocally sublime, a vast metropolis in a tiny area.

       We have come back to the idea of an urban hell, but as a place of weird and ‘wonderful’ creation.  Coleridge’s fantastic spoon is an image of the mind, inventing the city after its own ideas as well as reflecting it as in a crazy hall of mirrors.  The effect of that half-creation is a vertiginous ‘alternation of Height & Depth’ corresponding both to the architecture and to the way it is ‘looked at’, or ‘looked down on’.  A year almost to the day since he first distinguished between ‘Fancy, or the aggregating Faculty of mind’ and ‘Imagination, or the modifying, and co-adunating Faculty’ (CL ii 865-6), Coleridge seems to be playing between those two extremes in the possible relations of subject and object.  At any event, his Edinburgh is as much a city of the mind as it is of Scotland – and one of the many things worth going into Coleridge for.


[1] This essay derives from a talk given at the Friends of Coleridge Study Weekend, 7-9 September 2001.  I am grateful to the organizers, Shirley Watters, Peter Larkin, and Graham Davidson, for the invitation to speak, and to all participants for their responses and suggestions.

[2] Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series LXXV (London and Princeton, N.J.), 2.  The Watchman, ed.  Lewis Patton (1970), pp.  223-4.

[3] John Beer remarked that the industrial ‘hell’ was as often as not the sight of a mill in the middle of the countryside (today’s equivalent threat might be ‘greenbelt development’).

[4] Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed.  E.L.  Griggs, 6 vols.  (Oxford, 1956-71), i 154-5; hereafter CL.

[5] A republican title: ‘Citizen’ Coleridge had made his appearance in pantisocratic letters of 5 and 29 August 1794, the latter written from London (though headed as from Cambridge) where, his letter of 1 September records, he had breakfasted with Dyer, also a Christ’s Hospital and Cambridge man (CL i 96, 97, 97-8).

[6] The Notebooks of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Bollingen Series L, vol.  2, ed.  Kathleen Coburn (London, 1961), no.  1984.

[7] See Lucy Newlyn, ‘“In City Pent”’: Echo and Allusion in Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Lamb, 1797-1801’, Review of English Studies n.s.  XXXII (November 1981), 408-28.

[8] Cf.  God to Moses in his dispute with Pharaoh, Exodus 4.12: ‘Now therefore go, and I will [...] teach thee what thou shalt say’.

[9] ‘Retirement’ is beginning at this date to acquire its current meaning, of leaving off work.

[10] This oppositional structure, of idyllic ease and active struggle, leaves out the vision on the Mount in the middle: an interesting combination of the two, it makes a hard, allegorical job of the climb – ‘steep up the stony Mount / I climb’d with perilous toil’ – before gaining the reward of contemplation at the top (ll.  27-8).

[11] Cottle brought 250 and Reed, another Bristol bookseller, 120 subscribers (Watchman, p.xxxii).

[12] My thanks to Nicholas and Cecilia Powell for this information; and see CL i 98, where Coleridge himself makes a joke of the address.

[13] For the ongoing ‘tension between a poetic existence in the provinces, and a journalistic one in the metropolis’, see Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (London, 1989), p.  176.

[14] For Coleridge’s use of this locution, see Seamus Perry, Coleridge and the Uses of Division (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999), pp. 24-5.

[15] From Juvenal’s sixth Satire, against women, trans.  Dryden: ‘take a poet’s word, / A black swan is not half so rare a bird’ as, ‘In all this town’, a woman ‘worthy to be made a wife’.

[16] E.H.  Coleridge’s translation of the Greek quotation given in Coleridge’s 1797 note to Religious Musings.  Ian Wylie, Young Coleridge and the Philosophers of Nature (Oxford, 1989), p. 24, identifies the tangled source in Cudworth, out of Damascius the Syrian’s fourth century commentary on Iamblichus. 

[17] See for example the letters of early 1802 and early 1804, CL ii 782, 786, 1055, 1058, 1071.

[18] From an article in Fraser’s Magazine, reprinted in Seamus Perry, ed., S.T.  Coleridge: Interviews and Recollections (Basingstoke and New York, 2000), p.240.

[19] See Pilgrim’s Progress, ed.  Roger Sharrock (Harmondsworth, 1965), p.73.

[20] On this subject, see John Beer, Coleridge the Visionary (London, 1959), pp.  31-3, 292-3.

[21] Either the Caribbean island and crown colony of the United Kingdom, sighted by Columbus in 1493, and named for the jagged peaks he saw there; or the mountain of Catalonia, Spain, known to the Romans as Mons Serratus (‘Saw-toothed Mountain’), and famous for jagged pinnacles rising from a huge base.