A Blupete Biography Page

"Rackets and Tea":
The Life and Writings
of William Hazlitt (1778-1830).
[TOC -- Hazlitt's Page]


Chapter Five
"Hazlitt Meets Coleridge, 1798."

A very famous literary collaboration between Wordsworth and Coleridge was, in 1798, to come to full fruition with the publication of their joint work, which marked the beginning of the British Romantic Movement: Lyrical Ballads.1 The work contained a number of Wordsworth's earlier poems, including, "Tintern Abbey," written on July 13th, 1798; and, Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The two were quite taken with one another. I quote from my work on Wordsworth:

The Wordsworths were enthralled with Coleridge; and so he with them. There were, during the spring of 1797, two or three visits back and forth. Coleridge was then living at Nether Stowey, a Somerset village, under the patronage of the local tanner and literary enthusiast, Tom Poole (1765-1837). Coleridge returned from one his trips to the Wordsworths on June 28th. There, at Nether Stowey, he was to tell his friends, with much enthusiasm, about the Wordsworths; such, that he returned travelling the fifty mile distance to Racedown and reappeared back to Nether Stowey on July 2nd with the Wordsworths in tow. Now, as it happened, Charles Lamb was to come up from London to pay his old school chum, Coleridge a visit. So, within days of the Wordsworths' arrival at Nether Stowey in came Charles Lamb and his sister. Thus there was to be quite a crowd in the little cottage occupied by the Coleridge family (Coleridge, Sara and their one year old Hartly), the Wordsworths, Charles Lamb and his sister. They were all somehow fitted in to the small Coleridge cottage at Nether Stowey. There was to be some relief when the Lambs returned to London, as they had intended to do. The Wordsworths seemed to have little reason to return to Racetown and were quite happy to continue on at Nether Stowey. What the Wordsworths wanted were new accommodations, somewhere near the Coleridges at Nether Stowey. Through the good offices of Tom Poole, benefactor and friend to this growing clutch of literary luminaries, a large home was to be rented. It was located nearby at Holford Glen, a Queen Anne mansion which was known as Alfoxden. The Wordsworths, who likely still had a sizable portion of the Calvert legacy left, signed a one year lease for the sum of 23£ and during July of 1797, the Wordsworths moved to Alfoxden: As Dorothy Wordsworth was to describe, "a large mansion with furniture enough for a dozen families like ours."
And, again:
Upon meeting Coleridge, the Wordsworths were electrified. We are not to be surprised by this, as Coleridge charmed everyone, at least at first. Henry Crabb Robinson was to write in his diary, "On politics, metaphysics and poetry, more especially on the Regency, Kant, and Shakespeare he was astonishingly eloquent." Concerning this first meeting, Dorothy was to get a letter off to her friend Mary Hutchinson. The first thing, as Dorothy was to explain was William's reading of his new poem The Ruined Cottage, with which Coleridge was much delighted, and, "after tea he [Coleridge] repeated to us two acts and a half of his tragedy Osorio. The next morning William read his tragedy The Borderers."
For a study of Coleridges movements in England at this time, then one needs to consult my work on the man; enough here to say that Coleridge, with a wife and child to support and another on the way, determined to go to work as a Unitarian minister; his first appointment was to be in Shrewsbury. Hazlitt recalls: "... in the year 1798 ... Mr Coleridge came to Shrewsbury, to succeed Mr Rowe in the spiritual charge of a Unitarian Congregation there. ... He held the good town of Shewsbury in delightful suspense for three weeks that he remained there ..." "My father lived ten miles from Shrewsbury, and was in the habit of exchanging visits with Mr Rowe, and with Mr Jenkins of Whitchurch (nine miles farther on), according to the custom of Dissenting Ministers in each other's neighbourhood. ... Coleridge had agreed to come over and see my father, according to the courtesy of the country, as Mr Rowe's probable successor; but in the meantime, I had gone to hear him preach the Sunday after his arrival. A poet and a philosopher getting up into a Unitarian pulpit to preach the gospel, was a romance in these degenerate days, a sort or revival of the primitive spirit of Christianity, which was not to be resisted. ... It was in January of 1798, that I rose one morning before day-light to walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach."2

Hazlitt admits that his intellectual curiosity was ignited by his acquaintance with Coleridge:

"I was stunned, startled with it [Welsh mountains on the horizon], as from deep sleep; but I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light of his [Coleridge's] genius shone into my soul, like the sun's rays glittering in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding lifeless; but now, bursting from the deadly bands that bound them, ... my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes, catch the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longing infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge. But this is not to my purpose."3
In 1817, Hazlitt wrote of his walk to Shrewsbury:
"It was in January, 1798, just 19 years ago, that I got up one morning before day-light to walk 10 miles in the mud, and went to hear a poet and a philosopher preach. It was the author of the "Lay-Sermon.'' Never Sir, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one in the winter of the year 1798. Mr. Examiner, Il y a des impression que ni le tems ni les circonstances peuvent effacer. Dusse-je vivre des siecles entiers, le doux tems da ma jeunesse ne peut renaitre pour moi, ni s'effacer jamais dans ma memoire. When I got there, Sir, the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done Mr. C. rose and gave out his text, "and he went up into the mountain to pray, Himself, Alone." As he gave out this text, his voice "rose like a steam of rich distill'd perfumes," and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, Sir, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The idea of St John came into my mind, "of one crying in the wilderness, who had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild honey." The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind. That sermon, like this Sermon was upon peace and war; upon church and state -- not their alliance, but their separation -- on the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christianity, not as the same, but as opposed to one another. He talked of those who had "inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore." He made a poetical and pastoral excursion, -- and to shew the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd boy driving his team afield, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his flock, as though he would never be old, and the same poor country-lad, crimped, kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the loathsome finery of the profession of blood. ...
And for myself Sir, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and Philosophy had met together, Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. This was even beyond my hopes. I returned home well satisfied. The sun that was still labouring pale and wan through the sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the good cause: and the cold dank drops of dew that hung half melted on the beard of the thistle, had something genial and refreshing in them; for there was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature, that turned everything into good. The face of nature had not then the brand of Jus Divinum on it. ...
When I came down to breakfast, ... Mr Coleridge, asking for a pen and ink, and going to at table to write something on a bit of card, advanced towards me with undulating step, and giving me the precious document, said that that was his address, Mr Coleridge, Nether Stowey, Somersetshire; and that he should be glad to see me there in a few weeks' time, and, if I chose, would come half-way to meet me. I was not less surprised than the shepherd-boy ..., when he sees a thunder-bolt fall close at his feet. I stammered out my acknowledgments and acceptance of this offer (I thought Mr Wedgwood's annuity a trifle to it) as well as I could; and this mighty business being settled, the poet-preacher took leave, and I accompanied him six miles on the road. It was a fine morning in the middle of winter, and he talked the whole way."4
And so it was, in the wonderful month of June, in 1798, that Hazlitt, at Colerige's invitation, made his way to Nether Stowey in Somersetshire. He made an unhurried trip through Shrewsbury, Worcester, Upton, Tewkesbury, Gloucester, Bristol, and Bridgwater, a distance of approximately one hundred and fifty miles. Hazlitt walked5 the whole distance though he might have hitched a ride at a few points. On his arrival he met Coleridge once again, and Wordsworth for the first time. At Nether Stowey and its neighborhood, Hazlitt passed three weeks, often in the afternoons "sitting under two fine elm-trees, and listening to the bees humming around us, while we quaffed our flip."6

During his stay with Coleridge (there was six years difference in their ages), both of them7 set off on foot making a jaunt, a long day's march, down the Bristol Channel as far as Lynton, passing on the their way, Dunster.

We passed Dunster on our right, a small town between the brow of the a hill and the sea. I remember eyeing it wistfully as it lay below us: ... through Minehead and by the Blue Anchor, and on to Linton, which we did not reach till near midnight, and where we had some difficulty in making a lodgment. We, however, knocked the people of the house up at last, and we were repaid for our apprehensions and fatigue by some excellent rashers of fried bacon and eggs. The view in coming along had been splendid. We walked for miles and miles on dark brown heaths overlooking the Channel, with the Welsh hills beyond, and at time descended into little sheltered valleys close by the seaside, with a smuggler's face scowling by us, and then had to ascend conical like a monk's shaven crown. ... There is a place called the Valley of Rocks bedded among precipices overhanging the sea, with rocky caverns beneath, into which the waves dash, and where the sea-gull for ever wheels its screaming flight. On the tops of these are huge stones thrown transverse, as if an earthquake had tossed them there, and behind these is a fretwork of perpendicular rocks, something like the Giant's Causeway. ... In the morning of the second day, we breakfasted luxuriously in an old-fashioned parlour, on tea, toast, eggs, and honey, in the very sight of the bee-hives from which it had been taken, and a garden full of thyme and wild flowers that had produced it. ... It was in this room that we found a little worn-out copy of the Seasons, lying in a window-seat, on which Coleridge exclaimed "That is true-fame!" He said Thomson was a great poet, rather than a good one; his style was a meretricious as his thoughts were natural. ... We returned on the third morning, and Coleridge remarked the silent cottage-smoke curling up the valleys where, a few evenings before, we had seen the lights gleaming through the dark. ("My First Acquaintance with Poets," April, 1827.)
From P. P. Howe8 we learn that Hazlitt, on a "Sunday morning in late June" set out to return home from Nether Stowey. He allowed himself six or seven days "for his not inconsiderable pedestrian journey." Hazlitt spent not a whole lot of time with Coleridge at Nether Stowey. Coleridge while being doubtlessly impressed by Hazlitt, was, during the summer months of 1798, quite busy with his preparations to leave for Germany. It was September 16th that Coleridge, John Chester and the Wordsworths sailed for Germany from Yarmouth arriving at Hamburg on the 19th.

During the years, 1799-1802, Hazlitt made an "intimate, soul searching acquaintance with the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth." As for Wordsworth: Hazlitt was to set, eventually, little value on both the person and his poetry -- I will deal with this in a future chapter. As for Coleridge:

"All his [Coleridge's] ideas ... are like a river, flowing on forever, and still murmuring as it flows, discharging its waters and still replenished --
And so by many nooks it strays,
With willing sport to the wild ocean!"
9

"Mr. Coleridge, by dissipating his [intellect], and dallying with every subject by turns, has done little or nothing to justify to the world or to posterity the high opinion which all would have ever heard him converse, or known him intimately, with one accord entertain of him. ... [Mr. Coleridge has gossiped away his] time, and gadded about from house to house, as if life's business were to melt the hours in listless talk. Mr. Coleridge ... delights in nothing but episodes and digressions, neglects whatever he undertakes to perform, and can act only on spontaneous impulses without object or method. 'He cannot be constrained by mastery.' While he should be occupied with a given pursuit, he is thinking of a thousand other things: a thousand tastes, a thousand objects tempt him, and distract his mind, which keeps open house, and entertains all comers; and after being fatigued and amused with morning calls from idle visitors [he] finds the day consumed and its business unconcluded. ... Mr. Coleridge, in writing an harmonious stanza, would stop to consider whether there was not more grace and beauty in a Pas de trois, and would not proceed till he had resolved this question by a chain of metaphysical reasoning without end. ... Mr. Coleridge has flirted with the Muses as with a set of mistresses ..."10
Thus the initial attraction to Coleridge, as occurred when the twenty year old Hazlitt met the twenty-six year old Coleridge, was lost. Coleridge, as can be seen from my work on him, became addicted to opium and his addiction overtook him -- likely, not too many years after Hazlitt was to first meet Coleridge. A number of years later, in reflection, Hazlitt wrote:
"This gentleman [Coleridge] belongs to the class of eclectic philosophers; but whereas they professed to examine different systems, in order to select what was good in each, our perverse critic ransacks all past or present theories, to pick out their absurdities, and to abuse whatever is good in them. ... He refers the great excellence of the British Constitution to the prerogatives of the Crown, and conceives that the old French Constitution must have been admirably defended by the States-General, which never met, from the abuses of arbitrary power. He highly approves of ex-officio informations and special juries, as the great bulwarks of the liberty of the press; taxes he holds to be providential relief to the distresses of the people and war to be state of greater security than peace. He defines Jacobinism to be an abstract attachment to liberty, truth, and justice; and finding that this principle has been abused or carried to excess, he argues that Anti-jacobinism, or the abstract principles of despotism, superstition, and oppression, are the safe, sure and undeniable remedy for the former, and the only means of restoring liberty, truth, and justice in the world. ... He judges of men as he does of things. He would persuade you that Sir Isaac Newton was a money-scrivener, Voltaire dull, Bonaparte a poor creature, and the late Mr. Howard a misanthrope; while he plays a willing homage to the Illustrious Obscure, of whom he always carries a list in his pocket. He is at cross-purposes with himself as well as others, and discards his own caprices if ever he suspects there is the least ground for them. Doubt succeeds to doubt, clouds roll over cloud, one paradox is driven out by another still greater, in endless succession. He is equally averse to the prejudices of the vulgar, the paradoxes of the learned, or the habitual convictions if his own mind. He moves in an unaccountable diagonal between truth and falsehood, sense and nonsense, sophistry and common-place, and only assents to any opinion when knows that all the reasons are against it. A matter of fact is abhorrent to his nature: the very air of truth repels him. He is only saved from the extremities of absurdity by combining them all in his own person. Two things are indispensable to him -- to set out from no premises, and to arrive at no conclusion. The consciousness of a single certainty would be an insupportable weight upon his mind. He slides out of a logical deduction by the help of metaphysics: and if the labyrinths of metaphysics did not afford him "ample scope and verge enough," he would resort to necromancy and the cabala. He only tolerates the science of astronomy for the sake of its connection with the dreams of judicial astrology, and escapes from the Principia of Newton to the jargon of Lily and Ashmole. All his notions are floating and unfixed, like what is feigned of the first form of things flying about in search of bodies to attach themselves to; but his ideas seek to avoid all contact with solid substances. Innumerable evanescent thoughts dance before him, and dazzle his sight, like insects in the evening sun. Truth is to him a ceaseless round of contradictions: he lives in the belief of a perpetual lie, and in affecting to think what he pretends to say. His mind is in a constant state of flux and reflux: he is like the Sea-horse in the Ocean; he is the Man in the Moon, the Wondering Jew. -- The reason of all this is that Mr. Coleridge has great powers of thought and fancy, without will or sense. He is without a strong feeling of the existence of any thing out of himself; and he has neither purposes nor passions of his own to make him wish it to be. All that he does or thinks is involuntary; even his perversity and self-will are so.11"
And this from a man who was enthralled at his first meeting of Coleridge. The paragraph shows an in depth understanding of the two great streams of philosophy, of science, of law, of history; and discloses, that as a young man, William Hazlitt studied long and hard in each of these subjects. It seems, however, that these matters were to cause much conflict in his mind, as, he determined to turn away from it all; he turned to follow in his brother's footsteps, to the art of painting.

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[Next: Chapter Six -- Off To London To Become a Painter -- 1799.]
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Notes:

1 Their collaboration and publication of Lyrical Ballads was before the time that Coleridge destroyed his mind with repeated doses of opium.

2 Quotes are from, "My First Acquaintance with Poets," April, 1827." The Unitarian chapel to which Hazlitt "rose one morning before day-light to walk ten miles in the mud," in order to hear Coleridge was, according to Birrill, still standing in 1901. Hazlitt had heard of Coleridge from the Godwins.

3 "My First Acquaintance with Poets."

4 My First Acquaintance with Poets. Coleridge took his leave of Shrewsbury not long after he first arrived. In January or February of 1798, Coleridge received word, from his friends back at Nether Stowey that the Wedgwoods had arranged a life annuity in the amount of £150 per year, with no conditions.This generosity of the Wedgwoods, was to allow Coleridge to carry through with plans that he had earlier made, to go and study in Germany. As it happened, the lease which the Wordsworths had for the Alfoxden mansion was up; so a determination was made that Wordsworth and Coleridge should both together go off to Germany. You may persue the details of these developments if you go to the work I have already put together on Wordsworth and Coleridge.

5 Back in the days of Hazlitt, people walked. "When Keats went on his tour of Scotland in 1818, he went by public coach as far as Lancashire and on foot thereafter. Wordsworth, his sister Dorothy, and Coleridge began a similar Scottish tour together on foot, Coleridge branching off by himself at Stirling and continuing for nearly 300 miles until there was nothing left of his shoes. Dorothy Wordsworth, with a friend or relative, regularly walked from Penrith across the Pennines and moors to visit the Hutchinsons hear Halifax. Hazlitt would walk from London to his writing base at Winterslow in Wiltshire. His first wife Sarah, while waiting for her Scottish divorce in Edinburg, walked a total of over 200 miles to visit places of interest." [The Birth of the Modern (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), p. 703.]

6 A mixture of beer and spirit sweetened with sugar and heated with a hot iron. (OED) "Thus we live at sea; eat biscuit, and drink flip." (1695, Congreve, Love for Love, iii. iv.)

7 There was another who made it a threesome; John Chester, a native of Nether Stowey.

8 The Life of William Hazlitt (1922) by P. P. Howe (Penguin, 1949) at p. 70. Herein, I often refer to this work simply as Howe.

9 The Spirit of the Age, "Mr. Coleridge The quote is from Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen from Verona, Act 2, Sc. 7, line 34.

10 From Hazlitt's The Spirit of the Age, "Mr. Coleridge."

11 From Hazlitt's Political Essays, "Coleridge."

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Peter Landry