Unquiet to Unbusy – Coleridge, Hartley Coleridge and ‘Frost at Midnight’

This week I was invited to another of Michael Glover’s wonderful Bowwowshop soirees at the Omnibus Arts Centre in Clapham. The focus was on the work of Coleridge. Tom Lowenstein read from From Culbone Wood – in Xanadu (Shearsman Books). There was also fiddle music and an aria from Mozart and parts of ‘The Ancient Mariner’ performed as a sea shanty (it really worked!). What follows is the text of my contribution (at some length, I’m afraid). By the way, Hartley Coleridge must be in the air at the moment as this blog post has just been put up by Alan Price.

I have been asked to read ‘Frost at Midnight’ – the 1798 poem in which the young father watches his sleeping child, thinks of his own past and foresees for the boy a bright future. The suggestion was also to focus on the more human side of Coleridge, less on the unique genius, the flood of ideas and knowledge, more on what we must all share with him: quiet moments of reflection, how we are made by our past, our hopes for the future, how blood is thicker than water.

So – in 1824, the young Thomas Carlyle visited Coleridge in Highgate, where he was now staying with Dr Gillman. The poet was 52 years old. Carlyle describes  – “ a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair” He seemed a good soul (thought Carlyle), “full of religion, and affection and poetry and animal magnetism”.  Perhaps his observations had already been influenced by William Hazlitt’s earlier description, noting the poet’s nose, “the rudder of his face, the index of his will, [how it] was small, feeble, nothing – like what he had done”. Carlyle also concluded with that thought, “he wants will. He has no resolution”.

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Given what Coleridge had been through in his life, Carlyle’s portrait is really one of a survivor against the odds. A couple of years earlier, Coleridge was contemplating the four greatest sorrows of his life. He noted: his failed marriage with Sara Fricker, his wife of almost 30 years, the mother of his 3 children; the bitter quarrel with Wordsworth; the relationship, that perhaps never even got going, with Sara Hutchinson – Asra. Coleridge’s fourth sorrow was a much more recent wound, still raw, on-going when Carlyle met him in 1824. It bears on my main subject, Coleridge’s poem about his first born son, Hartley.

To explain, I’ll go back a few years  . . . In a life that Richard Holmes in his wonderful biography has described as full of “black storms and glittering sunlit spells”, the year 1819 was a great, sunlit moment. The 23 year old Hartley had just secured a Probationary Fellowship at Oriel College, Oxford. His father and mother were overjoyed, a feeling they shared – so an unusual moment. Coleridge could reasonably conclude that the boy he had always loved best had perhaps not been harmed or disabled by his peculiar brand of absentee fathering, the difficult marriage of his parents, his father’s often public financial, literary and opium-related humiliations.

But storm always follows sunlight for Coleridge. In June 1820, Hartley – the little child who, 22 years earlier, had slept so peacefully on a frosty night in Stowey in Somerset – Hartley was accused of drunkenness, of “sottishness, a love of low company, and general inattention to the College rules”. In a moment of ghastly, public humiliation, his Fellowship was not to be renewed. Hartley himself seems not to have dared to inform either parent; he vanished for days on end and try as Coleridge might the College would not relent.

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It was a disaster. Ann Gillman remembers Coleridge being “convulsed with agony” over it – surely in part because the accusation of intemperance and drunkenness reflected his own long-established, unshakeable addictive behaviours. The sins of the fathers, is what Coleridge must have been thinking.

And really, if we look back at Hartley’s life the disaster was not so unexpected. With the benefit of hindsight, we can trace events, poignantly, in reverse. During his third year at Oxford, in 1817, Hartley had come to visit Highgate and among the promising signs Coleridge fretted about his son’s unsystematic approach to life, there was some drunkenness, an evident loneliness.  On a return visit to Stowey, the clever college boy had tried to enamour himself with the local girls but they recoiled from his strangeness, melancholy, his dark shaggy beard. They called him the Black Dwarf.

At the age of 18, in 1815, he’d visited his father in Calne, Wiltshire, first ever summer vacation with his father. They celebrated the victory at Waterloo but Hartley was fascinated by the travelling players, by itinerants. He seemed solitary, a bit restless. People again remarked on his odd manners, his scrawny black beard. At 15, Hartley’s mother was optimistically thinking he might make a lawyer, with his “Gift of the Gab”. They were living in the Lake District and Hartley was a great local favourite, though Sara thought “a little spoilt” – in adult company he was not only permitted to speak, he was expected to speak.

At 13 he was brilliant – but quarrelsome. At the age of 10, planning a visit to his West Country relations, Coleridge wrote him a letter – a Polonius sort of letter – on how to behave. His son, he pointed out possessed a “self-gratifying fancy”, his spirits always at “high tide and flood”. The father recognised a tendency that swept away all “unpleasant and painful thoughts”. There were refusals to accept discipline; there was stealing food, snatching at things, standing in half-open doorways. Too often, the boy used his cleverness for lies, fantasies, false excuses. Coleridge urged on his son no procrastination, no self-delusion.

Even as a young child, Hartley had once asked his father what it would be like if there were Nothing! – just darkness and coldness. Apparently, he’d be thinking of it all day. The boy was 5. He often found playmates more a burden than a delight. A year earlier, celebrating moving from baby clothes into trousers, Coleridge already mourned the child’s old, joyous ways of playing. His activity now seemed governed by a more self-conscious “eager & solemn gladness”.

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I imagine him watching the boy – the young father as he was described by Dorothy Wordsworth in 1797. She thought Coleridge then plain looking, pale and thin, a wide mouth, thick lips, not very good teeth. He had longish, loose-growing, half-curling rough black hair, his eyes large and full, not dark but grey, fine dark eyebrows, an overhanging forehead. And this is the man who, around this time, watched a massive starling flock in flight. He described it “like smoke, mist, or any thing misty without volition – now a circular area inclined in an Arc – now a Globe – now from complete Orb into an Ellipse and Oblong [. . . ] & still it expands & condenses, some moments glimmering & shivering, dim and shadowy, now thickening, deepening, blackening”.

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This image haunted him for the rest of his life. It became more and more clear he had been fascinated by a self-image, a counter image of uncertainty, a lack of volition and determination, a swirling, aimless life quite unlike the one he had imagined for himself and his first born son in ‘Frost at Midnight’. In the poem Coleridge finds another self-image – the thin carbon film accumulated on a fire grate. Superstition told that this ‘stranger’ as it was called, foretold some new arrival. Coleridge remembers thinking of it as a sign of good things to come in his own unhappy school days at Christ’s Hospital in London.

In lieu of my reading of ‘Frost at Midnight’, here it is read by Richard Burton with accompanying text.

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Such hopes were not to be. After the Oriel College disaster, Hartley was urged into school-mastering but he was never very good at classroom control. The boys must have found him odd, melancholy, solitary – apparently suicidal at times.

By 1829 – now fully 5 years after Carlyle had visited Coleridge in Highgate that time – Hartley had drifted out of teaching, was just wandering aimlessly through the Lake District, living with farmers, writing a few sonnets while the aging father fretted vainly in Gillman’s Highgate garden. In 1825, Coleridge made a self-portrait in sonnet form. In the poem ‘Work Without Hope’ he is the “sole unbusy thing”, uncreative, not having built anything to last, nor preparing to build. In the octave, amaranth is the mythical flower awarded to successful poets.

Work without Hope

All Nature seems at work. Slugs leave their lair—

The bees are stirring—birds are on the wing—

And Winter slumbering in the open air,

Wears on his smiling face a dream of Spring!

And I the while, the sole unbusy thing,

Nor honey make, nor pair, nor build, nor sing.

Yet well I ken the banks where amaranths blow,

Have traced the fount whence streams of nectar flow.

Bloom, O ye amaranths! bloom for whom ye may,

For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams, away!

With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:

And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?

Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,

And Hope without an object cannot live.

If we humanise Coleridge – if we turn aside from the work achieved, half-achieved, the fragments and Notebooks – perhaps we see too much of tragedy: the great potential, a life unfulfilled. After all this is the man who watched Hartley play and understood that for children the means is the end; he knew beauty is the intuition of the one in the many and therefore the first-born of beauty is the geometrical shape, the triangle; he thought of the sonnet as a sigh, something we let escape us, a single thought; he understood the poet must possess the ear of a wild Arab listening in the silent desert, the eye of a North American Indian tracker, the touch of a blind man feeling the face of a darling child; he thought poets were those who knew where the riddle of the universe remained unsolved; he thought a punchy, crisp style of writing lacked the cement of thought, the hooks and eyes of memory; he thought altruism required a generosity to oneself, without which we live in a despotism of the present moment.

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Hartley Coleridge

And perhaps there was a little honey at the last. In 1833, Hartley published the poems he had been working on and dedicated them to his father. He offered them in thanks for what Coleridge, for all his flaws and personal failings – had given him. It’s the note for us, who love English literature, to strike too: gratitude. Hartley’s sonnet, like a sigh, poignantly alludes to and quotes ‘Frost at Midnight’ on his father’s early hopes for the boy whose own life went awry.

Father, and Bard revered! to whom I owe,

Whate’er it be, my little art of numbers,

Thou, in thy night-watch o’er my cradled slumbers,

Didst meditate the verse that lives to show,

(And long shall live, when all alike are low)

Thy prayer how ardent, and thy hope so strong,

That I should learn of Nature’s self the song,

The lore which none but Nature’s pupils know.

The prayer was heard: I ‘wander’d like a breeze’,

By mountain brooks and solitary meres,

And gather’d there the shapes and phantasies

Which, mixt with passions of my sadder years,

Compose this book. If good therein there be,

That good, my sire, I dedicate to thee.

One thought on “Unquiet to Unbusy – Coleridge, Hartley Coleridge and ‘Frost at Midnight’

  1. I’m think back to another pair of father-son poets: James Wright and Franz Wright. Both Pulitzer Prize winners, both afflicted with alcoholism and a touch of madness.

    Norbert

    Like

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