Late in the summer of 1806, the life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge had grown even more chaotic than usual, and his customary dope-addled careening among misbegotten intentions wasn’t the only explanation. On Sept. 27 he published in the Courier a sonnet with a Cole Porter-like title, “Farewell to Love”:
“Farewell, sweet Love! Yet blame you not my truth;
More fondly ne’er did mother eye her child
Than I your form: yours were my hopes of youth,
And as you shaped my thoughts I sighed or smiled.
“While most were wooing wealth, or gaily swerving
To pleasure’s secret haunts, and some apart
Stood strong in pride, self-conscious of deserving,
To you I gave my whole weak wishing heart.
“And when I met the maid that realised
Your fair creations, and had won her kindness,
Say, but for her if aught on earth I prized!
Your dreams alone I dreamt, and caught your blindness.
“O grief!--but farewell, Love! I will go play me
With thoughts that please me less, and less betray me.”
This is “romantic” poetry, I suppose, in the queasy sense (in particular, the mother-child business). The italics and proliferation of exclamation points give it away. A few phrases are pleasing – “wooing wealth,” the closing couplet – but an arthritic reader could wring the self-pity (“yours were my hopes from youth”) out of these lines. (Donne and Drayton wrote very different poems titled “Farewell to Love.”) Let his peerless biographer, Richard Holmes (Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804-1834), gloss the chaos:
“But to whom was it addressed – to which Sara? To Asra or to Mrs Coleridge?”
The poem is less a poem than a poetic gesture, so there’s no definitive answer to Holmes’ question unless you accept “love trouble.” Holmes likes the sonnet and drops an intriguing tidbit, calling it “a beautiful adaptation of a piece by Fulke Greville.” Eight pages later Holmes writes:
“During the day he walked uneasily with Southey, and sank himself in the works of Fulke Greville, upon which he made copious notes. In the evenings he returned to the fray, and then made himself incoherent with opium.”
I wish I knew the Greville poem Coleridge was adapting (this, perhaps?). His admiration for the great Elizabethan, whose work went largely unpublished until after his death and whose reputation was resuscitated only in the twentieth century, is daring and admirable. Perhaps Charles Lamb, a dedicated antiquarian, commended Greville to his childhood friend. During Poetry Month it’s gratifying to link Greville with Coleridge, who was born on this day in 1772.
Coleridge ascended to greatness in “Frost on Midnight,” “Dejection: An Ode” and a few other poems but his voluminous prose – Biographia Literaria, the notebooks, letters, conversation and marginalia – and his life as limned in Holmes’ two-volume biography, are the reasons I’ve never said farewell to my love for STC, laudanum and all. Like Dr. Johnson he embodies contradiction, which makes him quintessentially human, like us. Too bad he died one hundred seventy years too soon. Coleridge had the lungs and learning to have been a great blogger.