Saturday, April 29, 2017

`To Him Who Walks Alone Through Life'

Coleridge was cursed with a homing instinct and a lifelong inability or refusal to find a home. Such a contradiction is not rare. A roof over his head, a table and a bed – he had them, but never contentedly or for long. Some find a home and hate it. Some are happily homeless, and by choice. They remain rootless and travel light. Not Coleridge. The reasons – emotional, behavioral, pharmaceutical – are many. By the age of thirty-two he was permanently addicted to opium. His friend Hazlitt, in “My First Acquaintance with Poets,” describes their meeting in 1798, at Coleridge's temporary cottage in Somerset:

“Thus I passed three weeks at Nether Stowey and in the neighborhood, generally devoting the afternoons to a delightful chat in an arbour made of bark by the poet’s friend Tom Poole, sitting under two fine elm trees, and listening to the bees humming round us, while we quaffed our flip.”

Flip, for the uninitiated, is “a mixture of beer and spirit sweetened with sugar and heated with a hot iron.” No wonder the scene is recollected in tranquility. Hazlitt is also temperamentally homeless, but not as cripplingly so as Coleridge. Though he would later turn on Coleridge, his expression of gratitude for his friend’s kindness is heartfelt:

“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 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 . . . that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge.”

He next moved, with wife, to Greta Hall, Keswick, in the Lake District. In an 1802 letter to Thomas Manning, Charles Lamb describes a visit: “Coleridge had got a blazing fire in his study; which is a large, antique, ill-shaped room, with an old-fashioned organ, never played upon, big enough for a church, shelves of scattered folios, an ├ćolian harp, and an old sofa, half-bed, &c.” It sounds cozy but from at least 1804, Coleridge’s life was ruled around the clock by laudanum. He consumed up to two quarts a week of the tincture of opium. From 1816 he found a surrogate home with Dr. James Gillman and his wife in Highgate, on Hampstead Heath. He completed the long-delayed Biographia Literaria there, and remained with the Gillmans for the last eighteen years of his life.

Coleridge was in flight from a marriage he had ruined. He would never again have anything like a normal family life with Sara and their three children, who remained in the care of his priggish brother-in-law, Robert Southey. Coleridge was also fleeing his unrequited passion for Sara Hutchinson, Wordsworth’s sister-in-law. He had a lifelong knack for creating gratuitous complications. At the Gillmans' home in 1826, less than six years before his death, Coleridge wrote perhaps the most self-pitying Christmas poem in history, “Homeless”:

“O! Christmas Day, Oh! happy day!
        A foretaste from above,
To him who hath a happy home
        And love returned from love!

“O! Christmas Day, O gloomy day,
        The barb in Memory’s dart,
To him who walks alone through Life,
        The desolate in heart.”

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