“The other day I was what you would call floored by a Jew. He passed me several times crying for old clothes in the most nasal and extraordinary tone I ever heard. At last I was so provoked, that I said to him, `Pray, why can’t you say `old clothes’ in a plain way as I do now? The Jew stopped, and looking very gravely at me, said in a clear and even fine accent, `Sir, I can say old clothes as well as you can; but if you had to say so ten times a minute, for an hour together, you would say Ogh Clo as I do now;’ and so he marched off. I was so confounded with the justice of his retort, that I followed and gave him a shilling, the only one I had.”
It’s interesting how anti-Semitism and other pet prejudices are so often triggered by the trivial, not, at least at first, by grand allegations of blood libel and usury – in this case, the ragman’s “most nasal and extraordinary tone.” Coleridge’s record on the Jews, like that of many English writers before and since, is mixed but fairly benign. He said and wrote some foolish, hateful things but in 1816 befriended the Polish-born scholar Hyman Hurwitz. On Coleridge’s recommendation Hurwitz was appointed professor of Hebrew language and literature at University College, London, in 1828. In a letter to Hurwitz in 1820, Coleridge writes of The Merchant of Venice: “I never read the Speech of Shylock (Act 3 Scene 1) without a glow of indignant Brotherly Love towards the persecuted race.”
Coleridge is no George Eliot, author of Daniel Deronda, but neither is he the odious Virginia Woolf, who wrote in her diary three years after marrying Leonard Woolf: “How I hated marrying a Jew - how I hated their nasal voices [that again], and their oriental jewellery, and their noses and their wattles.” To demonstrate the conflicted, complicated nature of even a fairly decent human being, here is the other entry from July 6, 1830 in Coleridge’s Table Talk:
“I have had a good deal to do with Jews in the course of my life, although I never borrowed any money of them. Once I sat in a coach opposite a Jew—a symbol of old clothes’ bags—an Isaiah of Hollywell Street. He would close the window; I opened it. [Again with the trivia.] He closed it again; upon which, in a very solemn tone, I said to him, `Son of Abraham! thou smellest; son of Isaac! thou art offensive; son of Jacob! Though stinkest foully. See the man in the moon! He is holding his nose at thee at that distance; dost thou think that I, sitting here, can endure it any longer?’ My Jew was astounded, opened the window forthwith himself, and said `he was sorry he did not know before I was so great a gentleman.’”
It’s hard to gauge, as always, the truthfulness of Coleridge’s anecdote. He was a bullshitter of incomparable inventiveness.