Wednesday, April 10, 2024

'I Wish He Would Explain His Explanation'

On this date, April 10, in 1816, Coleridge and Lord Byron met for the only time, at the latter’s house in Piccadilly. Earlier, Coleridge had a friend deliver to Byron a copy of his latest and last play, Zapolya, and a letter explaining that for the previous fifteen years he had been an addict – “I refer to the daily habit of taking enormous doses of Laudanum” – though he vowed to soon take the cure with “a respectable surgeon and Naturalist” [Dr. James Gillman] at Highgate. In the second volume of his Coleridge biography, Richard Holmes mentions that the letter includes “a learned note on Werewolves,” an interest of Byron’s. Holmes writes: 

“Byron was at his most winning: he flattered, praised and joked, making remarks – not recorded – that Coleridge said were ‘enough to make one’s hair bristle.’ He convinced Coleridge to do what he had put off for a decade, to publish ‘Christabel’ [written in 1797, 1800] in its unfinished state.”


During their meeting, Byron got Coleridge to recite his “Kubla Khan.” Though the author  dismissed it as ”a psychological curiosity,” Byron urged him to publish it also. Unbeknownst to Coleridge, Leigh Hunt was in the next room, eavesdropping.


Coleridge in turn was charmed by Byron. He later gushed in a letter, “[Y]ou could scarcely disbelieve him – so beautiful a countenance I scarcely ever saw – his teeth so many stationary smiles – his eyes the open portals of the sun – things of light, and for light  -- and his forehead so ample, and yet so flexible, passing from marble smoothness into a hundred wreathes and lines and dimples correspondent to the feeling and sentiments he is uttering . . .”


Two days after their meeting, Byron arranged for Coleridge to land a publishing contract with John Murray for a sixty-four-page octavo volume to include the two poems mentioned above and “The Pains of Sleep.” Byron convinced Murray to pay Coleridge £80, up from the initial offer of £60. Such graciousness is not customary among poets.


My late father-in-law left me a small library of books, including those he had won as prizes while a student at St. Andrew’s College in Aurora, Ontario. Among them is the Oxford edition of The Poetical Works of Lord Byron, the 1952 reprint, which he was awarded four years later. I’m using it to catch up with Byron, whose work I don’t know well. I do love Don Juan (1819-24). In the second stanza of its “Dedication,” Byron writes:  


“And Coleridge too has lately taken wing,

    But like a hawk encumbered with his hood,

Explaining metaphysics to the nation.

I wish he would explain his explanation.”

1 comment:

Thomas Parker said...

This brings to mind what may be my favorite line in all of literature, from a Ring Lardner short story:

"Shut up", he explained.