In June 2018 St Michael’s church in Highgate put on a special day to celebrate Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the nearly 60 years he has been interred in our undercroft. The church musical director composed a special anthem using the poet’s words’ close on 50 living members of the Coleridge family attended, the day included poetry readings and a tour of STC’s village. We were honoured to have Seamus Perry, Professor of English Literature; Fellow and Tutor, Balliol College come and give us a talk on the poet’s life and works in Highgate.
COLERIDGE HAD BEEN LIVING in the west country, in Bristol and then in Wiltshire, since 1814, having retreated from London; but he was back in the city by the end of March 1816, intending to present his new play Zapolya to the theatres with a view to production. But amid this activity his health crashed. He took to his bed, in the care of a physician, one Dr Adams, who was evidently anxious about his charge for he wrote to his colleague Dr James Gillman, asking whether Gillman might be able to help with this unusual case: what Coleridge wanted was seclusion, a garden, and someone who would firmly forbid him laudanum. ‘Be so good as to inform me’, wrote Adams, ‘whether such a proposal is absolutely inconsistent with your family arrangements. I should not have proposed it, but on account of the great importance of the character, as a literary man. His communicative temper will make his society very interesting, as well as useful’.[i]
So, on 13 April 1816 Coleridge duly showed up at Moreton House on Highgate Hill, where the Gillmans were then living. James Gillman later touchingly recalled that a visitor present at this first meeting with Coleridge discreetly withdrew, mistaking them for old friends. That story may show the inventiveness of retrospect: Gillman’s memory that, when Coleridge showed up as his new house-guest the following Monday, he was carrying the proofs of ‘Christabel’ is certainly a nice invention.[ii] (Christabel had only been put under contract a few days before.) But Gillman wasn’t wrong to imply that they hit it off at once, and that Coleridge at once felt himself finally in a place where he would be at home and able to work. He was never to leave the Gillman household. In November 1823, he moved with his hosts to the famous address: 3, The Grove. Originally he occupied a room on the second floor, next to the Gillmans’ bedroom; but when he discovered the attic, with its view over Caen Wood, he requested a move:[iii]
‘I am specially delighted with my room’, he wrote, ‘G. has done wonders’ (to William Worship, 29 December 1826), the wonders in question being some building work that transformed the sloping attic ceiling into a flat roof so as to make the room more spacious; he called it his ‘book-study-bed room’ (to Edward Coleridge, 8 February 1826), and it was there that he established himself in his new and final role as Sage. He was actually only in his forties but everyone thought him much older as becomes a sage: he was, as his estranged wife Sara back home in Keswick was surprised to learn, ‘quite grey haired’ (to Thomas Poole, June 1817). Nevertheless if his powers were diminished they had certainly not been extinguished by the trials of his addiction. His old friend Charles Lamb was not the only one to find ‘his essentials not touched; he is very bad, but then he wonderfully picks up another day, and his face, when he repeats his verses, hath its ancient glory; an archangel a little damaged’ (to Wordsworth, 26 April 1816).
The striking figure of Coleridge seems to have become quickly established as a feature of the locality, and in just a few years’ time he had become part of the diligent literary tourist’s itinerary. He had visitors at all times, but from 1820 or so he established Thursday afternoons and evenings as the time when the intellectually curious were most welcome to attend what he called his ‘conversazione’ – or, as he ruefully admitted, since he did almost all the talking himself, ‘Oneversazione’ (to Thomas Allsop, 5 May 1829). These events are hard to imagine: reports suggest that Coleridge just spoke on some abstruse metaphysical topic, sometimes literally for hours, and the young men tried to keep up, murmuring admiration when Coleridge paused for a moment or two at the end of a spoken paragraph, and whispering to one another things such as ‘That last was very fine’ or ‘He is beyond himself to-day’.[iv] This may sound like a strange kind of cerebral spectator sport, but Coleridge quickly built up a loyal following of questers for truth, a set of young brilliant men many of whom would go on to prominent lives in the Victorian intelligentsia.
Leigh Hunt painted a vivid portrait of the Highgate Sage in his autobiography (1828): It is no secret that Mr. Coleridge lives in the Grove at Highgate with a friendly family, who have sense and kindness enough to know that they do themselves an honour by looking after the comforts of such a man. His room looks upon a delicious prospect of wood and meadow, with coloured gardens under the window, like an embroidery to the mantle. I thought, when I first saw it, that he had taken up his dwelling-place like an abbot. Here he cultivates his flowers, and has a set of birds for his pensioners, who come to breakfast with him. He may be seen taking his daily stroll up and down, with his black coat and white locks, and a book in his hand; and is a great acquaintance of the little children. His main occupation, I believe, is reading.[v]
Coleridge was probably not a very good parent but he always loved children, including his own, and his relationship with the children of Highgate does indeed seem, from various sources, to have been affectionate and avuncular. And if the main impression Coleridge left on Highgate’s children was astonishment and bewilderment then that didn’t make them much different from the grown-ups. Meeting Coleridge was always to meet someone who talked but by this stage of his life his talking had become a vocation, or perhaps a compulsion. Coleridge did not always, or perhaps ever, pitch his conversation mindful of his audience in the way that a more normal conversationalist would do: it is as though he needed an interlocutor in order the better to talk to himself: the children were only an extreme case of the normal state of affairs.
Here is the testimony of Rev. William Harness, who was Vicar of All Saints in Knightsbridge: Coleridge, in his old age, became a characteristic feature in Highgate. He was the terror and amusement of all the little children who bowled their hoops along the poplar avenue. Notwithstanding his fondness for them—he called them ‘Kingdom-of-Heaven-ites’—his Cyclopean figure and learned language caused them indescribable alarm. Sometimes he would lay his hand on the shoulders of one of them and walk along discoursing metaphysics to the trembling captive, while the rest fled for refuge and peeped out with laughing faces from behind the trees. ‘I never,’ he exclaimed one day to the baker’s boy—‘I never knew a man good because he was religious, but I have known one religious because he was good’.[vi]
The celebrated comic actor Charles Mathews, who knew Coleridge, did a famous impersonation of Coleridge stopping an apothecary’s boy, suddenly overwhelmed with a philosophical matter: Coleridge. “Boy, did you never reflect upon the magnificence and beauty of the external universe?” Boy. “No, sir, never,” &c., &c.[vii]
Within Coleridge’s own lifetime these stories were circulating and establishing an ambiguous kind of celebrity for him, of which he was aware. This, for instance, was published in a journal called Le Déjeuné, or Companion for the Breakfast Table in 1820:
A friend of ours, who as he often observed, was the very antipodes of literature, paid a morning visit to some friends at Highgate, and afterwards returned to lunch at the Inn; here he discovered a gentleman in earnest conversation with a carrier, who was every moment lifting up his hand in ecstasy as the poet revealed some of the mysteries of his art. Our friend gradually approached the stranger, and was equally fascinated with the talismanic influence of his conversation; hour after hour passed imperceptibly, and still he found himself unable to quit the presence of this wizard. Five o’clock at last struck, and only on Mr. C. rising to go away, was he able to follow the example. We asked him afterwards what he thought of the poet; ‘by G-d,’ he replied with enthusiasm, ‘the fellow’s either mad, or else he’s the greatest genius that ever lived. I thought human ability could never have possessed such powers of fascination’.[viii]
And as a final record of the Coleridge effect, here is the poet and man of letters Samuel Rogers, who called on him in Highgate with a distinguished fellow guest, and recorded his own impression of those impressive powers:
Wordsworth and myself […] had walked to Highgate to call on Coleridge, when he was living at Gillman’s. We sat with him two hours, he talking the whole time without intermission. When we left the house, we walked for some time without speaking—‘What a wonderful man he is!’ exclaimed Wordsworth. ‘Wonderful, indeed,’ said I. ‘What depth of thought, what richness of expression!’ continued Wordsworth. ‘There’s nothing like him that ever I heard,’ rejoined I,—another pause. ‘Pray,’ inquired Wordsworth, ‘did you precisely understand what he said about the Kantian philosophy?’ R. ‘Not precisely.’ W. ‘Or about the plurality of worlds?’ R. ‘I can’t say I did. In fact, if the truth must out, I did not understand a syllable from one end of his monologue to the other.’ W. ‘No more did I’.[ix]
Wordsworth once said that he was intellectually indebted to only two people: his sister Dorothy and Coleridge, so there is something rather poignant, as well as funny, about this failure to make the old connection (to William Rowan Hamilton, 25 June 1832). These stories are the reiteration of a myth, a very English myth of the intellectual, a figure of fun as well as something to be revered, quite as much as they are evidence of actual encounters; but they aren’t just myths: there obviously were many actual encounters in which Coleridge clearly did talk on at great length about things in a way that at once mesmerized and mystified his auditors. He begins to resemble, little by little, his own Ancient Mariner, who, you will remember, holds the wedding guest immobilised merely by his strange power of speech, a connection that was made by more than one contemporary.
Among the most unsympathetic of Coleridge’s auditors was Thomas Carlyle, whose vivid and brilliant pen-portrait of the Sage of Highgate captures unforgivingly the curious mixture of mental power and psychological damage that characterizes the later Coleridge, all played out in the setting of leafy Highgate: Waving blooming country of the brightest green; dotted all over with handsome villas, handsome groves; crossed by roads and human traffic, here inaudible or heard only as a musical hum: and behind all swam, under olive‑tinted haze, the illimitable limitary ocean of London, with its domes and steeples definite in the sun, big Paul’s and the many memories attached to it hanging high over all. Nowhere, of its kind, could you see a grander prospect on a bright summer day, with the set of the air going southward,—southward, and so draping with the city-smoke not you but the city. Here for hours would Coleridge talk, concerning all conceivable or inconceivable things; and liked nothing better than to have an intelligent, or failing that, even a silent and patient human listener. He distinguished himself to all that ever heard him as at least the most surprising talker extant in this world,—and to some small minority, by no means to all, as the most excellent…
But, as Carlyle goes on to say,
To sit as a passive bucket and be pumped into, whether you consent or not, can in the long‑run be exhilarating to no creature; how eloquent soever the flood of utterance that is descending. But if it be withal a confused unintelligible flood of utterance, threatening to submerge all known landmarks of thought, and drown the world and you!—I have heard Coleridge talk, with eager musical energy, two stricken hours, his face radiant and moist, and communicate no meaning whatsoever to any individual of his hearers,—certain of whom, I for one, still kept eagerly listening in hope; the most had long before given up, and formed (if the room were large enough) secondary humming groups of their own. He began anywhere: you put some question to him, made some suggestive observation; instead of answering this, or decidedly setting out towards answer of it, he would accumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim‑bladders, transcendental life‑preservers and other precautionary and vehiculatory gear, for setting out; perhaps did at last get under way,—but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by the glance of some radiant new game on this hand or that, into new courses; and ever into new; and before long into all the Universe, where it was uncertain what game you would catch, or whether any.
His talk, alas, was distinguished, like himself, by irresolution …[x]
Carlyle’s idea of an author was someone motivated by a complete and heroic singleness of purpose, and that Coleridge never had, always being more interested, as the late John Beer put it, in exploring possibility than enunciating firm solutions; but this openness, for all the hindrance it placed in the path of a more normal literary life, made him a much greater writer and thinker than Carlyle. The open-endedness of even a mostly one-sided conversation – for conversation never comes to a conclusion – suited his kind of mind perfectly. But it is also true that during his Highgate years he managed to capture some of the spirit of his talk and get that into print too: his final eighteen years were remarkably productive, especially for someone who is often said to have sunk into incurable drug addiction. He never shook off the drugs completely, but Gillman evidently established a civilised regime which was wholly enabling. Coleridge gave lectures; he wrote important political essays and a study of the relations between Church and State; he published what was for a long time his most influential prose work, a study in Christian philosophy called Aids to Reflection; and he continued to write in his voluminous notebooks, thousands and thousands of words that might, but of course didn’t, have brought his long reflective life to a conclusive synthesis of all its miscellaneous component parts.
There is no doubt that his life at Highgate was a late blessing for Coleridge, and his more waspish contemporaries, such as Thomas de Quincey, thought he had rather landed on his feet with the Gillmans. It is no less clear that the Gillmans, both James and Ann, thought they had landed on their feet having Coleridge about the house. Gillman, although much younger, lasted only a few years after Coleridge’s death, and his widow thought he had never recovered from the loss.[xi] Their grand-daughter Lucy Watson, who had known Ann Gillman as an old lady, many years later in 1925 published an account of Coleridge at Highgate, and one of the main impressions left by that account is the obvious devotion which Coleridge inspired in them and the tremendous kindness he showed towards his adopted family, although, needless to say, being Coleridge, affection could take somewhat mystifying forms: My father in his youth was sometimes sent up to the Poet’s room by his parents to ask for assistance on some difficult point in his school studies; this the poet often volunteered to give; but on one occasion, my father afterwards told me, his mentor gave him such a long discourse interspersed with so many illustrations, even going back to the days of Creation, that waiting in vain for the desired elucidation, he was obliged to walk backwards to the door; then gradually in the same position going down the stairs, the Poet stepping down after him still enforcing his argument—he had to take advantage of a third person’s appearance, and retreat with his exercise out of the garden door.[xii]
Not that escaping into the garden was a guarantee of safety as Coleridge loved the garden, as he loved the walks around Highgate: his fondness for the place must in part have stemmed from the way it satisfied at once his two most basic, contradictory, needs – both a proximity to the metropolitan centre and the removal of a rural retreat, that ‘delicious prospect of wood and meadow’ that Leigh Hunt described. Coleridge clearly adored the place. He told a correspondent: ‘the views from the garden-side are substitutes for Cumberland especially from the attic in which I and my books are now installed’ (to William Worship, December 1823 [?]): a substitute for Cumberland – who needs the Lake District? He described to another correspondent the place’s ‘delicious Groves and Alleys— one [of] the finest in England, a grand Cathedral Aisle of giant Lime-trees’ (to Henry Crabb Robinson, 15 June 1817). If he was getting restless or troubled towards the end of the day, the ever-attentive Mrs Gillman would, as someone remembered, suggest a walk ‘to view the sunset from the Scotch Fir Grove, and thus restore his spirits by her sympathetic attention to his rapturous remarks’.[xiii] In his ‘Dejection: An Ode’ Coleridge gazes at the sunset in the hope of finding some relief from his unhappiness, and find no consolation; in Highgate, it appears, the sunset medicine never failed. He was, as the great R.D. Rawnsley recorded, ‘a lover of the clouds, if ever a poet was’ so it was ‘fortunate he pitched his tent on a hill from which, on most days and most nights, he could watch the memorable “goings on in the heavens”’.[xiv] It is striking to think of him gazing at Highgate clouds at the same time as John Constable was sketching them.
The bed and book room had a western aspect and Coleridge would summon the children and other members of the household upstairs to look at a particularly good sunset.[xv] His nephew Henry
Nelson Coleridge later recollected: How well I remember this Midsummer-day! I shall never pass such another. The sun was setting behind Caen Wood, and the calm of the evening was so exceedingly deep that it arrested Mr. Coleridge’s attention. We were alone together in Mr. Gillman’s drawing-room, and Mr. C. left off talking, and fell into an almost trance-like state for ten minutes whilst contemplating the beautiful prospect before us. His eyes swam in tears, his head inclined a little forward, and there was a slight uplifting of the fingers, which seemed to tell me that he was in prayer. I was awe-stricken, and remained absorbed in looking at the man, in forgetfulness of external nature, when he recovered himself, and after a word or two fell by some secret link of association upon Spenser’s poetry. Upon my telling him that I did not very well recollect the Prothalamion: ‘Then I must read you a bit of it,’ said he, and, fetching the book from the next room, he recited the whole of it in his finest and most musical manner. I particularly bear in mind the sensible diversity of tone and rhythm with which he gave: –
‘Sweet Thames! run softly till I end my song’ …
Henry Nelson Coleridge ends his little memoir with a familiar note in Coleridgean reminiscence: ‘When I look upon the scanty memorial, which I have alone preserved of this afternoon’s converse, I am tempted to burn these pages in despair’. The reality of Coleridge always eludes the attempt to capture it, but his influence lasts nevertheless: Henry concludes his account — ‘I left him at night so thoroughly magnetized, that I could not for two or three days afterwards reflect enough to put any thing on paper’.[xvi] He was stunned: the Ancient Mariner effect.
But a meeting with Coleridge did not need always to produce such incapacity; the very best of Coleridge’s Highgate encounters, with Keats, in April 1819, seems to have had quite the opposite effect:
Last Sunday I took a Walk towards Highgate and in the lane that winds by the side of Lord Mansfield’s park I met Mr. Green our Demonstrator at Guy’s in conversation with Coleridge—I joined them, after enquiring by a look whether it would be agreeable—I walked with him at his alderman-after-dinner pace for near two miles I suppose. In those two Miles he broached a thousand things —let me see if I can give you a list—Nightingales—Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams—Nightmare—a dream accompanied by a sense of touch—single and double touch—a dream related—First and second consciousness—the difference explained between will and Volition —so say metaphysicians from a want of smoking the second consciousness—Monsters—the Kraken—Mermaids—Southey believes in them—Southey’s belief too much diluted—a Ghost story—Good morning—I heard his voice as he came towards me—I heard it as he moved away—I had heard it all the interval—if it may be called so. He was civil enough to ask me to call on him at Highgate.[xvii]
Keats didn’t call, as it happens, and so one of the great stories of English Romanticism failed to occur; but his meeting, however inconsequential and meandering it might have felt at the time, seems nevertheless to have been a momentous episode in his short writing life. For somewhen between late April and mid-May, so just a few weeks afterwards, he wrote the ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, a poem that is about nothing if it is not about ‘Nightingales—Poetry—on Poetical Sensation—Metaphysics—Different genera and species of Dreams’: ‘Was it a vision, or a waking dream?’
Coleridge later claimed he had felt that Keats was doomed: ‘when I shook him by the hand there was death!’[xviii] Coleridge himself died in 1834. His last recorded words, which he offered as evidence that although his body was failing his mind remained quite unclouded, were ‘I could even be witty’. He was buried at the Old Highgate Chapel, before being re-interred in St. Michael’s in 1961. His final resting place hasn’t always been cared for so very well, but it has always had visitors, many of them Americans. A clergyman named Prentiss visited in 1842 and wrote back home with an account of his adventure.
I have just returned from a pilgrimage to his grave at Highgate where he passed the last years of his life and where he died. The midsummer morning was perfect; and beyond the streets of London, new-made hay filled the air with its fragrance. When I reached Highgate Hill, a magnificent prospect suddenly opened before me… I soon found the house of the sexton. The name of the Poet-philosopher seemed to revive in his mind the pleasantest memories. Many and many a time, he said he had served Mr. C. at table. In his plain way he drew a picture, which anybody would recognize as that of a man remarkable alike for his gentleness and knowledge. ‘I never saw the like of it, sir. He used to walk by the hour at a time under those trees (pointing to a row of fine old trees across the street) with his hat off and a book in his hand; and he was the greatest talker in the world.’ ‘Well! What did he talk about?’ I asked. ‘Oh, about the Supreme Being, religion, eternity, and such things’…[xix]
[i] James Gillman, The Life of Coleridge (only one vol. published; 1838), 271.
[ii] Gillman, Life of Coleridge, 272; 276.
[iii] Lucy E. Watson (née Gillman), Coleridge at Highgate (1925), 51.
[iv] Life and Correspondence of John Duke Coleridge (2 vols.; 1904), ii.379; collected in S.T. Coleridge: Interviews and Recollections, ed. Seamus Perry (Basingstoke, 2000), 256.
[v] Lord Byron and Some of his Contemporaries (2nd.edn., 2 vols.; 1828), ii.53-4; Interviews and Recollections, 219.
[vi] A.G. L’Estrange, The Literary Life of the Rev. William Harness (1871), 144; Interviews and Recollections, 184-5.
[vii] The Reminiscences of Alexander Dyce, ed. Richard J. Schrader (Columbus, OH, 1972), 179; Interviews and Recollections, 190, n.1.
[viii] The Déjeuné; or, Companion for the Breakfast Table, 7 December 1820, 326; Interviews and Recollections, 190, n.1.
[ix] Recollections of the Table-Talk of Samuel Rogers (1856), 203; Interviews and Recollections, 225.
[x] Thomas Carlyle, The Life of John Sterling (1851), 70-1, 72-3; Interviews and Recollections, 236-7; 238.
[xi] Coleridge at Highgate (1925), 6; 161.
[xii] Coleridge at Highgate, 3.
[xiii] Coleridge at Highgate, 58-9.
[xiv] H.D. Rawnsley, Chapters at the English Lakes (Glasgow, 1913), 56.
[xv] Coleridge at Highgate, 53; 52.
[xvi] Henry Nelson Coleridge, Specimens of the Table Talk of the late Samuel Taylor Coleridge (2 vols.; 1835), i.66-7, n.; Interviews and Recollections, 251-2.
[xvii] From a long letter written by Keats to his brother and sister-in-law, this part dated 15 April 1819; Interviews and Recollections, 191.
[xviii] Table Talk, ii.90.
[xix] Coleridge at Highgate, 165-6.
About Seamus Perry
Seamus Perry studied at St Catherine’s College, Oxford where he took his undergraduate (1989) and graduate (1995) degrees. He was Oakeshott Junior Research Fellow at Lincoln College, Oxford from 1995 to 1998 before moving to the University of Glasgow from 1998 to 2003 where he was Lecturer and then Reader in English Literature. On his return to the University of Oxford in 2003 he became a Fellow of Balliol College, Oxford and a lecturer in the English Faculty. In 2014 he was appointed Professor of English Literature in the Faculty of English at Oxford.
Perry’s research interests lie mainly in the field of English Romantic poetry and thought, in particular in the works of Coleridge and Wordsworth. His other academic interest is in post-Romantic English poetry, in particular in the writings of Tennyson, Eliot, Auden, Larkin and the writers influenced by them. He also has an interest in the modern history of literary criticism, having written articles on the literary scholars and critics A. C. Bradley, William Empson, F. W. Bateson and M. H. Abrams. He writes regularly for the London Review of Books, The Times Literary Supplement and other publications. With the British literary critic and scholar Sir Christopher Ricks and Freya Johnston he is co-editor of the journal Essays in Criticism: A Quarterly Journal of Literary Criticism (OUP), the general editor of the series 21st-Century Oxford Authors (OUP) and the Oxford edition of the works of William Empson.