If a fortnight ago, you’d have asked me who Hartley Coleridge was I would have said he was the baby that his proud father, Samuel Coleridge, eloquently wrote about in his great poem Frost at Midnight.
“My babe so beautiful! It thrills my heart
With tender gladness, thus to kook at thee,
And think that thou shalt learn far other lore,
And in other scenes!”
If pressed I would have added that Hartley grew up to be a writer to produce work that was now completely forgotten. Yet a chance find of a paperback in an Oxfam shop proved me wrong. Here was Bricks Without Mortar: The Selected Poems of Hartley Coleridge (Picador books) edited by Lisa Gee (2000). Whilst researching work for an anthology the poet Don Paterson was attracted to Coleridge’s poetry, and then showed it to Lisa Gee. Her selection is drawn from the 1833 volume of Hartley’s poetry edited by his brother Derwent.
One of Hartley’s unpublished manuscripts is Bricks Without Mortar from the Tower of Babel. This seductive title sounds like a fiction by Jorge Luis Borges. In fact, there’s an indirect link to Borges, for in his fiction Coleridge’s Flower Borges remarks on the “perfect fancy” of a notebook entry by S.T. Coleridge.
“If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to
him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in
his hand when he awoke – Ay! – and what then?”
Borges perceives this as “a final goal.” Correct from a poet who wrote such visionary works as The Rhyme of The Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan. Yet what would this have meant to his eldest son, Hartley? Coleridge Snr. wrote big, expansive poems with a philosophic charge. Coleridge Jnr. wrote small poems with a gentler inner exploration of the self and observations of the natural world that were imbued by a feminised awareness. It’s been said that Hartley Coleridge had more in common with his great friend the poet William Wordsworth (I would also include a similarity with John Clare.) Hartley was often a quietist who spoke (at his best) of the minutiae of life with acute sensitivity.
“The insect birds that suck nectareous juice
From straightest tubes of curly-petaled flowers,
Or catch the honey-dew that falls profuse
Through the soft air, distill’d in viewless
Whose colours seem the very souls of gems,
Or parting rays of fading diadems:-
S.T. Coleridge may have yearned for some ideal Platonic essence of a flower in Paradise to be realised in material form, whereas for Hartley the ordinary was always extraordinary. The overlooked had to be looked at with a feminine sensibility and wonderful stillness. It’s very apparent in his beautiful poem, Night.
The crackling embers on the hearth are dead;
The indoor note of industry is still;
The small birds wait not for their daily bread;
The voiceless flowers-how quietly they shed
Their nightly odours: – and the household rill,
Murmers continuous dulcet sounds that fill
The vacant expectation, and the dread
Of listening night. And haply now she sleeps:
For all the garrulous noises of the air
Are hush’d in peace; the soft dew silent weeps,
Like hopeless lovers for a maid so fair-
Oh! That I were the happy dream that creeps
To her soft heart, to find my image there.”
Hartley was known to be an egalitarian fellow mixing comfortably with the high and low of society. A great conversationalist who delighted his listeners and wrote a lot of poetry: quite a bit composed within ten minutes and regarded as pretty bad (Though the 19th century yeoman of the dales considered him “A powitt, iviry inch of ‘im.”) yet when it’s good, it can also be outstanding and sometimes great. According to scholar Andrew Keanie, Hartley very much lived in the moment greatly aided by alcohol – no doubt at the local inn where he was considered a kindly gentleman. His brother Derwent observed that Coleridge was greatly loved.
“Among his friends we must count men, women, and children, of every rank and every age…In the farmhouse or the cottage, not alone at times of rustic festivity at a sheep-shearing, a wedding, or a christening, but by the ingle side, with the grandmother or the ‘bairns’, he was made, and felt himself, at home…He would nurse an infant by the hour. A like overflowing of his affectionate nature was seen in his fondness for animals – for anything that would love him in return – simply, and for its
own sake, rather than his.”
Hartley loved cats. And in his poem To a Cat, he brings a ruthless rhyme ending when his consciousness of mortality sharply distinguishes him from an animal.
“Nelly, methinks,’wixt thee and me,
There is a kind of sympathy;
And could we interchange our nature,-
If I were cat, thou human creature,-
I should, like me, no great mouser,
And thou, like me, no great composer;
For, like thy plaintive mews, my muse,
With villainous whine doth fate abuse,
Because it has not made me sleek
As golden down on Cupid’s cheek;
And yet thou canst upon the rug lie,
Stretch’s out like snail, or curl’s up snugly,
As if thou wert not lean or ugly;
And I, who in poetic flights
Sometimes complain of sleepless nights
Regardless of the sun in heaven,
Am apt to dose till past eleven.
The world would just the same go round
If I were hang’d and thou wert drown’d;
There is one difference, tis true,-
Thou dost not know it, and I do.”
Hartley also wrote notebooks, essays and biographical pieces on other poets – Milton, Spenser and Marvell. He tried to earn his living as a teacher but wasn’t any good at it because he constantly felt intimidated by his pupils. Hartley feared they might physically assault him. (This must have fed into Hartley’s own childhood. For he was a dreamy boy who didn’t readily mix with other children; preferring his own company and his imaginary world. He even invented Ejuxira – a kingdom that had its own laws, language and customs.)
Apart from his writing any other means to earn a living seemed not to interest him. Eventually Hartley was given money by his family; his needs were modest and he got by. Despite his many friendships Hartley was lonely and unfulfilled. For Hartley was self-denigrating and considered himself unattractive to women. His childlike vulnerability and over-sensitivity was channelled into a confident poetic talent: whilst Hartley’s great social affability and his need to be a free spirit probably wasn’t grounded enough in realism.
As a poet of the 19th century he remains a major-minor voice, with a sensibility that greatly differs from either the Romantic utterances of his father or Shelley. Hartley isn’t a writer of grandiloquence or revelation. Yet his verse shines with a modesty, introspection and insight. Hartley is a democratic poet of great integrity and directedness. Both a poet of his time and yet hinting at a later Victorian period of uncertainty and doubt. Hartley’s haunting poem It Were a State Too Terrible… has an elegiac quality that reminds me of the grief of Tennyson’s In Memoriam blended with the darkness of a 20th century philosophical despair.
It were a state too terrible for man,
Too terrible and strange, and most unmeet,
To look into himself, his state to scan,
And find no precedent, no chart, or plan,
But think himself an embryo incomplete,
Else a remnant of a world effete,
Some by-blow of the universal Pan,
Great nature’s waif, that must by law escheat
To the liege-lord Corruption. Sad the case
Of man, who knows not wherefore he was made:
But he that knows the limits of his race
Not runs, but flies with prosperous winds to aid;
Or if he limps, he knows his path was trod
By saints of old, who knew their way to God.
Hartley’s great range of moods and skill is impressive. Another of his voices was of the praising kind. In the sonnet form he brilliantly praised Donne, Marvell and Shakespeare. Hartley’s remarkable and moving To Shakespeare ought to be much better known.
The soul of man is larger than the sky,
Deeper than ocean – or the abysmal dark
Of the unfathom’d centre. Like that Ark,
Which in its sacred hold uplifted high,
O’er the drown’d hills, the human family,
And stock reserved of every living kind,
So, in the compass of a single mind,
The seed and pregnant forms in essence lie,
That make all worlds. Great Poet ‘twas thy art,
To know thyself, and in thyself to be
Whate’er love, hate, ambition, destiny,
Or the firm, fatal purpose of the heart,
Can make of Man. Yet thou wert still the same,
Serene of thought, unhurt by thy own flame.
This poem recalls his father Samuel Taylor. The dramatic criticism of STC is probably not as read as much these days as his poetry. But it remains a landmark in the development of modern literary theory. In Coleridge’s writings on Shakespeare we have father and son Hartley united in their insights.
“…that in his (Shakespeare’s) very first productions he projected his mind out of his own particular being, and felt, and made others feel, on subjects no way connected with himself, except by force of contemplation and that sublime faculty by which a great mind becomes that, on which it meditates.”
Shakespeare also brings my essay full circle via its earlier remarks on Borges’s fiction on STC and Kubla Khan. For Borges also wrote on Shakespeare and that great poet’s awareness of an insubstantial I, or empty sense of self. You’ll find this in the haunting Borges’s fiction Everything and Nothing and the essay A History of the Echoes of a Name. Here Borges mentions Parolles, of All’s Well that Ends Well who announces
“Captain I’ll no more,
But I will eat and drink and sleep as soft
As captain shall. Simply the thing I am
Shall make me live.”
for which Borges’s conclusion is:-
“Thus Parolles speaks, and suddenly ceases to be a conventional character in a comic farce and becomes a man and all mankind.”
With Hartley Coleridge, as with Shelley the’ legislator’ the Romantic poet takes on the job of representing humanity.
“Twere surely hard to toil without an aim.
Then shall the toil of an immortal mind
Spending its strength for good of human kind
Have no reward on earth but empty fame?”
Answering his own doleful question, Hartley concludes his poem ‘Twere Surely Hard…with this,
“Tis aught that acts, unconsciously revealing
To mortal man his immortality.
Then think, O Poet, think how bland, how healing.
The beauty though has taught thy fellow man to see.”
Like all good poets Hartley did teach us to see. And in the selection Bricks without Mortar we have his best seeing of humanity and nature. The other, unfairly passed over, Coleridge now deserves our attention and love.
About the Author:
Alan Price lives in London. He’s a poet, short story writer, book reviewer and film critic for Filmuforia.In 2012, OUTFOXING HYENAS, a collection of his poetry was published by Indigo Dreams. This has been followed by further pamphlets and collections. His latest book THE TRIO CONFESSIONS (The High Window Press) appeared in June 2020. Alan is currently writing a novel and also working on a series of prose poems based on films.