What Did William Wordsworth Do to Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by Pieter Vandyke, 1795. Copyright courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, used with permission.

When a great ego collides with a crippling addiction, the results are sure to be catastrophic. So it was for the “friendship” that existed during the late 1790s and 1800s between William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1832.)

Wordsworth’s single-minded ambition fed his ego, while Coleridge’s addiction resulted from his heavy consumption of opium, which he believed he needed to inspire his creativity.

In her review of Adam Sisman’s book, “The Friendship, Wordsworth and Coleridge,” in The Telegraph, Frances Wilson takes issue with Sisman’s somewhat unsympathetic view of the troubled and dreamy Coleridge. Indeed, when looking at the material available, it does seem as though Wordsworth was far from sympathetic towards his needy poet friend, and on occasion, rather cruel.

The Beginning of England’s Romantic Poetry Revolution

Coleridge, son of a Devonshire vicar, moved to Nether Stowey on the edge of the Quantock Hills, not far from the home of Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. The two poets got together and became friends, and then they decided to compile their experimental, major work in English poetry, the Lyrical Ballads, which were to spawn the revolution of England’s Romantic Poetry.

Coleridge’s important contribution was The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. However, he was known for starting poems and not finishing them. His lack of faith in his own creative genius was sadly lacking, and he lost heart easily.

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In his article, “Cruel Wordsworth drove Coleridge to brink of death” in the Sunday Times, Nicholas Helien says, “William Wordsworth, poet and romantic, is to be portrayed in a controversial BBC feature film as a bully, who betrayed his closest friend and collaborator, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, driving him into a drug addiction that nearly killed him.”

Manipulative Behaviour

Richard Holmes, the Coleridge biographer who researched the film, put forward a number of issues between the pair, some of them related to their work and others of a more personal nature. He claims that Wordsworth was a bully, uninterested in helping or saving his friend. Instead, Wordsworth decided to profit from his friend’s addiction by spurring him into an even more excessive consumption of opium. It was nothing more than an experiment by Wordsworth, in order to “…reap the poetic rewards of the vision.”

According to Helien, the makers of the film, “Pandaemonium” believed the decline in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s health and his lack of faith in himself and his own creativity, could be directly attributed to William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. Holmes quotes Frank Cottrell Boyce, who wrote the screenplay:

“Coleridge was looking for a father figure and he found one in Wordsworth. But Wordsworth betrayed him. He was feeding on two other geniuses – his sister Dorothy and Coleridge.”

It seems a strange claim to suggest that Coleridge might discover a father-figure in Wordsworth, since there were only two years’ difference in age between the two poets. While it seems fair to say that Coleridge needed to latch onto a stronger personality he believed he could trust, a more fitting comparison might be that of a concerned older brother.

The problem was William Wordsworth’s inability to understand Coleridge’s originality and vision. Biographers describe Coleridge as a weaker personality, but maybe this is to judge him too harshly. He was a man of great imagination and sensitivity. Coleridge was unable to withstand such harsh criticism and rejection and so he did not publish the work spurned by Wordsworth. Instead, he turned to opium for both consolation and inspiration.

Crisis of Creativity

In the year 1800, William Wordsworth was preparing the second edition of the Lyrical Ballads. To Coleridge’s distress, Wordsworth rejected his poem “Christabel,” generally considered to be one of his greatest works. As a result, Coleridge had, what Jenny Fabian, in her essay title, describes as “Coleridge’s Crisis of Creativity.”

By this time, Coleridge was suffering from a constant fear of failure, as well as a lack of confidence and self-esteem, qualities that propelled him into an even deeper addiction to opium.

Below is a video of a scene from the film, Pandaemonium, starring John Hannah as William Wordsworth and Linus Roache as Samuel Taylor Coleridge.


Helien’s article quotes Michael Kustow, the film’s producer: “Coleridge, who had already been exploring the effect of opium on his writing upped his intake for solace. His consumption was staggering. He began to gulp laudanum – liquid opium – as if it were wine.”

The article explains that Coleridge would take one hundred drops of laudanum at one time, and was spending around £5 a week on opium, an enormous amount of money at that time, reckoned to be the equivalent of two weeks’ average earnings. Wordsworth only used the drug if he had something wrong with him; a toothache or some other bodily pain.

Support for William Wordsworth

The film’s claims have been hotly disputed by Jonathan Wordsworth, a descendant of William Wordsworth. He told Nicholas Helien that, on the contrary, Wordsworth had been “massively supportive” of Coleridge. According to Jonathan Wordsworth, the only mistake made was by Montagu, for telling Coleridge what Wordsworth had written.

This seems illogical. After all, whether or not Coleridge knew about Wordsworth’s betrayal, it would have made no difference to its intended result – that of a further rejection by refusing to allow the unfortunate Coleridge to move into Wordsworth’s London lodgings. It was a betrayal, regardless of whether the victim had knowledge of it.

Further, Jonathan Wordsworth refused to blame Coleridge’s decline on Wordsworth’s reluctance to publish his work. Instead, he blamed Coleridge’s depression and addiction on the poet’s unconsummated love affair with his sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson. (Coleridge had been married, but the marriage, unsurprisingly, had broken down.)

The other contributing factor, according to Jonathan Wordsworth in his interview with Helien, was this: “It is also not Wordsworth’s fault that Coleridge began to talk a great deal of metaphysics and took the view that he was no longer worthy of being a poet.”

Again, can this be a fair evaluation? Visionary poetry was what Coleridge did best. Wordsworth knew this when the two men collaborated  on their great project.

Did Wordsworth Abandon Coleridge?

On 14 October, 1803, Coleridge wrote to Thomas Poole (letter reprinted in Romanticism An Anthology, edited by Duncan Wu):

“I now see very little of Wordsworth. My own health makes it inconvenient and unfit for me to go thither one third as often as I used to do – and Wordsworth’s indolence, etc. keeps him at home. Indeed, were I an irritable man (and an unthinking one,) I should probably have considered myself as having been very unkindly used by him in this respect, for I was at one time confined for two months, and he never came to see me – me, who had ever paid such unremitting attention to him!”

By, 1810, the situation was dire. Coleridge was depressed and unproductive. He left the Wordsworths’ house in the Lake District and went to lodgings in the London residence of Basil Montagu. Even here, the poet would find no haven. Wordsworth had pre-empted him, by writing to Montagu, telling him that Coleridge was no more than “a drunken nuisance,”  explains Helien in the Sunday Times article.

(Christabel and Other Poems, (Christabel was the unfinished poem turned down by Wordsworth) was not published until many years later, in 1817 on the initiative of Byron.)

STC quote

“The universe… an immense heap of little things.” ~Samuel Coleridge. Image by Decoded Past.

A Literary-Cormorant

In fact, Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s predilection for metaphysics in his poetry is well documented.

The “Lyrical Ballads” entry in The Oxford Companion to English Literature, edited by Margaret Drabble, quotes Coleridge from his Biogaphica Literatia, chapter xiv, describing their collaboration:

“…it was agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and characters supernatural or at least romantic… Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself as his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday.”

A further example is a letter he wrote dated 19 November, 1796, to John Thelwall (letter reprinted in Romanticism, An Anthology, edited by Duncan Wu) where he expressed his innermost feelings. Here is the relevant passage:

“I am and ever have been, a great reader and have read almost everything, a literary-cormorant. I am deep in all out of the way books, whether of the monkish times of of the puritanical era. I have read and digested most of the historical writers, but I do not like history. Metaphysics and poetry and “facts of mind” (ie. accounts of all the strange phantasms that ever possessed your philosophy-dreamers from Thoth the Egyptian to Taylor the English pagan) are my darling studies.”

Breakdown, Recovery and a New Path

Coleridge suffered a mental and physical breakdown at the end of 1813 and had treatment in Bristol, before spending time to recuperate with friends. Then, in 1816, he went to Highgate and settled in the home of Dr. James Gilman, where he remained until the end of his life.

Although the publication of Christabel was imminent, as well as the publication of his collected poems Sybilline Leaves (1817,) his career as a poet was, in essence, finished. He filled the gap by becoming a philosopher and lecturer and he gained a group of enthusastic intellectuals around him, including key literary figures of that time, radical philosopher, William Godwin (who married Mary Wollstonecraft) and the essayist, Charles Lamb.

A Philosophical Evaluation

Although he may not have achieved the poetic commendations he yearned for from Wordsworth and his peers, Coleridge is now remembered, deservedly, for his visionary originality. The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English, under the entry Samuel Taylor Coleridge, says:

“Coleridge’s reputation as a poet is secured by a small, though radiant, corpus of major works… His theory of the poetic imagination as a unifying and mediating power within divided modern cultures, provided one of the central ideas of Romantic aesthetics, and his dialectical juxtapositions of reason and understanding, culture and civilization, and mechanical and organic form, shaped the vocabulary of its recoil from Utilitarianism. Yet much of Coleridge’s work is shot through with self-doubt and fears for his Christian belief, a metaphysical anxiety that seems to anticipate modern existentialism.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for all his mental illness, eccentricities and opium addiction, was truly a remarkable visionary and philosophical poet whose influence will continue to enrich English literature.

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  1. I wouldn’t judge Wordsworth too harshly. It’s difficult to be sympathetic to a drug addict needing money all the time. Wordsworth had his own agenda in life and that he remained friendly to Coleridge says a great deal about his character.

    • Hi Chandran,

      Thanks for your comment. I feel Coleridge seemed to inspire great loyalty from other friends, so why not from Wordsworth, with whom he collaborated? The rejection of the ms, later considered good enough to be published, was a major blow to STC. But you are right – there is always more to the story than is apparent on the surface.!


      • “To Coleridge’s distress, Wordsworth rejected his poem “Christabel’!

        This is utter codswallop. (a) it didn’t exist, and (b) both poets agreed that it sat oddly with the professed agenda for Lyrical Ballads – poetry of the every day. It was a decade or more before Coleridge accepted that he never was going to finish it so he had better publish it as a fragment. The poem was an absolute favourite in the Wordsworth household. The evidence is clear and categorical that Wordsworth admired it and anticipated seeing the poem in a lavishly produced collectors’ edition just as soon as Coleridge could be induced to finish it.

  2. While I do not think Wordsworth could have been expected to completely heal Coleridge’s deep psychological wounds (which led, I feel, to his crippling guilt and self-esteem issues; which in turn led to his opium and Asra addictions), some of which were probably inflicted during his childhood as the youngest, smallest, and weakest male member of his large and typically hardy family, I would suggest that Wordsworth’s obvious failure to perceive the nature and needfulness of a remedy for his friend’s maladies may itself stand as a mature objection to the canonized view of Wordsworth as a great genius and poet of nature. Yes, Wordsworth’s facility as a poet was most advanced, and the beauties of his verse are inarguable. But the word genius shares a root – gen – with the word genial; and geniality implies a certain openness and receptiveness to, as well as a care for others that Wordsworth’s actions imply he did not really possess. Coupled with the reportage of his selfishness vis-a-vis Coleridge, Wordsworth’s epic poems about the growth of his own mind seem spiritually hamstringed by the seemingly contingent fact that however much his mind may have grown during his meditations on nature, his heart did not follow suit. Thus there is a kind of inconsistency between the man and his verse that casts a shadow over the poetry so celebrated for its luminosity, its insight into what it means to be human; and I don’t think that such an inconsistency can or should be ignored by scholars of Romantic literature. In the last analysis, perhaps Wordsworth was simply a good writer, who knew how to create a certain kind of voice that grows into a humanity, under the eye of the human reader, that the man himself did not really possess. By contrast, Coleridge, whose poetic output is known to be inferior to Wordsworth’s, may have after all been the more human of the two. In fact, I am not sure there is a figure in history who is quite so human as was Coleridge.