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May 19 1812: Coleridge's Lectures


On May 19, 1812, Samuel Taylor Coleridge commenced his lecture series that he had to delay because of the assassination of Spencer Perceval. These lectures were not as successful as his first series  that had ended at the beginning of the year. Wordsworth was to be proven correct when the day before he had written to Mary: "I do not think they will bring him much profit. He has a world of bitter enemies, and is deplorably unpopular. Besides people of rank are very shabby for the most part, and will never pay down their five shillings when they can avoid it." Wordsworth had attended the lecture to support his friend though his comments betray a lingering estrangement. Wordsworth did praise the lectures but he thought that that Coleridge had misjudged his audience. He thought that the subject matter was "far too metaphysical and abstract. Nor was was it all generally well liked, on this account, it was not understood" Wordsworth adding "The audience was chiefly ladies; and the gentlemen there understood as little as They."[1] Richard Holmes, Coleridge's very fine biographer, explains[2]: 
The political crisis had one most immediate effect on Coleridge’s fortunes. There was a complete collapse of attendance at Willis’s Rooms. When his postponed lectures opened on 19 May, the day after Bellingham’s execution, the expected audience of 500 had dwindled to fifty. Though Lady Beaumont had distributed thirty tickets among her Mayfair friends, and the publishers John Murray and Gale and Curtis had made small group bookings, the sense of major literary occasion had dissipated, and was never recovered. The Morning Chronicle optimistically advertised all six lectures of the first series up to 5 June under the rubric “The Mirror of Fashion”. It noted the Beaumonts, Sir James Mackintosh, Samuel Rogers, William Sotheby, “Mr Wordsworth and other literary men” in attendance. But in fact the series was now entirely unfashionable. This was clearly indicated by the signal absence of Lord Byron, who was now the true “glass of fashion and mould of form”, having taken the literary world by storm with the publication of the first two Cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage in March. (“All the world is talking of it,” said Coleridge in one of his most wonderfully rueful asides, “…but from what I hear, it is exactly on the plan that I myself had not only conceived six years ago, but have the whole Scheme drawn out in one of my old Memorandum Books.”)77 The Sun newspaper recorded “an admirable display of profound research conveyed in an extraordinary proof of extemporaneous eloquence”, but in reality Coleridge was quite disheartened and attempted nothing new. He fell back on a learned discussion of ancient Greek and classical French drama, developed point by point from Schlegel and Schelling. Crabb Robinson described them as “excellent and very German”, but was evidently rather bored.78 When the second series of six began on 9 June, the season was very late, fashionable London was departing for the country, and the newspapers stopped reporting them altogether.
Far from securing his new aristocratic audience, Coleridge had barely covered his costs. He wrote wryly to Murray: “I dreamt, that a great Lord had made me a most splendid Promise; awoke, and found it as much a delusion, as if the great Lord had really made me a Promise.” He broke off his second series on 16 June, attempting a final flourish with his great set-piece lecture on Hamlet, but there were barely a score of people to hear him in the huge echoing lecture-room. Crabb Robinson (who had not attended) “felt degraded” to hear that “a great man” had been reduced to collecting 5/6d tickets at the door of Willis’s Rooms.
Notes
1.The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Volume 8  By William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, Alan G. Hill, ed (Oxford, University Press, 1993), page 85
2 . Richard Holmes Coleridge: Darker Reflections (New York: Harper Colins, 2000), page 56

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