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May 4 1812: Coleridge writes to Wordsworth

On May 4 1812, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, in his own defence, writes a very long overwrought letter to William Wordsworth. The day before, Coleridge had discussed the quarrel with Henry Crabb Robinson who will now step forward to try and mediate their dispute. Coleridge wants first to set out in a "preparatory" letter his side of what transpired. He wants to clear the air before he and Wordsworth proceed further. To do so, Coleridge employs his extraordinary command of the language to explain, justify and plead his case, coming across both magnificently and childish in equal measures. Coleridge wants to make it clear that he did not tell others about their quarrel but he has to admit that he told Mary Lamb, the Morgans, Southey, Sir George Beaumont and very briefly also Mrs. Clarkson.  He also thinks it is important to defend his use of powder in his hair. He thus ends the letter with an odd juxtaposition: defending the use of powder in his hair and concluding with a heartfelt expression of his love for Wordsworth: 
And as to the powder, it was first put in to prevent my taking cold after my hair had been thinned, and I was advised to continue it till I became wholly grey, as in its then state it looked as if I had dirty powder in my hair, and even when known to be only the everywhere-mixed-grey, yet contrasting with a face even younger than my real age it gave a queer and contradictory character to my whole appearance. Whatever be the result of this long-delayed explanation, I have loved you and yours too long and too deeply to have it in my own power to cease to do so.
The full text of Coleridge's letter is reproduced below. For more on the quarrel see my earlier post here.
TO WILLIAM WORDSWORTH ,
71, Berners Street, Monday, May 4, 1812.

I will divide my statement, which I will endeavour to send you to-morrow, into two parts, in separate letters. The latter, commencing from the Sunday night, 28 October, 1810, that is, that on which the communication was made to me, and which will contain my solemn avowal of what was said by Mr. and Mrs. Montagu, you will make what use of you please — but the former I write to you, and in confidence — yet only as far as to your own heart it shall appear evident, that in desiring it I am actuated by no wish to shrink personally from any test, not involving an acknowledgement of my own degradation, and so become a false witness against myself, but only by delicacy towards the feelings of others, and the dread of spreading the curse of dissension. But, Wordsworth! the very message you sent by Lamb and which Lamb did not deliver to me from the anxiety not to add fuel to the flame, sufficiently proves what I had learnt on my first arrival at Keswick, and which alone prevented my going to Grasmere — namely, that you had prejudged the case.  

As soon as I was informed that you had denied having used certain expressions, I did not hesitate a moment (nor was it in my power to do so) to give you my fullest faith, and approve to my own consciousness the truth of my declaration, that I should have felt it as a blessing, though my life had the same instant been hazarded as the pledge, could I with firm conviction have given Montagu the lie, at the conclusion of his story, even as, at the very first sentence, I exclaimed — " Impossible! It is impossible!" The expressions denied were indeed only the most offensive part to the feelings — but at the same time I learnt that you did not hesitate instantly to express your conviction that Montagu never said those words and that I had invented them — or (to use your own words) "had forgotten myself." Grievously indeed, if I know aught of my nature, must I have forgotten both myself and common honesty, could I have been villain enough to have invented and persevered in such atrocious falsehoods.

Your message was that "if I declined an explanation, you begged I would no longer continue to talk about the affair." When, Wordsworth, did I ever decline an explanation? From you I expected one, and had a right to expect it — for let Montagu have added what he may, still that which remained was most unkind and what I had little deserved from you, who might by a single question have learnt from me that I never made up my mind to lodge with Montagu and had tacitly acquiesced in it at Keswick to tranquillise Mrs. Coleridge, to whom Mrs. Montagu had made the earnest professions of watching and nursing me, and for whom this and her extreme repugnance to my original, and much wiser, resolution of going to Edinburgh and placing myself in the house, and under the constant eye, of some medical man, were the sole grounds of her assent that I should leave the North at all. Yet at least a score of times have I begun to write a detailed account, to Wales  and afterwards to Grasmere, and give it up from excess of agitation, — till finally I learnt that all of your family had decided against me unheard — and that [you begged] I would no longer talk about it. If, Wordsworth, you had but done me the common justice of asking those with whom I have been most intimate and confidential since my first arrival in Town in Oct., 1810, you would have received other negative or positive proofs how little I needed the admonition or deserve the sarcasm. Talk about it? O God! it has been talked about! and that it had, was the sole occasion of my disclosing it even to Mary Lamb, the first person who heard of it from me and that not voluntarily — but that morning a friend met me, and communicated what so agitated me that then having previously meant to call at Lamb's I was compelled to do so from faintness and universal trembling, in order to sit down. Even to her I did not intend to mention it; but alarmed by the wildness and paleness of my countenance and agitation I had no power to conceal, she entreated me to tell her what was the matter.

In the first attempt to speak, my feelings overpowered me; an agony of weeping followed, and then, alarmed at my own imprudence and conscious of the possible effect on her health and mind if I left her in that state of suspense, I brought out convulsively some such words as —" Wordsworth, Wordsworth has given me up. He has no hope of me — I have been an absolute nuisance  in his family" — and when long weeping had relieved me, andI was able to relate the occurrence connectedly, she can bear witness for me that, disgraceful as it was that I should be made the topic of vulgar gossip, yet that " had the whole and ten times more been proclaimed by a speaking-trumpet from the chimneys, I should have smiled at it — or indulged indignation only as far as it excited me to pleasurable activity — but that you had said it, this and this only, was the sting ! the scorpion-tooth ! " Mr. Morgan and afterwards his wife and her sister were made acquainted with the whole case — and why ? Not merely that I owed it to their ardent friendship, which has continued to be mainly my comfort and my only support, but because

they had already heard of it, in part — because a most intimate and dear friend of Mr. and Mrs. Montagu's had urged Mr. Morgan to call at the Montagus in order to be put on his guard against me. He came to me instantly, told me that I had enemies at work against my character, and pressed me to leave the hotel and to come home with him — with whom I have been ever since, with the exception of a few intervals when, from the bitter consciousness of my own infirmities and increasing irregularity of temper, I took lodgings, against his will, and was always by his zealous friendship brought back again. If it be allowed to call any one on earth Saviour, Morgan and his family have been my Saviours, body and soul. For my moral will was, and I fear is, so weakened relatively to my duties to myself, that I cannot act, as I ought to do, except under the influencing knowledge of its effects on those I love and believe myself loved by. To him likewise I explained the affair ; but neither from him or his family has one word ever escaped me concerning it. Last autumn Mr. and Mrs. Southey came to town, and at Mr. Ray's at Richmond, as we were walking alone in the garden, the subject was introduced, and it became my duty to state the whole affair to them, even as the means of transmitting it to you. With these exceptions I do not remember ever to have made any one my confidant — though in two or three instances I have alluded to the suspension of our familiar intercourse without explanation, but even here only- where I knew or fully believed the persons to have already heard of it. Such was Mrs. Clarkson, who wrote to me in consequence of one sentence in a letter to her; yet even to her I entered into no detail, and disclosed nothing that was not necessary to my own defence in not continuing my former correspondence. In short, the one only thing which I have to blame in myself was that in my first letter to Sir G. Beaumont I had concluded with a desponding remark allusive to the breach between us, not in the slightest degree suspecting that he was ignorant of it. In the letters, which followed, I was compelled to say more (though I never detailed the words which had been uttered to me) in consequence of Lady Beaumont's expressed apprehension and alarm lest in the advertisement for my lectures the sentence "concerning the Living Poets" contained an intention on my part to attack your literary merits. The very thought, that I could be imagined capable of feeling vindictively toward you at all, much more of gratifying the passion in so despicable as well as detestable manner, agitated me. I sent her Ladyship the verses composed after your recitation of the great Poem at Coleorton, and desired her to judge whether it was possible that a man, who had written that poem, could be capable of such an act, and in a letter to Sir G. B., anxious to remove from his mind the assumption that I had been agitated by the disclosure of any till then unknown actions of mine or parts of conduct, I endeavoured to impress him with the real truth that not the facts disclosed, but the manner and time and the person by whom and the person to whom they had been disclosed, formed the whole ground of the breach. And writing in great agitation I once again used the same words which had venially burst from me the moment Montagu had ended his account. " And this is cruel ! this is hase / " I did not reflect on it till it was irrevocable — and for that one word, the only word of positive reproach that ever escaped from me, I feel sorrow — and assure you, that there is no permanent feeling in my heart which corresponds to it. Talk about it ? Those who have seen me and been with me, day by day, for so many many months could have told you, how anxiously every allusion to the subject was avoided — and with abundant reason — for immediate and palpable derangement of body as well as spirits regularly followed it. Besides, had there not existed in your mind — let me rather say, if ever there had existed any portion of esteem and regard for me since the autumn of 1810, would it have been possible that your quick and powerful judgement could have overlooked the gross improbability, that I should first invent and then scatter abroad for talk at public tables the phrases which (Mr. Robinson yesterday informed me) Mr. Sharon Turner was indelicate enough to trumpet abroad at Longman's table ? I at least will call on Mr. Sharon and demand his authority. It is my full conviction, that in no one of the hundred tables at which any particulars of our breach have been mentioned, could the authority be traced back to those who had received the account from myself. 

It seemed unnatural to me, nay, it was unnatural to me to write to you or to any of your family with a cold exclusion of the feelings which almost overpower me even at this moment, and I therefore write this preparatory letter to disburthen my heart, as it were, before I sit down to detail my recollections simply, and unmixed with the anguish which, spite of my best efforts, accompany them. But one thing more, the last complaint that you will hear from me, perhaps. When without my knowledge dear Mary Lamb, just then on the very verge of a relapse, wrote to Grasmere, was it kind or even humane to have returned such an answer, as Lamb deemed it unadvisable to shew me; but which I learnt from the only other person, who saw the answer, amounted in substance to a sneer on my reported high sj)irits and my wearing powder? When and to whom did I ever make a merit of my sufferings? Is it consistent now to charge me with going about complaining to everybody, and now with my high spirits? Was I to carry a gloomy face into every society? or ought I- not rather to be grateful that in the natural activity of my intellect God had given me a counteracting principle to the intensity of my feelings, and a means of escaping from a part of the pressure? But for this I had been driven mad, and yet for how many months was there a continual brooding and going on of the one gnawing recollection behind the curtain of my outward being, even when I was most exerting myself, and exerting myself more in order the more to benumb it ! I might have truly said with Desdemona : —

" I am not merry, but I do beguile

The Thing I am, by seeming otherwise."


And as to the powder, it was first put in to prevent my taking cold after my hair had been thinned, and I was advised to continue it till I became wholly grey, as in its then state it looked as if I had dirty powder in my hair, and even when known to be only the everywhere-mixed-grey, yet contrasting with a face even younger than my real age it gave a queer and contradictory character to my whole appearance. Whatever be the result of this long-delayed explanation, I have loved you and yours too long and too deeply to have it in my own power to cease to do so.

S. T. Coleridge.

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