This long pursuit, p.25
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       This Long Pursuit, p.25

           Richard Holmes

  The lecturer frequently postponed at the last minute, and in dramatic terms:

  Dear Sir, I have been confined to my Bed, with intervals of a few hours, since Saturday last … But today my illness becoming more serious, and the very possibility of my removing from my Bed or being able even to stand in a Public Room tomorrow, becoming utterly unlikely, I am obliged to advertise you thereof – whatever expenses may be incurred I shall most cheerfully pay, if indeed I live to pay …

  When he did appear, the lecturer arrived almost speechless, as he was then in the habit of consuming a pint of laudanum – opium dissolved in brandy – a day. The young Thomas De Quincey recalled:

  His appearance was generally that of a person struggling with pain and overmastering illness. His lips were baked with feverish heat, and often black in colour; and, in spite of the water which he continued drinking through the whole course of his Lecture, he seemed to labour under an almost paralytic inability to raise the upper jaw from the lower – Most unfortunately he relied on his extempore ability to carry him through.

  The lecturer was often unprepared and chaotic in appearance. Coleridge himself tells the story of how he prepared three clean white lecture shirts, but found he had slept in the first, dried his face on the second, and used the third as a foot mat. Many years later a fourth shirt, marked ‘STC’ on the collar, was found on a poor man hanging from a tree in Hyde Park.

  The lecturer often digressed from his announced topics, or never touched on them at all. The Times journalist Henry Crabb Robinson recorded: ‘Coleridge’s digressions are not the worst parts of his Lectures, or rather he is always digressing – (and they are the only parts).’

  The lecturer lost his lecture notes in mysterious circumstances, as sceptically noted by another journalist, Edward Jerningham:

  To continue the History of this Lecturer … He looked sullen and told us that He previously had prepared and written down Quotations from different Authors to illustrate the present Lecture. These Quotations he had put among the Leaves of his Pocket Book which was stolen as he was coming to the Institution. This narrative was not indulgently received, and he went through his Lecture heavily … The next day he received an Intimation from the Managers that his Lectures were no longer expected.

  Finally, the lecturer was officially censured by the Committee of the Royal Institution. The minute book for May 1809 reads: ‘Resolved, that the personal attack made by Mr. Stephen [sic] Coleridge on Mr. Joseph Lancaster, in a lecture delivered by him at the Royal Institution on Tuesday 3rd May 1808, was in direct violation of a known and established Rule of the RI prohibiting any personal animadversions in the Lectures there delivered.’

  Accordingly it took more than a year for the Committee to pay the balance on Coleridge’s fees. The disaster was summed up in an unpublished note by Davy which is still held in the Royal Institution archives:

  He has suffered greatly from Excessive Sensibility – the disease of Genius. His mind is a wilderness in which the Cedar and Oak which might aspire to the Skies are stunted in their growth by underwood Thorns, Briars and parasitical plants. With the most exalted Genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart and enlightened Mind, he will be the victim of want of Order, Precision and regularity. I cannot think of him without experiencing mingled feelings of admiration, regard and pity.

  So this is how the 1808 lectures have gone down in history. They gained the reputation of being the most disastrous series ever delivered there. As the great Coleridge scholar Kathleen Coburn noted in a paper delivered in 1973 at the same dais in the Royal Institution: ‘We know a little about these lectures but no full report has been found. And some of the details are best passed over.’ It would seem that Davy’s great Coleridge Experiment was a resounding failure.


  But history may be rewritten by biography. One of the methods of biographers, in their search for truth, is to alter our conventional perceptions of historical time. They may challenge superficial chronology, and seek to place events in a new sequence or a deeper context of ideas. So I want to wind back this extraordinary story, as we used to wind back a video tape, by some ten years. Let us start the narrative again in 1799, and look at it afresh.

  A portrait of Coleridge painted in 1799 shows a strikingly youthful figure, who might be a hippy from the 1960s with his long hair, huge thoughtful eyes, and hungry mouth. This is a man of astonishing intellectual intensity and imaginative power. This is the man who had just written some of the greatest Romantic poems in the language – The Ancient Mariner, ‘Kubla Khan’ and ‘Frost at Midnight’. He had also written ‘To a Young Ass’ (1794), which is perhaps the first animal rights poem. (Though this was not universally appreciated at the time: Byron christened him ‘the Laureate of the long-eared kind’.)

  Coleridge believed all knowledge, both scientific and artistic, could be included in poetry, and this would produce a new kind of epic. He put his wonderful idea of such a polymathic poem in a letter written to his publisher Joseph Cottle in 1796:

  I should not think of devoting less than 20 years to an Epic Poem. Ten to collect materials and warm my Mind with universal Science. I would be a tolerable Mathematician, I would thoroughly know Mechanics, Hydrostatics, Optics, and Astronomy, Botany, Metallurgy, Fossilism, Chemistry, Geology, Anatomy, Medicine – then the mind of Man – then the Minds of Men – in all Travels, Voyages and Histories. So I would spend ten years – the next five to the composition of the Poem – and the five last to the correction of it. So I would write haply not unhearing of that divine and rightly-whispering Voice, which speaks to mighty minds of predestined Garlands, starry and unwithering.

  It should perhaps be pointed out that Coleridge had just missed his publisher’s deadline at this date.

  The 1799 picture was painted in Germany, where Coleridge was studying the latest in poetry (Schiller, Lessing), Biblical criticism (Eichhorn), philosophy (Kant) and life sciences (Blumenbach) at the University of Göttingen. He came back to England breathing the heady intellectual gas of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie. This influential movement was an extraordinary blend of early evolution theory, Pantheism and German Idealist philosophy. Only a quick sketch is possible here. Naturphilosophie regarded the hard Newtonian universe of material mechanisms – the clockwork of planetary orbits, the celestial billiards of atomism – as theoretically inadequate. Instead it proposed the concept of a fluid, dynamic, unified Nature, driven by invisible ‘powers’ to which chemistry and electricity provided the key. Scientific theory could be advanced through analogy, metaphor and speculation as well as through empirical observation and controlled experiment.

  Naturphilosophie produced a distinctive language of German scientific mysticism. Schelling and his circle spoke of ‘vitalism’, ‘organicism’ and ‘galvanism’. All observable activity in life-forms was the result of invisible ‘polarities’ in Nature. There was a ‘world-soul’ constantly ‘evolving’ higher life-forms, and ‘levels of consciousness’ in all matter, animate or inanimate. All Nature had a tendency to move towards a ‘higher state’. Several distinguished European scientists were connected with this movement: Lorenz Oken, who postulated cell theory; Johann Wilhelm Ritter, who discovered ultra-violet rays; Henrik Steffens, the Scandinavian geologist who proposed a curious form of psychic evolution, making the famous observation that ‘The diamond is a piece of flint that has come to its senses,’ to which a hard-headed British geologist was reported to have replied, ‘A quartz must therefore be a diamond run mad.’

  Coleridge was reading all these new European sources, as well as earlier British scientists like Erasmus Darwin (author of The Botanic Garden and The Loves of the Plants) and Joseph Priestley (whom he described in a poem as ‘Patriot, Saint and Sage’). We might consider Priestley as a precursor of the brain drain, as he emigrated to Philadelphia when a patriotic mob burnt down his house and laboratory in Birmingham in 1791. A crucial idea appeared in Priestley’s History of Electricity (1775):

  Hitherto p
hilosophy has been chiefly conversant about the more sensible properties of bodies; electricity, together with chemistry and the doctrine of light and colours, seems to be giving us an inlet into their internal structure, on which all their sensible properties depend. By pursuing this new light, therefore, the bounds of natural science may possibly be extended, beyond what we can now form an idea of, new worlds may open to our view, and the glory of the great Sir Isaac Newton … be eclipsed.

  Both Coleridge and Davy were full of these ideas, in which new German Romantic science challenged the eighteenth-century British empirical tradition. One can almost hear the bang when the two young men first met, at Dr Thomas Beddoes’ Pneumatic Institute, Clifton, in the summer of 1799. Here took place the famous experiments with nitrous oxide, laughing gas. Davy saw both the psychological interest of the work, as a revelation of the unconscious mind, and the medical one, as a possible form of anaesthetic. There are various accounts of their experiences, of which my favourite is by one Peter Roget, who said there were ‘no words’ to describe accurately what he felt, and then went on to compile his celebrated Thesaurus.

  Davy’s own experimental notes provide this memorable description:

  By degrees as the pleasurable sensations increased, I lost all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorised; I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were my first feelings … My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me … With the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kinglake, – ‘Nothing exists but Thoughts! – the Universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!’

  It is fascinating to compare this with Coleridge’s account of writing ‘Kubla Khan’ under opium in 1797:

  The Author continued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the external senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence, that he could not have composed less than from two to three hundred lines; if that indeed can be called composition in which all the images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of the correspondent expressions, without any sensation or consciousness of effort. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock …

  Davy was also writing poetry, and was quite at home in the literary world. He corrected the proofs to the second edition of Wordsworth and Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads (1800), and even parodied Wordsworth’s revolutionary plain style of verse:

  As I was walking up the street

  In pleasant Burny town,

  In the high road I chanced to meet

  My cousin Matthew Brown.

  My cousin was a simple man

  A simple man was He

  His face was of the hue of Tan

  And sparkling was his – Eye.

  Coleridge formed a passionate alliance with Davy in these years, endlessly discussing the links between science and poetry. When Coleridge moved to the Lakes (1800), he proposed setting up a chemical laboratory, bought a microscope, and imagined transmitting a chemical vision of the Lake District landscape to Davy by wrapping it up in ‘a pill of opium’. He teasingly called Davy ‘the founder of Philosophic Alchemy’, and invited him to join a later Pantisocratic community in Italy – ‘what a Colony might we not make!’ When, instead, Davy was appointed to lecture at the Royal Institution in 1801, Coleridge congratulated him with evident delight: ‘Success my dear Davy, to Galvanism – and every other Schism – and Ism.’

  When the philosopher William Godwin attacked Davy’s scientific work as a form of naïve materialism, Coleridge defended Davy in boisterous terms:

  Godwin talks evermore of you with lively affection. – ‘What a pity that such a Man should degrade his vast Talents to Chemistry’ – cried he to me. – Why quoth I, how Godwin! can you thus talk of a science, of which neither you nor I understand an Iota? etc etc. And I defended Chemistry as knowingly at least as Godwin attacked it. – Affirmed that it united the opposite advantages of Immaterializing the mind without destroying the definiteness of the Ideas – nay even while it gave clearness to them. And eke that being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was Poetical … You and I, and Godwin, and Shakespeare and Milton, with what an Athanasiophagous Grin we shall march together, – We Poets! – Down with all the rest of the World! (By the word Athanasiophagous – I mean devouring Immortality, by anticipation! – Tis a sweet word!) God bless, you my dear Davy! Take my nonsense like as pinch of snuff – sneeze it off, it clears the head …

  When Davy gave his First Series of Chemical Lectures at the Royal Institution in the spring of 1802, Coleridge rushed up to London to listen and ‘to enlarge my stock of Metaphors’. We find the results everywhere in his letters. When describing Dorothy Wordsworth’s extraordinary poetic sensibility – so evident in her wonderful journals – he deliberately used a laboratory image, drawn from the action of the filament of gold leaf in an electrometer registering tiny shifts in electrical charges: ‘Her manners are simple, ardent, impressive … Her information various – her eye watchful in minutest observation of Nature – and her Taste a perfect electrometer – it bends, protrudes, and draws in, at subtlest beauties and most recondite faults.’

  At Davy’s 1802 lectures Coleridge made over sixty pages of notes, and remarked: ‘Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet.’ Many of these notes convey a peculiar magical excitement, in which scientific data and precise observation can be seen fusing and flashing in Coleridge’s mind with poetic suggestion and imaginative delight (and sometimes mischief):

  Note f.4 ‘Experiment. Quart of Oxygen in a bladder breathed by Davy 2 minutes. Did not at all hurt the flame of the Candle. He breathed the same quantity of common air in a bladder for a less length of time – at the end of which it immediately extinguished the Candle. NB hold the end of the breathing pipe against the flame of the Candle.’

  Note f.5 Ether burns bright indeed in the atmosphere, but O! how brightly whitely vividly beautiful in Oxygen gas.

  Note f.8 Hydrogen pistol … electric spark detonates … applied to a Leyden phial – BANG!

  Note f.9 Hydrogen Gas employed for Balloons – this illustrated by Soap Bladders, filled with a mixture of Hydrogen and Oxygen Gas. Blow up soap into Bubbles by means of a BLABBER filled with mixed Gas. [In his excitement Coleridge has appropriately mistranscribed the word.]

  Note f.31 Sulphuric acid pour upon hyperoxygenated muriate of Potash. NB Be sure to hold your face close to the glass. First reddens, and then destroys, vegetable Blues.

  Note f.31 If all aristocrats here, how easily Davy might poison them all – 15 parts Oxygen, 85 muriatic acid Gas …!

  When Coleridge left for Malta in 1804 – seeking health, an escape from his unhappy married life, new forms of writing, and a cure for his growing opium addiction – Davy wrote him a kind of valediction which insisted on the intellectual work still to be done on the borders of science and poetry: ‘In whatever part of the World you are, you will often live with me, not as a fleeting Idea but as a recollection possessed of creative energy, as an IMAGINATION winged with fire, inspiriting and rejoicing. You must not live much longer without giving to all men the proof of your Power … You are to be the Historian of the Philosophy of feeling. – Do not in any way dissipate your noble nature. Do not give up your birth-right.’


  This rapid sketch may suggest just a little more clearly what Coleridge and Davy had come to mean to eac
h other over the previous decade, and why Davy took the risk of inviting Coleridge to the public dais. Davy would always remember especially that thought-provoking phrase: that as science was ‘necessarily performed with the passion of Hope, it was Poetical’.

  Having wound back the tape of biographical time, I return to our point of departure, the lectures in 1808. Here the biographer can make a second chronological adjustment – slow time down, and freeze-frame it. Or, to put it a different way, place the episode under the microscope, and look down into its deeper structure.

  Coleridge in the summer of 1807 was hiding away in the Quantock Hills in Somerset (where ten years before he had written ‘Kubla Khan’). Those triumphant youthful days seemed long past: aged thirty-four, he was ill, depressed, opium-addicted, and writing very little. He could not see how his literary career could develop. But then he read, with the first stirrings of the old excitement, the accounts of Davy’s famous Second Bakerian Lecture at the Royal Society, given in November 1807. Here Davy first isolated and named the elements of potassium and sodium, making brilliant and dramatic use of huge sets of Voltaic batteries to decompose potash and soda, the hitherto unresponsive ‘caustic alkalies’.

  The old Naturphilosophie fascination bubbled up through Coleridge, touched by admiration – and perhaps a certain refreshing jealousy – for his old friend’s success. Davy had found a key to those deep powers and ‘internal attractions’ hidden mysteriously within the material world. Coleridge wrote with something of his old enthusiasm:


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