From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Poole, September 24, 1796:
My dear, very dear Poole
Mrs Coleridge was delivered on Monday, September 19th, 1796, half past two in the Morning, of a SON When I first saw the Child, I did not feel that thrill & overflowing of affection which I expected—I looked on it with a melancholy gaze—my mind was intensely contemplative & my heart only sad.—But when two hours after, I saw it at the bosom of it’s Mother; on her arm; and her eye tearful & watching it’s little features, then I was thrilled & melted, & gave it the Kiss of a FATHER —It’s name is DAVID HARTLEY COLERIDGE.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the new father, was twenty-three years old. It was five years after he went up to Jesus College, Cambridge, as a classical scholar of dazzling promise; three years after he drank, whored, neglected his studies, ran up debts, considered shooting himself, accepted a bounty of six and a half guineas to join the 15th Regiment of Light Dragoons, covered his buttocks with saddle sores, repeatedly fell off his horse, was discharged, and returned to Cambridge; two years after he dropped out; one year after he met William Wordsworth; one year after he married Sara Fricker; six months after he published his first book of poems.
That passage from Coleridge’s letter to his friend Tom Poole, a local tannery owner with progressive and literary inclinations, sounds, if not insanely besotted, at least like the handiwork of a potentially devoted husband and father. But if you were to read the entire letter, you might notice that Hartley’s birth isn’t mentioned until the middle of the second paragraph. You might notice that in the third paragraph, Coleridge remarks casually, “Mrs Coleridge was taken ill suddenly—& before the Nurse or the Surgeon arrived, delivered herself.” Sara gave birth in their Bristol cottage with no midwife in attendance—and no husband either. Coleridge was away in Birmingham. Hartley arrived a month prematurely, so you can’t entirely blame his father for not being there; on the other hand, you could hardly call the absence auspicious. You might also take issue with Coleridge’s breezy claim that his wife had had “a wonderfully favorable time.” If my husband were a hundred miles away while I delivered my first child entirely alone in drafty lodgings, the words “wonderfully favorable” might not spring to mind. And I might sigh if his signal contribution to the occasion were three sonnets, the last of which, written after seeing his son for the first time, reflected, as he put it, on “All I had been, and all my child might be!”
Hartley Coleridge began life with limitless promise—“all my child might be”—and ended it universally viewed as a failure. He is remembered not for his poems or his essays, though he wrote some fine ones, but for two things and two things only: he was the son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and he was a disappointment. He has been called a misfit, a dreamer, a sinner, a castaway, a wayward child, a hobgoblin, a flibbertigibbet, a waif, a weird, a pariah, a prodigal, a picturesque ruin, a sensitive plant, an exquisite machine with insufficient steam, the oddest of God’s creatures, and, most frequently—by his father, his mother, his brother, and his sister; by William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, and Thomas Carlyle; and by countless others over the years—“Poor Hartley.”