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The Oakling and the Oak

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Samuel Taylor Coleridge490x300.jpg

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.”

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Comments Post a Comment »

  • Since when in educated English is "it's" allowed as the possessive form of "belonging to it" and in a quotation no less?! An essay starting with such flaws does not deserve my consideration.

    Posted by Claude Wren on Sun 18 Dec 2011

  • The use of "it's" when we would now write "its" was, I believe, very common in the early nineteenth century. And Anne Fadiman can hardly be faulted for reproducing Coleridge's apostrophes correctly when she is quoting him! This is a moving and beautiful essay, a lovely companion piece to her wonderful essay on STC himself, which has been reprinted in her book At Large and At Small.

    Posted by Evelyn Toynton on Mon 19 Dec 2011


  • This is a fantastic essay with many engaging perceptions into the links in the chain of the Coleridge's literary legacies. Thank you Anne Fadiman for an aptly toned essay on forbearance, influence, and heritability.

    Posted by Jonathan Sheldon on Mon 26 Dec 2011

  • This was very interesting and made me think about many things, including family dynamics. I know the author decided not to refer to him as "Poor Hartley", but I continued to think of this description while reading this article. "Poor Hartley". I want to change my mind regarding this moniker so I must delve into his sonnets! Hopefully I will find some joy there and start thinking "Atta Boy Hartley"

    Posted by Theresa on Fri 30 Dec 2011

  • A great summary of Hartley's complicated biography. I think perhaps more could have been said about Hartley's self-perception as the creative child of an overbearing literary progenitor - not simply someone who was perceived to be nothing more than STC's offspring, but who himself perceived his ancestry as the overwhelming influence and source of limitation on his life and works. In fact, though, I think that 'Poor Hartley' is less deserving of that epithet than his forgotten brother, about whom no good critical work exists in spite of his important contributions to criticism of STC, Hartley and Sara Coleridge, not to mention the solid reputation for literary insight that he developed at Cambridge.

    Posted by Jo Taylor on Thu 8 Mar 2012

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About the Author

Anne Fadiman is the Francis Writer-in-Residence at Yale. She is the author of two essay collections, Ex Libris and At Large and At Small, as well as a work of reportage, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, whose fifteenth-anniversary edition, with a new afterword, will be published in May.

You don’t have to deserve your mother’s love. You have to deserve your father’s. He’s more particular. The father is always a Republican towards his son, and his mother’s always a Democrat.
Robert Frost, 1960
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