The Oakling and the Oak

How the prodigal son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge faced his demons, and his father’s shadow.

By Anne Fadiman

The Sackville Children, by John Hoppner, 1796. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Thomas W. Lamont, 1948.

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.”

Portrait of two brothers, Egypt, second century. Egyptian National Museum, Cairo.

Portrait of two brothers, Egypt, second century. Egyptian National Museum, Cairo. 

I will not call him Poor Hartley. Relieved of the adjective that has followed him around like a cringing cur for nearly two centuries, he will be, simply, Hartley. (Although the “David” referred to in his father’s letter—an homage to David Hartley, the eighteenth-century metaphysical philosopher—faded away before baptism, Hartley was still stuck with one great man for his first name and another for his last.) And that raises the question of what I should call his father, he of the abscessed buttocks and the great poems. “Coleridge” not only grants him sole proprietorship of a last name that belongs just as rightfully to his son but also makes the father sound like an adult and the son—forever—like a child. For the sake of parity, I should call him “Samuel.” However, he detested that name, considering it “the worst combination of which vowels and consonants are susceptible.” He signed his poems with a variety of pseudonyms, from Aphilos to Zagri. His most celebrated alias was Silas Tomkyn Comberbache, the name under which he enlisted in the dragoons and with whom he shared a set of initials: STC. Since that is how he referred to himself in his notebooks, sometimes in Greek, I will call our ill-starred pair Hartley and STC—with the rueful realization that, as always, Hartley gets the short end of the stick.

In an untitled sonnet, Hartley once wrote, “The world were welcome to forget my name,/Could I bequeath a few remembered words.” He was doomed to the opposite fate. No one remembers his words, but no one forgets his name—or at least half of it. And thus, even though it has been said that only Milton and Wordsworth wrote better sonnets (his father certainly didn’t—the sonnet was his weakest form); even though an anthology of The World’s Best Essays published in 1900 allotted more space and more praise to Hartley than to STC; even though Hartley was funnier than his father, by far—nonetheless, he has been as thoroughly eclipsed as an asteroid passing behind Jupiter. It is therefore not surprising that eleven lines of doggerel on the Greek alphabet which STC wrote for his son were auctioned a few years ago (along with a lock of STC’s hair) for £4,250, whereas a signed Hartley poem went for £40; or that STC has inspired enough books to panel a library, whereas Hartley has been the subject of only one since 1931; or that in the fourteen-volume Cambridge History of English Literature, STC gets a twenty-three-page chapter all to himself, in which his “genius” is mentioned eleven times, whereas Hartley is allotted less than a page and a half—one thirty-ninth of a chapter called “Lesser Poets.”


From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Humphry Davy, July 25, 1800:

My dear Davy


…Hartley is a spirit that dances on an aspin leaf—the air, which yonder sallow-faced & yawning Tourist is breathing, is to my Babe a perpetual Nitrous Oxyde. Never was more joyous creature born…

Hartley was not quite four when his father wrote those ecstatic lines. Their recipient, the chemist Humphry Davy, operated a laboratory that investigated the medical properties of gases. Hence the reference to nitrous oxide, which Davy had christened “laughing gas” and experimentally administered to his friend the previous year. STC enjoyed it thoroughly.

If air intoxicated Hartley, Hartley intoxicated STC—and had since that first embrace, two hours after the father first laid eyes on the son. STC confided to a friend that he composed poetry with a diaper pinned to his knee, warming by the fire, and that when Hartley laughed, he was so overcome with fondness that he wept. By the time Hartley was seven, it is no exaggeration to say he had inspired some of the greatest poems ever written in English. There is “Frost at Midnight,” in which STC looks at the “Dear Babe, that sleepest cradled by my side” and hopes that as a man he will 

            wander like a breeze

By lakes and sandy shores, beneath the crags

Of ancient mountain, and beneath the clouds…

There is the conclusion to Part II of “Christabel,” in which Hartley is the “little child, a limber elf,/Singing, dancing to itself.” And there is “The Nightingale,” in which STC comforts Hartley by carrying him outside to the orchard:

He beheld the moon, and, hushed at once,

Suspends his sobs, and laughs most silently,

While his fair eyes, that swam with undropped tears,

Did glitter in the yellow moon-beam!

After the Coleridges moved to the Lake District in 1800, Hartley became a frequent visitor at the home of William Wordsworth, who was soon smitten himself. In “To H. C., Six Years Old,” Wordsworth calls Hartley a “faery voyager” and a “blessed vision”; in “Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood,” a “six years’ Darling of a pigmy size.”

A penumbra of impossible expectation began to settle around Hartley’s head. Like STC’s letter to Humphry Davy, these poems describe Hartley as more spirit than mortal, a child who did not walk so much as levitate. Furthermore, the “faery voyager” was generally agreed to be a prodigy. Charles Lamb called him “the small philosopher.” Mrs. Basil Montagu, a family friend, marveled at the continent of Ejuxria, an imaginary land that Hartley equipped with its own senate, legal system, and language (which he claimed to have translated). But some of the encomiums had ominous undertones. Hartley’s uncle, the poet Robert Southey, wrote, “I have a feeling that such an intellect can never reach maturity—the springs are of too exquisite workmanship to last long.” STC observed, “He is a very extraordinary creature, & if he live, will I doubt not prove a great Genius.”

If he live”? What must it feel like to be a child simultaneously acclaimed as a genius and acknowledged by one’s own father to be in mortal danger? 

Jean-Paul Sartre counted himself lucky that he was an infant when his father died. He wrote in The Words, “Had my father lived, he would have lain on me at full length and crushed me.” Those are harsh words. But it’s true that parents can be crushing—particularly fathers, particularly with eldest sons. The diciest role of all may be that of the son of a famous writer who, like Hartley, hopes to be a writer himself. An 1833 review of the only book of poetry Hartley published in his lifetime praised the verse for embodying “no trivial inheritance of his father’s genius,” but also quoted the old saying that “the oakling withers beneath the shadow of the oak.” 

I have long been interested in what makes some oaklings thrive and others wither because, in a minor way, I’m an oakling myself. My father was a critic and essayist. My mother was the only woman war correspondent in China during the Second World War. The upside of this print-smudged parentage was that I was raised in a home with six thousand books, plenty of literary conversation, and empirical evidence that writing was something you could actually do for a living. The downside was that I knew that no matter what I did, my parents would already have done it better. Throughout my life I have been asked, “Was Clifton Fadiman your father?” Even now, in my late fifties, I am defined by daughterhood. Well-meaning readers still tell me that I have inherited some of my parents’ talent.

In a poem he sent Hartley as a gift, the diarist Barclay Fox addressed him as “Scion of Genius! on whose favoured head/His wondrous mantle fell.” This, of course, was to be taken as a compliment. It never would have occurred to Fox that Hartley might have preferred to wear a mantle of his own making.


From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Hartley Coleridge, April 3, 1807:

My dear Boy


In all human beings good and bad Qualities are not only found together, side by side as it were; but they actually tend to produce each other—at least, they must be considered as twins of a common parent, and the amiable propensities too often sustain and foster their unhandsome sisters. (For the old Romans personified Virtues and Vices, both as Women.)

When STC wrote these words, Hartley was ten. They were planning to visit relatives in Ottery, and STC was moved to proffer some advice on deportment. After speeding through his son’s Virtues, including kindness and imagination, he took a protracted epistolary tour of his Vices, from Hartley’s “labyrinth of day-dreams” and “habits of procrastination” to his loquaciousness at the dinner table and his regrettable tendency to stand in half-opened doorways. In order to ensure that the letter’s contents were fully absorbed, STC recommended that Hartley reread it “every two or three days.”

Much had happened, little of it happy, since STC calmed Hartley’s tears by carrying him to the orchard and showing him the moon. He had become estranged from his wife, a woman whom their friend Richard Reynell described as “sensible, affable, and good-natured—thrifty and industrious, and always neat and prettily dressed.” Maybe so, but Sara was no intellectual, and her husband’s want of steadiness, both emotional and financial, had turned her into a nag. “If my wife loved me, and I my wife, half as well as we both love our children, I should be the happiest man alive,” STC wrote. “But this is not—will not be.” 

If parents would only realize how they bore their children!

—George Bernard Shaw, 1910

When Hartley was two, STC decamped for ten months to Germany. Upon his return, he fell in miserable, unrequited love with the sister of the woman who was to marry William Wordsworth. When Hartley was seven, STC left for two and a half years for Malta and never returned to his family, which by then included another son, Derwent, and a daughter, Sara. It fell to Hartley’s dull but morally irreproachable Uncle Southey to house, feed, and play surrogate father to the Coleridge children. From that point on, STC and Hartley spent only short, confusing stretches together. As Charles Lamb put it, STC “ought not to have a wife or children; he should have a sort of diocesan care of the world, no parish duty.”

By the time Hartley was ten, he was a dreamy boy who misplaced his books and slates, who was so bad at sports that he was said to have two left hands, who bit his arm in paroxysms of self-directed rage, who refused to continue reading once Robinson Crusoe left his island. “He is afraid of receiving pain to such a degree that, if any person begins to read a newspaper,” wrote Southey, “he will leave the room, lest there should be anything shocking in it.” Hartley was undeniably a peculiar child. However, in STC’s hectoring letter I hear a guilt-ridden absentee father claiming to enumerate his son’s flaws but in fact enumerating his own. STC was a procrastinator, constantly promising that he was about to finish poems and essays he hadn’t started. STC was a daydreamer, prone to bumping into people, missing coaches, and failing to recognize that the image in a mirror was himself. STC talked too much. He once grabbed the button of Charles Lamb’s coat and wouldn’t stop talking. Lamb took out his penknife and cut off the button. 

In an early poem, STC wrote of Hartley, “Ah lovely Babe! In thee myself I scan.” Indeed he did. In Hartley, he scanned his own disorgan­ization, his own irresponsibility, his own meandering focus. And so did the rest of his circle. Dorothy Wordsworth noted, “Hartley is as odd as ever, and in the weak points of his character resembles his father very much.”

Reading their letters, I often forget who’s writing, since both so often begin with excuses for not having written sooner—in STC’s case, because of toothache, headache, insomnia, gout, cough, boils, inflamed eyes, swollen testicles, and “raging epistolophobia”; in Hartley’s, because he lost the letter to which he was replying, because he had taken ill after wearing excessively thin breeches in bad weather, because of, as he charmingly put it, “a stupifying head-achey cold, which sticks to me like a poor and homeless relation, in spite of the broadest hints to depart.”

Was Hartley a born procrastinator? Or did he grow into one because his father kept telling him he was?


From Hartley Coleridge to William Words­worth, May 16, 1815:

My dear Sir


Being now tolerably established a Collegian, feeling my gown rather less burthensome, and myself less strange, I hasten to perform my promise of scribblelation, and to become my own historian. 

When he wrote these lines from Merton College, Oxford, Hartley was eighteen and as absentminded as ever: the letter was written to Wordsworth but mailed to Lamb. Southey described his nephew at this age as “very short”—he was just over five feet—“with remarkably strong features, some of the thickest and blackest eyebrows you ever saw, and a beard which a Turk might envy.” Also, “awkward by nature,” though possessed of an intellect that “will soon overcome all disadvantages that his exterior may incur, if he do but keep the course.”

The course in question was Oxford, and he managed to keep it, immersing himself in the classics and dazzling his friends with his conversation. A fellow student later recalled: 

His extraordinary powers as a converser (or rather a declaimer) procured for him numerous invitations to what are called at Oxford ‘wine-parties’…He would hold forth by the hour (for no one wished to interrupt him) on whatever subject might have been started—either of literature, politics, or religion—with an originality of thought, a force of illustration, and a facility and beauty of expression, which I question if any man then living, except his father, could have surpassed.

Hartley might have fared even better had those gatherings been tea parties, not wine parties. He was drinking seriously, a habit he dated to the spring of 1816, when he failed to win Oxford’s Newdigate Prize for English verse. The loss made him feel, as he put it, that “all my aims and hopes would prove frustrate and abortive.” He turned to alcohol for consolation and, for the rest of his life, was unable to turn away.

That same year, Hartley’s father was moving in the opposite direction by attempting to shake his addiction to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol, a commonly used painkiller). STC had started taking opium more than two decades earlier in order to calm his sleep, among other reasons. It eventually provoked nightmares in which he was clawed by monstrous talons, infected with shameful diseases, and buried alive—although, in a more innocent phase, it also provoked the sensuous vision of Xanadu memorialized in 
“Kubla Khan” in 1797. “Kubla Khan” was not published until 1816, the year that STC placed himself in a kind of private rehab, under the care of a benevolent Highgate doctor named James Gillman, to whom Hartley teasingly referred as “Doctissimus.” Dr. Gillman dispensed STC’s laudanum, of which he had consumed up to a quart a day, in regulated doses. STC planned to stay for a month. He stayed for eighteen years. 

In 1819, at the age of twenty-two, Hartley received a second-class degree (the equivalent of a magna) in literis humanioribus. He had prepared for his examination during a summer of furious study at Southey’s house in Keswick, devoting himself so completely to his books that he did not even take meals with his family, though he occasionally appeared for tea attired in a loose toga and slippers. Two months later, he was elected with high distinction as a Probationer Fellow at Oriel College. In his old school in the Lake District, the boys huzza’d and the headmaster proclaimed a holiday. When he heard the news, STC overflowed with what he termed “Fatherly Pride” and invited Hartley to Highgate to celebrate his glorious future.

That future was short-lived. Within a year, Hartley lost his fellowship at Oriel. The provost and fellows of the college decided unanimously that he was “not fit to be received permanently into the Society.” Hartley failed to attend chapel regularly, stank of tobacco, and associated with “bad company,” a term redolent of bums and barmaids but that in fact referred to undergraduates from colleges other than Oriel. Most serious, wrote the provost, “He was often guilty of intemperance and came home in a state in which it was not safe to trust him with a candle.” On one occasion, the dean found him in the gutter.

The news hit STC, as he wrote a friend, like “a peal of thunder from a cloudless sky.” He screamed in his sleep and wept so profusely that when he awoke, his pillow was wet with tears. His attempts to intercede included a 1,617-word letter to the provost and fellows of Oriel that Hartley was to copy, sign, and send. He also wrote five drafts of a letter he planned to send to the provost himself, in one of which, with spectacular irrelevance, he quoted fifteen lines from “Frost at Midnight” and four from Wordsworth’s “To H.C., Six Years Old.” In a frenzy of denial and enabling that will be familiar to the family of any alcoholic, he attempted to draw a Jesuitical line between intemperance (in which he admitted Hartley occasionally indulged) and the habit of intemperance (of which he claimed Hartley was innocent).

Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, by Diego Velázquez, 1630. Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain.

Joseph’s Bloody Coat Brought to Jacob, by Diego Velázquez, 1630. Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain. 

When I recently mentioned Hartley Coleridge to an English professor at Yale, she said, “Ah yes, Hartley! Didn’t he lose his fellowship at Oriel?” And I thought how strange it was that people who know little else about Hartley have somehow heard of what STC’s friend Harriet Martineau called “the great catastrophe, the ruinous blow.”

I would like to interject a small reality check. In the academic sphere, Hartley did better than his father, who dropped out of Cambridge. He did better than Wordsworth, who took his degree from Cambridge “without distinction.” He did better than Southey, who dropped out of Oxford. And he did better than Byron, who dropped out of Cambridge, and Shelley, who was expelled from Oxford. Hartley graduated—with a second! 191 years after the fact, why do we continue to associate him with the loss of a job for which he was unsuited? Might the memory of this episode be less adhesive—and might Hartley have been more resilient—had his father viewed it as a disappointment rather than an apocalypse?


From Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Thomas Allsop, October 8, 1822:

My dearest Allsop


…It was reserved for the interval between six o’clock and 12 on that Saturday Evening to bring a Suffering which, do what I will, I cannot help thinking of & being affrightened by, as a terror of itself, a self-subsisting separate Something.

Two years had passed since Hartley left Oriel. He had come to London to try his hand as a writer and failed to make ends meet, though he wrote a good deal of poetry and contributed some witty essays to London Magazine. STC’s response to his efforts must have stung: “You have made the experiment of trying—to maintain yourself by writing for the Press—and the result—I do not know, what conclusion you have drawn from it—has been such, as makes me shrink, and sink away inwardly, from the thought of a second trial.”

On “that Saturday,” less than two weeks after STC’s rebuke, father and son rushed to London from Highgate together to run some urgent errands. Both were exhausted, having spent many days and nights at the sickbed of Hartley’s brother, Derwent, then a hardworking but undistinguished Cambridge undergraduate, who lay ill with typhus. As soon as they arrived in London, Hartley asked STC for money to repay a debt. STC gave it to him, and they agreed to meet again at 6:00 p.m. at a shop on York Street. As Hartley vanished into the crowd, his father was overcome by an awful presentiment. He described it thus to his young friend Thomas Allsop:

When he had passed a few steps—[I called] Hartley!—Six! O my God! think of the agony, the sore agony, of every moment after six!—And tho’ he was not three yards from me, I only saw the color of his Face thro’ my Tears!

STC, who was all too familiar with Hartley’s tendency to flee or hide rather than face criticism, somehow knew his son would not return. He waited for him on York Street, alone, until midnight.

In most families the strain would eventually have blown over. The son would have repaid the debt; the father would have accepted his apology. Not the Coleridges. Hartley and his father never saw each other again. 

Both continued to profess their love, mostly in letters to friends, since after a year or two they stopped writing to one another. Hartley moved back to the Lake District, within walking distance of Wordsworth and Southey but more than 250 miles from his father. Money was tight and travel by mail coach was arduous. The journey from London to Penrith, the coach stop nearest to Hartley’s home, would have taken thirty-one and a half hours. Under the circumstances, it would have been easy to let a year pass. And then another. And, eventually, twelve. Hartley, immobilized by shame, and STC, immobilized by his failure as a father, both did what they did so well—procrastinated, until it was too late.

A year before his father’s death, Hartley published a collection of poetry to mostly excellent reviews. It opened with a sonnet dedicated “to s. t. coleridge,” crediting his “Father, and Bard revered!” for both his poetic art, “Whate’er it be,” and his love of nature, “Which, mixt with passions of my sadder years,/Compose this book.”

In one of his late poems, the “Bard revered” wrote of Hartley, “For still there lives within my secret heart/The magic image of the magic Child.” When STC died in 1834, at the age of sixty-one, his will contained a codicil providing funds to cover “board, lodging, and raiment” for “my dear son Hartley.”

Hartley never made a steady living. Although he had worked for a while as a schoolteacher, he feared his students and, years later, continued to have nightmares about “big boys…hooting, pelting, spitting at me, stopping my ways, setting all sorts of hideous scornful faces at me.” He wrote an unfinished series of biographies of worthy men of Yorkshire and Lancashire. He also failed to finish what his brother called “an Essay on his father’s life and genius” that was to introduce a new edition of STC’s Biographia Literaria. It is hard to imagine an assignment more certain to induce paralysis.

Few sons are equal to their fathers; most fall short, all too few surpass them. 

—Homer, 750 BC

Hartley never married. He could not support a wife, and, in any case, he assumed no woman could be attracted to a man as “ill-omen’d and unsightly as Wordsworth’s melancholy thorn on the bleak hill-top.” He told a friend he wanted to found an Ugly Club, of which he would serve as chairman. During the last twelve years of his life, he lived with a farmer and his wife at Nab Cottage, a solitary slate-roofed house that clung to the north bank of Rydal Water. Above his mantle hung the cocked hat, feather, and sword that Silas Tomkyn Comberbache had brought back from the dragoons: a reminder, perhaps, that his father had had his share of failure too.

Even after his hair turned white, many people still treated Hartley like a child, a role to which his father had accustomed him, according to Derwent, through “an affection, which never ceased to regard its object as in some sort an infant still.” Hartley colluded in his own infantilization by wearing a boyish blue jacket, calling himself a “poor elf,” and remarking, in one of his sonnets, that “still I am a child, though I be old.” Had he been of normal height, he might have found it easier to feel like an adult. In his essay “Brief Observations upon Brevity,” he wrote, “I am brief myself; brief in stature, brief in discourse, short of memory and money, and far short of my wishes.”

He still walked as if levitating. One friend said he needed stones in his pockets to keep his feet on the ground. When he was out for a stroll he would sometimes hatch an idea for a sonnet, run into the nearest farmhouse, borrow paper, and dash it off in ten minutes, beating time with his foot and shouting when he came up with a particularly good line.

At intervals he disappeared on benders, spending a month or more away from Nab Cottage, drinking in alehouses and sleeping in barns and ditches—hardly the sort of wandering like a breeze that STC had in mind when he wrote “Frost at Midnight.” The local farmers were glad to take him in. They far preferred him to Wordsworth, who was formal and solemn; “Li’le Hartley,” as they called him, always had “a bit of a smile.”

His drinking worsened. He sometimes had to be dragged home. Unlike his father, he had no Doctissimus to help him deal with his addiction, and even if he had, as Wordsworth observed, “He would not stay in any house where he was to be watched and controuled.”


From Derwent Coleridge to Hartley Coleridge, September 28, 1846:

My dear Brother,


Ill news fly fast. I have heard that you have set fire to your bed curtains, and cannot doubt that such an occurrence (under the circumstances) must be attended, and may possibly be followed, with a good deal that is disagreeable to your feelings, if not otherwise detrimental to your comfort.

The provost of Oriel had been right: it was not safe to trust Hartley with a candle. He was, of course, drunk when the fire started. Derwent’s response was agonized but unsympathetic, the lament of a kind man who, after years of forbearance, had finally lost his patience. Nowhere did he say, “Hartley—thank God you didn’t die!” Instead, he reminded Hartley to repay the cost of the bed curtains. He said he could not see Hartley because “my health would immediately give way under the misery which it wd occasion me.” He bade his brother farewell. 

But two years later, when Hartley, at the age of fifty-two, stumbled home drunk on a cold winter night and caught bronchitis, Mrs. Words­worth summoned Derwent, and he made the long journey from London to Nab Cottage to be with his brother when he died. Hartley was surrounded by friends. Like his father, he loved babies, and on his deathbed, he asked to hold a neighbor’s infant daughter in his arms.

Wordsworth, who buried Hartley next to his own family in the Grasmere churchyard and joined him there the following year, told Hartley’s cousin that “Derwent took away all his Books and papers, and will probably write a Memoir of Him…Hartley used to write a great deal, but rarely, I suppose, finished any thing.” 

Hartley turned out to have finished more than Wordsworth—or anyone else—could have imagined. Year after year, with little hope of publication or, in the case of most of his prose, of even a single reader, he had worked long into the night, writing by candlelight with a quill pen. Derwent went through every page of Hartley’s notebooks and made fair copies for the printer. He even copied out his brother’s marginalia. Including the work Hartley had published in ephemeral journals during his London phase, there was enough for two volumes of essays and notes, and two volumes of poetry, most of it new—more than a thousand pages in all. The poems were introduced by a 194-page memoir in which Derwent described Hartley as “acute and sagacious, often under the disguise of paradox; playful and tender, with a predominance of the fancy over the imagination, yet capable of the deepest pathos; clear, rapid, and brilliant.” And thus we owe most of what we know about Hartley Coleridge to his less picturesque but in many ways more fortunate brother, a happily married clergyman who had been named for a river rather than for an eminent philosopher; who had never been called a genius; who had not been the subject of immortal poems; who, as the younger son, had been at least partially shielded from the great oak’s shadow.

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