Sara Coleridge: Wife of an Opium Eater By Cheryl Bolen
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the leading poets of the Romantic Movement in England. Yet, it turns out he was anything but romantic as a husband. Today, Cheryl Bolen tells us what life was like for his long-suffering wife, Sara.
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When Sara Coleridge, alone and with no attendants, delivered herself of her first son (Hartley) eleven months after her 1795 marriage to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, little did she know this was the first of many calamities she would face alone. During the four decades of their marriage STC (as he called himself) never made enough money to support his family, never owned a home, and lived with his wife (on and off) less than six years. Much of the time he lived with her he took to his bed, complaining of various maladies — and consuming ever-increasing quantities of opium.
In addition to all these abuses, Sara has been unfairly maligned by her husband’s friends and biographers and most unjustly by her husband himself. Her detractors paint her as a shrew and claim the only reason STC married her was because fellow poet Robert Southey urged him to do so in order to embark on a "pantisocratic" society with eleven other couples in the American colonies. Southey was to wed Sarah’s sister Edith Fricker, and fellow Pantisocrat Robert Lovell was to marry another Fricker sister, Mary. (Sara dropped the H from her first name after her marriage to please her husband.)
While it is likely true that STC was not deeply in love with Sara when he proposed, by the time they married a year later, he was convinced of his potent love for her.
In the year of their betrothal, all plans for embarking on their Pantisocratic society fizzled away, but the three couples married anyway. During STC’s and Sara’s betrothal, STC spent many weeks away from Bristol–many weeks in which Sara received no correspondence from her fiancé. His absence must have made her attachment to him more ardent for when Southey fetched him in London and brought him back to Bristol, STC was astonished and flattered over her affection toward him. A true courtship ensued.
"Coleridge assured me that his marriage was …forced upon him by the scrupulous Southey," said Thomas DeQuincey. "On the other hand, a neutral spectator of the parties protested to me that if ever in his life he had seen a man under deep fascination, and what he would have called desperately in love, Coleridge, in relation to Miss F., was that man."
STC wrote poetry to her and after they married wrote, "On Sunday I was married…united to the woman whom I love best of all created Beings…Mrs. Coleridge–MRS. COLERIDGE–I like to write the name."
Prior to the wedding he and Southey had a falling out. Southey was beginning to understand STC’s "indolence," a euphanism of the day for addiction to laudanum. His addiction made his behavior erratic, made him miss scheduled lectures for which he was being paid, and made him generally unreliable.
A pity Sara was not cognizant of these things before the marriage.
The Coleridge’s first home was a cottage in the village of Clevedon on the Bristol Channel. The rent was five pounds a year. Their first purchase for their new home was an Elonian harp which STC immortalized in a poem by that name. After two days of habitation, the couple realized they could not live by harp alone. Coleridge wrote his printer to request a kettle, carpet brush, mats, candlesticks, pair of slippers, Bible, keg of porter, spices, raisins, currants, a flour dredge, and catsup.
The Coleridges lived in the cottage less than two months. The cottage was too far from Bristol, forcing STC to spend the night in Bristol on days he walked (since he was too poor to own a horse) to the city’s library. Sara disliked spending the night alone in their remote cottage.
They next resided with life-long friend Thomas Poole at Nether-Stowey, where the Coleridges soon leased a cottage nearby. Never one to care about money, STC found himself having to face the reality of providing for his wife and the child she was now carrying. His printer paid him one and a half guineas for every 100 lines of poetry, and Poole secured pledges from Coleridge supporters to give STC a "testimonial" for six years, the testimonial disguising charity.
The cottage, located near Nether-Stowey’s main gutter, sat on six acres and consisted of two living rooms on either side of a dark passage, a small kitchen-scullery in the rear, three small bedrooms upstairs, and an earth-closet privy in the garden. There was no heating except for the open fireplaces which required expensive fuel and cumbersome chopping of kindling. All the cooking had to be done at the open hearth where Sara was forced to lift the heavy iron pots to set on trivets or to suspend them from hooks. Water had to be fetched from the pump, and hot water had to be heated over the fire. Wash day occurred every other week and was an arduous undertaking. A baby necessitated even more washing, and diapers had to be dried on clothes horses set around the fire and a drying rack suspended above the fire. Other chores weighing down Sara were darning and mending clothes and sewing new ones, cleaning house and keeping oil lamps filled.
A list STC drew up to allocate the work reads thus:
Six o’clock. Light the fires. Clean out kitchen. Put on Tea kettle. Clean the insides of boiling pot. Shoes &c C&B (the C for STC and the B for their nursemaid, who soon quit)
Eight o’clock. Tea things and c. Put out and c. after cleaned up. Sara
One o’clock. Spit the meat. B&C
Two o’clock. Vegetables and c. Sara.
Half past three — 10 minutes for cleaning dishes
Sara calculated that with economy — including forgoing meat — they could live on sixteen shillings a week. This did not prove to be the case. Nor were they vegetarians for long.
At this time 21-year-old Charles Lloyd, the epileptic son of a Quaker Birmingham banker, became enthralled with Coleridge, and his father agreed to pay Coleridge 80 guineas a year to mentor his son, who was to come live with the expanding Coleridge household.
While Coleridge was finalizing these plans with the senior Lloyd in Birmingham Sara delivered the first of their four children.
In addition to taking care of her baby, Sara was now hostess to young Lloyd and nursemaid to her often bed-ridden husband. (Coleridge was already addicted to morphine by the time he was an undergraduate at Cambridge.) STC was an indulgent father. "He (baby Hartley) laughs at us till he make us weep for very fondness," STC wrote. "You would smile to see my eye rolling up to the ceiling in a lyric fury, and on my knee a Diaper pinned."
Ill-health beset STC each fall when the cold weather came, and when he became incapacitated, so did Lloyd, who eventually had to be placed in a sanatorium, leaving the Coleridges quite destitute once again.
It was at this time STC was to begin his association with William Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. This relationship would profoundly affect STC for the rest of his life.
It was also the beginning of the end of the Coleridges’ heretofore happy marriage.
STC idolized Wordsworth. He thought Wordsworth the only man he had ever met whose intellect he found greater than his own. He developed, too, a keen camaraderie with Dorothy, who was to fall in love with STC, despite that he was a married man. Though his admiration for Dorothy was great, STC was never her lover.
Twenty months after Hartley was born, Sara gave birth to a second son, Berkeley. In between the two births she had suffered a miscarriage.
When Berkeley was just weeks old, STC came into possession of a 150-pound annuity for life from the Wedgwood brothers, Josiah and Thomas. Flush in the pocket, STC decided to study in Germany. Sara and the boys would stay behind, but the Wordsworths would accompany him.
STC left his wife and babies in September, 1798. At first he missed them greatly. He wrote to his wife: "When we lost sight of land, the moment that we quite lost sight of it, & the heavens all round me rested upon the waters, my dear Babies came upon me like a flash of lightning — I saw their faces so distinctly!" He closed the letter, "Good night, my dear, dear Sara! — every night when I go to bed & every morning when I rise I will think of you with a yearning love, & of my blessed Babies! — Once more my dear, dear Sara! Good night."
He kept up a regular correspondence, but did not receive any letter from her. Two months after leaving her, he wrote, "No letters from England! A Knell, that strikes out regularly four times a week–How is this my Love? Why do you not write to me? Do you mean to shorten my absence by making it insupportable to me? Or perhaps you anticipate that if I received a letter, I should idly turn away from my German to dream of you — of you & my beloved babies! — Oh yes! — I should indeed dream of you for hours and hours … and of the Infant that sucks at your breast, and of my dear, dear Hartley." He wrote the poem "The Day Dream" about his absent wife at this time.
There was good reason for Sara’s silence. Her babe had been at death’s door for weeks, owing to a faulty inoculation against small pox. Little Berkeley, acclaimed by all to have been an exceptionally beautiful baby, developed the small pox all over his body, his eyes, nose and gums. Sara said she could almost see them popping out on him. She had to hold his little hands around the clock to keep him from scratching. "He lay upon my lap like a dead child," Sara eventually wrote her husband, "burning like fire and all over he was red scarlet." He could not even cry, but he made a "horrid noise in his throat which when I dozed for a minute I always heard." The doctor came six to eight times a day. "The ladies of Stowey also visited me and wept over this little victim, affected by my complaints, and the miserable plight of the child," Sara wrote. "What I felt is impossible to write — I had no husband to comfort me and share my grief — perhaps the boy would die and he far away! All the responsibility of the infant’s life was upon me, and it was weight that dragged me to the earth!"
As the babe grew better, he once again wished to nurse, the consequence being that Sara got pustules on her breast which, she wrote, "swelled as big as walnuts and I could not endure him to touch me … James Cole’s wife kindly undertook to suckle him by day, and by night we had recourse to a glass tube through which he sucked cow’s milk, tho’ very reluctantly, and only when his eyes were shut."
STC’s response was, "When I read of the danger and the agony — My dear Sara! — my love! My Wife! — God bless you & preserve us … My Wife, believe and know that I plan to be home with you."
After the babe recovered from small pox and regained his former beauty, he developed consumption, and Sara had to witness her baby’s slow death. Little Berkeley, who was 14 weeks old when his father left, died at the age of 9 months on Feb. 10, 1799. The ordeal Sara endured robbed her of her once-beautiful hair. She wore a wig for the rest of her life.
In conveying the news of the baby’s death, she wrote her husband, "I am his Mother, and have carried him in my arms and have fed him at my bosom, and have watched over him by day and night for nine months; I have seen him twice at the brink of the grave but he has returned, and recovered and smiled upon me like an angel — and now I am lamenting that he is gone.”
Sara expected her husband, upon hearing of Berkeley’s death, would be restored to her in May, but he did not hurry home. In fact, his letter to her — lamenting death and commenting on the doctrines of Priestley — was not comforting. He took a walking tour in Germany before coming home, arriving in England in late July.
Shortly thereafter he took a job as a political writer for the Morning News in London, and Sara and Hartley joined him there. But Coleridge never liked the city, nor did he care much for money, so soon thereafter he decided to return to the country. He wished to live near the Wordsworths in the Lake District. They began leasing a comfortable house, Greta Hall, in Keswick, Cumberland. The newly built house was large, fully furnished, and presented fine views of mountains and Lake Derwent. Their landlord, Mr. Jackson, lived in the "back house." The Wordsworths were 14 miles away at Dove Cottage.
Sara gave birth to their son, Derwent, on September 14, 1800. He was named after the nearby lake.
As winter set in and STC all too frequently made the trek to Dove Cottage on foot, he began to experience his old health complaints: stomach irritations, bowel attacks and rheumatism which STC termed the "flying gout." This, of course, necessitated more opium. With this came optical hallucinations and nightmares.
Since he was incapable of writing and since they owed money to almost all their friends, they descended once more into poverty. Meals were frugal. Rooms were cold and fireless because of lack of money for candles and coal.
The deeper he descended into his morphine mire, the more he irrationally perceived malice toward his wife. Dorothy Wordsworth, most especially, maligned Sara.
Within a year of moving to Greta Hall, the Coleridge marriage was destroyed. STC now spoke harshly of Sara, blaming everything wrong in his life on his wife. When he spoke to others, he spoke of her with contempt. Sara was quick with her hot temper, and she was becoming intolerant of his opium use. That she was no longer sympathetic when he took to his couch he perceived as proof that she did not care for him or his health.
Not understanding his "opium habit," the Wordsworths urged him to leave Sara. By this time Wordsworth had married Mary Hutchinson. A frequent visitor to Dove Cottage was Mary’s sister, Sarah Hutchinson, with whom STC now fancied himself in love. Sarah Hutchinson was very short — not over five feet — plump, and plain of face with a pointed chin. Other than offering him sympathy, she did not encourage Coleridge’s advances. Nevertheless, irrational from prolonged and heavy opium use, he fixated on her for the next decade, writing poems to his mythical "Asra,"a name used to disguise Miss Hutchinson’s true identity. Wife Sara was well aware of her husband’s infatuation and of their own estrangement.
But after many months of estrangement–and with coaxing from Southey (now married to Sara’s sister Edith), STC agreed to try to reclaim his marriage on the condition that his wife be more sympathetic to him and less abrasive. This she agreed to.
Sara once again got pregnant and would give birth to their only daughter, Sara. But once again she would give birth without her husband at her side.
Blaming his rheumatism on the cold climate, STC was determined to winter in a warmer climate. During his absence he wrote her, "God love you & have you in his keeping, My blessed Sara! — & speedily restore me to you. — I have faith, a heavenly Faith, that our future Days will be Days of Peace & affectionate Happiness. O that I were now with you! I feel it very, very hard to be from you at this trying time — I dare not think a moment concerning you in this Relation, or I should be immediately ill. But I shall soon return — and bring you back a confident & affectionate Husband. Again, and again, my dearest dearest Sara! — my Wife & my Love, & indeed my very Hope/May God preserve you."
STC’s initial plan to go to Italy with Thomas Wedgewood did not come to fruition; he returned to Greta Hall shortly after little Sara’s birth and remained there — mostly sick — for the next year. Convinced of his imminent death, Coleridge decided he must go to Malta to restore his health and to hopefully kick his opium habit. Sara, the only person who fully understood her husband’s addiction, was in favor of this plan. The knowledge of his addiction was something they shared, a confidence Sara never betrayed. This must be what STC was speaking of when he wrote her, "In one thing, my deal Love! I do prefer you to any woman I ever knew — I have the most unbounded confidence in your discretion."
Before he left for Malta, STC took out a life insurance policy for one thousand pounds, agreed to split the Wedgwood annuity fifty/fifty with his wife, and urged Southey and Edith to come live at Greta Hall, where Southey could be a "stand-in" parent to the three Coleridge children.
STC would not return to Greta Hall for 20 months, during which time his opium habit worsened. When he did return he abruptly announced his decision to separate from Sara and take the boys to live with him and the Wordsworths.
Sara put up a good fight. She begged to know why he wished to live separately from her, and all he could repeatedly say was she was "unfit." He was taking away her marital respectability, her sons, and she was skeptical that once he was gone he would continue to provide for her and their daughter. Eventually, with Southey’s influence, an amicable separation was agreed to. Since Derwent was but six, he stayed with his mother.
Writing to his brother about the separation, STC laid all the blame on Sara: "Mrs. Coleridge has a temper & general tone of feeling which after a long (and) patient trial I have found wholly incompatible with even an enduring life, & such as to preclude all chance of my ever developing the talents which my Maker has entrusted to me … The few friends who have been Witnesses of my domestic life have long advised separation as the necessary condition of every thing desirable for me — nor does Mrs. Coleridge herself state or pretend to any objection on the score of attachment to me; that will not look respectable for her, is the sum into which all her objections resolve themselves."
Coleridge’s brother scolded him thoroughly.
Once STC began to reside with the Wordsworths they were to discover the extent of his opium habit, a state that Southey had described thusly: "His habits are so murderous of all domestic comfort that I am only surprised Mrs. C. Is not rejoiced at being rid of him."
Since the Wordsworths had outgrown Dove Cottage, STC suggested they come to live at Greta Hall because he thought the Southeys would be leaving. This would, in effect, leave Sara homeless. Southey came to her rescue by informing STC he had no intentions of quitting Greta Hall. (He in fact lived there the rest of his life.)
The boys would come to spend their weekends with their father at the Wordsworths’ Allan Bank and their vacations with their mother at Greta Hall. All three children were more comfortable at Greta Hall.
Approximately three years after leaving Sara, STC informed Sara he would like to come and stay with her and their daughter for a while. Southey exploded. He would not have Coleridge under his roof. At this time the landlord who lived in the back of the house died, and Sara was able to move into that portion of the house, so STC would be free to come and go without disturbing the Southeys. Sara’s correspondence from her husband at this time is marked with "My dear Love," an endearment he had not used in years.
They spent the next five months together and got along well. He never explained why he left the Wordsworths, but Dorothy Wordsworth’s word tell it all: "I know that he (STC) has not written a single line … We have no hope of him … his whole time and thoughts … are employed in deceiving himself and seeking to deceive others … This Habit pervades all his words and actions … It has been misery, God knows, to me to see the truths which I now see."
After five months of domestic harmony but regression into his opium fog, Coleridge vowed to seek help with his "bad habit." He discussed going to an asylum in Scotland and going to London with the Montagues (whom Wordsworth warned against taking in STC), and ended up for a time with the Morgans in Hammersmith. At first he corresponded regularly and affectionately with his wife, then his old patterns reemerged and she would not hear from him for months. At this time Josiah Wedgwood withdrew his half of the Coleridge annuity, putting the Coleridge’s in dire financial straits.
With Hartley approaching college age, all Sara’s pleas to her husband to provide for their son’s education landed on deaf ears. In deep opium crisis, STC was unable to write or lecture or do anything to earn the money his family needed. It fell to his distant brothers to procure for Hartley the equivalent of a scholarship worth fifty pounds a year. This was supplemented with 40 pounds per annum from his brothers, 30 pounds per annum from Lady Beaumont, ten pounds from Poole, and 5 pounds from Cottle, the printer who published STC’s verses. Similarly, when Derwent was of university age, an old Coleridge admirer, John Hookam Frere, set aside 300 pounds for his education, and Lady Beaumont also offered assistance. It was said the Coleridge children were left to "chance and charity."
STC had not only failed Sara, he failed his children, too. But Sara never maligned her husband. She took his side in all disputes (including the rift with the Wordsworths) and encouraged his sons to respect the father who had abandoned them.
For several years Sara had no communication from her husband, nor did she receive financial support. She was beholden to her brother-in-law (Southey) for allowing her to live in Greta Hall, now his house. In appreciation, she taught in the Southey schoolroom. At this time the Southey family included three adolescent girls and two children. In this schoolroom Sara’s sister Mary (Mrs. Lovell) taught English and Latin; Sara taught French, Italian, writing, arithmetic and needlework; Southey taught Greek and Spanish; and a neighbor taught drawing and music. (Southey’s wife, Edith, was suffering from depression.) School was held from half past nine each morning until four, with an hour for walking and a half hour for dressing.
As Sara’s children grew into adulthood, her worries for them grew. "I hope no child of mine will marry without a good certainty of supporting a family," she said. "I have known many difficulties myself that I have reason to warn my children."
Hartley — as the other Coleridges — was to prove a promising scholar, a fact that delighted his father. However, during a later fellowship at Cambridge’s Oriel College, he was denied membership as a fellow, chiefly due to his "sottishness."
Sara — and her husband — were outraged, blaming everyone but Hartley. Sara wished to bring her firstborn back into the fold at Greta Hall, but Southey prohibited it. This was a low point of Sara’s life. She wrote that she felt like "one without plan or purpose; without hope or heart."
She had good reason to grieve. Her son fell deeper into alcoholism, had no home, and was given to "wandering." Through the Wordsworths she would scrape together money to send him for the rest of her life.
After 29 years she would leave Greta Hall and experience a modicum of happiness, living first with Derwent when he took orders, then coming to settle permanently with Sara when she delivered her first child in 1830. A reputed scholar, Sara the younger had married STC’s nephew, Henry Coleridge, who became a lawyer in London’s Hampstead. (The Coleridge cousins had not met until they were adults.)
Ironically, Hampstead was just a few short miles from Highgate, where since 1816 Coleridge had been living with surgeon and apothecary James Gillman, who controlled his opium habit.
Sara and STC met for the first time in eight years. Before that, there had been a ten-year gap between their meetings. STC was proud of his nephew/son-in-law, and he and Sara were doting grandparents. Coleridge was to write of Sara: "In fact, barring living in the same house with her there are few women that I have a greater respect and ratherish liking for, than Mrs. C."
For the last three years of Coleridge’s life, he and Sara enjoyed many cordial visits with each other. STC died in 1833, at age 61. Sara, who was two years older than her husband, lived until 1845.
Sources: The Bondage of Love, by Molly Lefebure; Coleridge, The Viking Portable Library.
© 2012 Cheryl Bolen
Posted at The Beau Monde by permission of the author.