Shrewsbury

This page is one of those to enable the Friends to share activities and opinions from different places where Coleridge lived and worked. Do please email us (tsackett@btinternet.com) with information about forthcoming events and articles which you might wish to share. As time goes on we will build a picture of the impact and influences these special places had on Coleridge’s life and thought. So do please send us material to start the ball rolling.

January 1798 When living in relative poverty in the squalor of the cottage in Nether Stowey, Coleridge received an invitation to become the minister for the Unitarian Chapel in Shrewsbury. This offered him the chance for security for his family and a steady income. He attended the chapel there (meeting the young William Hazlitt for the first time) and preached to the congregation with great success, but he withdrew from the post after the Wedgwood brothers offered him an annuity of £150 to help him continue his writing.

Shrewsbury church

‘The Shaping Spirit of the Imagination’: An Afternoon with Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Shrewsbury Unitarian Church

Sunday 13th January 2019
Report by Justin Shepherd
Speakers: Graham Davidson and Ian Enters of the Friends of Coleridge, with Kate Innes, poet and novelist and winner of the ‘In Xanadu…’ international poetry competition.

This event, arranged by Ian Enters of the Friends and Fiona Checkley of the Unitarian Church, took place exactly 221 years to the day after Coleridge preached the sermon which so impressed the teenaged Hazlitt and which is memorialised so brilliantly in his ‘On My First Acquaintance with Poets’. So, when Graham Davidson climbed the steps of the pulpit set in the centre of the east end wall of this jewel of a chapel, he must have been all too aware of his predecessor’s impact on the congregation. Alas, there were no impressionable teenagers to be seen in the audience. However, the assembled Salopians and others who had travelled to be there heard a rich and deeply thoughtful talk.

The talk tackled head-on the question of what exactly Coleridge meant by the word ‘imagination’, linking the celebrated passage in ‘Biographia’ with the ‘Dejection Ode’ and making a fruitful comparison with Wordsworth’s ‘Immortality Ode’. It is far too complex an argument to summarise here, but perhaps the most suggestive point made was that the ‘loss’ to which both poets refer was not, as is often assumed, the loss of their power as poets, but of the sense of ‘Joy’ in life itself, a characteristic, according to Coleridge, of what he called the ‘Primary Imagination’.

During the break for coffee, one could examine more closely this beautiful building, where the young Charles Darwin was taken every week by his mother, a Wedgwood, and which contains among other things, a brass plaque commemorating Coleridge’s association with the building. The Church is in excellent condition and exudes a warm, intimate, almost cosy atmosphere, well suited to such meetings.

In the second half Ian Enters and Kate Innes were in dialogue, talking about their approach to writing and supplying a contemporary perspective on the imagination as active practitioners. A genuine rapport was conveyed and, unusually for these kind of events, the readings of their own work seemed to arise spontaneously from their conversation rather than being crowbarred in. Ian Enters is a highly effective reader of both his own and others’ verse; he combines the actor’s ability to project to an audience with a writer’s grasp of what is important in a poem.  Kate Innes, whose poem ‘The Flock of Words’ was, by miles, the best poem in our 2016 competition, proved a sensitive and illuminating interviewee. Their conversation was always interesting to listen to, and threw a sideways, incidental glance at Coleridge’s own magisterial account of the creative mind, the ‘esemplastic power’.

Having only seen the outside of this church before, it was a great privilege to be so warmly welcomed inside. The quality of the speakers’ contributions made for a most memorable afternoon in the company of the resident Unitarians and a faithful few from the Friends. I would like to thank Fiona Checkley and Ian Enters for making it happen, and hope and believe that this will be the start of a mutually fruitful association between The Friends of Coleridge and the Shrewsbury Unitarian Church.

JPW Shepherd, Chairman, Friends of Coleridge

William Hazlitt meets Coleridge for the first time when he preached in Shrewsbury

William Hazlitt

In his 1823 essay My First Acquaintance with Poets Hazlitt recounts his first meeting with Samuel Taylor Coleridge:

'My father was a Dissenting Minister, at Wem, in Shropshire; and in the year 1798 (the figures that compose the date are to me like the "dreaded name of Demogorgon"), Mr Coleridge came to Shrewsbury, to succeed Mr Rowe in the spiritual charge of a Unitarian Congregation there. He did not come till late on the Saturday afternoon before he was to preach; and Mr Rowe, who himself went down to the coach, in a state of anxiety and expectation, to look for the arrival of his successor, could find no one at all answering the description but a round-faced man, in a short black coat (like a shooting-jacket) which hardly seemed to have been made for him, but who seemed to be talking at a great rate to his fellow-passengers. Mr Rowe had scarce returned to give an account of his disappointment when the round-faced man in black entered, and dissipated all doubts on the subject by beginning to talk. He did not cease while he stayed; nor has he since, that I know of. He held the good town of Shewsbury in delightful suspense for three weeks that he remained there, "fluttering the proud Salopians, like an eagle in a dove-cote"; and the Welsh mountains that skirt the horizon with their tempestuous confusion, agree to have heard no such mystic sound since the days of

"High-born Hoel's harp or soft Llewellyn's lay."

As we passed along between Wem and Shrewbury, and I eyed their blue tops seen through the wintry branches, or the red rustling leaves of the sturdy oak-trees by the road-side, a sound was in my ears as of a Siren's song; I was stunned, startled with it, as from deep sleep; but I had no notion then that I should ever be able to express my admiration to others in motley imagery or quaint allusion, till the light of his genius shone into my soul, like the sun's rays glittering in the puddles of the road. I was at that time dumb, inarticulate, helpless, like a worm by the way-side, crushed, bleeding lifeless; but now, bursting from the deadly bands that "bound them,

"With Styx nine times round them,"

my ideas float on winged words, and as they expand their plumes, catch the golden light of other years. My soul has indeed remained in its original bondage, dark, obscure, with longing infinite and unsatisfied; my heart, shut up in the prison-house of this rude clay, has never found, nor will it ever find, a heart to speak to; but that my understanding also did not remain dumb and brutish, or at length found a language to express itself, I owe to Coleridge. But this is not to my purpose …

It was in January of 1798, that I rose one morning before day-light to walk ten miles in the mud, to hear this celebrated person preach. Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as this cold, raw, comfortless one, in the winter of the Year 1798. Il y a des impressions que ni le tems ni les circumstances peuvent effacer. Dusse-je vivre des siecles entiers, le doux tens de ma jeanesse ne peut renatre pour moir, ni s'effacer jamais dans ma memoire. When I got there, the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done, Mr Coleridge rose and gave out his text, "And he went up into the mountain to pray, HIMSELF, ALONE." As he gave out this text, his voice "rose like a steam of rich distilled perfumes," and when he came to the two last words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The idea of St. John came into my mind, "of one crying in the wilderness, who had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild honey." The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind. The sermon was upon peace and war; upon church and state, not their alliance, but their separation – on the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christianity, not the same, but as opposed to one another. He talked of those who had "inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore." He made a poetical and pastoral excursion – and to show the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd-boy, driving his team afield, or sitting under the hawthorne, piping to his flock, "as though he should never been old," and the same poor country-lad, crimped, kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the loathsome finery of the profession of blood:

"Such were the notes our once-loved poet sung."

And for myself, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and philosophy had met together. Truth and Genius had embraced, under the eye and with the sanction of Religion. This was even beyond my hopes. I returned home well satisfied. The sun that was still labouring pale and wan through the sky, obscured by thick mists, seemed an emblem of the good cause; and the cold dank drops of dew, that hung half melted on the beard of the thistle, had something genial and refreshing in them; for there was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature, that turned everything into good. The face of nature had not then the brand of JUS DIVINUM on it:

"Like to that a sanguine flower inscrib'd with woe."

On the Tuesday following, the half-inspired speaker came. I was called down into the room where he was, and went half-hoping, half-afraid. He received me very graciously, and I listened for a long time without uttering a word. I did not suffer in his opinion by my silence. "For those two hours, " he afterwards was pleased to say, "he was conversing with William Hazlitt's forehead!" His appearance was different from what I had anticipated from seeing him before. At a distance, and in the dim light of chapel, here was to me a strange wildness in his aspect, a dusky obscurity, and I thought him pitted with the small-box. His complexion was at that time clear, and even bright –

"As are the children of yon azure sheen."

His forehead was broad and high, light as if built on ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them, like a sea with darkened lustre. "A certain tender bloom his face o'erspread," a purple tinge as we see it in the pale thoughtful complexions of the Spanish portrait-painters, Murillo and Valesquez. His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing – like what he has done. It might seem that the genius of his face as from a height surveyed and projected him (with sufficient capacity and huge aspiration) into the world unknown of thought and imagination, with nothing to support or guide his veering purpose, as if Columbus had launched his adventurous course for the New World in a scallop, without oars or compass. So, at least, I comment on it after the event. Coleridge, in his person, was rather above the common size, inclining to be corpulent, or like Lord Hamlet, "somewhat fat and pursy." His hair (now, alas! Grey) was then black and glossy as the raven's, and fell in smooth masses over his forehead. This long pendulous hair is peculiar to enthusiasts, to those whose minds tend heavenward; and is traditionally inseparable (though of a different colour) from the pictures of Christ. It ought to belong, as a character, to all who preach Christ crucified, and Coleridge was at that time one of those! …

In digressing, in dilating, in passing from subject to subject, he appeared to me to float in air, to slide on ice … He was the first poet I had known, and he certainly answered to that inspired name. I had heard a great deal of his powers of conversation, and was not disappointed. In fact, I never met with anything at all like them, either before or since, I could easily credit the accounts which were circulated of his holding forth to a large party of ladies and gentlemen, an evening or two before, on the Berkeleian Theory, when he made the whole material universe look like a transparency of fine words; and another story (which I believe he has somewhere told himself) of his being asked to a party at Birmingham, of his smoking tobacco and going to sleep after dinner on a sofa, where the company found him, to their no small surprise, which was increased to wonder when he started up of a sudden, and rubbing his eyes, looked about him, and launched into a three hours' description of the third heaven, of which he had had a dream, very different from Mr Southey's Vision of Judgment, and also form that other Vision of Judgment, which Mr Murray, the Secretary of the Bridge-street Junto, took into his especial keeping!'

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