Coleridge, the Wedgwood Annuity and Edmund Oliver


Christopher Rubinstein


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 20, Winter 2002, pp 129-137)


INTERPRETING THE PERIOD involving the origins of Coleridge’s verse of 1797 and 1798, some of the finest poetry in the English language, is both a complex and ongoing process. Two of many strands of 1798 are intended to be outlined here. These intertwine and have at their core the traumas of the anxiety-prone Coleridge arising from the discord between him and his erstwhile friend Charles Lloyd, and unexpected and deep uncertainties over the so-called annuity from Tom and Josiah Wedgwood dating from January 1798.

       There has been much previous study of the tortuous relationship between Coleridge and Charles Lloyd some three years his junior, which was one at first of great mutual enthusiasm and intimate friendship between September 1796 and March of the following year.[1] By November 1797 the antipathy which had been smouldering ever since the departure of Lloyd from the Coleridge household some eight months earlier came to its first serious climax. The three ‘Nehemiah Higginbottom’ sonnets of Coleridge’s were published in the November 1797 issue of the Monthly Magazine. It is hard to see how the ultra sensitive Lloyd would not have found some of the content immensely personally offensive. The three sonnets were intended, unwisely and regretfully as Coleridge later acknowledged, to poke fun at the early and allegedly immature poetry of Lloyd, Lamb, Southey and indeed Coleridge himself.  Much of their critique can be taken as merely literary. However, the second sonnet refers to ‘my false friend’, improbably anyone but Lloyd. The third sonnet is a parody of a kind of the traditional story of the house that Jack built, ‘a ruined house in a ruined country’. The last three lines are a description of the moon by the ‘amorous knight’, whose ‘…hindward charms gleam an unearthly white’, the sonnet concluding by mentioning ‘the full-orb’d harvest moon’. My interpretation is that Coleridge was openly displaying utter contempt for Lloyd. We do not know why. It is possible there was some sexual impropriety while Lloyd was a member of the Coleridge household for an aggregate of about thirteen weeks in the Autumn of 1796 and in February and March of 1797. Their profoundly emotional relationship for a while of tutor and student and




the obviously inconvenient overcrowding at the Bristol address in 1796 might begin to offer a possible explanation, but whatever the truth of the matter, the insult offered by this third sonnet in particular was a risky step for Coleridge to take.

       Certainly the final distancing intended to be effected by Coleridge from his onetime friend and confidant Charles Lloyd through the medium of these three sonnets by the end of 1797 is clear enough. It looks as if Coleridge expected no sequel and if this were his judgement it was dangerously mistaken.

       In January 1798 the second strand mentioned originates. The basic story is well-known. In Shropshire, Coleridge was preparing to take gainful employment as the Unitarian minister of Shrewsbury.  However, not entirely out of the blue, a letter arrived signed by Josiah Wedgwood on behalf of himself and his brother Tom offering Coleridge an ‘annuity’ – an annual sum – of £150.00 for life. The contents of this letter of 10 January [2] are remarkable for what they disclose, imply, and fail to disclose. At first sight the letter is extraordinarily generous in the respect it displays for Coleridge’s genius. Coleridge was not required to perform any duties. The Wedgwood brothers had decided that he deserved the financial help they intended to provide for him. They relied on him continuing to be worthy but made no specific demand of Coleridge. He promptly accepted the offer of this apparent annuity, and willingly abandoned his prospective career as a minister of religion.

       The awful fact, which was first brought to light in R B Litchfield’s Tom Wedgwood (London 1903), and which for whatever reason has for long since remained unnoticed, is that the ‘annuity’ so wonderfully offered was to consist of a series of donations capable of being discontinued at any time without the donee, Coleridge, having any remedy in law. Tom was to die prematurely in 1805, but he provided by means of his will that his half of the ‘annuity’ should continue.  Here was a valid legal disposition.  Josiah was to terminate his half of the annuity in 1813, unilaterally and perfectly legally, due to business difficulties. However, by then Coleridge’s life had become very different. 

       Coleridge must soon have become aware though on what exact date it seems now impossible to learn, that the apparent annuity had no legal basis. It would have had one if the offer of 10 January had been a ‘specialty’ i.e. under seal (and not merely under hand) or if Coleridge were obliged by the terms of the offer himself to perform some act or make some payment or promise for the benefit of the Wedgwoods or at least to pay, or perform an act or make a promise of disadvantage to himself,  i.e if there were a ‘consideration’. [3]

       The absence of a legally binding arrangement for the annuity must have been a source of fright or panic for Coleridge once he ascertained this truth. Linked with this must have been his realisation that prior to the offer of 10 January, he – and others – had given the Wedgwood brothers the impression




that he was a person both of intellectual eminence, including poetic talent, and moral probity. The letter of 10 January indicates this, but implies albeit with extreme courtesy, the possibility of the opposite! What could Coleridge have done to safeguard his precarious financial position as far as he could, except to carry on as he had been doing with poetic output, much of which must have been approved by the Wedgwoods before 10 January?

       This approval cannot have been due to the sole judgement of the Wedgwood brothers themselves. They had a family connection through Sir John Mackintosh[4] to the owner and editor of the Morning Post, Daniel Stuart. This newspaper had published two days before the Wedgwoods’ letter offering the annuity, the overtly political and anti-ministerial poem Fire Famine and Slaughter. There could hardly have been a more definitive – and indeed eloquent - political statement of opposition to the continuation of the war with Republican France, and for good measure British political oppression of Ireland. Two days earlier the Cambridge Intelligencer had published Parliamentary Oscillators which mocked those MPs mainly Tories who supported the war but who refused to vote in favour of the necessary taxation. Not only was Stuart satisfied with Coleridge’s politics and ability as a poet but so must have been the Wedgwoods. This must have at once been clear to Coleridge, so here was a specific encouragement for him to continue to write political – and other – verse for the Morning Post. As an additional incentive he was by arrangement with Stuart receiving a retainer of a guinea a week, which remuneration preceded the ‘annuity’. This useful provision had been secured through the well-intentioned if self-interested intervention of Mackintosh.

       So during the first few months of 1798 Coleridge’s poetic output may reasonably be attributed partly to his intention to demonstrate to the Wedgwoods he remained up to the standard they expected of him, including satisfying Stuart. The publication in the Morning Post of the sententious and doubtless popular The Old Man of the Alps on 8 March may be seen in this light, and its absence of much poetic merit may have been offset, for some readers, by Coleridge’s use of a sophisticated pseudonym for its authorship. The Raven, probably written in the previous year, appeared on 10 March preceded by the introduction of a spoof letter suggestive of a rarefied intellectual sense of humour.  The grimness of this poem was also countered at the outset by its description as ‘A Christmas tale, told by a schoolboy to his little brothers and sisters’.  Between February and April were also composed the admirable and justly famous Frost at Midnight, Fears in Solitude and The Nightingale.  These poems were to be published later in the year but in the meantime the fort was being held. He was also completing Part 1 of Christabel and The Rime Of The Ancyent Marinere, though their exact time scales of composition now seem to be beyond ascertainment.  The Morning Post published Lewti signed with the




pseudonym already mentioned on 13 April and accompanied by a note of eulogy possibly written by Coleridge himself.  Three days later the impressive France an Ode appeared, commended in an editorial note of which Coleridge himself may have been the author. Here was a politically correct poem for Stuart and the Wedgwoods. A negotiated peace with the French Republic remained highly desirable – indeed desirable if not necessary for the success of the pottery trade of the Wedgwoods – but as the poem emphasises, the French Republic had to be given an up-to-date bad image. In February, France had invaded Swiss cantons without just cause.  Subject to the important omission of a stanza condemning the British conducted African slave trade, Coleridge was writing with sincerity, and it was advantageous that his honesty coincided with the interests of Stuart and the Wedgwoods. He was once more displaying his ongoing proficiency both as a journalist and a poet. Then occurred a catastrophe. This was the publication of Lloyd’s novel Edmund Oliver in April 1798.

       The usual attention to this two volume novel, comprising seventy eight fictional letters written purportedly contemporaneously, centres on the revelation that the thinly disguised Coleridge is already an opium addict.  This disclosure, which must first have been learned by Lloyd during his sojourn in the Coleridge household, together with other uncomplimentary features of his past, must have been a source of humiliation for Coleridge, but to dwell on this aspect is in my opinion to depart from the main point. The novel, partly inspired by well-known romantic novels of Rousseau’s, promised to be a success. It could be supposed to display a know-all air for the intelligentsia at which it was aimed. William Wordsworth reported Dorothy’s view that it contained ‘a great deal, a very great deal of excellent material.’ [5]  She also thought that it bore the mark of a too hasty composition, but it seems uncertain what she meant by this. Much later De Quincey was to commend Lloyd’s insight.[6]  The danger to Coleridge was twofold, as he must soon have realised. The lesser risk which seems actually to have materialised, though only for some three months, was the exclusion of further verse contributions to the Morning Post.  By far the worse risk was that the novel’s depiction of Coleridge’s past might stimulate the Wedgwood brothers into making enquiries to ascertain Coleridge’s true character and eligibility to be the beneficiary of their generous ‘annuity’.  As their letter of 10 January implies they never had the depth or length of contact with Coleridge which would broadly speaking have justified their placing such a high degree of trust in him. They, mainly Tom, had enjoyed only a few days of his company in 1797 and in 1798. They could have, and almost certainly did, hear Dorothy and William speak highly of him. They almost certainly learned little or nothing of the seamy side of his past and




deficiencies of character indicated in Edmund Oliver.[7]

       So new worries must have tormented Coleridge after the publication of Edmund Oliver, all the more so because of his temporary distancing from the Morning Post. He must have thought of those persons who did know about his past, and with whom he was or had been on bad terms, and who could reveal damaging information about him if they were approached by the Wedgwoods. Here was a frightening prospect for Coleridge. One has to list Charles Lloyd himself, his father the Quaker banker, Charles Lamb and Robert Southey, and possibly Kitty (otherwise Catherine) Wedgwood – and even after about mid-June Hazlitt, as people who could have provided the world with tales of Coleridge’s less-than-perfect past.

       Charles Lloyd himself could have complained, at which he does not hint in his novel, that the regular education he should have received from Coleridge was non-existent.  Yet a full education had been legally contracted for.  What he did learn from Coleridge seems to have been peripheral if inspiring and exciting.  Perhaps more dangerous still in this context, was the risk that Charles Lloyd snr might harbour resentment and forward the letter or copy which Coleridge had sent to him, dated 15 October 1796.[8]  In this letter Coleridge had rashly – even fraudulently it could have been alleged – held himself out to be a perfect mentor for Charles jnr to receive an education fit for a grounding for a professional career. The enormous hyperbole and self-praise in this letter could hardly have pleased the Wedgwoods had they learned of it. To make its appearance worse, it was written arguably with a pecuniary motive in mind. By an arrangement of September, Coleridge was to receive £80.00 from Lloyd snr for a year’s lodging and tuition. In the event he ultimately received a mere £10.00. This reduced amount, obviously calculated by the banker as fair as providing approximately for three months lodging with nothing of course for the missing tuition, must have shown Coleridge to his later disquiet that Lloyd snr was an honest man, all the more dangerous if he were to give the Wedgwoods a poor reference for Coleridge.

       Charles Lamb had enjoyed the privilege of Edmund Oliver being dedicated to him as the book proudly notifies readers. Lamb and Lloyd had formed a close relationship as their joint venture for a volume of poems confirmed. They had a special bond not least because each of them grieved for a lost grandmother. The poem which Lloyd had published about his grief had been disparaged by Coleridge who intruded on Lloyd’s relationship with his father by describing the poem as like a rich Quaker’s ‘costly raiment’. [9]

       Such insensitivity would not have favourably impressed Lamb, let alone his friend. Moreover, Lamb evidently believed he had been personally insulted by Coleridge, although the grounds of this belief may remain in doubt.  Lloyd




apparently told Lamb that Coleridge had said or perhaps written ‘Poor Lamb, if he wants any knowledge he may apply to me’. [10]

       In May 1798 Coleridge, to save himself it seems, wrote to Lamb expressing his surprise and regret that Lamb no longer wished to correspond with him. Probably this letter was intended to elicit a friendly response from Lamb; but at the end of May the response came in the form of a magisterial and remarkably intellectually sophisticated letter headlined Theses Quaedam Theologicae, in which Lamb elaborately pointed out to Coleridge that he, Coleridge, had an identity which was simultaneously angelic and diabolical. This could not have been exactly reassuring.  Lamb, had he been so disposed, could have reported that Coleridge had perhaps even a habit both of telling lies and deliberately omitting to pay debts.

       Robert Southey, with whom Lloyd maintained an intimate friendship for a while in the summer of 1797, wrote favourably of Edmund Oliver in the Critical Review of July 1798.  He had once learned from Coleridge himself, as Coleridge must have remembered, that he had married Sara without loving her.  Southey’s own wife was Edith, sister of Sara, who would not have been happy about such a slighting of Sara.  Coleridge probably knew that Southey held a poor opinion of his intellectual stamina. Here was a source of further items of unkind evidence were the Wedgwoods to seek it. [11]

       Kitty Wedgwood disliked Coleridge possibly before 1798, but it is unclear when her pertly articulated distrust of him originated.[12]  Hazlitt, nineteen years old, might have been persuaded that he had been deceived by Coleridge, during his visit to Nether Stowey in May and June 1798, over the role of John Chester as a friend of Coleridge’s. [13]

       This anxiety of Coleridge’s would have been reduced by his meeting the Wedgwoods mid-June. Yet some worry remained, as shown by his letter to Tom Poole of 16 June (CL I 413). He maintained a close and reliable friendship with the Wordsworths and Tom Poole which was some consolation, but this period probable saw the composition of The Three Graves and other works, characterised by anxiety and reduced quality.  What must have decisively changed the situation was a totally unexpected event, i.e. the publication, in the Anti-Jacobin of 9 July,[14] of a passage of Tory invective lumping together, however irrationally and absurdly as subversive poets, Lloyd, Lamb, Southey, Coleridge and a Frenchman Lepaux: ‘... five other wandering bards that move/ In sweet accord and honesty and love’. They were unfairly




and maliciously vilified as ‘the advocates of the Regicides of France and the Traitors of Ireland’. Here was an absolute godsend for Coleridge. Stuart and the Wedgwood brothers now had a robust political incentive either to continue or renew their respect for him. The crass ignorance of the famous Tory wit Canning, or alternatively his unscrupulous sarcastic exploitation of the bitter differences between Coleridge and the three other English poets was an added bonus. The unwarranted mention of the Frenchman was further evidence of malice.  No wonder that Coleridge was able to put in the Morning Post of 30 July his first published poem for over three months, a useful and spirited though constrained refutation of Tory ideology about the war with France in the poem Recantation: Illustrated in the Story of the Mad Ox. His jocular prose introduction was itself a snub: ‘The following amusing Tale gives a very humorous description of the French Revolution, which is represented as an Ox’. In the 126 lines of the light verse the Ox is depicted as goaded by the enemies of the French Revolution into running amok. This further show of talent for political satire, obviously immensely acceptable to the anti-ministerial but not radical Morning Post, must have told significantly in his favour.

       Furthering these godsends was the appearance on 1 August in the successor journal to the Anti-Jacobin of the brilliant cartoon of Gillray’s [15] showing in various uncomplimentary forms and postures political radicals, or alleged radicals, from leading ones downwards.  Lamb and Lloyd are shown as a frog and a toad, and Coleridge and Southey as two asses carrying loads of allegedly inferior verse.  Indirectly to enhance Coleridge’s reputation further, having regard to Edmund Oliver, Lloyd complained to the journal on the grounds he was no Republican or Democrat, only to be met by a hostile review of his novel.  I suggest that Coleridge could leave for Germany in September, although at the price of marital unhappiness, reasonably satisfied that the Wedgwoods would not be motivated to cancel his ‘annuity’.

       To secure his position with the Wedgwoods Coleridge maintained his personal friendship with Tom until Tom’s death some seven years later. From time to time he met Tom and they traveled together.  He corresponded with both Tom and Josiah, none of his letters receiving the inimical scrutiny which objectively some invited.  Many of his letters were too long, convoluted and erudite for Josiah the pre-occupied businessman to want to try to understand, and too overwhelming for Tom suffering from worsening health. They conducted themselves as gentlemen, as good as their word, but Coleridge could not for a long time have wisely assumed their virtue. [16]

       Coleridge had effectively distanced himself from Lloyd because of the three sonnets published at the end of the previous year as previously mentioned and unavailingly tried to arrange through Cottle in May 1798 a meeting with Lloyd clearly to minimise as far as possible the damage done to




his reputation by Edmund Oliver.  Lloyd for his part anomalously insisted he loved Coleridge and forgave him, but for what he never specified.  He may have believed his enthusiasm as a novelist in depicting the thinly disguised Coleridge was justified.  Coleridge intensified his bitterness towards Lloyd as a onetime friend who had subsequently betrayed him and as not a fiend only because he was a madman. Lloyd did suffer throughout his life from bouts of mental ill-health.  He died in 1839 at the age of sixty four making a partial further literary reputation for himself but not one which has survived. Coleridge and Lamb renewed their famous friendship only it seems early in 1800. [17]


[1]       For the Coleridge-Lloyd relationship 1796-1797 in particular see Richard C Allen Charles Lloyd, Coleridge And Edmund Oliver (Studies in Romanticism vol 35 No 2 Summer 1996), Rosemary Ashton The Life Of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (London 1996)  86/87 and as indexed, Winifred Courtney Young Charles Lamb 1775-1802 (London 1982), Richard Holmes Coleridge Early Visions (London 1989) 99 &125 and as indexed, Graeme Jones The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropist (Charles Lamb Bulletin NS 100, 1997), E V Lucas Charles Lamb And The Lloyds (London 1898), Lynda Pratt Perilous Acquaintance ? Lloyd, Coleridge And Southey In The 1790’s (Romanticism 6.1.2000), Graeme Stones Charles Lloyd And Edmund Oliver: A Demonology (Charles Lamb Bulletin 95, 1996) and Gurian Taussig Lavish Promises, Coleridge, Charles  Lamb And Charles Lloyd (Romanticism 6.1.2000

[2]       Letter of 10 January (CL 1 363). Ashton 118-120,  Holmes 174 et seq, and as indexed.

[3]       Anson’s Law Of Contract  28th. edition  ed. J Beaton (Oxford 2002) 77 & 91 notes the case of Rann v Hughes (1778) as a legal precedent for the need for ‘consideration’ for a contract under hand.

[4]  For Mackintosh: Ashton 118 and Holmes 175 and  John Beer Coleridge, Mackintosh And The Wedgwoods (Romanticism 7.1.2001). John and Josiah Wedgwood and Mackintosh each married an Allen (sisters). Mackintosh had previously been married to a sister, who died, of Daniel Stuart. 

[5]       On the fourth page of the Introduction by Jonathan Wordsworth to the Woodstock facsimile edition (Oxford 1990) of  Edmund Oliver.

[6]       Allen 293.

[7]       Coleridge’s disreputable past and weaknesses of character: Allen Ashton 42 & 132, Holmes 53 & 142, and Stones.

[8]       The letter of 15 October CL 1 240/1 and in Litchfield.

[9]       Lloyd’s Poems On The Death Of Priscilla Farmer. Courtney 125 and Lucas. Coleridge’s sarcasm supplemented by his refering to Lloyd ‘doting’ on his grandmother.

[10]     Ashton 144 refers to letter of 28 July 1798 from Lamb to Southey.

[11]     Southey’s hostility towards Coleridge: Ashton 57 74 75, and Malcolm Elwin’s The First Romantics (London 1947) 148-157, and Pratt.

[12]     Text of Kitty Wedgwood’s letter of 1803 in Litchfield 139/140. Beer suggests her dislike of Coleridge may have dated from Xmas 1797.

[13]     Hazlitt as a guest in the Coleridge household describes John Chester in My First Acquaintance With Poets as if (arguably with the benefit of hindsight) deliberately made inconspicuous. Christopher Rubinstein’s ‘Along The Road To  Xanadu’ (The Wordsworth Circle vol XXX No 2 Spring 1999) elaborates.

[14]     Anti-Jacobin: Ashton 143 and Taussig.

[15]     The Gillray cartoon is reproduced in black and white in Stuart Andrew’s The British Periodical Press and The French Revolution, 1789-99 (Basingstoke 2000) 99 and elsewhere.  Ashton 143, Holmes 239 and Taussig.

[16]     The ultimate Coleridge-Wedgwood relationship: Ashton and Holmes as indexed, Litchfield and Beer.

[17] The ultimate Coleridge-Lloyd relationship: Ashton 100 and as indexed Holmes 122 and as indexed.