Response To Crisis In Coleridge’s Letters


Nichola Deane


(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 16, Winter 2000, pp 24-30)




Write,—as religious a letter as possible—but no mention of what is gone and done with—with me the former things are passed away, and I have something more to do that to feel—

             God almighty

have us all in

his keeping.—

                                                                       C. Lamb [1]


With this exhortation, Lamb closes a well-known letter to Coleridge of 27th September 1796.  In it, he gives the ‘outlines’ of what he describes as the ‘terrible calamities that have fallen on [his] family’.  Lamb’s sister, Mary, had killed her mother in a ‘fit of insanity’, and so he writes to his friend to ask for some kind of religious consolation to help him through the period of crisis.

Anyone who contemplated either writing to Lamb or speaking to him at this time faced a very difficult task in offering any kind of appropriate or tactful condolence.  Especially challenging would be an attempt to say something that was even slightly helpful or restorative.  And, as one of Lamb’s subsequent letters implies, not everyone around him was able to offer even tactful sympathy.[2]  How could anything comforting be said that didn’t sound lame, embarrassed or platitudinous?  More problematic still was the fact that Lamb had been highly specific, too, about what was required.  Religious consolation was needed, and a highly authoritative and persuasive piece of consolation at that.  Such was horror of the situation, and such was its complexity.

Recall that Lamb ends his letter requesting consolation with the less than confident valediction


I have something more to do that to feel—

God almighty

have us all in

his keeping. —

C. Lamb

(Marrs I 44-45)


He clearly is not sure that God does ‘have us all in his keeping’, and what he seems to fear is, perhaps, despair; or a total loss of belief in God, a ‘loss of




God as though he were nothingness’.  Or perhaps he fears a downslide into a state of religious desolation.  Desolation, which can be defined as the ‘perception of the absence of God as he is real’, involves a sense that God has forsaken the sufferer.[3] In fact, as the closing cadence of Lamb’s letter suggests, he is already experiencing that sense of spiritual desolation: he seems able to cling to his belief in God, but reconciling a belief in a benign Deity with the horror of recent events is a different matter.  In writing to Coleridge, he is not merely asking for consolation in a time of ordinary grief.  This is a calamity that could possibly trigger a breakdown of his own: a breakdown that would have been catastrophic for both himself and the vulnerable Mary.  If Lamb’s mental health were to have collapsed at this point, both he and his sister could have been institutionalised, Mary perhaps permanently.

Given the stakes involved in composing this letter of consolation, then, what kind of argument was Coleridge to make?  To begin with, he needed to say something relatively orthodox.  To some extent, this would require resorting to traditional arguments used to combat desolation, despair and other forms of melancholia and depression.  As Stanley Jackson notes:


Using [the terms] either dereliction or abandonment, Christian writings have related [the concept of desolation] to Christ’s cry on the cross: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me", with the implication of the sufferer’s identification with Christ often easily discerned’.[4]


One example of this kind of religious literature is to be found in the 1691 treatise A Discourse Concerning Trouble of Mind, and the Disease of Melancholy.  Written by a Noncomformist minister, Timothy Rogers, it is the autobiographical account of his own mental health problems.  His repeated attacks of depression were characterised by a sense of religious desolation.  At times, he explains this causeless ‘disease’ in terms of sin and punishment, but at other points he suggests that the illness might be ‘more of a test of a Christian’s steadfastness in the face of suffering, with parallels drawn to the suffering of Christ’.[5]  Of the two approaches typified in Rogers’s Treatise, clearly the least appropriate to Coleridge’s purposes would be one which suggested that Mary Lamb’s predicament was in any way a punishment for sin.  The only way to address the issue of God’s dereliction of the Lambs, and to suggest that this event could possibly have anything to do with the workings of Divine Providence would be to focus on the traditional stance of identifying human suffering with Christ’s.  Yet this had to be done without writing a philosophical discourse the length of the Logosophia. Lamb needed a brief, but convincing argument that he could somehow cling to.  Thus, Coleridge’s brief—to compose a consolatory interpretation of these almost




unimaginably horrific events within the confines of a single-sheet letter—was not an easy one.

All of Coleridge’s powers of epistolary eloquence would be put to the test. To show how fully he responds to this complex demand requires extensive quotation. Only then does the full force of this epistolary sermon’s rhetoric become apparent.  This is the first paragraph of the letter, written on 28th September 1796:


Your letter, my friend, struck me with a mighty horror.  It rushed upon me and stupefied my feelings.  You bid me write you a religious letter.  I am not a man who would attempt to insult the greatness of your anguish by any other consolation.  Heaven knows that in the easiest fortunes there is much dissatisfaction and weariness of spirit, much that calls for the exercise of patience and resignation: but in storms like these, that shake the dwelling and make the heart tremble, there is no middle way between despair and the yielding up of the whole spirit unto the guidance of faith.  And surely it is a matter of joy that your faith in Jesus has been preserved; the Comforter that should relieve you is not far from you.  But as you are a Christian, in the name of that Saviour, who was filled with bitterness and made drunken with wormwood, I conjure you to have frequent recourse in frequent prayer to ‘his God and your God;’ the God of mercies, and father of all comfort.  Your poor father is, I hope, almost senseless of the calamity; the unconscious instrument of Divine Providence knows it not, and you mother is in heaven.  It is sweet to be roused from a frightful dream by the song of birds and the gladsome rays of the morning.  Ah, how infinitely more sweet to be awakened from the blackness and amazement of sudden horror by the glories of God manifest and the hallelujahs of angels.[6]


The letter’s argument works by setting up simple-sounding alternatives.  Either Lamb gives way to despair completely or he yields up his entire spirit to the guidance of faith.  The letter’s diction makes the same argument.  ‘Struck’, ‘mighty’, ‘horror’, ‘anguish’, ‘storms’, ‘tremble’, ‘bitterness’, ‘wormwood’, ‘calamity’, ‘frightful’, ‘dream’, ‘blackness’, ‘amazement’, ‘sudden’, ‘horror’: the vocabulary describing the disaster is appropriately sublime.  Whereas, the consolation offered is initially couched in quieter terms, ones which propose notions of rest and peace to counteract this distress: ‘Comforter’, ‘relieve’, ‘recourse’ ‘mercies’ ‘comfort’ ‘heaven’ ‘sweet’ ‘gladsome’ ‘morning’ and again ‘sweet’.  But gradually, the claims made become less cautious.  The final sentence of the paragraph contains the more celebratory terms: ‘awakened’, ‘glories’, ‘hallelujahs’, ‘angels’, and encourages Lamb to envision his mother’s beatitude.  It’s an orthodox, rhetorically sophisticated, yet conventional-




sounding religious response to despair, and one that builds up carefully to addressing the most difficult part of the argument: the suggestion that Lamb should imitate Christ.  He writes:


As to what regards yourself, I approve altogether of your abandoning what you justly call vanities.  I look upon you as a man called by sorrow and anguish and a strange desolation of hopes into quietness, and a soul set apart and made peculiar to God!  We cannot arrive at any portion of heavenly bliss without in some measure imitating Christ; and they arrive at the largest inheritance who imitate the most difficult parts of his character, and, bowed down and crushed underfoot, cry in the fulness of faith, ‘Father, thy will be done.’  (CL I 239)


Unashamedly emotive, the letter turns out to be almost exactly what Lamb requires.  He begins his response to Coleridge’s consolatory argument with the assurance that his friend’s letter is ‘an inestimable treasure’ (Marrs I 47). Coleridge’s letter was intended to be restorative, and Lamb’s warm response indicates that it serves this purpose.  And somehow, Lamb manages to hold on to both his sanity and his faith to an extent sufficient to continue to look after Mary.  But this is perhaps possible only because Lamb manages to persuade his friend to write in this particular conventional style, and because he manages to avoid actually meeting with Coleridge during this period. Coleridge’s letter proves an ‘inestimable treasure’ to Lamb, but Coleridge in propria persona might well have been another matter.  In a number of the letters that follow, Lamb makes clear that he doesn’t wish to see his friend in the aftermath of the crisis.  A letter to Coleridge, dated 28 January 1798, is quite candid in confessing why Coleridge’s presence at such a time would be undesirable.  In it, Lamb declines Coleridge’s offer of a recuperative visit to Nether Stowey following another of Mary’s breakdowns with the rather backhanded compliment:


but you have a power of exciting interest, [o]f leading all hearts captive, too forcible [to] admit of Mary’s being with you—I consider her as perpetually on the brink of madness—. I think, you could almost make her dance within an inch of the precipice. (Marrs I 127)


In general, it is this aspect of Coleridge’s character, the excitability, which seems to characterise his response, in person and in letters, to a good deal, if not the majority of crises that befall himself or his friends.  The conventional, relatively controlled response is rare.  In this case it appears to show in practice the principle that letters are meant to respond fully to each other, to act as a simulacrum of good conversation, or in this case, good oratory.  Coleridge does almost as exactly as Lamb asks, Coleridge’s letter corresponding with the need of his distressed friend.

But more often than not, Coleridge’s response to crisis was less restrained




in style.  Describing his own mental difficulties to others, he seems almost incapable of holding back his distress.  He writes to Thomas Poole on November 5th, 1796:


For I wanted such a letter as your’s—: for I am very unwell.  On Wednesday night I was seized with an intolerable pain from my right temple to the tip of my right shoulder, including my right eye, cheek, jaw, & that side of the throat—I was nearly frantic—and ran about the House naked, endeavouring by every means to excite sensations in different parts of my body, & so to weaken the enemy by creating a division.  It continued from one in the morning till half past 5, & left me pale & fainty.—It came on fitfully but not so violently, several times on Thursday—and began severer threats towards night, but I took between 60 & 70 drops of Laudanum, and sopped the Cerberus just as his mouth began to open.  On Friday it only niggled; as if the Chief had departed as from a conquered place, and merely left a small garrison behind, or as if he evacuated the Corsica, & a few straggling pains only remained; but this morning he returned in full force, & his Name is Legion!—Giant-fiend of a hundred hands! with a shower of arrowy  Death-pangs he transpierced me, & then he became a Wolf & lay gnawing my bones. —I am not mad, most noble Festus! —but in sober sadness I have suffered this day more bodily pain than I had before a conception of—. My right cheek has certainly been placed with admirable exactness under the focus of some invisible Burning-Glass which concentrated all the rays of a Tartarean Sun. —My medical attendant decides it to be altogether nervous, and that it originates either in severe application, or excessive anxiety. —My beloved Poole! in excessive anxiety, I believe, it might originate! —I have a blister under my right-ear, and I take 25 drops of Laudanum every five hours: the ease & spirits gained by which have enabled me to write you this flighty, but not exaggerating account—. With a gloomy wantonness of Imagination I had been coquetting with the hideous Possibles of disappointment—I drank fears, like wormwood; yea, made myself drunken with bitterness! for my ever-shaping & distrustful mind still mingled gall-drops, till out of the cup of Hope I almost poisoned myself with despair. (CL I 249)


This ‘flighty’ account shares with the letter to Lamb a grand style.  This letter, too, is wrought up to a high emotional pitch, although here the despair finds expression in a description that combines high absurdity with high tragedy in a wild flurry of dashes and seemingly disconnected associations.  The description of his naked flight round the house spawns one figure of speech, ‘weakening the enemy by creating a division’, and from there, a host of tangential connections are made.  ‘Weakening the enemy’ gives rise to the ‘Chief departing as from a conquered place’, Corsica.  Here, Coleridge




suddenly remembers the British evacuation of the island, and the subsequent occupation of it by the French, a news event from the previous month.[7]  Twined in with this is a strain of demonic imagery, biblical and classical, all of which combines to create the image of a mind brilliantly and compulsively expanding from a single point; a mind that remains characterized by genius, even when functioning in this disjointed, opium-sodden condition.

What Coleridge has written is an eloquent exposition of a seemingly incoherent state. It exposes his mind’s disorder, but in a way that also reads like a medical case history.  He is precise about times, doses, descriptions and locations of pain.  All of which takes the epistolary convention of describing the state of one’s health to a new dimension, and which shows the letter being used to provide an altogether more materialist form of consolation for the writer, even if it does not aim to console the poor recipient, Thomas Poole. The letter to Lamb and the letter to Poole show Coleridge making use of almost polarized approaches to the treatment of despair and depression; the former traditional and religious, the latter, modern, secular and rationalist.  But despite this polarization, the two letters do have this in common.  They both make use of epistolary conventions, but also consistently fail to conform to some, whilst completely surpassing others.  Take the letter to Lamb: in that case, Coleridge attempts to adhere to the maxim set out in secrétaires and letter-writing manuals for centuries that the correct way of writing was to match the tone and style of the letter as closely as possible with the needs of the recipient.  Or, as Samuel Johnson put it:


Nothing can be more improper than ease and laxity of expression when the importance of the subject impresses solicitude or the dignity of the person exacts reverence. [8]


Coleridge clearly pays great attention to this matter of rhetorical propriety; so much so, in fact, that he exceeds his commission.  Against the odds, the letter does almost exactly what is required.  It is an exemplum of its type.

In the case of the letter to Poole, however, the letter breaks the decorum set out in many letter-manuals from the renaissance onwards to practice self-restraint.  As Roger Chartier writes, familiar letters, ‘demanded restraint and a strict self-censorship’ .[9]  But the ‘flighty’ letter to Thomas Poole gives full vent to Coleridge’s anxieties.  It appears to withhold nothing. Instead, it not only presents a pathologized image of its writer, it also invokes other discourses and genres beyond the scope of the bourgeois familiar letter.  The level of allusion loads the letter with what Pierre Bourdieu would term ‘symbolic




capital’.[10]  It reeks of sophistication and erudition, even though it is the casual product of an apparently disordered personality.

But in actual fact, however, it is in this way that the letter becomes exemplary; it must surpass the very conventions that are laid out as rigid prescriptions in the letter-manuals.  For, as Roger Chartier observes, bourgeois or aristocratic letter-writers can:


play freely upon the detailed codes set out in the secrétaires because they have interiorized them well enough to be able to turn them on their heads. [11]


How much more so in the case of Coleridge, who can transform, by the use of allusion, the rather invisible genre of the familiar letter into all genres.  In his hands, breaks with decorum eventually come to seem part of what Henry James famously described as Coleridge’s ‘anomalous, tremendously suggestive’ character.[12]  His solecisms only seem to reinforce the sense given of his flawed genius. As Lamb himself recognised in his essay ‘Distant Correspondents’, the familiar letter is characterised by solecism.[13] And it is Coleridge’s solecisms, as much as his adherence to any epistolary decorum, which make his letters into a distinguished and exemplary body of work.

[1]               Charles and Mary Lamb Letters, ed. by Edwin W. Marrs Jnr. 3 vols to date (Ithaca: Cornell 1975-) I 44-45

[2]               See Marrs I 48, where Lamb recounts that ‘On the very 2d day’ after the incident, a group of twenty or so mourners had gathered at the family’s lodgings, and had ‘supp[ed] in our room’. This mundane fact, and the mourners’ mundane conversation, Lamb could not reconcile with the ‘day of horrors’.

[3]               Melancholia and Depression, Stanley W. Jackson, (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 134 n.

[4]               Melancholia, Jackson, p. 134 n.

[5]               Melancholia, Jackson, p. 135.

[6]               The Collected Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, ed. by Earl Leslie Griggs, 6 vols (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956-1971), I 238-39.

[7]               The British occupation of Corsica, which had begun in 1794, came to an end when, on 15th October 1796, French troops landed at Macinaggio. The British garrison, under Governor Elliot and Nelson began to leave the island on 18th October. Histoire de la Corse, F. Girolami-Corcona, (Bastia: C. Piaggi, 1906), 472-73.

[8]               The Rambler, Samuel Johnson, ed. by S.C. Roberts, (London: Everyman, 1953),  244.

[9]               ‘Introduction: An Ordinary Kind of Writing', Roger Chartier, in Correspondance, Roger Chartier, Alain Boureau & Cécile Dauphin; trans. by Christopher Woodall, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997),  20.

[10]             The Field of Cultural Production, Pierre Bourdieu, (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993; 1995), 75.

[11]             ‘Introduction: An Ordinary Kind of Writing', Roger Chartier, Correspondance, 19.

[12]             The Complete Notebooks of Henry James, ed. by Leon Edel and Lyall H. Powers, (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 89-90.

[13]             Elia, Charles Lamb, (Spelsbury: Woodstock, 1991), 240.