The Deferences Of Friendship:
Between poetry and prayer in Coleridge’s conversation poems.

Charles Armstrong


From The Coleridge Bulletin, New Series 14 (NS), Autumn 1999, pp 40-46 (page nos in text as [-pp-])

IN WHAT FOLLOWS, I am going to take a look at Coleridge’s so-called “conversation poems.” In a way, what I want to do is to explore the consequences and limits of G. M. Harper’s claim that the conversation poems are “Poems of Friendship.”[1] After first situating the poems in the context of Coleridge’s conception of friendship of the 1790’s, I will demonstrate that, although the conversation poems construct a space of intimacy, it is an intimacy always already diverted towards an exterior. Not only are the conversation poems informed by a political dimension, but they are in fact so attuned to a difference at the heart of all friendship, that ultimately we must allow for something beyond conversation in the conversation poems. Ultimately, we are asked to hear another address, silently beckoning, just out of earshot, as it accompanies all intersubjective communication; an address, prayer-like, of the unknown.

Most of the conversation poems were written between 1795 and 1798.[2]  Coleridge, during much of this time, had a group of friends and family living close-by in the West Country—a group which at least intermittently constituted something of a literary set or circle with close bonds of both friendship and writing. As has been pointed out by Kelvin Everest, [3] this informal community was a modification or a remnant of the preceding, more ambitious plans to form a small, radically democratic society—the so-called “pantisocracy” Although no systematic pantisocratic treatise remains, the letters exchanged between Coleridge and Southey reveal the centrality of friendship to pantisocracy. Coleridge’s letters of the time consistently divide friendship into two basic elements. They grant us a basic description whereby friendship would consist of a bond of intimacy (called affection, tenderness, or ardour), and a more ethically tinted bond, most often name “esteem,” “respect” or “reverence.” The latter trait would combine dissymmetry of relations with a religious inheritance, and also with a hint of a threat or a potentially violent power in it, as the word reverence stems from the Latin verb




 “vereri,” which both means to fear and to respect and which also is the origin of “wary.” Friendship, for Coleridge, would thus not only consist of the affection that he, for instance, felt for Mary Evans—it would also entail a wariness and an ethical, perhaps even religious, awe.[4]

Coleridge’s dichotomy is strikingly similar to Kant’s definition of friendship, even if it stems from a time when Coleridge was not yet exposed to his writings. Kant’s definition balances the German equivalents, namely “Liebe” and “Achtung.”[5] According to the founder of the critical philosophy, “Achtung” or respect is a repulsive force which balances the attractive force of affection. If Kant is the first thinker on friendship to articulate a rupture or interruption at its heart, as has been claimed by Derrida,[6] Coleridge is not slow in following. Furthermore, as we shall see, Coleridge surpasses the Kantian balance of love and respect in opening up the conversation of friendship internally, to its heterogeneous foundation.

The most obvious and explicit use of the dichotomy of respect and affection in a conversation poem, is probably the description of Coleridge’s feelings for his brother in “To the Rev. George Coleridge.” After referring to George as the speaker’s earliest friend, the poem goes on to depict the nature of that friendship:


He who counts alone
The beatings of the solitary heart,
That Being knows, how I have lov’d thee ever,
Lov’d as a brother, as a son rever’d thee! (ll. 48-51)


We thus have a combination of fraternal affection and genetic deference, a synthesis of both the mutual and hierarchical dimensions of the family, transformed into something that is neither of the two. The presence of God—referred to as “He who counts alone . . .”—also alerts us that this structure is not self-sufficient, but is maintained by an ulterior and absent authority. God’s presence here witnesses to the fact that George’s authority is not absolute: George has just previously in the poem been described as one “who didst watch my boyhood and my youth” (l. 44), but the purview of his caring vision is belittled, or at least set into perspective, by the absoluteness of God’s eye, which has unique access to




the innermost workings of the heart.

The basis for a semblance of equivalence between George Coleridge and God lies in their genetic authority. Both a father and a god have creative powers, and in addition both are invested with a moral authority. In Coleridge’s conception of friendship though, any friend may take over this authority by proxy, as a mediator. In “The Eolian Harp” it is his wife, Sara, who is invested with it, as her “more serious eye a mild reproof / Darts” (ll. 49-50), recalling him to the straight and narrow of Christian orthodoxy from the meandering speculations of errant pantheism. When the friend’s authority becomes too prodigious, as in “To William Wordsworth” where Wordsworth is called both a “Friend” and a “Teacher” in the very first line, the conversational genre approaches that of confession. Later on, the author of The Prelude is implicitly cast in the role of a father, and Coleridge as his child: 


In silence listening, like a devout child,
My soul lay passive, by thy various strain
Driven as in surges (ll. 95-97)


Coleridge’s childlike passivity before the poetry of his friend is also evident in the manner in which “To William Wordsworth” pays tribute to The Prelude. For much of the first half of the poem is devoted to a summarizing repetition of Wordsworth’s poem, a manner of showing respect which approaches the blindly repetitive utterance characteristic of children.

In utilizing the parent-child relation in this manner, Coleridge’s conception of friendship is linked to the whole Rousseauist and Idealist tradition concerning the project of pedagogy and Bildung. Pedagogy is inherent in all friendship, and it informs all acts of sympathy for Coleridge, for instance his act of identification with Lamb in “This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison.” It is particularly conspicuous, though, in relations where the age or authority of the persons concerned is unevenly balanced, for instance in “Frost at Midnight.” In the latter poem, the expected pedagogical relation is reversed, in a typically romantic manner, by making the child—Hartley—the carrier of a true mimetic proficiency in his relations to nature. But childhood’s authority is implicitly cast into doubt in the very same poem, as Coleridge’s own learning from nature is denigrated as the making of a “toy of Thought” (l. 23). Childish toying is the model both for a productive and a blind mimesis of nature, both for a constructive imitation and a vacuous copying—the latter, errant dimension also being hinted at in the poem “The Nightingale,” where it is stated that Hartley “Mars” all things with his “imitative lisp.”

Just as the irresponsible toying of speculative thought cannot be safely distinguished from true pedagogy, the limiting satiety of a self-satisfied staying at home cannot be distinguished from the settled rootedness which is Coleridge’s ideal of domesticity. The conversation poems are, of course, to a large degree not only poems of friendship, but also poems of place. They posit an ideal of living at home, at a settled abode in a natural environment,




predating Wordsworth’s similar vision in Home at Grasmere. This settled living at home is projected to be the result of good pedagogy—it is the telos of the mimetic process, the site of the self-sufficient maturity that follows upon dependent infancy and adolescence. Thus George Coleridge, in the poem addressed to him, “having passed / His youth and early manhood in the stir / And turmoil of the world, retreats at length” (ll. 1-3). Having passed beyond childhood, he retires to the place of authority which he previously was dependent upon himself. After climbing “Life’s upland road,” he has now reached its summit. The centred and safe existence of the elder brother is contrasted with Coleridge’s own fate, which is to have wandered as a stranger through life. The younger brother has “chance-started friendships” (l. 20); that is, his friendships follow no settled plan, nor are they rooted in one fixed abode.

The simple dichotomy of rootedness versus wandering informs the poem addressed “To the Rev. George Coleridge,” but it is a dichotomy which is ironically undercut by another, earlier conversation poem. For “Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement” envision precisely the trap of a too rooted and secluded life. The speaker of this poem dismisses, after first praising, the idyll of living in such a manner. An existence of this kind is interpreted as being a guilty one, guilty of a pre-emptive staging of what can only rightfully be a post-apocalyptical harmony. Until the millenium has arrived, one cannot give in to what is here called “delicious solitude” (l. 58), but must rather “fight the bloodless fight / Of Science, Freedom, and the Truth in Christ” (ll. 61-62).

Thus the solitude of a settled life both is and is not an ideal for the figure of the friend. The friend must both be independent and engaged, according to a contradictory double imperative which was one of the stumbling blocks that doomed Plato’s attempt to define friendship in the early dialogue “Lysis.”[7] Coleridge himself was well aware of this problem, as he described Tom Poole’s relation to himself in the following words: “you will have served me most effectually, by placing me out of the necessity of being served.”[8] Perfected friendship would mean no more friendship, because there would be no more lack, no more need. The friend is one who is free—in accordance with the etymology of the word, stemming as it does from the Anglo-Saxon “freo,” which meant “not in bondage”—but this freedom risks ridding one of all need of friends. The goal or end of friendship is the friendless, the end is the end.

But for Coleridge another kind of friendship defers that end. A perfected friendship is impossible, for the most fundamental form of friendship is built on an infinite difference. The same letter to Poole, just quoted, shows that the




finishing of most friendships only prepares for the eternal beginning of another kind of friendship. Coleridge writes: “indeed what can any body [do] for me?—They do nothing who do not teach me how to be independent of any except the Almighty Dispenser of Sickness & Health!”[9] Hence if friendship cannot ever lead to pure solitude, it is because even the purest of solitudes is not self-sufficient: one is always, it would seem, dependent upon that very best of friends, upon God—since God is, as Coleridge puts it in the lecture on revealed religion of 1795, “our universal Friend.”[10]

The pure dependency of this first friendship precludes any mutual, two-way conversation. One does not chatter idly with God: one prays. The conversation poems continually open out onto the more fundamental address of prayer, as dialogue or conversation always needs the supplementary basis of prayer. And indeed prayer is frequent in the conversation poems. There is, for instance, the prayer that suddenly and surprisingly ends the poem “To William Wordsworth.” The ending of the poem envisages a circle of harmonious relations, spreading from Wordworth to the friends around them—referring to a “happy vision of belovéd faces” (l. 107). Yet even the happy band of friends cannot fully eliminate Coleridge’s anxiety, and when he rises after listening like a helpless infant, it is the absolute itself which is beckoned through the address of prayer: “And when I rose, I found myself in prayer” (l. 112).

This concluding line of “To William Wordsworth” is not only remarkable for this arresting interruption of the horizon of conventional friendship, this deferring of friendship to the exigencies of the divine. It is also notable for its vagueness. For what does it mean to pray, in this line? We do not know for sure—partly because the poem just does not tell us. Should we acknowledge that Coleridge is seeking assistance from God, the friend of friends, in the default of any absolute assistance from his friend Wordsworth, or indeed to save him from the destructive rivalry of his relation to Wordsworth? Perhaps—yet several factors complicate everything that is involved in such an acknowledgement.

For instance, Coleridge himself tells us that prayer is no simple address to another person. If prayer is the absolute of conversation, it is also the absolutely other of all conversation. In one of his annotations, Coleridge makes the point that “we must not worship God as if his Ways were as our ways. We must not apply to him, neither as tho’ God were the same with sensible Nature, or the sum total of the Objects of our bodily senses.” God is no friend that can be sensed, nor is he the aggregate of the sensible. This transcendence of the ontic has radical ramifications for prayer: “to speak aloud to God and by the sound and meaning of our words to suppose ourselves influencing him as we in this way influence our fellow men—this is a delirious Superstition.”[11] Followed to its extreme conclusion, this stance would really




situate prayer beyond encomium, since the praise of an encomium almost always entails an element of determination of the addressee.[12] 

Furthermore, if we extend our purview beyond “To William Wordsworth,” the conversation poems as a group give ample evidence of that addressing God is, at best, a problematical act for Coleridge. The prevalent tone—although it may disputed that it is completely consistent—is set already in the poem “To a Friend.” The ending of that poem notes that any requests of God are made superfluous, unlike those that are apt in a context of intersubjectivity. “Aught to implore” (l. 28) of God, is absurd. The activity of demand is made silent or muted, thus all Coleridge may show God is “mute thoughts” (l. 29). In the absence of any viable way of asking of God, there are nonetheless gifts from God—thus opening up the praising response as the only proper manner of address in this context. Coleridge is, as he writes, “Prepar’d [ . . . ] / Thanksgiving to pour forth with lifted heart, / And praise Him” (ll. 30-32).

In a letter of this time, Coleridge makes a similar point concerning the requesting of anything from God: prayer is said to be a “petition” which we should not expect to “influence the immutable,” and every prayer, he writes, “should indeed join to our petition [the words:]—But thy will be done, Omniscient, All-loving, Immutable God!”[13] Any request should be supplemented by a counter-request, every demand countermanded in its very utterance. This is why the ending of “The Eolian Harp” insists that only an encomium of God is proper, any other address being a transgression. Coleridge writes:


For never guiltless may I speak of him,
The Incomprehensible! save when with awe
I praise him, and with Faith that inly feels (ll. 58-60)


The pure unadulterated praise of God would not involve him in an economy of bartering, in the commerce of giving and taking, and it would also involve a total responsiveness which would not fix the divine essence on the basis of the world or any of its attributes. This responsiveness leads to an elliptical, almost completely negative approach. But if only praise is “guiltless,” it is nevertheless true that Coleridge often transgresses his own restraint. Such a transgressive




determination of God is evident in the divine attributes listed by Coleridge on occasion, and also in the manner in which God is almost made into a personal schoolteacher for Hartley in “Frost at Midnight": being a “universal Teacher,” God, Coleridge writes, “shall mould / Thy spirit, and by giving make it ask” (ll. 63-64). The circular structure of question and response envisaged here, demonstrates how the appeal to God risks being subsumed into the conversational structure it is supposed to be the basis of. One step further is made in “Fears in Solitude,” where a patriotic appeal is made to God for Him to intervene on behalf of the British forces in their war with France.[14] 

One quick point might be made in summary. Just as the pedagogical friend hovers on the border between pure self-sufficiency and incompleteness, the divine friend vacillates between being a mysterious and unknown origin of the gift, on the one hand, and a more approachable and personal being that is superhuman, but not other than the human. If a community of friends can only be constructed in deference to its heterogeneous foundation, that foundation must itself nevertheless defer to the claims of friendship. It works both ways. Ultimately, one might hazard that licence is given for such ambivalent dependencies in the undecidable way in which structure is conceived of by Coleridge and his peers. Coleridge’s later theorizing on organic unity will inherit, rather than solve, these structural problems. But the telling of that tale will have to be deferred till another occasion.



[1]     See his essay "Coleridge's Conversation Poems," of 1928, included in M.H. Abrams (ed.), English Romantic Poets: Modern Essays in Criticism. Oxford University Press, Oxford: 1975.

[2]     We will follow Richard Holmes in his inclusive approach to the conversation poems, thus allowing for a total of nine of them, with the following titles: "To a Friend," "The Eolian Harp," "Reflections on Having Left a Place of Retirement," "To the Rev. George Coleridge," "This Lime-Tree Bower My Prison," "Frost at Midnight," "Fears in Solitude," "The Nightingale," and "To William Wordsworth"  (See Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Selected Poetry. Edited with an introduction by Richard Holmes, Penguin Books, London: 1994).

[3]     See Kelvin Everest, Coleridge's Secret Ministry: The Context of the Conversation Poems 1795-1798. The Harvester Press, Hassocks: 1979, 10.

[4]     Here, too, there is classical precedent for this aspect of Coleridge's interpretation of friendship. For instance, in Cicero's dialogue on friendship, Laelius warns friends against confusing their relationship with any more exclusively amatory affection, insisting that "besides loving and cherishing each other, they will also feel mutual respect.  Remove respect from friendship, and you have taken away the most splendid ornament it possesses". (Cicero, On the Good Life, trans Michael Grant, Penguin 1971, 217). 

[5]     Quoted from paragraph 46 (p. 363) of the second part of Immanuel Kant, Die Metaphysik de Sitten.  Philipp Reclam Jun., Stuttgart: 1990.

[6]     “Yet with this imperative of distance [ . . . ] Kant introduces into the continuum of a tradition, which is nonetheless confirmed by him, a principle of rupture or interruption that can no longer be easily reconciled with the values of proximity, presence, gathering together, and communal familiarity which dominate the traditional culture of friendship. Or at least, Kant grants the necessity of this distance, even if it never totally escaped the attention of his predecessors, a more rigorous philosophical status, and the dignity of a law with its rule and maxim”. (Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship. Translated by George Collins, Verso, London: 1997, 254-255).

[7]     According to Socrates, true friendship can only be lasting if it is between virtuous persons. But a god individual has no need of a friend: "What place then is there for friendship, if, when absent, god men have no need of one another (for even when alone they are sufficient for themselves), and when present have no use of one another? How can such persons ever be induced to value one another?". (The Works of Plato. Selected and edited by Irwin Edman, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Random House, New York: 1956 (1928), 20)

[8]     To Thomas Poole, 12 December, 1796 (Collected Letters, I. Edited by Earl Leslie Griggs, Clarendon Press, Oxford:1956, 270).

[9]     Ibid., emphasis added.

[10]   “Lectures on Revealed Religion, its Corruptions and Political Views,”.163, in Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Lectures 1795: On Politics and Religion. Edited by Lewis Patton and Peter Mann, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London: 1971.

[11]   Quoted on p. 318 of Thomas McFarland, Coleridge and the Pantheist Tradition. Clarendon Press, Oxford: 1969.

[12]   “Neither the prayer nor the encomium is, of course, an act of constative predication. Both have a performative dimension, the analysis of which would merit long and difficult expositions, notably as to the origin and validation of these performatives. I will hold to one distinction: prayer in itself, one may say, implies nothing other than the supplicating address to the other, perhaps beyond all supplication and giving, to give the promise of His presence as other, and finally the transcendence of His otherness itself, even without any other determination; the encomium, although it is not a simple attributive speech, nevertheless preserves an irreducible relationship to the attribution”.(Jacques Derrida, “ How to Avoid Speaking: Denials,”.111, in Harold Coward and Toby Foshay (eds.), Derrida and Negative Theology. State University of New York Press, Albany: 1992).

[13]   To Joseph Cottle, 15 March, 1797 (Collected Letters, I, 316). A later letter is less adamant on this matter, but demonstrates Coleridge’s awareness of prayer’s problematic status: “ Scripture seems to teach us that our fervent prayers are not without efficacy even for others—and tho’ my Reason is perplexed, yet my internal feelings impel me to a humble Faith, that it is possible & consistent with the divine attributes”.(To John Prior Estlin, 14 May, 1798 (Collected Letters, I, 408)).

[14]   "Spare us yet awhile,/ Father and God! O! spare us yet awhile!/ Oh! let not English women drag their flight / Fainting beneath the burthen of their babes" ("Fears in Solitude," ll. 129-132).


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