Coleridge, Bristol and Revolution


Stuart Andrews


[The revised text of a lecture given at Bristol in 1995 as part of The Bristol Connection, a celebration of the bicentenary of the first meeting of Coleridge and Wordsworth.]


(The Coleridge Bulletin  New Series No 7 (Spring 1996) , pp 2-29)


The theme is “revolution” - American, French and Coleridgean. The focus is Bristol - Bristol Library, Coleridge’s Bristol Lectures and the first meeting with Wordsworth at Bristol in August 1795. That Coleridge was in Bristol at all was the result of an earlier meeting with another Lakeland poet, Robert Southey. Coleridge, a Cambridge man, had met Southey at Oxford in June of the previous year, just as Coleridge was setting out on a walking tour of Wales. His walking companion, Joseph Hucks, remarked that they were setting out ‘at a time so peculiarly alarming to the affairs of this country that every hour comes attended with some fresh calamity.’  [1]  He was doubtless thinking of the war with revolutionary France, and rumours of an armed insurrection in England, rumours which would lead later in the year to the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the arrest of members of political societies on a charge of treason. A year before that (in 1793) Coleridge’s Unitarian Cambridge tutor, William Frend, had been tried before the University Vice-Chancellor for blasphemy. ‘Frend for ever’

was chalked on college walls, a train of gunpowder traced ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’ on the lawns of Trinity and John’s, while Coleridge (applauding from the gallery of the Senate House during the trial) narrowly escaped being apprehended by the proctors.


Coleridge expressed his disillusionment with Cambridge-and probably also with himself - by joining the army. When his relatives secured his release on grounds of insanity (perhaps aided by his admission to his uncle: ‘I have been a fool even to madness’) the college authorities were remarkably lenient in the penalty they imposed. Coleridge received a month’s gating and was required to do 90 pages of Greek translation. No wonder his head was full of Greek




words when he met Southey a few weeks later and, together, they sought to give Greek names and political substance to their vision of a classless, propertyless community to be established in the American wilderness — their famous and much ridiculed pantisocracy. Southey was born two years before the American Declaration of Independence, and was aged 15 when the Bastille fell — an event celebrated by Coleridge in a schoolboy poem. Southey had been enough of a schoolboy rebel to get expelled from Westminster, and later expressed the exhilaration of living through revolutionary times in almost Wordsworthian vein: ‘Old things seemed passing away, and nothing was dreamt of but the regeneration of the human race.’ It was Southey who brought Coleridge to Bristol, Southey who introduced him to the Bristol Library, Southey who encouraged him to give his 1795 Bristol lectures and Southey who made sure that Coleridge married a Bristol girl at St Mary Redciffe. 1995 is also Coleridge’s 200th wedding anniversary.


The marriages to the two Fricker sisters - Coleridge to Sara in October and Southey to Edith in November — were intended as a prelude to emigration. The two brides would be founder—members of the pantisocratic community to be established on the banks of the Susquehanna in Pennsylvania. Besides their husbands, the girls ‘would be accompanied by their widowed mother, their brother and three other sisters - together with various members of the Southey family and sundry of their husbands’ school and university friends. It was Southey who first conjured up the American vision. Six months before he met Coleridge, Southey had written to a friend, Horace Bedford, that he was attracted by the idea of retiring to a cottage in America ‘where society was on a proper footing, and man was considered more valuable than money; and where I could till the earth and provide by honest industry the meat which my wife would dress with pleasing care.’  [2]  It is easy to see that he was not yet married.




It is also easy to dismiss this idealization of the newly created American republic - and indeed the whole pantisocratic concept - as impractical student day-dreaming. But it was an Utopian vision that was widely shared by more mature contemporaries - men who are regarded as being very much in the main stream of the rational thought of the European Enlightenment. Bristol as a city was, of course, bound to America by commercial links, by civic pride in the part played by the Cabots in the discovery of mainland America, and by being represented in Parliament during most of the War of Independence by Edmund Burke, fierce critic of the war and formerly London agent of the New York Assembly.


Even before the American War, North America was well represented on the shelves of Bristol Library. There was Andrew Burnaby’s Travels through the Middle Settlements of North America in the Years 1759 and 1760; there was Mark Catesby’s magnificent Natural History of Carolina in two folio volumes containing 200 etched and coloured plates; there was the anonymous Account of the European Settlement in America (5th Edition 1770), one of a dozen books on Britain’s North American colonies that Voltaire had in his library; and there was the Canadian journal of a French Jesuit, Pierre Charlevoix, first published in France as early as 1721, but re-published in 1744 and appearing in Bristol Library in the English translation of 1763. This Journal is notable for its sympathetic portrayal of the Canadian Indians. Charlevoix writes of them: ‘These Americans are entirely convinced that man is born free, that no power on earth has any right to make any attempts against his liberty, and that nothing can make amends for its loss.’  [3]  This description, of what we are encouraged in these politically correct days to call ‘native Americans’ came not from the pen of Jean Jacques Rousseau, but from that of a Jesuit - albeit a Jesuit who had been tutor to the young Voltaire.




Coleridge does not appear to have read Charlevoix, and Catesby’s folio volumes were too large to borrow. But we know that he read the Travels of another transatlantic naturalist, William Bartram, which Bristol Library purchased in the London edition of 1792. Coleridge quoted from Bartram’s Travels in Biographia Literaria, applying some of Bartram’s descriptions ‘as a sort of allegory or connected simile and metaphor of Wordsworth’s intellect and genius’—though he admits the analogy might seem ‘dim and fantastic’ to his readers. Quoting from Bartram, he writes:


The soil is a deep, rich dark mould, on a deep stratum of tenacious clay, and that on a foundation of rocks, which often break through both strata,lifting their backs above the surface. The trees which chiefly grow here are the gigantic black oak, magnolia magniflora, fraximus excelsior, platane and a few stately tulip trees.


And he adds: ‘What Mr Wordsworth will produce it -is not for me to prophesy: but I could pronounce with the liveliest convictions what he is capable of producing. It is the FIRST GENUINE PHILOSOPHIC POEM.’  [4]  Wordsworth himself lost his copy of Bartram on a trip to Germany, and immediately wrote home for a replacement. At least one literary critic has traced lines in Kubla Khan, with its ‘caverns measureless to man’ to Bartram’s descriptions of the underground waterways of Florida, and has even claimed to find Bartram’s irridescent coloured fish in the water-snakes swimming ‘blue, glossy green and velvet black’ in the Rime of the Ancient Mariner. [5]


More persuasive, perhaps, is evidence of Wordsworth’s debt in the opening lines of ‘Ruth’ to Bartram’s meeting with an Indian chief. Half—an—hour’s experience of Cherokee hospitality in Georgia prompts Bartram to exclaim: ‘O divine simplicity and truth, friendship without fallacy or guile, hospitality disinterested, native, undefiled, unmodified by artificial refinements.’ Accompanied by a young trader, the




naturalist observes Cherokee maidens gambolling amid the azaleas and strawberry-fields or ‘bathing their limbs in the cool fleeting streams.’ Well might Bartram decide that ‘the sylvan scene of primitive innocence was perhaps too enticing for hearty young men long to continue as idle spectators.’  [6] In ‘Ruth’, Wordsworth’s ‘youth from Georgia’s shore’


told of girls—a happy rout!

Who quit their fold with dance and shout

Their pleasant Indian town,

To gather strawberries all day long

Returning with a choral song

When daylight is gone down.


Similarly Bartram’s ‘fiery Azalea, flaming on the ascending hills’ is matched by Wordsworth’s portrayal


Of flowers that with one scarlet gleam

Cover a hundred leagues, and seem

To set the hills on fire.


Not only does Bartram devote more than one-tenth of his Travels to describing Indian customs and characteristics, but he appends a separate 40 page account of their ‘Persons, Manners, Customs and Government.’ Here he records that the Cherokees are not only ‘grave and steady: dignified and circumspect in their deportment,’ but also ‘tenacious of the liberties and natural rights of man.’ Amid further minute descriptions of their sports and pastimes, the naturalist concludes: ‘As moral beings they certainly stand in no need of European civilization.’  [7]  Indeed, Bartram implied, it was for Europe to learn from the native American.


Before we leave Bristol Library and the part it played in the shaping of revolutionary poets, let us look at Southey’s reading in the months immediately before he met Coleridge in the summer of 1794. In the last two months of 1793 he read (or at least borrowed) not only Gilpin’s Forest Scenery , but Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, Godwin’s Political Justice, and Mary Wollstonecraft’s Rights of Woman. Between January




and May 1794 he seems to have concentrated on the histories of Greece and Rome; but his borrowing record from July onwards perhaps reflects Coleridge’s influence: first Observations on Man by the philosopher, Hartley, whom Coleridge so admired that he named one of his sons after him; then the three volumes of Cartwright’s. Labrador Journal and Williams’s Farther Observations on the Discovery of America by Prince Madoc, finally two influential French texts of the Enlightenment - Child of Nature by Helvetius and volume V of Abbe Raynal’s history of the European settlements in the West Indies, which included North America.


Williams’s book was a curiosity since it sought to prove that Madoc’s descendants were to be found among a Welsh-speaking tribe of North American Indians. Two hundred years on, The Times for 18 October 1995 reported that Tony Williams, a Welsh school caretaker was setting out with his wife and three children for North Dakota, where they would live among the Mandans (and I quote The Times)’ a tribe of North Americans whose language is said to bear a strong resemblance to old Welsh.’ The impact made by Williams’s book on an impressionable Southey helps to explain the writing of the poet’s epic, Madoc, started in 1794 - and perhaps the readiness of the pantisocrats to consider Wales as a substitute for America. Raynal’s book was in an altogether different class. It was placed on the Index, was publicly burned in Paris, and (perhaps predictably) ran through 30 editions between 1770 and 1789 - becoming progressively more radical as it did so.


The 1776 English edition, which Southey read, contains Raynal’s suggestion that the good health of Americans is due to the ‘great plenty of everything requisite for food’ and to the fact that they are ‘not yet polished nor corrupted by residing in great cities.’ Indeed, he argues, it is only in the colonies that ‘men lead such a rural life as was the original




destination of mankind.’ He admittedly offers some practical advice, as when he commends the climate of Carolina because ‘the heats of summer are not excessive; and the cold of winter is only felt in the mornings and evenings.’ But Raynal’s theme is (as he puts it) ‘the progress of good in the new hemisphere, and the progress of evil in the old.’  [8]  It was Raynal that William Cobbett claimed to be ‘full of’ when he landed in America in 1792.


While Southey was reading Raynal in the early months of 1795, Coleridge had also been using Bristol Library to help him with the series of lectures he had undertaken to give in the city. But in developing his pantisocratic ideas, Coleridge had been influenced by books he read, not in Bristol but in London, where he had been the previous September, trying to find a publisher for the Fall of Robespierre — the verse drama he and Southey had written together. He had lodged near Christ’s Hospital, his old school, and discussed pantisocracy with past and present ‘Grecians’ as the senior pupils were called. He read three books, all published between 1792 and 1794 by authors who knew one another and who had all been caught up in events in Revolutionary Paris. One was Gilbert Imlay, Mary Wollstonecraft’s American lover. Imlay registered Mary as his wife at the United States Embassy in Paris in order to accord her the immunities enjoyed by American citizens in republican France. But he failed to keep his promise to emigrate with her to the United States. Imlay’s book, though prosaically entitled a Topographical Description of North America, contained purple passages of truly Wollstonecraftian sentimentality. Describing the season of sugar-making, Imlay writes:

The season of sugar occupies the women, whose mornings are cheered by the modulated buffoonery of the mocking—bird, the tuneful song of the thrush, and the gaudy plumage of the parroquet. Festive mirth crowns the evening. The business of the day being over, the men




join the women in the sugar groves where enchantment seems to dwell...[and] the mildness of the evening invites the neighbouring youth to sportive play....  [9]


Are there echoes in Coleridge’s sonnet ‘Pantisocracy’, which he wrote and sent to Southey within a couple of weeks of reading Imlay’s book:


Sublime of Hope, I seek the cottag’d dell

Where Virtue calm with careless step may stray,

And dancing to the moonlight roundelay

The wizard passions weave an holy spell?


The second of Coleridge’s London books was Thomas Cooper’s Some Information Respecting America, published in 1794. It was in effect an extended prospectus for the community of political refugees that Joseph Priestley and his sons had hoped to establish on the Susquehanna. Cooper was their land agent, offering plots of Pennsylvania land for sale, with such beguiling titles as ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality’ or the names of revolutionary heroes: Washington and Jefferson, Tom Paine and Brissot. Jean-Pierre Brissot, besides being a founder-member of the French anti-slavery society, Les Amis des Noirs, and of the transatlantic Galloamerican Society, was author of New Travels in the United States of America. Brissot was leader of the anti-Jacobin group (the Girondins) in the French National Convention, where he failed to match the single-minded ruthlessness of the Jacobins, who, Wordsworth reminds us:


in attack or defence alike

Were strong in their impiety.


The Jacobins first expelled the Girondins from the Convention, and then had them executed. Southey may have shocked Tom Poole’s cousin by claiming that he would rather have heard of his own father’s death than news of the death of Robespierre, but he had earlier written of Brissot’s death




on the guillotine: ‘I am sick of the world and discontented with everyone in it. The death of Brissot has completely harrowed up my faculties.’  [10]  Brissot is not among the dramatis personae of the Fall of Robespierre- he was dead by then- but he is constantly referred to in the text, and his ghost seems to brood over the action. He is usually dismissed as one of history’s failures, but his importance for us lies in the part he played in interpreting the American Revolution to his European contemporaries, and so in a sense linking the American and French Revolutions. Wordsworth may have met Brissot when in Paris in the autumn of 1791. The French 1828 edition of Wordsworth’s poems claims that the poet ‘was acquainted with many of the leaders of the revolutionary party, and lodged in the same house with Brissot.’ All that Wordsworth tells us in the Prelude is:


My room was high and lonely, near the roof

Of a large mansion or hotel, a spot

That would have pleased me in more quiet times....


He leaves us guessing whether this was indeed Brissot’s house at 1 Rue Grétry.


Brissot’s Travels , the third of the books we know Coleridge read in London, was based on six months spent in America late in 1788 - a tour that was cut short by the news of the summoning of the Estates General, which brought Brissot hurrying back to France. The publication of his travels in Paris in 1791, when the French were themselves devising a new constitution, gave the book added topicality. As Brissot remarks in the preface: ‘Great proposals are opening before us. Let us hasten, then, to make known that people whose happy experience ought to be our guide.’ The early pages of the book were written by one of Brissot’s sponsors, Etienne Clavière, a Genevan banker, fellow member of the Gallo-American Society and future Girondin finance minister. His transatlantic interests were mainly commercial, but the image of free America provided the inspiration. Thus




Clavière writes: ‘The present state of independent America will perhaps give us a glance at the highest perfection of human life we are permitted to hope for.’ In proposing his ‘Plan of a Colony to be established in America’, he asks whether the proponents of such a scheme should be condemned as ‘having formed an Eutopia,’ but he answers that, an the contrary, circumstances now favour such an enterprize which ‘ before the American Revolution might have been judged impracticable.’ Brissot’s preface further emphasizes the attractions of that revolution: ‘The object of these travels,’ he proclaims, ‘was not to study antiques, or search for unknown plants, but to study men who had just acquired their liberty.’  [11] 


Of the trio of Coleridge’s London books, only Brissot’s was in the Bristol Library. The register shows that it was borrowed a dozen times between September 1792 and September 1794 — though not by either Southey or Coleridge. We know that Tom Poole read Brissot in the original French edition of 1791, as well as in the 1792 English version. So the would-be pantisocrats may have been introduced to some of Brissot’s ideas in August 1794, when they called on Poole at Nether Stowey and before Coleridge set off for London.


Whatever Brissot’s contribution to the shaping of pantisocracy, he and his ideas reappear in the first of Coleridge’s Political Lectures, delivered in Bristol in February 1795. First printed as A Moral and Political Lecture, it later appeared as the Introductory Address to Conciones ad Populum in a somewhat amended form. In this first Bristol lecture Coleridge’s target is those who claim to be lovers of liberty, but adopt methods destructive of it. The lecture begins with an apology (omitted from the later version) for the youthfulness and inexperience of the lecturer. He was 22:




When the wind is fair and the Planks of the Vessel sound, we may safely trust every thing to the management of professional Mariners: in a Tempest and on board a crazy Bark, all must contribute their Quota of Exertion. The Stripling is not exempted from it by his Youth, nor the Passenger by his Inexperience. Even so, in the present agitations of the public mind, every one ought to consider his intellectual faculties as in a state of immediate requisition. All may benefit Society in some degree....


His aim in the lecture, he goes on to explain, is ‘not so much to excite the torpid as to regulate the feelings of the ardent’—and above all to provide a proper foundation or ‘bottoming’ of unchanging political principles.  [12] 


The example of France, he concedes, is a ‘Warning to Britain’. Yet the proper response to the excesses of the French Revolution should be to seek to determine how such excesses arose. For Coleridge, ‘French freedom is the Beacon, which while it guides to Equality, should shew us the Dangers that throng the road.’ For him the fault lies not in the principles of the European Enlightenment or the ideas of 1789, but in the failure to diffuse those principles throughout the population:


The Annals of the French Revolution have recorded in Letters of Blood, that the Knowledge of the Few cannot counteract the Ignorance of the Many; that the Light of Philosophy, when it is confined to a small Minority, points out the Possessors as the Victims, rather than the Illuminators of the Multitude.  [13] 


This passage is important because it shows that Coleridge was no Jacobin, but a revolutionary of the stamp of William Godwin or Abbé Raynal. The abbé’s programme was one of gradual persuasion — what he called moderating ‘the despotism of the laws by the influence of reason.’ Raynal




continues: ‘Every writer of genius is born a magistrate of his country; and he ought to enlighten it as much as it is in his power.’  [14]  We are back with Coleridge’s stripling on the crazy deck. Godwin was almost certainly a more direct influence. He had described the struggle for American Independence as ‘a question involving eternal principles’, and had recommended the setting up of small face-to-face communities where ‘ the voice of reason would be secure to be heard.’  [15]  Southey (as I have already mentioned) borrowed Godwin’s Political Justice from Bristol Library, and noted excitedly: ‘I am studying such a book. I am inclined to think that man is capable of perfection.’  [16]  And it was Southey who, soon after meeting Coleridge, persuaded him to write a sonnet in Godwin’s honour.


Godwin had been at pains to repudiate what he called ‘romantic notions of pastoral life and the golden age,’ and ridiculed those who would return in imagination to ‘the forests of Norway or the bleak and uncomfortable Highlands of Scotland in search of a purer race of mankind.’ The Free American, with space and leisure to cultivate the intellect, was to be a model — not Rousseau’s noble savage. Like Raynal, Godwin advocates not violent activity in the present, but patient trust in a radical future. Godwin writes:


The complete reformation that is wanted, is not instant but future reformation. It can in reality scarcely be considered as the nature of action. It consists in an universal illumination.  [17]


This was also Coleridge’s goal, though he disliked Godwin’s atheism, and sided with Hartley against Godwin, claiming that it was the cultivation of domestic virtues — parental and filial love — that prompted benevolent actions on a universal scale, a thesis that Godwin denied.


I have been arguing that pantisocracy was not simply student wishful thinking, but part of an intellectual climate




which Godwin and Raynal and Brissot shared. I now want to suggest that it was the pantisocrat’s vision of an America that had turned Enlightenment ideals into political reality, which coloured Coleridge’s response to the French Revolution, and which gave consistency to his own political ideas. His 1795 Bristol Lectures show that Coleridge’s ‘revolution’ was neither Jacobin nor Brissotin. He quickly dismisses Brissot as ‘rather a sublime visionary than a quick-eyed politician’, claiming that Brissot’s ‘excellences equally with his faults rendered him unfit for the helm, in the stormy hour of Revolution.’  [18]  Yet he quotes a long extract from Brissot’s preface to his New Travels in the United States


The simplicity of wants and pleasures may be taken as the criterion of Patriotism. Would you prove to me your Patriotism? Let me penetrate into the interior of your house. What! I see your ante-chamber full of insolent lackeys; they give you still those vain titles which liberty treads under foot, and you suffer it and call yourself a patriot! I penetrate a little further—your ceilings are gilded—magnificent vases adorn your chimney-pieces, I walk upon the richest carpets—the most costly wines, the most exquisite dishes cover your table—a crowd of servants surround it—you treat them with haughtiness; —No! you are not a Patriot!  [19] 


Similarly, though Coleridge dubs Robespierre ‘a Caligula with the cap of Liberty on his head,’ he shows a more profound psychological understanding of him than have many modern historians. He declares:


Robespierre... possessed a glowing ardour that still remembered the end, and a cool ferocity that never either overlooked, or scrupled the means. What that end was is not known; that it was a wicked one has by no means been proved. I rather think that the distant prospect, to which he was travelling, appeared to him




grand and beautiful; but that he fixed his eye on it with such intense eagerness as to neglect the foulness of the road.  [20] 


Despite this not unsympathetic assessment, it is difficult to find much in this first lecture that can be called ‘Jacobin’ in any precise sense.


Coleridge’s expressed aim is rather that ‘the purifying alchemy of Education may transmute the fierceness of an ignorant man into virtuous energy’ and that the future may belong to what he calls ‘thinking and disinterested Patriots.’ Such true patriots, he claims, are ‘accustomed to regard all the affairs of men as process, they never hurry and they never pause.’ Coleridge is well aware of the practical difficulties nevertheless: ‘That general Illumination should precede Revolution,’ he remarks, ‘is as obvious as that the Vessel should be cleansed before we fill it with a pure Liquor. But the mode of diffusing it is not discoverable with equal facility....’   [21]  Godwin sought to diffuse enlightenment from above. Coleridge’s solution is to find a teacher who ‘uniting the zeal of the Methodist with the views of the Philosopher, should be personally among the Poor, and teach them their Duties in order that he may render them susceptible of their Rights.’  [22]  Unlike Godwin, Coleridge calculates that- a religious ingredient is essential in any scheme of popular education. The lecture ends with an adapted text from St Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians:


Watch ye! Stand fast in the principles of which ye have been convinced! Quit yourselves like Men! be strong! Yet let all things be done in the spirit of Love.  [23] 


The Watchman was not a carelessly chosen title for the political journal he would shortly be editing.


The programme of political lectures was nevertheless cut




short. In late February, Coleridge wrote to George Dyer explaining that he had hoped to give a fourth lecture, but that ‘Mobs and Mayors, Blockheads and Brickbats, Placards and Press gangs have leagued in horrible Conspiracy against me....’ In the third lecture, Coleridge had not only attacked the war against France, but the bench of bishops for supporting it:


It is recorded in the shuddering hearts of Christians that while Europe is reeking with Blood, and smoaking with unextinguished Fires, in a contest of unexampled crimes and unexampled calamities, every Bishop but one voted for the continuance of the war.


The bishops, he continued, were concerned not with the religion of peace, or the religion of the Gospels,’ but the Religion of Mitres and Mysteries, the Religion of Pluralities and Persecution, the Eighteen-Thousand-Pound-a Year Religion of Episcopacy....’  [24] 


This vehement attack on the bishops is a. reminder that Coleridge was a non-conformist in religion as well as a radical in politics. Indeed, but for the generosity of the Wedgwoods, he would have been a Unitarian minister like Joseph Priestley. And Priestley, before emigrating to America in 1794, had: campaigned for the removal of laws excluding dissenters from public offices - including election to Parliament. In Coleridge’s day, attacks on the Established Church and demands for parliamentary reform went hand in hand. So, when Coleridge embarked on a new series of six Lectures on Revealed Religion in that summer of 1795, the opportunity for political comment, though less obvious, was nonetheless real.


Yet the lectures are a defence of ‘rational Christianity’ - a half way house between the hierarchical religions of Anglicanism and Catholicism (which Coleridge found equally




Priest-ridden) and the deistical Cult of the Supreme Being, promoted by the philosophes and imposed by Robespierre on a reluctant France. Priestley records that he was told by the philosophes he met in Paris that he was ‘the only person they had ever met with, of whose understanding they had any opinion, who professed to believe Christianity.’ But, he continues, ‘on interrogating them on the subject, I soon found that they had given no proper attention to it, and did not really know what Christianity was.’  [25]  Coleridge, similarly, in his Lectures on Revealed Religion, sets out to show what true Christianity is. He does not deny revelation, but claims (as did Priestley) that Christian truth, when rid of its superstitious corruptions, is capable of rational proof.


Thus the first lecture begins with an extended allegory in which Coleridge dreams that he is in ‘a vast plain, which I immediately knew to be the Valley of Life.’ The lecture as a whole is an attack on superstition,. and an assertion that reason and Christian faith are not only compatible but complementary. Divine revelation, he says, ‘gave us an optic glass which assisted without contradicting our natural vision and enabled us to see far beyond the Valley....’ Unaided reason is represented in the dream by an ‘old dim-eyed Man’ with his microscope, engaged in the study of Nature, who talks about ‘an infinite series of Causes— which [says Coleridge] he explained to be a string of blind men, of which the last caught hold of the skirt of the one before him, he of the next, and so on till, they were all out of sight.’ The atheistical notion that the light of truth emanates from what Coleridge calls ‘infinite Blindness’ makes the dreaming poet ‘burst into laughter’ so that he awakes. In true Enlightenment fashion, Coleridge argues that the orderly universe of Newton presupposes a designer, and he speaks of the Almighty as having ‘ unfolded to us the Volume of the World, so that we may read the Transcript of himself.’  [26] 


The first five lectures are indeed almost entirely




concerned with Christian ‘evidences’— though there are occasional political glosses. Thus Coleridge commends the Jewish system of government created by Moses, as being based on contract; he applauds the Jews’ habit of electing their kings; and he praises the purely provisional title given in Jewish law to landed property. Moreover he asserts in almost Marxist terms that the produce of the land ‘belongs equally to all who contribute their due proportion of Labour.’  [27]  We recall Coleridge’s lines in ‘Religious Musings’ where:


Each heart

Self-governed, the vast family of Love

Raised from the common earth by common toil

Enjoy the equal produce.


The theme of equality is taken up in the last lecture- the only one of the six to be avowedly political in content. It embodies Coleridge’s demonstration of the egalitarianism of Christianity:


Universal Equality is the object of the Messiah’s mission not to be procured by the tumultuous uprising of an indignant multitude but this final result of an unresisting yet deeply principled Minority, which gradually absorbing kindred minds shall at last become the whole.


By contrast, the British Constitution, stemming from the Glorious Revolution of 1688, has brought a century of wars in which, the lecturer claims, 10 million lives have been lost. None of these wars, he continues, were fought for causes that could have justified the death of one individual: every war had originated in ‘the Folly and Prejudice of our Monarchs and the wretched compliance of Ministers, and through them we are a bloodstained People.’  [28] 


What, then, is to be said in favour of the British Government? Very little, it seems:


Selfishness is planted in every bosom, and prepares us for the Slavery which it introduces. There is scarcely




a Vice which Government does not teach us—a criminal prodigality and an unholy Splendour surrounds it—disregard of solemn Promises marks its conduct-and more than half the business of Ministers is to find inducements to Perjury!


Meanwhile the labouring man in the field is crushed in body and spirit:


The powers of intellect are given him in vain- To make him work like a beast he is kept as ignorant as a brute beast. It is not possible that this despised and oppressed man should behold the rich and idle without malignant Envy.


If the labourer takes to crime, Coleridge continues, the government ‘hangs the victim for crimes to which it has itself supplied the Temptations.’ Such are the effects of a government ‘which is allowed to be the best which has yet been tried excepting the American....’  [29] 


The rest of the lecture is devoted to an attack on the debasing effect of the trade in luxury goods. The audience is reminded that from the ‘desolate plains of Indostan’ we receive:


gold, diamonds, silks, muslins and calicoes for fine Ladies and Prostitutes. Tea to make a pernicious Beverage, Porcelain to drink it from, and salt-petre for the making of gunpowder with which we may murder the poor Inhabitants who supply all these things.  [30] 


The fact that the last three pages of the printed lecture are peppered with new Testament texts in support of the equalization of property does nothing to obscure the political thrust of this last of the Lectures on Revealed Religion, delivered in the second week of June.


The six lectures were not published in Coleridge’s lifetime. His next lecture,’On the Slave Trade’- a bold




choice for Bristol - formed the basis of an essay on the slave trade later published in The Watchman. In a much later letter to Thomas Clarkson, who had launched his attack on the slave trade in 1786, Coleridge described his Bristol lecture as ‘against the falling off of zeal in the friends of the Abolition, combating the various arguments, exposing the true causes, and re-awakening the fervor and the horror.’  [31]   As an undergraduate at Cambridge, Coleridge had won the Brown Medal for his ‘Ode on the Slave Trade’, but now, only the day before he was due to give his lecture, he borrowed from Bristol Library Clarkson’s Essay on the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species. This must have meant burning some mid-night oil, but was characteristic of Coleridge’s method of preparing his lectures.


Before embarking on his catalogue of horrors, the lecturer reverts to the theme of his previous lecture—the pernicious effects of the trade in luxuries. Because of the triangular nature of the slave trade—Bristol to Africa to the West Indies to Bristol—slavery and the consumption of luxuries are inextricably linked. When he turns to describe the consequent miseries for the negroes, Coleridge relies partly on Clarkson’s Essay on the slave trade, and partly on material taken by Southey from the widely-read writings of a Philadelphia Quaker of French extraction, Anthony Benezet. Indeed this part of the manuscript copy of the lecture was in Southey’s handwriting. And the section where Coleridge cites Raynal’s hugely inflated figure of 180 million African deaths caused by the trade, presumably owes something to Southey’s reading of Raynal.


The importance of the Lecture on the Slave Trade for our present purpose lies in Coleridge’s attack on government failure to end or even curb the traffic in slaves. He complains that legislation gets lost in Parliament: Wilberforce’s motion for abolition, introduced in February, ‘was passed through the




House of Commons’ [Coleridge tells us] ‘mangled and mutilated by the emendation of Mr Dundas [the Home Secretary] and is now dying in the House of Lords.’ And reminding his audience that the French National Convention had freed its West Indian slaves, Coleridge reaches a rhetorical climax:


Enormities at which a Caligula might have turned pale, are authorized by our Legislature, and jocosely defended by our Princes - and yet (O Shame! where is thy Blush!) we have the impudence to call the French a Nation of Atheists!  [32] 


In other words, the French Jacobins had succeeded where British Evangelical Christians had failed.


In the absence of legislation, all that is left to Englishmen (Coleridge thinks) is the weapon of the boycott:


Had all the people who petitioned for the abolition of this execrable Commerce, instead of bustling about and shewing off with the vanity of pretended sensibility, simply left off the use of Sugar and Rum, it is demonstrable that the Slave-merchants and Planters must either have applied to Parliament for the abolition of the Slave Trade or have suffered the West Indies Trade altogether to perish — a consummation most devoutly to be wished.  [33] 


Our lecturer evidently had little to learn from twentieth-century pressure-groups, but (again) the political campaign promoted through his Bristol lectures can hardly be called Jacobin.


Richard Holmes in his much-acclaimed biography remarks (I think unfairly) that Coleridge’s Bristol lectures ‘left his hearers (and perhaps himself) deeply confused as to




his exact ideological position: at one moment a fiery democrat, at the next an unworldly Unitarian idealist preaching universal benevolence.’  [34]   I disagree with Holmes’s verdict. I hope my extensive quotation from the lectures has shown that Coleridge’s political line was a consistent one. It was, I suggest, Godwinism plus God. Godwin had claimed:


·        that property was the source of inequality and injustice; .

·        that government was the cause of more evil than good;

·        that vice was the result of social circumstance;

·        that the required revolution would be bloodless and non-violent, and would take the form of the intellectual and moral conversion of the masses.


All these Godwinian ideas are promoted in Coleridge’s Bristol lectures - with the additional backing of biblical evidence and New Testament texts.


Perhaps the course of lectures he proposed to give on what he called ‘A Comparative View of the English Rebellion under Charles the First and the French Revolution’ would have changed our perception. But it is doubtful whether these lectures ever materialized. In the Bristol Library there are two copies of the original prospectus, but there is no evidence of the lectures themselves, and Coleridge later admitted to a correspondent that his rhetoric had rather carried him away in his Bristol lectures and that he had ‘aided the Jacobins, by witty sarcasms and subtle reasonings and declamations full of genuine feeling against all established Forms!’  [35]   Which lectures was he thinking of? Probably not the series we have considered so far, but the lecture he gave in November 1795, after his meeting with Wordsworth and just after his marriage.




It was the repressive policy of Pitt’s government that so swiftly drew the newly married Coleridge out of political retirement:


Ah! quiet Dell! dear Cot and Mount Sublime!

I was constrain’d to quit you.

Was it right While my unnumber’d brethren toil’d and bled,

That I should dream away the entrusted hours

On rose-leaf beds, pampering the coward heart

With feelings all too delicate for use?...

I therefore go and join head, heart and hand,

Active and firm, to fight the bloodless fight

Of Science, Freedom and the Truth in Christ.


So, late in November, Coleridge gave his ‘lecture on the Two Bills’, subsequently printed as The Plot Discovered. The two bills were the so-called ‘Treason Bill’ introduced into the House of Lords by Grenville in order to secure the King and his ministers ‘against Treasonable and Seditious Practices and Attempts,’ and the ‘Convention Bill’ introduced into the House of Commons by Pitt, which was directed against seditious meetings and assemblies. Coleridge claimed that if Pitt’s government succeeded in suspending the right to hold meetings and the freedom to publish (as the two bills proposed) ‘the cadaverous tranquility of despotism will succeed the generous order and graceful indiscretions of freedom’ with the result that ‘our assemblies will resemble a silent and sullen mob of discontented slaves who have surrounded the palace of some eastern tyrant.’   [36] 


The British Constitution, Coleridge argues, is not a static but a dynamic thing. As it stands, it clearly has serious faults:


But if the present Constitution be progressive, if its only excellence, if its whole endurableness consists in motion; if that which it is be only good as being the step and mode of arriving at something better




then the ministers, by attempting to stifle criticism, are: most unnaturally dwarfing what they dare not at once destroy. As ladies of high rank and sensibility give gin to young dogs, even so are they drenching the Constitution with a poison to prevent its further growth and keep it a fit plaything for themselves to dandle.


And if it has been made treason to suggest ways of improving the Constitution, what (Coleridge asks) will be the consequence:


...when the people dare not advise, who will remain? WOLSEYS that breathe foul disorders into the ear of Majesty; and whole flights of Priests and Bishops, black men, and black men with white arms, like magpies and crows that pick out the eyes of sheep!


As for the other bill, curtailing public meetings, he continues, it means two things:


First that the people of England should possess no unrestrained right of consulting in common on grievances: and secondly, that Mr Thelwall should no longer give political lectures. [37]


John Thelwall’s London lectures had violently attacked government policy, citing Coleridge and Godwin in support. ‘William Pitt knows,’ Coleridge now declaimed, ‘that Thelwall is the voice of tens of thousands’ and that he ‘speaks the feelings of multitudes.’  [38]   In October, Thelwall had been one of the speakers at a rally of 150,000 people— three days before the King’s coach was attacked as George III drove to open Parliament. The government, not surprisingly, was alarmed and the Two Bills were the result. Godwin, in his anonymous pamphlet attacking the Two Bills, condemned the tactics of both Pitt and Thelwall. Reform, he insisted, ‘is a delicate and an awful task. No sacrilegious hand must be put forth to this sacred work. It must be carried on by slow,



almost insensible steps, and by just degrees.’ Political lectures were, he argued, ‘perhaps too well adapted to ripen men for purposes more or less suited to those of the Jacobin Society of Paris.’  [39]   Thelwall felt the pamphlet betrayed the cause of reform. But Godwin was adhering to the gradualist approach he had advocated in Political Justice.


And Coleridge, despite the colourful invective of his November lecture, followed the Godwin line. Indeed, given the determination of Pitt’s government to suppress any signs of English Jacobinism, it was the only path left open. So Coleridge turned to journalism, proclaiming in the prospectus to his newly founded Watchman that he had set himself to ‘preserve Freedom and her Friends from the attacks of Robbers and Assassins.’ But the first issues prudently conceded that the Two Bills might usefully cool the language of political publications and perhaps ‘confine us for a while to the teaching of first principles, or the diffusion of that general knowledge which should be the basis or substratum of politics.’


When The Watchman folded after ten issues, Coleridge thought of turning schoolmaster. He confided to Poole the curriculum he had devised for his pupils. It would embrace the study of Man - as animal, as an intellectual being and as a religious being. And shortly before settling with his family at Nether Stowey, at the end of 1796, he wrote to Charles Lloyd’s father that he wished to avoid cities for the sake of his children, whom he did not want to ‘become acquainted with politicians and politics - a set of men and a kind of study which I deem highly unfavourable to all Christian graces.’ He had, he explained in a famous phrase, ‘accordingly snapped my squeaking baby-trumpet of sedition, and hung up its fragments in the chamber of Penitences.’  [40]  He had evidently burned his boats at Bristol, too. Amid the furore caused by his November lecture, a local critic asserted that ‘the citizens of Bristol have more spirit and prudence




than to suffer a few factious Aliens to scatter among them the seeds of discord and sedition.’ Coleridge retorted with a pamphlet in which he gloried in the fact that he was not a Bristolian, for ‘recollecting that there was not virtue enough in [Bristol] to tear the cloak of authority from the limbs of murder, I should blush for my birth-place.’  [41]   Thelwall’s not altogether welcome visit to Nether Stowey, before he departed wistfully to a farm in Wales, and the strange affair of ‘Spy Nozy’ in the Quantocks, still lay in the future. And not until 1798, when Robespierre’s successors invaded Switzerland, did Coleridge finally lose faith in Revolutionary France. Here are the recantation lines from ‘France: an Ode’ written in February of that year:


Forgive me, Freedom! Oh forgive those dreams!

I hear thy voice, I hear thy loud lament,

From black Helvetia’s icy caverns sent.

I hear thy groans upon her blood-stained streams.


And the concluding lines apostrophizing Liberty:


And there I felt thee!-on that sea-cliff’s verge,

Whose pines, scarce travelled by the breeze above,

Had made one murmur with the distant surge!

Yes, while I stood and gazed, my temples bare,

And shot my being through earth, sea, and air,

Possessing all things with intensest love,

O Liberty! my spirit felt thee there.


The kinship of sentiment between these lines and those of Wordsworth’s ‘Lines Written above Tintern Abbey’, composed later that year - albeit it was Nature displacing Liberty- lend force to Nicholas Roe’s remark that it was the failure of revolutionary fervour that made Wordsworth a poet.


Wordsworth had been in France to celebrate the first Bastille Day in 1790. On a second visit to Paris in 1791, he had pocketed a fragment of the Bastille, attended a session of the Legislative Assembly and (as we have said) possibly




lodged with Brissot- before finding himself among the Jacobins of Orleans, where he wrote Descriptive Sketches with lines celebrating the revolutionary cause:


Yet, yet rejoice, tho’ Pride’s perverted ire

Rouse Hell’s own aid, and wrap thy hills in fire.

Lo from the innocuous flames, a lovely birth

With its own Virtues springs another earth.


This is not quite yet Robespierre’s ‘Virtue through Terror’, but the young Wordsworth speaks in the authentic accents of Jacobinism.


In Coleridge’s case, I would claim that the revolutionary impulse, flowing from the more distant and less turbulent source of the American Revolution, became more subtly transmuted and never lost the Utopian current that ran from Godwin, through pantisocracy, to the Bristol lectures of 1795. Fourteen years later, when commenting on Wordsworth’s pamphlet Concerning the Relations of Great Britain, Spain and Portugal (1809), Coleridge wrote:


My own heart bears me witness, that I am actuated by the deepest sense of the truth of the principles which it has been and still more will be my endeavour to enforce, and of their paramount importance to the Well-being of Society at the present juncture: and that the duty of making the attempt, and the hope of not wholly failing in it, are far more than the wish for the doubtful good of literary reputation... my great and ruling motives. Mr Wordsworth I deem a fellow-labourer in the same vineyard, actuated by the same motives and teaching the same principles....  [42] 


The vineyard in which they worked together, from their Bristol meeting onwards, bore much literary fruit - hence the importance of this bi-centenary. But Wordsworth never did quite write the ‘FIRST GENUINE PHILOSOPHIC POEM’ of which Coleridge believed him capable. And 200 years on,




the Coleridgean revolution is still to make.

[1] See John Cornwell Coleridge:Poet & Revolutionary, London 1973, p.35

[2] To Horace Bedford, 22 Aug 1794. New Letters of Robert Southey, ed. Kenneth Curry, 2 vols New York 1965, i p.72

[3] R.P.Charlevoix Letters to the Duchess of Lesdiquieres giving an Account of a Voyage to Canada... London 1763, pp.185-86

[4] Biographia Literaria Everyman Edtn. London 1965, p.275

[5] Joseph Kastner A World of Naturalists, London,1978, pp.110-11

[6] William Bartram Travels Through North and South Carolina... London 1791,p.355

[7] Ibid. pp.483,487

[8] Raynal A Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade in the East and West Indies, trans. J. Justamond, 5 vols London 1776, v pp.288,351

[9] Gilbert Imlay A Topographical Description of North America...London 1792, p.139

[10] To Grosvenor Bedford 11 Nov 1793. Life and Correspondence of Robert Southey ,ed. C.C.Southey, 6 vols, 2nd edn London 1849-50, i p.189

[11] J.P.Brissot New Travels in the United States of America... London 1792 pp.xliii. 46, ix

[12] Coleridge's Writings on Politics and Society ed. John Morrow, Princeton 1991, p.26

[13] Ibid. pp.26-7

[14] Raynal op. cit. v p.449

[15] William Godwin An Enquiry concerning Political Justice... 2 vols. 2nd edn. London 1796 ii p.576

[16] New letters of Robert Southey, op. cit. p.30

[17] Godwin op. cit. i pp.71-2; 222-23

[18] Coleridge's Writings ed. Morrow, op. cit. p.27

[19] Ibid. ppp.34-5

[20] Ibid. p.27

[21] Ibid. p.31-32

[22] Ibid. p.32

[23] Ibid. pp.36

[24] Ibid. pp.37-8

[25] Autobiography of Joseph Priestley with an introduction by Jack Lindsay, Bath 1970 p.111

[26] The Collected Works of S.T.Coleridge ed. K.Coburn et al. 16 vols Princeton 1969- i pp.89-94

[27] Ibid. i p.127

[28] Ibid. i p.218-20

[29] Ibid. i p.221-23

[30] Ibid. i p.226

[31] 3 March 1808. See Collected Works i p.232

[32] Ibid. i pp.244-45

[33] Ibid. i p.246

[34] Richard Holmes Coleridge: Early Visions, London 1989 p.93

[35] 1 Oct. 1803 to Sir George and Lady Beaumont. See Collected Letters of S.T.C. ed. E.L.Griggs, 6 vols Oxford 1956-, ii pp.1000-01

[36] The Plot Discovered or An Address to the People against Ministerial Treason, Bristol 1795 pp.9, 45

[37] Ibid. pp. 16-17, 19

[38] Ibid. pp. 20-21

[39] Godwin Considerations on Lord Grenville's and Mr Pitt's Bills London 1795, p.22

[40] Cornwell op. cit. p.145

[41] Collected Works i p.389 42.

[42] Ibid iv(2nd part) p.108