Idea and Substance: Coleridge, Thomas Poole, and the Gendering of Male Friendship
(Coleridge Bulletin, New Series, No 15, Spring 2000, pp. 41-55)
On the eve of his embarkation to Germany in 1798 Coleridge was
moved to reassert that in Thomas Poole he had found a man who embodied the high
ideal of friendship: ‘Of many friends, whom I love and esteem, my head &
heart have ever chosen you as the Friend—as the one being, in whom is involved
the full & whole meaning of that sacred Title—God love you, my dear
Poole!’.  In Poole, friendship’s ‘sacred Title’ becomes
embodied, the verb ‘involve’ suggesting how the Idea ‘roll[s] and enwrap[s]’
Contemporary writings on friendship recognized that the relation might have differently gendered modes of intercourse, a fact witnessed by the Encyclopædia Britannica’s lengthy entry on ‘Friendship’ (1792).  The encyclopedist reveals that friendship is widely regarded as a manly mode of intercourse, a position implied by those who argue that ‘women are incapable of sincerity or constancy in friendship with each other’. This conventional view portrays female friendship as superficial, and denies that women have sufficient moral strength for sustaining friendship. The Encyclopædia, however, permits women to participate in this manly intercourse, conceding that the female character is not ‘incapable of those virtues which are necessary to establish and support mutual friendship’. In fact, the writer posits an alternative mode of friendship which is characteristically female:
[Women] are in general possessed of more exquisite sensibility, nicer delicacy of taste, and a juster sense of propriety, than we: nor are they destitute of generosity, fidelity, and firmness. But such qualities are peculiarly favourable to friendship: they communicate a certain charm to the manners of the person who is adorned with them; they render the heart susceptible of generous disinterested attachment.
If ‘generosity, fidelity, and firmness’ identify a traditionally masculine kind of friendship, the female virtues of sensibility, taste and propriety define a newer more feminine mode of intimacy. The writer thus recognizes a cultural ambiguity concerning the gendered nature of the idea, one which lurks in his conclusion: ‘If friendship be ranked among the virtues, it is not less a female than a male virtue’ (VII 470).
The history of
MY DEAREST FRIEND—the friend held dearest by me. I say it thinkingly—and say it as a full answer to the first part of your last interesting letter. By you, Coleridge, I will always stand, in sickness and
health, in prosperity and misfortune; nay, in the worst of all misfortunes, in vice . . . if vice should ever taint thee—but it cannot. 
Echoing the marriage service,
Both Coleridge and
All that is sexual may, nay must be dissolved, and certainly this bears more or less, one way or another upon a great class of our feelings—but yet there is a great class and without doubt the highest class which cannot be twined with this origin—the maternal and filial feelings and all the feelings of advanced age—advanced age! […] when the little work of human existence is done, and is waiting to be pushed forward, by a mere inspiration, to higher and nobler objects—but we shall advance together, knowing as we are known—can I forget the paps which gave me suck? the Beings which have risen with me—all the objects of nature, animated and inanimated which have made me what I am—can I forget what I know of my own creation? 
However, Coleridge did not during the 1790s consistently imagine friendship’s ‘sacred Title’ as a self-consciously manly love. Coleridge’s ‘Effusion 16, To an Old Man’, first published in Poems (1796), suggests how the human mediation of divine love in social relations entailed a more
complex gender politics.  Such issues are raised in the speaker’s encounter with a debilitated old man, which Coleridge represents as imitating the actions of Jesus,
the GALILÆAN mild,
Who met the Lazars turn’d from rich men’s doors,
And call’d them Friends, and heal’d their noisome Sores!
Jesus’s love manifests itself through his attention to the bodily needs of the outcasts. This the poet imitates by relieving the physical distress of an old man suffering from cold. Coleridge offers him his coat:
My Father! throw away this tatter’d vest
That mocks thy shiv’ring! take my garment—use
A young man’s arms! I’ll melt these frozen dews
That hang from thy white beard and numb thy breast.
My SARA too shall tend thee, like a Child:
And thou shalt talk, in our fire side’s recess,
Of purple Pride, that scowls on Wretchedness.
In giving the man his coat, the speaker both expresses affection and asserts his manliness by proving himself lusty enough to go without his own clothes. With this gesture the ‘Father’ becomes the helpless child, and Coleridge and his Sara together introduce a note of parental domesticity as they join to ‘melt’ and ‘tend’ him. Such domestic love has a cost. Covered once by the poet’s coat, the man is sheltered a second time within the couple’s ingle-nook. Drawn into a maternal ‘recess’ the poet subtly strips the old man of his own manliness.
The ideals of
manliness which Coleridge cherishes in this sonnet also helped to shape his
Coleridge teasingly suggests that, in the same way that ‘the
spirit of Elijah doth rest on Elisha’ (2: 15), so
also betrays a certain testiness about receiving
The Heart, thoroughly penetrated with the flame of virtuous Friendship, is in a state of glory; but ‘lest it should be exalted above measure, there is given it a Thorn in the flesh:’—I mean, that where the friendship of any person forms an essential part of a man’s happiness, he will at times be pestered by the little jealousies & solicitudes of imbecil Humanity.—Since we last parted I have been gloomily dreaming, that you did not leave me as affectionately as you were wont to do..
Ideally, ‘virtuous Friendship’ induces an ecstatic, transcendent state of ‘glory’, in which friends become conscious of the presence of God Himself. In practice, however, Coleridge suggests that a proper awareness of friendship’s spiritual value tends to unman the involved parties, making them morbidly sensitive to any possible diminution of feeling. In the Britannica’s terms, Coleridge begins to exhibit an ‘exquisite sensibility’ which is characteristically feminine. He continues by elaborating upon friendship’s potential to feminize the male subject:
Pardon this littleness of Heart—& do not think the worse of me for it. Indeed my Soul seems so mantled & wrapped round by your Love & Esteem, that even a dream of losing but the smallest fragment of it makes me shiver—as tho’ some tender part of my Nature were left uncovered & in nakedness. (I 235)
In practice, then,
the ‘sacred’ friendship Coleridge and
Whilst he was dreaming of the kind of relationship he would enjoy with Poole at Nether Stowey, Coleridge told his friend in November 1796 of his excitement at living in this ‘beautiful country’, and how it was increased by the prospect of enjoying:
these blessings near you, to see you daily, to tell you all my thoughts in their first birth, and to hear your’s, to be mingling identities with you, as it were; [...] Thou hast been ‘the Cloud’ before me from the day when I left the flesh-pots of Egypt & was led thro’ the way of a wilderness—the cloud, that hast been guiding me to a land flowing with milk & honey—the milk of Innocence, the honey of Friendship! 
As his guiding ‘Cloud’,
Coleridge again figures
Once ensconced at
Stowey in January 1797, it was this complex idea of ‘mingling identities’ which
seeks in friendship to re-create original, familial bonds:
Me from the spot where first I sprang to light,
Too soon transplanted, ere my soul had fix’d
Its first domestic loves; and hence through life
Chacing chance-started Friendships.
The most important of these ‘first domestic loves’ is the maternal bond, which Coleridge represents through the image of the bower. Coleridge laments the false friends he has known:
some most false,
False and fair-foliag’d as the Manchineel,
Have tempted me to slumber in their shade
E’en mid the storm; then breathing subtlest damps,
Mix’d their own venom with the rain from heaven,
That I woke poison’d!
Coleridge’s reference to the beautifully seductive Manchineel tree reveals his attraction towards embowering figures with feminine characteristics. The maternal friend shelters Coleridge from a hostile, stormy world in which he would otherwise struggle to survive, and he casts himself as an infant passively reliant on the nurturing care of such mother figures. He asserts that divine providence has at last introduced into his life a truly maternal friend. Coleridge gives
all praise to Him
Who gives us all things, more have yielded me
Permanent shelter: and beside one Friend,
Beneath th’impervious covert of one Oak,
I’ve rais’d a lowly shed, and know the names
Of Husband and of Father.
Through his metaphor of embowerment Coleridge describes
However, this passage also reveals the bower to be a marital as well as a maternal space. Ostensibly, the oak is a synecdoche for Coleridge and Sara’s wedding bower: under the oak’s branches the poet has become a ‘Husband’ and a ‘Father’. However, Coleridge not only places himself ‘beneath’ his ‘one Friend’ (where the friend is figured as the ‘one Oak’) but ‘beside’ him as well. Spatially, the two men are themselves enclosed beneath the embowering tree.
In this way, Coleridge and Poole inhabit a specifically marital
space, and the verse sentence leaves ambiguous whether Coleridge has become
‘Husband’ to Sara,
The possibility of
a conjugal relation here complicates the idea of the men’s manly friendship
being a spiritual alternative to sexual ties. In depicting Stowey’s sacred spot
as incorporating a marital bower, Coleridge’s verse invites comparison with
Adam and Eve’s ‘blissful bower’ in Paradise
Lost (IV 689-97). For
inhabiting this prelapsarian space inevitably raises questions of eroticism
between the male friends. Both contemporaneous and more recent commentators
have struggled to characterize
underplays the sensibility of Coleridge’s own letters. Addressing Poole from
with which Coleridge expressed emotion to
O my God! how I long to be at home—My whole Being so yearns after you, that when I think of the moment of our meeting, I catch the fashion of German Joy, rush into your arms, and embrace you—methinks, my Hand would swell, if the whole force of my feeling were crowded there.—Now the Spring comes, the vital sap of my affections rises, as in a tree!
It is difficult not to interpret either Coleridge’s swelling
hand or his rising affections as other than overtly erotic images. Coleridge’s
self-distancing assertion that embracing is ‘the fashion of German Joy’
indicates his awareness that such Goethian sensibility tests the limits of
chaste models of male friendship. However, in troping these priapic impulses as
expressions of seasonal energy Coleridge primarily celebrates the heartiness of
seeks at Stowey to transform the men’s friendship into a filial bond between a
son and his loving mother. The history of
In Spring 1803, a
bed-ridden Coleridge wrote that he was in immediate danger of dying. In reply,
you may regulate the climate as you like—in which there is even a bed though you cant see it—I promise to get you any books you want—[…] I will take care that neither the cold east wind nor the damp south shall break upon you. 
In protecting the sick child from the elements, the Poolean
friendship bower becomes a maternal space.
flight of external stairs allowed him easy access to the bookroom, and there he
must often have been found when the ‘noise of Women & children’, which made
study impossible, had driven him once again from
The dynamism of
Coleridge had long
taken a dynamic view of the sympathetic parental bower. This is revealed in a
note, written in a volume of his 1796 Poems
which he gave to
My very dear Friend! I send these poems to you with better heart than I should to most others, because I know that you will read them with affection however little you may admire them. I love to shut my eyes, and bring up before my imagination that Arbour, in which I have repeated so many of these compositions to you—Dear Arbour! an Elysium to which I have so often passed by your Cerberus, & Tartarean tan-pits!
Conflating his ‘very dear Friend’ with the ‘Dear Arbour’
Coleridge again uses the bower to signify an actual place (the lime-tree bower)
Coleridge compares his visits to
I wish to be at home with you indeed, indeed—my Joy is only in the bud here—I am like that Tree, which fronts me—The Sun shines bright & warm, as if it were summer—but it is not summer & so it shines on leafless boughs. The beings who know how to sympathize with me are my foliage. 
As Coleridge’s ‘foliage’, the sympathetic friend acts as an
organic power. In the same way that the leaves of a tree enable its growth, so
was equally aware that
We in our sweet sequester’d Orchard-plot
Sit on the Tree crook’d earth-ward; whose old boughs,
That hang above us in an arborous roof,
Stirr’d by the faint gale of departing May
Send their loose blossoms slanting o’er our heads!
Ostensibly, the falling May blossoms present
ends by suggesting that
My soul is sad, that I have roam’d through life
Still most a Stranger, most with naked heart
At mine own home and birth-place.
Likewise, he admits that within the bower,
tis to me an ever-new delight,
My eager eye glist’ning with mem’ry’s tear,
To talk of thee and thine.
Behind Coleridge’s ‘delight’ is an ongoing sense of
estrangement from the Ottery Coleridges. Implicitly,
of Poole’s ‘sweet sequestered bower’ expresses desire for a retreat from public
life and for a sympathetic mode of maternal friendship not primarily concerned
with affirming his manly identity. For both men, this maternal mode offers an
opportunity of realizing a feminine self, which expresses itself through the
signs of sensibility. Both men extol friendship’s generation of unrestrained
feelings as part of a sympathetic converse. In an early poetic celebration of
And then I mark the starting tear that steals
Adown thy cheek, when of a friend thou speak’st,
Who erst, as thou dost say, was wondrous kind,
But now, unkind, forgets—I feel and weep. 
Coleridge sheds tears and
signify one friend’s unquestioning confirmation of the other’s viewpoint:
Coleridge’s recent estrangement from Southey has been ‘as thou dost say’—Southey’s
fault. In a letter to Poole sent from
My spirit is more feminine than your’s—I cannot write to you without tears / and I know that when you read my letters, and when you talk of me, you must often ‘compound with misty eyes’–. May God preserve me for your friendship, and make me worthy of it! 
Although celebrating his more exquisite sensibility, Coleridge
It is here that the
maternal mode of sentimental friendship conflicts with Coleridge and
People of genius ought imperiously to command themselves to think without genius of the common concerns of life. If this be impossible—happy is the genius who has a friend ever near of good sense, a quality distinct from genius, to fill up by his advice the vacuity of his character. Indeed I think a good book might be written entitled Advice to Men of Genius. (I 134)
We were well suited for each other—my animal Spirits corrected his inclinations to melancholy; and there was some thing both in his understanding & in his affection so healthy & manly, that my mind freshened in his company, and my ideas & habits of thinking acquired day after day more of substance & reality.
Again, Coleridge plays Eve to
‘Substantial life’ (IV. 485) to Eve, so
In truth minds, like mine & (in it’s present mood) your’s too, require to be braced rather than suppled. [...] I cannot too earnestly impress upon you the solemn Duty, you owe to yourself, your fellow-men, & your maker, to exert your faculties. 
Here Coleridge possesses the manly substance that
Clearly, there is
no reason why one man cannot be both an advising and a sympathizing friend.
‘Write to me all things about yourself’, Coleridge declares, ‘where I can not
advise, I can console—and communication, which doubles joy, halves Sorrow’.  Nevertheless, in practice the men’s corrective
mode of friendship does not easily coexist with Coleridge’s demands for
maternal sympathy. In 1800, Coleridge’s irregularity in corresponding makes
As to myself, advice from almost any body gives me pleasure, because it informs me of the mind & heart of the adviser—but from a very very dear Friend it has occasionally given me great pain […]—on his account alone—or, if on my own, on my own only as a disruption of that sympathy, in which Friendship has it’s Being. A thousand people might have advised all that you did, and I might have been pleased; but
it [was] the you you part of the Business that afflicted me. 
In criticizing the ‘you
you part of the Business’ Coleridge attacks what
reveals his increasing difficulty in these years in sustaining a manly mode of
male intimacy. Convalescing from illness in 1801, Coleridge attempts to
O my dear dear Friend! that you were with me by the fireside of my Study here, that I might talk it over with you to the Tune of this Night Wind that pipes it’s thin doleful climbing sinking Notes like a child that has lost it’s way and is crying aloud, half in grief and half in the hope to be heard by it’s Mother. (II 669)
Coleridge identifies himself with the lost ‘child’ and
 OED, s.v. ‘involve’, v. 1.
 Thomas McCarthy, Relationships of Sympathy: The Writer and the Reader in British Romanticism (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1997), pp. 98-99.
 Enclyclopœdia Britannica; or, A Dictionary
of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature, 18 vols (
discussion of this traditional view of male friendship, see Jeffrey Richards,
‘“Passing the love of women:” Manly Love and Victorian Society’, in Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class
Poems on Various Subjects (
 2 Kings, 2: 9.
 Poems, by S. T. Coleridge, Second Edition.
To which are Now Added Poems by Charles Lamb, and Charles Lloyd (
De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes
Jones, A Passionate Sisterhood: The
Sisters, Wives and Daughters of the
 Elizabeth Mavor, The Ladies of Llangollen: A Study in Romantic Friendship (London: Michael Joseph, 1971), p. 96.
 Richard Holmes, Coleridge: Early Visions (Sevenoaks: Hodder and Stoughton, 1989), p. 125.
C. Crawford, ‘The Romantic Subject and the Poetry of the Bower: Coleridge,
Wordsworth, and Keats’ (unpublished doctoral thesis,
 ‘Hail to thee Coldridge, youth of various powers!’, 12 September 1795 (Sandford I 125-26 (p. 126)).
 Coleridge - Cottle, [7 March 1798] (CL I 391).
 Coleridge - Josiah Wedgwood, 1 November 1800 (CL I 643-44).
 The Cornell Manuscript, Coleridge’s ‘Dejection’: The Earliest Manuscript and the Earliest Printings, ed. by Stephen Maxfield Parrish (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988), pp. 106-31.