Coleridge: Appearance and Character

NEW Composite portraits of coleridge

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from left to right:
Aged 23, by Pieter Vandyke
Aged 32, by James Northcote
Aged 42, by Washington Allston
Aged 46, by C R Leslie

 ‘A poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling’

In Bridgewater I noticed a gateway, standing under which was a man corresponding to the description given me of Coleridge whom I shall presently describe. In height he seemed to be five feet eight inches, (he was in reality about an inch and a half taller), though in the latter part of life, from a lateral curvature in the spine, he shortened gradually from two to three inches. His person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence; his complexion was fair, though not what painters technically style fair, because it was associated with black hair; his eyes were large and soft in their expression, and it was by the peculiar appearance of haze or dreaminess which mixed with their light that I recognized my object. This was Coleridge; I examined him steadily for a moment or more, and it struck me he neither saw myself, nor any other object in the street. He was in a deep reverie; for I had dismounted, made two or three trifling arrangements at the inn door, and advanced close to him, before he seemed apparently conscious of my presence. The sound of my voice announcing my name first awoke him; he started, and for a moment seemed at a loss to understand my purpose, or his own situation, for he repeated rapidly a number of words which had no relation to either of us; very likely trying a metre, or making verse, a frequent practice of his, and of Mr. Wordsworth's. There was no mauvaise haute in his manner, but simple perplexity, and an apparent difficulty in recovering his position amongst daylight realities. This little scene over, he received me with a kindness of manner so marked, that it might be called gracious.

Thomas de Quincey, quoted in The life of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by James Gillman (1838)

‘My face unless when animated with immediate eloquence, expresses great Sloth, & great, indeed, almost ideotic good nature. ’Tis a mere carcase of a face: fat, flabby, & expressive chiefly of inexpression . . .’  

Coleridge on himself, Letter to John Thelwall 1796

‘At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes: he is pale and thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish loose-growing half-curling rough black hair. But if you hear him speak for five minutes you think no more of them. His eye is large and full … it has more of the `poet’s eye in a fine frenzy rolling’ than I ever witnessed.’  

Dorothy Wordsworth, Letter to a friend

‘His forehead was broad and high, light as if built on ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them, like a sea with darkened lustre …His mouth was gross, voluptuous, open, eloquent; his chin good-humoured and round; but his nose, the rudder of the face, the index of the will, was small, feeble, nothing …’

William Hazlitt,  The Liberal 1822


Coleridge, aged 61, by Daniel Maclise"The good man, he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps; and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings; a life heavy-laden, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were round, and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute; expressive of weakness under possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent, and stooping attitude; in walking, he rather shuffled than decisively steps; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden walk would suit him best, but continually shifted, in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden, high-aspiring and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and singsong; he spoke as if preaching, – you would have said, preaching earnestly and also hopelessly the weightiest things. I still recollect his "object" and "subject," terms of continual recurrence in the Kantean province; and how he sang and snuffled them into "om-m-mject" and "sum-m-mject," with a kind of solemn shake or quaver, as he rolled along. No talk, in his century or in any other, could be more surprising …

Glorious islets, too, I have seen rise out of the haze; but they were few, and soon swallowed in the general element again. Balmy sunny islets, islets of the blest and the intelligible: – on which occasions those secondary humming groups would all cease humming, and hang breathless upon the eloquent words; till once your islet got wrapt in the mist again, and they could recommence humming. Eloquent artistically expressive words you always had; piercing radiances of a most subtle insight came at intervals; tones of noble pious sympathy, recognizable as pious though strangely colored, were never wanting long: but in general you could not call this aimless, cloud-capt, cloud-based, lawlessly meandering human discourse of reason by the name of ‘excellent talk’, but only of ‘surprising’; and were reminded bitterly of Hazlitt's account of it: ‘Excellent talker, very, if you let him start from no premises and come to no conclusion’."

Life of John Sterling, Thomas Carlyle 1851


A word in edgeways

‘He is very great in monologue, but he has no idea of dialogue.’

Madame de Staël

The poet Samuel Rogers confirms that Coleridge was ‘a marvellous talker’. However, he recalls a meeting with Wordsworth during which Coleridge  ‘talked uninterruptedly for about two hours …’  When they left, Rogers admitted to Wordsworth ‘Well, for my own part, I could not make head or tail of Coleridge’s oration: pray, did you understand it?’  ‘Not one syllable of it,’ was Wordsworth’s reply.

Wordsworth also decribed Coleridge’s talk as ‘like a majestic river, the sound or sight of whose course you caught at intervals; which was sometimes concealed by forests, sometimes lost in sand; then came flashing out broad and distinct … you always felt that there was a connection in its parts, and that it was the same river.’


Coleridge and books

'It used to be regarded as a rare piece of good fortune to have the opportunity of loaning books to Coleridge; the great thinker always returned them with margins enriched with criticisms and comments or references often of far greater value than the text itself. A book so annotated with the initials S.T.C. on every page, became thereafter too precious ever to be loaned again.'

My Study Fire, Hamilton Wright Mabie, 1890

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