Happy 220th Birthday Hartley Coleridge. A life burdened by too much expectation?
Coleridge always felt a sense of constructive “Nature” envy compared to his pal Wordsworth. While William had roamed the Lake District as a kid, little Sam had suffered the perceptual privations of an urban upbringing. But ah, little Hartley will have every Romantic advantage. Little Hartley will have the most sublime natural impressions with which to associate from his earliest years. The dazzling vistas of parental expectation are exciting and terrifying in equal measure.
David Hartley Coleridge was named after Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s favourite eighteenth-century associationist philosopher. The original Dave Hartley was a Lockean who thought of idea formation in terms of vibrations – it was a subtle and fibrous philosophy which treated ways and means whereby everything is connected to every other thing.
Ah, too much pressure. Little Hartley Coleridge grew up to be a rather nicer and less demanding person than his dad, a boozer rather than a druggie. And he wrote some rather nice sonnets – something Sam Coleridge never did – sonnets which owe something to Wordsworth and remind me a bit of Keats on a bad day. In terms of congested curricula, there’s no very overwhelming case for suggesting to students that they read the sonnets of Hartley Coleridge rather than those of Wordsworth or Keats.
What was’t awakened first the untried ear
Of that sole man who was all human kind?
Was it the gladsome welcome of the wind,
Stirring the leaves that never yet were sere?
The four mellifluous streams which flowed so near,
Their lulling murmurs all in one combined?
The note of bird unnamed? The startled hind
Bursting the brake, in wonder, not in fear,
Of her new lord? Or did the holy ground
Send forth mysterious melody to greet
The gracious pressure of immaculate feet?
Did viewless seraphs rustle all around
Making sweet music out of air as sweet?
Or his own voice awake him with its sound?
This sonnet is almost perfect in terms of its mixture of concrete imagery and abstracted invocation. The alliterative self congratulation of “welcome of the wind” cloys a bit and the “mysterious melody” feels a bit shopworn, but it’s an effective Edenic race memory.
The sonnet is about dawn of life, and it recollects “Frost of Midnight” which is also about dawn of life. This sonnet is, perhaps, about its author’s own immortality as a poem rather than a poet. It was of course Keats who suggested that unheard melodies are sweeter than those heard, and perhaps lives unlived are more inspiring than those lived. No real life could ever match the extrapolation of life that was imagined for Hartley by his own dad. And rather than regret the comparative “disappointment” of Hartley Coleridge, we need to return to “Frost and Midnight” and luxuriate in the original extrapolation.
Some people will go to their graves, preserved for ever as wide eyed children in the crude iconography of public fame (Macaulay Culkin; Mark Lester), and their obituaries will be illustrated accordingly. Hartley Coleridge, 220 years old today is preserved as a baby not a child, a baby, shaped, formed, and inspired by the morphology of filmy distortions in a fireplace.