An interview with S.T. Coleridge was a chance to learn of a man who's work had influenced all of English. I was nervous, as this man had not only given the world excellent verse in his lifetime, but even in other areas had inflicted his mind on the language. He coined the terms 'selfless' and 'aesthetic', for instance. I knew he was a voracious reader, having rummaged his way through libraries his entire life, and the simple weight of his Rime of the Ancient Mariner was enough to make me quake a bit in my boots. What do you ask someone like S.T. Coleridge?
After I summoned him into my study and a cursory explanation was out of the way, Coleridge, a cordial and fast-talking man stated that he would rather our interview take on the tone of conversation, rather than questions. I was leary of opening up the interview to tangents. He wanted to discuss things with me, not simply answer questions, but would certainly allow questions be asked throughout, provided I answer some of them as well. I worried this would leave less time to question him, as my abilities with channeling only allot me short spans with my prospective summonee. I couldn't predict whether I'd have 5 minutes, or possibly 20, and I wanted to reign in the interview for historical record.
I agreed in the end, due to his emphasis that we talk, rather than elicit his 'answers' as he put it. I assumed also that, after the interview was completed, I could simply edit out my own responses, as the interview with Coleridge was of far greater importance. Whether it is misfortune or not, many of Coleridge's responses were tied to my own, a sort of banter, if you will, and any subsequent removal of my responses tended to make his seem nonsensical or roughshod. There were a few responses of mine that I could have removed, as Coleridge didn't bridge his own response off of them, but it seemed of best nature to either exclude or include them all. For clarity, they are present in the following interview in their entirety.
Coleridge did not look the way I imagined he would. He did bear a resemblance to his pictures, yes, varied as they were, but none of those images and portraits seemed to capture his posture or physical traits well. For instance, the Coleridge I faced had an awkward gait, large feet and shoulders, yet thin legs and a rotund belly. His eyes were glossy and he seemed distant, yet somehow focused, and he certainly attended to every word I uttered. He is a small man, yet with long legs, giving him an unbalanced physique that causes him to both seem small, and stretched in a chair at the same time. Picture Joe Pesci's upper half on Jeff Goldblum's lower half, add in Donald Trump's hair, and you're getting into proper territory. In a portrait from the chest up, without his lower extremeties, he would appear of normal proportions. Scouring all of this were the sunken and pale features of an opium addict, which he was for the majority of his life, until his death in 1834
He was interested in my cigarettes immediately, as I was smoking when he arrived. After a rather bizarre moment in which I conceded he could have one, and taught him how to smoke a cigarette, to drag in first, then inhale, he underwent a very pleased look (the high a first time smoker often gets the first few times smoking), and settled back.
STC (after a slight groan and with a look of surprise): Well, that's friendly, isn't it?
RS: The cigarette?
STC: A cigar in the feminine! And everyone takes this?
RS: Uh, no, but cigarettes are very common.
STC: Such a pleasant pastime.
RS: You sound like a billboard for a brand of cigarettes.
RS: A large sign in the public, for merchants to advertise their products on. Let's start the interview.
Here, Coleridge waited for me to ask the first question. He smoked casually, curious about the cigarette and making a bit of a mess in tapping the ash into the tray.
RS: Now, you were the youngest of ten kids, born to a respected Vicar in Devonshire, John Coleridge.
RS: How do you feel your father's religious ideology played into your own, when forming your later pantisocracy with Robert Southey, a more than theological, utopian commune society?
STC: My father was harnessed in the one God, and I was brought up sectionally within this structure. I would read of other beliefs, held by people far off or near, and in the rare instances when I was home, my father would preside over me proverbs and revelations, Christ and sacrifice. My father was a sacrificial man, over all, and often exacerbated his day's momentum to dole his joys in God on those he loved. Pantisocracy was failed, though I kept it close to my heart many years. Southey knew it earlier than I did, but the attempt was earnest youth, unblemished. He wanted rules within rules, near to the heart, yes, but well-scoped and laid. We had much colloquy over it through long, tireless nights. I felt that utopias could not, cannot be mechanical. If there is a utopian threshold one can cross, it would need organic plurality to survive. Many as one, one as one. Utopias, like prose, require an absorbing amount of revision, and are always in flux. My father, with Christ, was of alternate thought: Righteousness and glory were never altered, but were as solitary streams of joy and faith. You found them when you needed to. They were unchanging.
RS: Christianity is a religion that complements fathers.
STC: And their sons.
RS: During your childhood, you were sent away to school for long durations, not allowed to return but for brief visitations to your home. If 'absence makes the heart grow fonder', what did being pushed away so often make of yours?
STC (an eyebrow raised): You wrote and revised these questions in preparation, yes?
RS (embarrassed): Yeah, it shows?
STC: Is that quote attributed to me, these days?
RS: 'Absence makes the heart grow fonder'? No. Not that I'm aware of.
STC: I'd like to have written it. Now, lets see... pushed away. If we're to discuss being pushed away, we must be talking about my sweet mother.
RS: Or your older brother, Frank.
STC: No. Frank couldn't push one away. It would have served him no jealous thrill. He kept you near, to taunt and pester. It was rivalry on his part, naivety on mine. Frank strove to perch in my father's chair, the common syndrome of eldest boys, but our father's Our Father had precedence over his attention for us. I acted up at times, which father found scampish and a little pleasing, but mother hadn't nerves for it. She was the sweep-hand that rushed me off to school so quickly each spell. "Welcome home, Samuel. Your room is intact. I should expect you in it the evenings and nights. Don't rile with Frank. And Samuel, I'm having you returned to school early next week, the better for your studies." I missed my home more than dignity, then. My heart was intact, but it yearned to feel Devonshire air in the young blood it moved, to answer your question.
RS: Your father agreed with sending you away so often?
STC: Yes. The style of the time was that a bright mind should be saturated with other bright minds. If you showed intelligence of a certain elevation, you were expected to throw your soul into improving it. I was orphaned at nine years. It was prodigy, but forced. As an example we have poor Mozart, who showed a grand skill, and was then shackled to it by the envious, and not yet aged five in years. He was a horrific delight to the world, don't you think?
RS: Huh, I suppose so, I've never thought about it really.
STC: So what about you? Did your father's religion affect your own?
RS: Well, my dad wasn't religious at all, so I don't think I had much of a religous influence growing up.
STC: Atheism! I know it's of benefit to the scientist, but a negligence on the poet.
RS: I'm not certain I can claim to be very good at the latter, and science is out for me.
STC: Oh come, we all think we're geniuses. Those who do not, are not.
RS: Having brought up the poet, I wonder if you might shed some light on your writing process. Do you have specific things you require to write?
STC: How I write is at a table, very long, with myself situated just off the center. When I bandage and take my notes, I use a desk, but I never write at the desk. Desks are for study and business, and when I write initial, I dislike both. Writing as I can, I am at my long table. You?
RS: Restaurants and various public shops with seating. I've never been able to write at home.
STC: You know, I tried to write in fields, if the sunlight was apt, and when I was young, but I only received poems about fields. You're just young.
RS: That could be. How did Robert Southey do it?
STC: Geh. The desk. The outline. The Southey stare.
RS: I've never been able to write with an outline. I might have a stare.
STC: In some lay a dormancy to forms, and the outline chief among them is hidden. I would pride of it that you and I use no outline. It's common in writers of short things. The truth is that we do, but in such abstract chemistry that it becomes self-referential, as if summing large numbers without page or ink.
RS: So you believe there IS an outline, but one in our own language, and in our minds, sort of like a mathemetician can do huge calculations in his head?
STC: Feats! And lonely ones, I wage. You see, I come to page at times with such thirst I can't but glut with strokes. My better works are born from such fevers. I am particularly inspired by stories of men against fate. Those for whom complexity has not infested, but settled. What inspires you?
RS: Me? I'm not one to wait for inspiration. I write any time, and as much as possible. I have a weird ability to get into my zone very easily, so long as I'm not home, and as long as I keep my regimen. I am deftly scheduled when it comes to my work.
STC: Gad, you're like Robert [Southey]. Ink to a good page is heaven to my mind, but to Southey, it was achievement. One can achieve heaven, I suppose, but the two are not the same. Not writing feels like death to me, but not writing was considered failure to Robert. He found one to be worse than the other, you know. He was as if a press knuckled into a man. Inspiring in its own way.
RS: He was regimental?
Coleridge, seeing me snuff out my cigarette in the ashtray, followed my lead and did the same.
STC: You're using that word incorrectly. It refers to a military regiment. A group. If you mean that Robert followed a strict schedule, however, then yes; he was unbearably focused on time and place. It never left his thoughts. He wrote like a chemist mixed. You are like this?
RS: No. When I say regimen, it's not so much with certain times in which things should take place, but with location, storming material, and prerequisite, no matter how odd it might be. I have to make time to write, and I can be pretty tenacious about it.
STC: Odd prerequisite?
RS: Sure. Different colored pens can make me write differently, for instance. If I'm wearing a shirt that doesn't feel like a shirt to write in, my work will take on a reaching, bored feel, because I'm out of my zone and working anyway, on automatic. And I'm a sponge for whatever I'm reading. If I read Byron, my work begins to take on some of the Byron flares. If I read trashy romance, I write trashy. I once wrote a Harry Potter short story because my wife made me read the J.K. Rowling books. I can't help it. I absorb with maximum saturation. Because of this, I'm careful about what I read.
STC: Ah, then you've a head that mimics.
RS: Eh, not really that.
STC: I mean you're certain to catch things, but can't put them down. I understand it.
RS: That makes more sense to me. Are you that easily influenced by things you read?
STC: Influence yokes words. I'm not so poisoned by it as you claim to be, but I learn from all, even drunken speeches behind shrubs. There will be certain works in which I find myself inspired to take lesson, but no, reading a tale of cursing gods will not compel me write about gorgons. I am not as inflenced as impressed, but one can call the other. You believe you can truly work without inspiration?
RS: Inspiration muddies up my sound. I can't write if I'm overwhelmed by some subject or detail that won't shut up about itself. I'll only want to write about IT.
STC (concerned and amused): Friend, that's what being inspired is. Wanting to write about something means you're 'inspired'. It's the very defining aspect of the word. Inspiration is the robust sense of point, not an impediment.
RS: I dislike it.
STC (with a chuckle): You're hideous.
RS: Well, maybe a bit eccentric.
STC: I congratulate you. I've met many eccentrics. Most failed, but they did enjoy themselves. Some reached a height, yes, though never of satisfaction to them.
RS: Some people might think pantisocracy, or even The Rime of the Ancient Mariner eccentric works.
STC (serious): I've no interest in that statement.
RS (taking a moment to switch gears): I'd like to inquire how marriage functioned for you as a writer. You were married to Sara Fricker for some time.
STC: I know how long I was married and to whom.
RS: Well, I'm saying it more for people who will eventually read the interview, as background..
STC (shaking his head): Right, sorry. I should have thought. Marriage, I'll say, was boisterous and unruly, once the bloom wore free. And malevolent when I became to incapacitated to understand it. It's effect on my work was heavy, and the tax of arguments wore through my lesser pages at times. Never my main bodies. No, the only thing that could distract me from an inspired moment in my major works was physical pain, of which you'll be aware I had much.
RS: Yes. You started taking laudanum as a teenager. You suffered facial neuralgia and were prone to awful toothaches (and I can vouch for the misery of a hard toothache). You were decided lymphatic by several apothecaries of the time. More damaging perhaps is that you became a severe opium addict. There are so many literary figures that have been addicted to laudanum and similar opiates in our history: Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Charles Baudelaire, Antonin Artaud... and of course, you, yourself.
STC (dismayed): The Friend. Laudare. The Praise. Never take it.
RS: You were never able to break the addiction it had over you.
STC (with a sigh): Oh, I was more than an addict, frighteningly more. Severe is one word, but there are others. It drowned me my entire life, and in a strange perjury. I died an addict, unable to trust myself.
RS: Do you feel the opium enhanced your writing? It's conjectured by many and disputed by just as many more that much of your reckoning in the written word was due to your addiction and its hallucinatory effects.
STC (annoyed): Don't forget I was a vagabond a time. I shit myself. I slept in the yards of the nearly shelterless. I had talented friends. I was extraordinarily well-read and beyond. I was supposed gifted by gifted people. I was jilted in love, shifted place to place, dreamed a thousand nights... Does no one suppose these wretched things might lend to my 'reckoning' a poem or two? No, they've always suspected it was the opium.
RS: I see. Certainly, hard life builds an artist more than laxity.
STC: You asked about the Friend. I called it that, the opium, after a periodical I edited as a young man. The Friend hated me yet was so tender and forgiving I could not be rid of it. It did not change the writing, but the man. I married it. It made me a horror, in love with a horror, and scrawling lines as if I had no else, and for a time, it was true. William [Wordsworth] helped at times, but I was in such dire... I was dying, really. Eventually, William left like Southey left. Or rather, I vanished more. I separated from Sara, didn't see my children, committed myself and still the Friend ate at my insides, sickening me to heal me of sickening me... and others. In the end, I felt more a sideshow attraction. People came to listen to me talk, to orate and preach life and above. Some were honored to hear it, some enjoying a gag. I let everyone down. I could feel myself doing it. I hated my Friend for taking me as it did.
RS: It must have been a terrible feeling, day in and day out, uncertain about anything.
STC: I was certain about everything. That's the demonic nature of it.
RS: I can feel that we're beginning to part. We're running out of time. I'd like to express my gratitude to you for agreeing to the interview, Mr. Coleridge, and I'd like to close with a bit of writing you did toward the end of your life.
STC (nodding): Oh, is it apt?
RS (clearing throat): Beneath this sod / A Poet lies; or that which once was he. / O lift one thought in prayer for S.T.C. / That he, who many a year with toil of breath, / Found Death in Life, may here find Life in Death.
STC: Yes, that. It's apt enough.
RS: You recognize it, of course.
STC: It's my epitaph. I wrote it sober, you know.
RS: Thank you for being here.