Samuel Taylor Coleridge made quite a splash with his first book, a small volume of Poems on Various Subjects printed and published in Bristol in the spring of 1796. He was a young man, 23 years of age, well-known in the Bristol area as a lecturer and dissenting lay preacher, and notorious as a political radical, or–to use the language of the time–a “democrat” and “liberty man.” He now took the opportunity to expatiate in verse on his commitment to “equality,” his “joy” at the blood-red French Revolution, his longing to live in a community without “individual property” and his hopes of moving to America with his democratic friends to “follow the sweet dream,/Where Susquehannah pours his untam’d stream.” He compounded the provocation with a long philosophical poem in which his energetic Christianity was harnessed to the heretical themes of Unitarianism and pantheism and further onslaughts on private ownership as the root of all evil. But what really stirred up Coleridge’s readers, at a time when poetry was debated with as much passion as politics or religion, was his peculiar literary style.
Poems on Various Subjects is a book that takes pride in its imperfections. It presents itself not as a temple of transcendent art but a ragbag of remnants from Coleridge’s life, of private messages gone astray or pages torn from an intimate journal. Some of the poems are called “epistles,” and Coleridge excuses their faults by quoting an anonymous source: “bad verse then seems better/Receiv’d from absent friend by way of letter.” Many of the others are addressed to friends or accompanied by notes about the circumstances of their composition. And the main action takes place in a sequence of thirty-six short poems that are disarmingly described as “effusions” because, Coleridge says, they issued from “the communicativeness of our nature” and “do not possess that oneness of thought which I deem indispensible in a Sonnet.”
To open the book was like entering an untidy bedroom strewn with the unconsidered debris of a complicated life. Coleridge confessed that the poems he was bringing together were “written at different times and prompted by very different feelings,” so that the only real connection between them was his own identity. He realized they might be “condemned for their querulous egotism,” but he thought he could turn the accusation around. If egotism is a crime, he argued, then poets who give sincere expression to their own states of mind are innocent of it, and the guilt belongs to those who prudishly avoid all mention of themselves in order to put on airs of lofty impersonality. They imagine that their studious “disinterestedness of phrase” lifts them above the pettiness of common humanity, but in truth it does nothing of the sort. Why would they take pains to keep the word “I” out of their verses if they were not uneasy in their minds, and “conscious that this said I is perpetually intruding”? These artificial poets are guilty of the very worst kind of egotism: not the generous ebullience of emotion that “leads us to communicate our feelings to others” but a fetid sense of self-sufficiency that makes us seal ourselves off from the rest of the world and “reduce the feelings of others to an identity with our own.”
The most striking feature of Poems on Various Subjects, apart from its honesty and verbal agility, is its welcoming warmth of engagement. The word “friend” seems to crop up on every page, and the duties and pleasures of friendship provide the occasion and subject matter for practically every poem: “For what so sweet can labor’d lays impart/As one rude rhyme warm from a friendly heart?” Coleridge quotes an anonymous poet. Friendship is considered in all its varieties and conditions: friendship for dumb animals, for august philosophers or political heroes, for a river (“Unboastful Stream”), for close companions, for lost friends, for a former sweetheart and–last but not least–for the woman who had recently become his wife. Friendship as Coleridge understood it was not a matter of sympathy or passive affection but of active solicitude for the welfare and freedom of others.