The Godwin Project: Letter to Coleridge

28 Sep|Pamela Clemit

Coleridge when young

Earlier this year, we at the Idler, with academic Prof Pamela Clemit, launched the Godwin Project in order to broaden public awareness of the life and work great anarchist intellectual, William Godwin. Husband of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and father of proto-Gothic novelist Mary Shelley, Godwin was an author, publisher, bookseller and public figure. Here we publish a letter from him to Coleridge from 1800. The letter is taken from Pamela Clemit’s masterful collection of his letters, published by OUP.

275. To Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 5 September 1800

Friday, Sep. 5. 1800.

Dear Coleridge

I have abstained from writing to you ever since my return from Ireland, thinking it not improbable from day to day that I might have the pleasure of a letter from you, & feeling it as rather an undesirable circumstance that two letters, without relation to or acquaintance with each other, should cross on the road, instead of having those reciprocal bearings & friendly comments in their structure, which constitute the best sense of the word Correspondence. Immediately on my return I was met with the mortifying intelligence of your removal to Keswick, & your intention of renewing your hospitable invitation, at the same time pointing to some easy method of connecting the two extreme objects of my projected wanderings, the respective residences of Coleridge & Curran. I have seldom regreted any cross accident more deeply & sincerely than this. There is nothing on earth of which I am more desirous, than spending some time under the same roof with you. There are many circumstances, which it might perhaps cost me some trouble fully to define, that render your conversation singularly adapted to amuse, to instruct & to interest me. This is partly because we have thought a good deal of the same subjects; but not less because we have pursued dissimilar objects, & contemplated the same objects in a dissimilar spirit. I longed for the opportunity of engrafting your quince upon my apple-tree, & melting & combining several of your modes of feeling & deciding, into the substance of my mind. Perhaps too I mention something better than this, when I say, that I feel myself a purer, a simpler, a more unreserved & natural being in your company than in that of almost any human creature. Certainly if your invitation had reached me in Dublin, I should without a moment’s hesitation have obeyed it. But I imagined you were still in Somersetshire, &, if it had been so, I think I should have taken courage to beat up your quarters with the fall of the leaf: but unhappily I do not now feel myself authorised, either in the economy of money or time, to add to my return recent dissipation a second excursion to the amount of six hundred miles.

I began a letter to you from Dublin, which, if sent, would have been addressed to Stowey, but it was laid aside, & never completed. I was well satisfied with my excursion to Ireland. I liked it as a foreign country, &, though the difference between that island & my own may not be very great, it is still something, & to me, who never before strayed more than 150 miles from this metropolis, was sufficiently discernible. I was much pleased with the character of the man whose invitation has drawn me thither, & the eminent situation he holds in the judgment of his countrymen gave me every opportunity of access to & intercourse with persons on that side of the water, whose reputation had most impressed my feelings or excited my curiosity on this. In the letter I began to you from Dublin, I occupied myself among other things in attempting a character of my host, Mr Curran; & indeed a chief reason why the letter was never finished, was because, having once left it imperfect, I began to discern new traits in the character of the man, which gradually increased my dissatisfaction with the sentiments with which I had commenced it. The observations I made of him convinced me more fully than ever, how incalculable a misfortune it is for a man to be devoted to the profession of a lawyer. I know not whether you entirely coincide with the opinions I have published on that subject; but, if you do not, I must nevertheless believe, that, had you seen what I saw, you would have become a convert. Pope says, “How sweet an Ovid was in Murray lost!” but, if I am not mistaken, a greater than Murray is here!—Curran is, as he himself assured me, & as closer observation led me to believe, constitutionally of a gloomy, choleric & atrabilaire turn of mind, habitually turned to comment upon himself & his actions, & to regard his efforts & story with dissatisfaction, as the abortion of a friend to his country & mankind. He is strongly imbued with enthusiasm & zeal: but the dissatisfaction I have mentioned has led him for the most part to take refuge in humour, frolic & drollery, so that superficial observers take him rather for a buffoon, than a melancholy man. Having once fallen into this pursuit, his imagination, which is more various & untired than I almost ever witnessed in a human being, comes in aid of the project, gives elevation to his facetiousness, & adorns his puns with several attributes of the most genuine wit. Must not this strange distortion of character have been in a great degree the consequence of his profession? a profession, base & lying, venal of lungs, prodigal of falshood, factitious of passion, sophistical, thorny, the natural & unappeasable assassin of truth. Could a less powerful cause have generated the dissatisfaction I describe? Must it not be greatly owing to the same cause that (while a production, a speech, I read of his in Ireland, convinced me that he was of the first order of logicians) I found him superficial in investigation, & unaccustomed to analysis in relation to the natures of things, at the same time that he shrunk from no discussion, & was perhaps beyond any one I ever conversed with, patient of opposition?

It was not however merely the men of Ireland, that at once excited, & gratified my curiosity; I was delighted with the features of the scenery. I traversed the mountainous & romantic county of Wicklow in almost all directions; & I am almost afraid to forfeit my character with you as a man of taste, when I add, that, having on my return surveyed, with some carefulness of leisure, several celebrated scenes of North Wales, I felt myself less impressed with the latter country than the former. It is true that to a surveyor, with his measuring scale in his hand, Wales must infallibly bear away the palm, as its mountains are, for aught I know, twice as high as those of Wicklow. The preference however that I felt, might very possibly be owing to the circumstance, that I, who had scarcely ever seen a mountain before, visited those of Wicklow first, giving to them the grace of novelty, & to those of Wales the disadvantage of a twice-told tale.—Since my return, I have found to my great mortification that the romance of those distant places, has greatly dulled my sense to the simpler beauties of every-day nature, which used to afford me a genuine & enviable pleasure. I hope this fastidiousness will wear off.

Fanny & Mary often talk of Hartley [Coleridge’s son], & received his message with pleasure. Mrs Smith’s address is 20, Clipstone Street, Fitzroy Square but she is just now somewhere in the country.


Follow Pamela Clemit at @Godwin_lives