Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"Lloyd . . . manufactured conversations and speeches wholly out of his brain," or, Choose your friends with care!

In a comment to yesterday's post, R. T. pointed out that
By all accounts, Coleridge seems to have been a person quite a few others ought to have avoided because of his singular (and what I would generously call his egocentric and less generously call his parasitic) personality.
He's right: though Coleridge could be a good friend, and his encouragement was crucial to Wordsworth in his early years, he could also be untrustworthy, unreliable, and cruel (especially where his long-suffering wife was concerned). And the opium didn't help: as Adam Sisman puts it in The Friendship,
Dependence on the drug exacerbated all the most deplorable aspects of his character: self-pity, evasiveness, secrecy, duplicity, indifference, passivity, apathy, paralysis, self-loathing and shame.

Troubling as he may have been, however, Coleridge wasn't the worst person in the Lake District poets' orbit--and thus in Sisman's book--not by a long shot. That crown has to go to Coleridge's friend and former pupil Charles Lloyd, whose gossiping, backstabbing, and double-dealing is so deliciously horrible in Sisman's account as to bring to mind Les Liasons Dangereuses.

To some extent, Coleridge's typical emotional obtuseness--which so often bordered on outright cruelty--was to blame for the initial break with Lloyd. In 1797 he published a handful of parodies of the poetry of his contemporaries, Lloyd among them, telling his publisher, "I think they may do good to our young Bards." But as Sisman points out,
Lloyd in particular was not the sort of person who found it easy to laugh at himself. . . . He was sensitive, with "an exquisiteness of feeling" that, as Lamb commented, "must border on derangement." . . . Lloyd demanded regular attention, and became petulant or even hostile if he did not get it.
Feeling rejected, Lloyd mounted a campaign of malicious gossip and disinformation:
He wrote a letter to Dorothy [Wordsworth] in which he labelled Coleridge "a villain," and cited a conversation between the two of them (in which he may have repeated comments about her made by Coleridge) as proof that she concurred; in tears, she broughr the letter over to [Coleridge's home at] Nether Stowey from [her home at] Alfoxden, but Coleridge laughed it off. Lloyd inviegled himself into the homes of Coleridge's friends Lamb and Southey, and worked to turn them against him. He read Lamb extracts from Coleridge's letters that referred to lamb in less than flattering terms. He repeated to Southey what Coleridge had told him in confidence about their quarrel in Bristol two years earlier, reopening the old wound. . . . Southey began to talk ominously of the need to defend his character. Stung by what he heard from Lloyd, Southey retaliated by telling him stories of Coleridge's past, from which Lloyd was able to make more mischief.
If you can't follow all that, it might help to consult with the nearest middle-school student or soap opera fan, who should be able to walk you through it. About the only way Lloyd's troublemaking could have been bettered would have been by sleeping with everyone involved as well . . . then drunkenly blogging about it all?

Amazingly, despite such an impressively villainous round of pot-stirring, Lloyd remained a part of the Wordsworth-Coleridge milieu for several more years. The final break only came about, amusingly enough, only because of Wordsworth's notorious sensitivity to criticism:
Someone reported Lloyd as having publicly expressed the opinion that Coleridge was "a greater poet, & possessed of more genius by nature," than Wordsworth. "Instantly," as Coleridge recalled more than eight years afterwards, Dorothy pronounced Lloyd "a VILLAIN." For the next few years the Wordsworths avoided the Lloyds wherever possible. "We are determined to cut them entirely," Dorothy wrote to Sara Hutchinson.
There are lines, after all, that a friend of a prickly poet must not cross . . .


  1. While Sisman, like many others, points to Coleridge's drug addiction as A (or perhaps THE) contributing factor in the poet's unpleasant qualities, my experiences in dealing with some addicts (part of a former career) suggests that the unpleasant personality qualities were already there and the drug addiction follows on the backside of the cause-and-effect relationship; in other words, the drug addiction would not cause the personal unpleasantness but rather the drug addiction was an effect caused by the personality/character of the abuser. So, with Coleridge, any belated analysis of his behaviors is fraught with difficulties, and pointing to drug dependancy as the cause or exacerbating factor is rather facile. In the end, though, what we are left with is the historical record of a fascinating (if sometimes repulsive) personality AND an exceptional poetic and theoretical talent. So, to borrow a Coleridge phrase, when we approach his work we should "suspend our disbelief" about his life (accept it for what it was) and focus mainly on the work (which is a much more important way into appreciating the poet's genius).

  2. I think you're right, R. T., and to be fair to Sisman, he acknowledges that, too, writing that Coleridge's opium use was more an exacerbating condition than a cause of his difficult nature.

    The place where I do think the biography and the poetry come close to being inseparable, however, is where Coleridge's esteem for Wordsworth begins to overwhelm his confidence in his own abilities as a poet: having decided to place himself in Wordsworth's shadow, Coleridge can no longer work as he once did. From our longer point of view, it's astonishing that he thought himself so inferior, but when the life is reconstructed, Coleridge's misapprehension of his own gifts becomes more understandable.