Home  »  Volume XI: English THE PERIOD OF THE FRENCH REVOLUTION  »  § 4. The Opium habit

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XI. The Period of the French Revolution.

VI. Coleridge

§ 4. The Opium habit

The opium habit, the beginnings of which go back as far as 1797, seems to have grown upon him during his time at Malta (1804–6); and, by the time he returned to England, the bondage must have been confirmed. Again and again, he strove to throw off the yoke; but only to fall back again more helplessly than before. Degraded in his own eyes, he felt life to be a burden almost too heavy to be borne; and the letters which, now and again, were wrung from him by remorse, are, perhaps, among the most terrible ever written. Two things alone saved him from total shipwreck: the unwearied tenderness of friends, old and new—Poole, Wordsworth, Mrs. Clarkson and the Morgans; and the innate rectitude, winged by a strong religious impulse, which did not cease to assert itself against reiterated defeat. At length, after ten years of debasement, he nerved himself to seek refuge with James Gillman, a physician of Highgate (1816). And, thanks to the devoted friendship and watchfulness of this man and his wife—he remained their “inmate” till his death—he slowly tore himself loose from the bondage in which he had been held. That he never wholly gave up the drug, is tolerably clear. But he so far mastered himself as to take it in rarer and smaller doses; and, for practical purposes, the hard-fought victory was won. Thus, the last eighteen years of his life were years of inward peace and of fruitful service to others. The old weakness, no doubt, still dogged his steps and prevented the fulfilment of the task—a work on Spiritual Philosophy and half a dozen alternative titles—to which he was conscious of being called. But, in familiar talk, in formal lecturing and even in published writings, this was the richest period of his life; and it left a deep mark upon some of the strongest and most eager spirits of the younger generation.

The victory was won. But the long years of apparently hopeless struggle had left scars which nothing could wholly heal. The prime of his life had been largely wasted. And he had strained the patience of some of his best friends. Josiah Wedgwood had withdrawn, perhaps with undue harshness, his half of the pension that he and his brother had granted in days when nothing seemed beyond the reach of the young poet and thinker. Southey, who had gallantly shouldered the charge of the truant’s wife and children, was embittered, if not estranged. Even Wordsworth, by an unguarded utterance made with the best intentions, had caused a breach which could never wholly be made up. This was probably the deepest sorrow of his life; “all else,” he says, “is as a flea-bite.” His family life, too—though this was from causes which, in the first instance, at any rate, had little to do with opium—had been entirely broken up. And, though a formal separation was avoided, he never lived with his wife after 1810; and had, in fact, seen as little as he could of her since 1804. The real secret of the estrangement was that, by temperament, the two were ill sorted with each other. But it is impossible not to feel the deepest sympathy with a woman who battled bravely with the hardships of her lot; and hard to check the suspicion that, but for opium, the difficulties might have been smoothed over. In any case, the breach was a worse thing for Coleridge than he was ever willing to acknowledge. It robbed him of the steadying influences of home life, to which he was by nature peculiarly open. And it left a sting in his conscience which he may have ignored, but which, just for that reason, was never healed.