Literary daybook, July 25

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.

By the Salon Books Editors
Published July 25, 2002 7:00PM (EDT)

Today in fiction

On July 25, 1831, Julien Sorel is executed.
-- "The Red and the Black" (1831)
by Stendhal

From "The Book of Fictional Days"
Know when something that did not really happen
occurred? Send it to

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Today in Literary History
On this day in 1834, Samuel Taylor Coleridge died of heart disease, at the age of 61. In his last years, Coleridge continued to write in his Christian-philosophical-sage vein ("Aids to Reflection," 1825; "Church and State," 1830), but he was decades away from his great poems and literary criticism, and equally estranged from many once close to him, such as his friend and partner Wordsworth, and his wayward son, Hartley. Though Coleridge was living in semi-seclusion in his Highgate rooms, his fame and his reputation for brilliant conversation caused many to visit; when a young Thomas Carlyle came calling in 1825, he found Coleridge a "great and useless genius" who in conversation "wanders like a man sailing on many currents," though barely able to walk:

"Figure a fat, flabby, incurvated personage, at once short, rotund, and relaxed, with a watery mouth, a snuffy nose, a pair of strange, brown, timid, yet earnest looking eyes, a high tapering brow, and a great bush of grey hair; and you have some faint idea of Coleridge. He is a kind good soul, full of religion and affection and poetry and animal magnetism. His cardinal sin is that he wants will. He has no resolution."

And the critic William Hazlitt wrote that, "If Mr Coleridge had not been the most impressive talker of his age, he would probably have been the finest writer," though he did concede that for all Coleridge had failed at gathering the promised "immortal fruits and amaranthine flowers," he had not gone Establishment-rotten, like Wordsworth and Southey.

The failure of talent or will is put down, in part, to Coleridge's return to opium. This habit was facilitated by a sympathetic Highgate chemist, who would let Coleridge in through a side door, to receive "Tinct. of Opium" in fennel water, nitric acid, or something called "syrup of Marshmallow." In an 1825 sonnet titled "Work Without Hope" Coleridge alludes to the addiction, takes a shot at the Hazlitt criticism, and suggests a deeper mystery:

" ... Yet well I ken the banks, where Amaranths blow,
Have traced the fount whence streams of Nectar flow.
Bloom, o ye Amaranths! bloom for whom ye may --
For me ye bloom not! Glide, rich streams! away!
With lips unbrightened, wreathless brow, I stroll:
And would you learn the spells that drowse my soul?
Work without Hope draws nectar in a sieve,
And Hope without an object cannot live."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.

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