Wife of an Opium Eater
By Cheryl Bolen
When Sara Coleridge, alone and with no attendants, delivered
herself of her first son (Hartley) eleven months after her 1795 marriage
to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, little did she know this was the first
of many calamities she would face alone. During the four decades of
their marriages STC (as he called himself) never made enough money to
support his family, never owned a home, and lived with his wife (on and
off) less than six years. Much of the time he lived with her he took to
his bed, complaining of various maladies--and consuming ever-increasing
quantities of opium.
In addition to all these abuses, Sara has been unfairly maligned
by her husband's friends and biographers and most unjustly by her
husband himself. Her detractors paint her as a shrew and claim the only
reason STC married her was because fellow poet Robert Southey urged him
to do so in order to embark on a "pantisocratic" society with
eleven other couples in the American colonies. Southey was to wed
Sarah's sister Edith Fricker, and fellow Pantisocrat Robert Lovell was
to marry another Fricker sister, Mary. (Sara dropped the H from her
first name after her marriage to please her husband.)
While it is likely true that STC was not deeply in love with Sara
when he proposed, by the time they married a year later, he was
convinced of his potent love for her.
In the year of their betrothal, all plans for embarking on their
Pantisocratic society fizzled away, but the three couples married
anyway. During STC's and Sara's betrothal, STC spent many weeks away
from Bristol--many weeks in which Sara received no correspondence from
her fiancÚ. His absence must have made her attachment to him more
ardent for when Southey fetched him in London and brought him back to
Bristol, STC was astonished and flattered over her affection toward him.
A true courtship ensued.
"Coleridge assured me that his marriage was ...forced upon
him by the scrupulous Southey," said Thomas DeQuincey. "On the
other hand, a neutral spectator of the parties protested to me that if
ever in his life he had seen a man under deep fascination, and what he
would have called desperately in love, Coleridge, in relation to Miss
F., was that man."
STC wrote poetry to her and after they married wrote, "On
Sunday I was married...united to the woman whom I love best of
all created Beings...Mrs. Coleridge--MRS. COLERIDGE--I like to write
Prior to the wedding he and Southey had a falling out. Southey was
beginning to understand STC's "indolence," a euphanism of the
day for addiction to laudanum. His addiction made his behavior erratic,
made him miss scheduled lectures for which he was being paid, and made
him generally unreliable.
A pity Sara was not cognizant of these things before the marriage.
The Coleridge's first home was a cottage in the village of
Clevedon on the Bristol Channel. The rent was five pounds a year. Their
first purchase for their new home was an Elonian harp which STC
immortalized in a poem by that name. After two days of habitation, the
couple realized they could not live by harp alone. Coleridge wrote his
printer to request a kettle, carpet brush, mats, candlesticks, pair of
slippers, Bible, keg of porter, spices, raisins, currants, a flour
dredge, and catsup.
The Coleridges lived in the cottage less than two months. The
cottage was too far from Bristol, forcing STC to spend the night in
Bristol on days he walked (since he was too poor to own a horse) to the
city's library. Sara disliked spending the night alone in their remote
They next resided with life-long friend Thomas Poole at Nether-Stowey,
where the Coleridges soon leased a cottage nearby. Never one to care
about money, STC found himself having to face the reality of providing
for his wife and the child she was now carrying. His printer paid him
one and a half guineas for every 100 lines of poetry, and Poole secured
pledges from Coleridge supporters to give STC a "testimonial"
for six years, the testimonial disguising charity.
The cottage, located near Nether-Stowey's main gutter, sat on six
acres and consisted of two living rooms on either side of a dark
passage, a small kitchen-scullery in the rear, three small bedrooms
upstairs, and an earth-closet privy in the garden. There was no heating
except for the open fireplaces which required expensive fuel and
cumbersome chopping of kindling. All the cooking had to be done at the
open hearth where Sara was forced to lift the heavy iron pots to set on
trivets or to suspend them from hooks. Water had to be fetched from the
pump, and hot water had to be heated over the fire. Wash day occurred
every other week and was an arduous undertaking. A baby necessitated
even more washing, and diapers had to be dried on clothes horses set
around the fire and a drying rack suspended above the fire. Other chores
weighing down Sara were darning and mending clothes and sewing new ones,
cleaning house and keeping oil lamps filled.
A list STC drew up to allocate the work reads thus:
Six o'clock. Light the fires. Clean out kitchen. Put on Tea
kettle. Clean the insides of boiling pot. Shoes &c C&B (the C
for STC and the B for their nursemaid, who soon quit)
Eight o'clock. Tea things and c. Put out and c. after cleaned up.
One o'clock. Spit the meat. B&C
Two o'clock. Vegetables and c. Sara.
Half past three--10 minutes for cleaning dishes
Sara calculated that with economy--including forgoing meat--they
could live on sixteen shillings a week. This did not prove to be the
case. Nor were they vegetarians for long.
At this time 21-year-old Charles Lloyd, the epileptic son of a
Quaker Birmingham banker, became enthralled with Coleridge, and his
father agreed to pay Coleridge 80 guineas a year to mentor his son, who
was to come live with the expanding Coleridge household.
While Coleridge was finalizing these plans with the senior Lloyd
in Birmingham Sara delivered the first of their four children.
In addition to taking care of her baby, Sara was now hostess to
young Lloyd and nursemaid to her often bed-ridden husband. (Coleridge
was already addicted to morphine by the time he was an undergraduate at
Cambridge.) STC was an indulgent father. "He (baby Hartley) laughs
at us till he make us weep for very fondness," STC wrote. "You
would smile to see my eye rolling up to the ceiling in a lyric fury, and
on my knee a Diaper pinned."
Ill-health beset STC each fall when the cold weather came, and
when he became incapacitated, so did Lloyd, who eventually had to be
placed in a sanatorium, leaving the Coleridges quite destitute once
It was at this time STC was to begin his association with William
Wordsworth and his sister, Dorothy. This relationship would profoundly
affect STC for the rest of his life.
It was also the beginning of the end of the Coleridges' heretofore
STC idolized Wordsworth. He thought Wordsworth the only man he had
ever met whose intellect he found greater than his own. He developed,
too, a keen camaraderie with Dorothy, who was to fall in love with STC,
despite that he was a married man. Though his admiration for Dorothy was
great, STC was never her lover.
Twenty months after Hartley was born, Sara gave birth to a second
son, Berkeley. In between the two births she had suffered a miscarriage.
When Berkeley was just weeks old, STC came into possession of a
150-pound annuity for life from the Wedgwood brothers, Josiah and
Thomas. Flush in the pocket, STC decided to study in Germany. Sara and
the boys would stay behind, but the Wordsworths would accompany him.
STC left his wife and babies in September, 1798. At first he
missed them greatly. He wrote to his wife: "When we lost sight of
land, the moment that we quite lost sight of it, & the heavens all
round me rested upon the waters, my dear Babies came upon me like a
flash of lightning--I saw their faces so distinctly!" He closed the
letter, "Good night, my dear, dear Sara!--every night when I go to
bed & every morning when I rise I will think of you with a yearning
love, & of my blessed Babies!--Once more my dear, dear Sara! Good
He kept up a regular correspondence, but did not receive any
letter from her. Two months after leaving her, he wrote, "No
letters from England! A Knell, that strikes out regularly four times a
week--How is this my Love? Why do you not write to me? Do you mean to
shorten my absence by making it insupportable to me? Or perhaps you
anticipate that if I received a letter, I should idly turn away from my
German to dream of you--of you & my beloved babies!--Oh
yes!--I should indeed dream of you for hours and hours...and of the
Infant that sucks at your breast, and of my dear, dear Hartley." He
wrote the poem "The Day Dream" about his absent wife at this
There was good reason for Sara's silence. Her babe had been at
death's door for weeks, owing to a faulty inoculation against small pox.
Little Berkeley, acclaimed by all to have been an exceptionally
beautiful baby, developed the small pox all over his body, his eyes,
nose and gums. Sara said she could almost see them popping out on him.
She had to hold his little hands around the clock to keep him from
scratching. "He lay upon my lap like a dead child," Sara
eventually wrote her husband, "burning like fire and all over he
was red scarlet." He could not even cry, but he made a "horrid
noise in his throat which when I dozed for a minute I always
heard." The doctor came six to eight times a day. "The ladies
of Stowey also visited me and wept over this little victim, affected by
my complaints, and the miserable plight of the child," Sara wrote.
"What I felt is impossible to write--I had no husband to comfort me
and share my grief--perhaps the boy would die and he far away! All the
responsibility of the infant's life was upon me, and it was weight that
dragged me to the earth!"
As the babe grew better, he once again wished to nurse, the
consequence being that Sara got pustules on her breast which, she wrote,
"swelled as big as walnuts and I could not endure him to touch
me...James Cole's wife kindly undertook to suckle him by day, and by
night we had recourse to a glass tube through which he sucked cow's
milk, tho' very reluctantly, and only when his eyes were shut."
STC's response was, "When I read of the danger and the
agony--My dear Sara!--my love! My Wife!--God bless you & preserve
us...My Wife, believe and know that I plan to be home with you."
After the babe recovered from small pox and regained his former
beauty, he developed consumption, and Sara had to witness her baby's
slow death. Little Berkeley, who was 14 weeks old when his father left,
died at the age of 9 months on Feb. 10, 1799. The ordeal Sara endured
robbed her of her once-beautiful hair. She wore a wig for the rest of
In conveying the news of the baby's death, she wrote her husband,
"I am his Mother, and have carried him in my arms and have fed him
at my bosom, and have watched over him by day and night for nine months;
I have seen him twice at the brink of the grave but he has returned, and
recovered and smiled upon me like an angel--and now I am lamenting that
he is gone."
Sara expected her husband, upon hearing of Berkeley's death, would
be restored to her in May, but he did not hurry home. In fact, his
letter to her--lamenting death and commenting on the doctrines of
Priestley--was not comforting. He took a walking tour in Germany before
coming home, arriving in England in late July.
Shortly thereafter he took a job as a political writer for the Morning
News in London, and Sara and Hartley joined him there. But Coleridge
never liked the city, nor did he care much for money, so soon thereafter
he decided to return to the country. He wished to live near the
Wordsworths in the Lake District. They began leasing a comfortable
house, Greta Hall, in Keswick, Cumberland. The newly built house was
large, fully furnished, and presented fine views of mountains and Lake
Derwent. Their landlord, Mr. Jackson, lived in the "back
house." The Wordsworths were 14 miles away at Dove Cottage.
Sara gave birth to their son, Derwent, on September 14, 1800. He
was named after the nearby lake.
As winter set in and STC all too frequently made the trek to Dove
Cottage on foot, he began to experience his old health complaints:
stomach irritations, bowel attacks and rheumatism which STC termed the
"flying gout." This, of course, necessitated more opium. With
this came optical hallucinations and nightmares.
Since he was incapable of writing and since they owed money to
almost all their friends, they descended once more into poverty. Meals
were frugal. Rooms were cold and fireless because of
lack of money for candles and coal.
The deeper he descended into his morphine mire, the more he
irrationally perceived malice toward his wife. Dorothy Wordsworth, most
especially, maligned Sara.
Within a year of moving to Greta Hall, the Coleridge marriage was
destroyed. STC now spoke harshly of Sara, blaming everything wrong in
his life on his wife. When he spoke to others, he spoke of her
with contempt. Sara was quick with her hot temper, and she was becoming
intolerant of his opium use. That she was no longer sympathetic when he
took to his couch he perceived as proof that she did not care for him or
Not understanding his "opium habit," the Wordsworths
urged him to leave Sara. By this time Wordsworth had married Mary
Hutchinson. A frequent visitor to Dove Cottage was Mary's sister, Sarah
Hutchinson, with whom STC now fancied himself in love. Sarah Hutchinson
was very short--not over five feet-- plump, and plain of face with a
pointed chin. Other than offering him sympathy, she did not encourage
Coleridge's advances. Nevertheless, irrational from prolonged and heavy
opium use, he fixated on her for the next decade, writing poems to his
mythical "Asra," a name used to disguise Miss Hutchinson's
true identity. Wife Sara was well aware of her husband's infatuation and
of their own estrangement.
But after many months of estrangement--and with coaxing from
Southey (now married to Sara's sister Edith), STC agreed to try to
reclaim his marriage on the condition that his wife be more sympathetic
to him and less abrasive. This she agreed to.
Sara once again got pregnant and would give birth to their only
daughter, Sara. But once again she would give birth without her husband
at her side.
Blaming his rheumatism on the cold climate, STC was determined to
winter in a warmer climate. During his absence he wrote her, "God
love you & have you in his keeping, My blessed Sara!--& speedily
restore me to you.--I have faith, a heavenly Faith, that our future Days
will be Days of Peace & affectionate Happiness. O that I were now
with you! I feel it very, very hard to be from you at this trying
time--I dare not think a moment concerning you in this Relation, or I
should be immediately ill. But I shall soon return--and bring you back a
confident & affectionate Husband. Again, and again, my dearest
dearest Sara!--my Wife & my Love, & indeed my very Hope/May God
STC's initial plan to go to Italy with Thomas Wedgewood did not
come to fruition; he returned to Greta Hall shortly after little Sara's
birth and remained there--mostly sick--for the next year. Convinced of
his imminent death, Coleridge decided he must go to Malta to restore his
health and to hopefully kick his opium habit. Sara, the only person who
fully understood her husband's addiction, was in favor of this plan. The
knowledge of his addiction was something they shared, a confidence Sara
never betrayed. This must be what STC was speaking of when he wrote her,
"In one thing, my deal Love! I do prefer you to any woman I ever
knew--I have the most unbounded confidence in your discretion."
Before he left for Malta, STC took out a life insurance policy for
one thousand pounds, agreed to split the Wedgwood annuity fifty/fifty
with his wife, and urged Southey and Edith to come live at Greta Hall,
where Southey could be a "stand-in" parent to the three
STC would not return to Greta Hall for 20 months, during which
time his opium habit worsened. When he did return he abruptly announced
his decision to separate from Sara and take the boys to live with him
and the Wordsworths.
Sara put up a good fight. She begged to know why he wished to live
separately from her, and all he could repeatedly say was she was
"unfit." He was taking away her marital respectability, her
sons, and she was skeptical that once he was gone he would continue to
provide for her and their daughter. Eventually, with Southey's
influence, an amicable separation was agreed to. Since Derwent was but
six, he stayed with his mother.
Writing to his brother about the separation, STC laid all the
blame on Sara: "Mrs. Coleridge has a temper & general tone of
feeling which after a long (and) patient trial I have found wholly
incompatible with even an enduring life, & such as to preclude all
chance of my ever developing the talents which my Maker has entrusted to
me...The few friends who have been Witnesses of my domestic life have
long advised separation as the necessary condition of every thing
desirable for me--nor does Mrs. Coleridge herself state or pretend to
any objection on the score of attachment to me; that will not look respectable
for her, is the sum into which all her objections resolve
Coleridge's brother scolded him thoroughly.
Once STC began to reside with the Wordsworths they were to
discover the extent of his opium habit, a state that Southey had
described thusly: "His habits are so murderous of all domestic
comfort that I am only surprised Mrs. C. Is not rejoiced at being rid of
Since the Wordsworths had outgrown Dove Cottage, STC suggested
they come to live at Greta Hall because he thought the Southeys would be
leaving. This would, in effect, leave Sara homeless. Southey came to her
rescue by informing STC he had no intentions of quitting Greta Hall. (He
in fact lived there the rest of his life.)
The boys would come to spend their weekends with their father at
the Wordsworths' Allan Bank and their vacations with their mother at
Greta Hall. All three children were more comfortable at Greta Hall.
Approximately three years after leaving Sara, STC informed Sara he
would like to come and stay with her and their daughter for a while.
Southey exploded. He would not have Coleridge under his roof. At this
time the landlord who lived in the back of the house died, and Sara was
able to move into that portion of the house, so STC would be free to
come and go without disturbing the Southeys. Sara's correspondence from
her husband at this time is marked with "My dear Love," an
endearment he had not used in years.
They spent the next five months together and got along well. He
never explained why he left the Wordsworths, but Dorothy Wordsworth's
word tell it all: "I know that he (STC) has not written a single
line...We have no hope of him...his whole time and thoughts..are
employed in deceiving himself and seeking to deceive others...This Habit
pervades all his words and actions...It has been misery, God knows, to
me to see the truths which I now see."
After five months of domestic harmony but regression into his
opium fog, Coleridge vowed to seek help with his "bad habit."
He discussed going to an asylum in Scotland and going to London with the
Montagues (whom Wordsworth warned against taking in STC), and ended up
for a time with the Morgans in Hammersmith. At first he corresponded
regularly and affectionately with his wife, then his old patterns
reemerged and she would not hear from him for months. At this time
Josiah Wedgwood withdrew his half of the Coleridge annuity, putting the
Coleridge's in dire financial straits.
With Hartley approaching college age, all Sara's pleas to her
husband to provide for their son's education landed on deaf ears. In
deep opium crisis, STC was unable to write or lecture or do anything to
earn the money his family needed. It fell to his distant brothers to
procure for Hartley the equivalent of a scholarship worth fifty pounds a
year. This was supplemented with 40 pounds per annum from his brothers,
30 pounds per annum from Lady Beaumont, ten pounds from Poole, and 5
pounds from Cottle, the printer who published STC's verses. Similarly,
when Derwent was of university age, an old Coleridge admirer, John
Hookam Frere, set aside 300 pounds for his education, and Lady Beaumont
also offered assistance. It was said the Coleridge children were left to
"chance and charity."
STC had not only failed Sara, he failed his children, too. But
Sara never maligned her husband. She took his side in all disputes
(including the rift with the Wordsworths) and encouraged his sons to
respect the father who had abandoned them.
For several years Sara had no communication from her husband, nor
did she receive financial support. She was beholden to her
brother-in-law (Southey) for allowing her to live in Greta Hall, now his
house. In appreciation, she taught in the Southey schoolroom. At this
time the Southey family included three adolescent girls and two
children. In this schoolroom Sara's sister Mary (Mrs. Lovell) taught
English and Latin; Sara taught French, Italian, writing, arithmetic and
needlework; Southey taught Greek and Spanish; and a neighbor taught
drawing and music. (Southey's wife, Edith, was suffering from
depression.) School was held from half past nine each morning until
four, with an hour for walking and a half hour for dressing.
As Sara's children grew into adulthood, her worries for them grew.
"I hope no child of mine will marry without a good certainty of
supporting a family," she said. "I have known many
difficulties myself that I have reason to warn my children."
Hartley--as the other Coleridges--was to prove a promising
scholar, a fact that delighted his father. However, during a later
fellowship at Cambridge's Oriel College, he was denied membership as a
fellow, chiefly due to his "sottishness."
Sara--and her husband--were outraged, blaming everyone but
Hartley. Sara wished to bring her firstborn back into the fold at Greta
Hall, but Southey prohibited it. This was a low point of Sara's life.
She wrote that she felt like "one without plan or purpose; without
hope or heart."
She had good reason to grieve. Her son fell deeper into
alcoholism, had no home, and was given to "wandering." Through
the Wordsworths she would scrape together money to send him for the rest
of her life.
After 29 years she would leave Greta Hall and experience a modicum
of happiness, living first with Derwent when he took orders, then coming
to settle permanently with Sara when she delivered her first child in
1830. A reputed scholar, Sara the younger had married STC's nephew,
Henry Coleridge, who became a lawyer in London's Hampstead. (The
Coleridge cousins had not met until they were adults.)
Ironically, Hampstead was just a few short miles from Highgate,
where since 1816 Coleridge had been living with surgeon and apothecary
James Gillman, who controlled his opium habit.
Sara and STC met for the first time in eight years. Before that,
there had been a ten-year gap between their meetings. STC was proud of
his nephew/son-in-law, and he and Sara were doting grandparents.
Coleridge was to write of Sara: "In fact, barring living in the same
house with her there are few women that I have a greater respect and
ratherish liking for, than Mrs. C."
For the last three years of Coleridge's life, he and Sara enjoyed
many cordial visits with each other. STC died in 1833, at age 61. Sara,
who was two years older than her husband, lived until 1845.
Sources: The Bondage of Love, by Molly Lefebure;
Coleridge, The Viking Portable Library.