Virginia Woolf: The Man At the Gate

The man was Coleridge as De Quincey saw him, standing in a gateway. For it is vain to put the single word Coleridge at the head of a page — Coleridge the innumerable, the mutable, the atmospheric; Coleridge who is part of Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley; of his age and of our own; Coleridge whose written words fill hundreds of pages and overflow innumerable margins; whose spoken words still reverberate, so that as we enter his radius he seems not a man, but a swarm, a cloud, a buzz of words, darting this way and that, clustering, quivering and hanging suspended. So little of this can be caught in any reader’s net that it is well before we become dazed in the labyrinth of what we call Coleridge to have a clear picture before us — the picture of a man standing at a gate:
. . . his person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence, his complexion was fair . . . his eyes were large and soft in their expression; and it was from the peculiar appearance of haze or dreaminess which mixed with their light, that I recognized my object.
That was in 1807. Coleridge was already incapable of movement. The Kendal black drop had robbed him of his will. “You bid me rouse myself — go, bid a man paralytic in both arms rub them briskly together.” The arms already hung flabby at his side; he was powerless to raise them. But the disease which paralysed his will left his mind unfettered. In proportion as he became incapable of action, he became capable of feeling. As he stood at the gate his vast expanse of being was a passive target for innumerable arrows, all of them sharp, many of them poisoned. To confess, to analyse, to describe was the only alleviation of his appalling torture — the prisoner’s only means of escape.
Thus there shapes itself in the volumes of Coleridge’s letters an immense mass of quivering matter, as if the swarm had attached itself to a bough and hung there pendent. Sentences roll like drops down a pane, drop collecting drop, but when they reach the bottom, the pane is smeared. A great novelist, Dickens for preference, could have formed out of this swarm and diffusion a prodigious, an immortal character. Dickens, could he have been induced to listen, would have noted — perhaps this:
Deeply wounded by very disrespectful words used concerning me, and which struggling as I have been thro’ life, and still maintaining a character and holding connections no way unworthy of my Family
Or again:
The worst part of the charges were that I had been imprudent enough and in the second place gross and indelicate enough to send out a gentleman’s servant in his own house to a public house for a bottle of brandy . . .
Or again:
What joy would it not be to you or to me, Miss Betham! to meet a Milton in a future state
And again, on accepting a loan:
I can barely collect myself sufficiently to convey to you — first, that I receive this proof of your filial kindness with feelings not unworthy of the same . . . but that, whenever (if ever) my circumstances shall improve, you must permit me to remind you that what was, and FOREVER under ALL conditions of fortune will be, FELT as a GIFT, has become a Loan — and lastly, that you must let me have you as a frequent friend on whose visits I may rely as often as convenience will permit you . . .
The very voice (drastically cut short) of Micawber himself!
But there is a difference. For this Micawber knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child. An unopened letter brings great drops of sweat to his forehead; yet to lift a pen and answer it is beyond his power. The Dickens Coleridge and the Henry James Coleridge perpetually tear him asunder. The one sends out surreptitiously to Mr. Dunn the chemist for another bottle of opium; and the other analyses the motives that have led to this hypocrisy into an infinity of fine shreds.
Thus often in reading the “gallop scrawl” of the letters from Highgate in 1820 we seem to be reading notes for a late work by Henry James. He is the forerunner of all who have tried to reveal the intricacies, to take the faintest creases of the human soul. The great sentences pocketed with parentheses, expanded with dash after dash, break their walls under the strain of including and qualifying and suggesting all that Coleridge feels, fears and glimpses. Often he is prolix to the verge of incoherence, and his meaning dwindles and fades to a wisp on the mind’s horizon. Yet in our tongue-tied age there is a joy in this reckless abandonment to the glory of words. Cajoled, caressed, tossed up in handfuls, words yield those flashing phrases that hang like ripe fruit in the many-leaved tree of his immense volubility. “Brow-hanging, shoe-contemplative, STRANGE”; there is Hazlitt. Of Dr. Darwin: “He was like a pigeon picking up peas, and afterwards voiding them with excremental additions.” Anything may tumble out of that great maw; the subtlest criticism, the wildest jest, the exact condition of his intestines. But he uses words most often to express the crepitations of his apprehensive susceptibility. They serve as a smoke-screen between him and the menace of the real world. The word screen trembles and shivers. What enemy is approaching? Nothing visible to the naked eye. And yet how he trembles and quivers! Hartley, “poor Hartley . . . in shrinking from the momentary pain of telling the plain truth, a truth not discreditable to him or to me, has several times inflicted an agitating pain and confusion”— by what breach of morality or dereliction of duty? —“by bringing up Mr. Bourton unexpectedly on Sundays with the intention of dining here.” Is that all? Ah, but a diseased body feels the stab of anguish if only a corn is trod upon. Anguish shoots through every fibre of his being. Has he not himself often shrunk from the momentary pain of telling the plain truth? Why has he no home to offer his son, no table to which Hartley could bring his friends uninvited? Why does he live a stranger in the house of friends, and be (at present) unable to discharge his share of the housekeeping expenses? The old train of bitter thoughts is set in motion once more. He is one hum and vibration of painful emotion. And then, giving it all the slip, he takes refuge in thought and provides Hartley with “in short, the sum of all my reading and reflections on the vast Wheel of the Mythology of the earliest and purest Heathenism.” Hartley must feed upon that and take a snack of cold meat and pickles at some inn.
Letter-writing was in its way a substitute for opium. In his letters he could persuade others to believe what he did not altogether believe himself — that he had actually written the folios, the quartos, the octavos that he had planned. Letters also relieved him of those perpetually pullulating ideas which, like Surinam toads, as he said, were always giving birth to little toads that “grow quickly and draw off attention from the mother toad.” In letters thoughts need not be brought to a conclusion. Somebody was always interrupting, and then he could throw down his pen and indulge in what was, after all, better than writing — the “insemination” of ideas without the intermediary of any gross impediment by word of mouth into the receptive, the acquiescent, the entirely passive ear, say, of Mr. Green who arrived punctually at three. Later, if it were Thursday, in came politicians, economists, musicians, business men, fine ladies, children — it mattered not who they were so long as he could talk and they would listen.
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Essay first published in The Death of the Moth, by Virginia Woolf, 1940


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