WAS COLERIDGE A SPY?
You probably know Coleridge had an opium habit. There's a very revealing note he wrote to his apothecary – effectively his dealer – that illustrates this. We're offering a limited number of facsimiles of this rare document as one of the rewards you can receive for supporting Dead Writers in Rehab, in which the extraordinary poet appears as a character.
But did you know that in 1797 Coleridge and Wordsworth were suspected of being French spies? The story involves the genesis of both the Romantic Movement and the Secret Service in an unholy collision that is both comical and sinister. The tale is so strange you couldn't possibly invent it.
But you could embellish it, which is what I did in a radio play called Spy Nozy and the Poets, starring Bill Nighy and Martin Clunes. (The "video" that appears above is an audio extract.) I based the drama on five surviving letters from a longer correspondence, the rest of which has been lost. Frustrating for the historian, but a gift for the writer, who can use his imagination to invent the rest of the tale. Oddly, that’s what the people involved in it did, too. Especially Coleridge, who had compelling reasons, later in his life, to re-interpret what happened. To find out why, read on.
The story begins
1. August 1797 was a time of rumours and crazes, of dissent and repression, of surveillance and betrayal. Suspicion of the French, and fear that Napoleon was about to invade, was so widespread it might have amounted to a case of national hysteria if it hadn't been partly justified. Meanwhile, the English Secret Service had recently been created in its recognisably modern form, and was on the hunt for traitors and spies.
2. When Coleridge and Wordsworth moved to Nether Stowey, at the foot of the Quantock hills on the Somerset coast, they were in the first flush of the enthusiasm that inspired some of their greatest writing. They were intent on a meticulous observation of Nature, and on recording everything in the natural world around them. They made copious notes, often exploring the coastline at night, the better to observe various scenes by moonlight.
3. Add to this a gulf between social classes (and between town and country) so wide that sometimes they could barely understand each other's speech. For some simple folk in Stowey, the appearance of a pair of well-dressed young gentlemen, in a household with highly unfamiliar manners, suggested the arrival of people who were clearly foreigners.
So, with much of the population expecting to be murdered in their beds at any moment by a French invasion force, it was probably not the best time for a pair of wild-looking young men to be roaming the coastline at night, making notes and talking incomprehensibly. Especially in a place only miles from a spot where some French ships had made a tentative attempt to land troops less than year earlier.
On August 8th 1797 a letter from a Dr Lysons in Bath was sent to the Duke of Portland, who was in charge of the Home Office and was effectively the head of the secret service. This letter is lost but we can infer its content from references to it in subsequent letters. As a result, James Walsh, an experienced detective, was sent to Hungerford to interview Charles Mogg. Mogg's friend Thomas Jones was a servant at Alfoxton House in Nether Stowey, where the Wordsworths had taken residence near Coleridge. Jones overheard "seditious talk" at a large dinner. He told Mogg, who told a serving woman friend, and she told Dr Lysons's cook, who told Dr Lsyons, who wrote to the Duke.
Dr Lysons sent a second letter to the Duke on August 11th. This letter survives and gives more information about the suspicious activity by the "emigrant" family (sound familiar?) showing that the Wordsworths were assumed by locals to be foreign – probably French.
Meanwhile, Walsh has sent his first report – which survives – back to the Home Office, detailing his interrogation of Mogg, which seems to confirm the sinister goings-on.
The Home Office replies to Walsh immediately (the letter survives) enclosing a copy of Dr Lysons' second letter, a considerable sum of money, and instructions to proceed to Stowey, undercover, and find out more.
The next document is Walsh's first report from Stowey. He says the suspects are actually "Disaffected Englishmen" – potentially even more dangerous than the French. He names Wordsworth – and Thelwall, the notorious Democrat, now departed for Bristol, whose violent talk at the dinner table had so alarmed the servant, Jones. Walsh had been hounding Thelwall for years on behalf of the government.
The final existing report from Walsh names Coleridge as one of a "sett of violent Democrats." He's finally spoken to Jones, the servant, who expands his previous information. The report contains enough detail and tradecraft to keep the spymasters happy, but reading between the lines Walsh seems to have lost his enthusiasm for persecuting the poets and their circle, or considers his mission to be accomplished – or both.
Nearly twenty years later, in 1817, Coleridge published his account of the affair in his Biographia Literaria. He turns the whole thing into a very amusing anecdote about ignorant rustic busybodies, a paranoid government, and an inept spy. By then, Coleridge was keen to play down his radical past, and the account is as fanciful as it is funny. But the truth is that Coleridge could have been in serious trouble.
Bear in mind that in 1797 Coleridge and Wordsworth actually were radicals, or had been until very recently. And they were living in dangerous times. There was a national emergency, the opposition in the House of Commons was effectively stifled, gagging orders were used, and the Home Office took every potential threat very seriously. Even if the poets were harmless – which is debateable – the new secret service was quite capable of locking them up anyway. Like all such organisations they would do whatever suited their own political ambitions and agenda.
Like many stories involving repressive regimes, spies and artists, the picture is often a mixture of the sinister, the grotesque, and the comically absurd. Genuine danger to life and liberty exists alongside farcical ineptitude and galloping paranoia. Innocence is mistaken for supreme cunning, and poetry is assumed to be a subversive code which threatens the existing order. Which, of course, it can be.
It's interesting to speculate how these events may have changed the course of English literature – and politics. Coleridge was already having doubts about his early social and political idealism. Once it became clear that he and Wordsworth were under surveillance and possibly in danger, it may have encouraged the shift to the more personal, introspective or spiritual mood of their subsequent work. The detective, Walsh, was nicknamed "Spy Nozy" by Coleridge in his reminiscences, alleging that Walsh, while eavesdropping, had misinterpreted a reference to Spinoza. That sounds, frankly, like one of the many reinventions of history (his own and others') that Coleridge practised throughout his life. But true or not, Spy Nozy may have been instrumental in creating the Romantic Movement.
My radio play, Spy Nozy and the Poets, was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in 2003, and featured Bill Nighy, Martin Clunes, John Woodvine and Graeme Garden. I used the documents and sources I've referred to, along with passages of Coleridge's poetry, to construct a fictional account of what happened after the evidence runs out. The play imagines that the disaffected detective, Walsh, joined Coleridge's circle, and became a fellow opium addict. It even reveals him, in the role of Coleridge's drug delivery man, to be the legendary "Person from Porlock". A considerable flight of fancy, certainly. But how better to honour Coleridge, whose genius transformed flights of fancy into some of the greatest literary art we have?
YOU CAN LISTEN TO A SHORT EXTRACT FROM THE RADIO BROADCAST BY CLICKING THE VIDEO LINK.
If you'd like to know about Coleridge and his life I recommend the wonderful two-part biography by Richard Holmes.
Join 405 other awesome people who subscribe to new posts on this blog.