Dear Coleridge

During a bout of flu, the poet is imprisoned in her sick-bed but finds herself in the company of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who as usual has quite a lot to say.

Dear Coleridge

Dear Coleridge (a conversation poem)


Dear Coleridge, you’re in my thoughts again.
It’s always like this when I’m ill, in pain.
I lie here in a cold and clammy sweat
not able yet to sleep – my duvet wet.
It’s been five days since I last left my bed.
Sharp sudden stabs of pain attack my head
and as time passes I begin to fear
no change will come. I'll be for ever here.
All that I have done or left undone
comes back to haunt me when the daylight's gone.
The little writhing snakes of sharp remorse
poison my brain with bitter stinging force.
What are these dreams that taunt me when awake?
Dear friend, I have them all for your sweet sake.
Our selves are porous; every pain I feel
is your pain – vividly intense and real.
The deep and terrifying gorge of sin
was one you put a timid tiptoe in
and yet you wrote as if you’d plumbed the deeps:
addiction dragged you down its frightful steeps.
The horrors that you suffered all alone
were for the wrongs you must absolve, atone.
And yet how could you know, how could you tell
that laudanum would be your private hell?
I’d guide you back, dear sinner, if I could
to days of innocence when all was good
before you tasted the sweet honey-dew
which drenched your pining spirit through and through.
Look, I’m reduced to tears. That’s hardly strange.
All would be well if you’d known how to change.
I must sign off now, I feel wracked within.
I'll throw the window open, let some fresh air in.


Dear Coleridge, you’re trapped inside my dreams
and pleading to get out with helpless screams.
The pale day lengthens; nothing changes here.
My little flask of self fills up with fear.
There is a place inside my sweat-soaked bed
where I am you; I tell you what I’ve read
or what I’ve tried to eat; which meds are best.
Strong codeine puts my willpower to the test:
it is an opiate and it constipates,
feeding upon the very need it hates.
Spinning around, I’m pinned upon your wheel –
a rat who has forgotten how to feel,
insensible until the draught wears off
when back the pain will come with each sharp cough.
How were you able when you knew such pain
to take a walk out in the driving rain,
to fill your notebooks with such searching thoughts
because you must, not just because you ought?
Pain was a puzzle, something you felt sure
you’d understand if you could find out more.
And so, with your strong driven intellect
you kept some discipline and self-respect –
though few around you thought this was the case,
progressing at their calm and steady pace.
You tell me to get up and take a shower.
I’ll do this, gentle friend, right on the hour…


Dear Sam, I was so close to you last night –
I reached to touch your hand, I gripped it tight.
After the long howling agony of day
in which we failed to clear our bowels away
there came tight little whimpers of despair
wrung from our bodies in the midnight air.
You talked to me for hours of Time and Space –
of how we came to lie in the same place
though separated by two hundred years,
drawn each to each by fragile hopes and fears.
Time is elastic in the mind, you said,
it bonds the living with the suffering dead.
Tremblings of sympathy transport the soul
from place to place; we are made strong, made whole
by journeying to find the ones we love,
the ones that fit us closely, hand in glove.
You turned a lot in bed while you were talking,
gesticulating instead of walking.
Across the rumpled duvet I could see
your great archangel face. You smiled at me.
And now the morning’s here, you lie asleep
spread out in a huge heaving fleshy heap.
I get up, take a shower; still you’re there.
Dear genius, may you be free of care
and manage eight good hours of sleep at last,
whether you’re in the present or the past.


My illness, so it seems, is getting worse;
this bedbound life imprisons me, a curse.
Each hacking racking cough heaves from the deep
and like an upturned rattling crab I creep
slowly, inch by inch, upon my back
wincing at the thought of the next hack –
edging down the walls to find the floor
where Coleridge lets out a long loud snore.
His pain is taking turns with my pain now
as if there were a pattern (who knows how)
in this strange symbiosis we have found.
I love the warmth of his soft breath, the sound
of rapid little cries within his dreams
which like the rush of winding Lakeland streams
remind me of the hidden life he leads
and how the balm of sleep brings what he needs.
He wakes, sits upright, and like one possessed
tells me he has no further need of rest.
Illness, he says, is like a waterfall
that changes altogether if it does at all.
You cannot see it alter yet you know
that every atom in its wondrous flow
is Part and Proportion of the great Becoming.
This thought can soothe you, like the steady humming
of bees within a hive from which you’ll soon collect
sweet honey for your craving intellect.
Oh friend, your glittering eye is bright with hope –
but though you raise my spirits, I still mope.
I will get better soon but you will not.
You’re trapped for good in this detested spot.
How many days of health did you achieve
before, without goodbyes, you took your leave?
I cannot bear to think this through. Sleep comes,
cool as a soothing draught that calms and numbs.


I move about among dim shadowy things
getting a grip on what the new day brings.
My bedroom, scene of sickness and stale air,
is at the top of our steep corner stair.
I wander in and out, to see where objects stand,
building a map to tell the lie of land.
Coleridge now occupies the bedside chair
to study me. I’m cold and stranded. Where
has our shared warmth gone? I move so slow
hiding myself away from falling snow
not ready yet to leave my bed behind.
Coughing and coughing in the freezing wind
I cannot feel my fingers or my toes –
they’re icy numb; I shiver for some clothes.
Dear Coleridge you wonder what’s afoot;
I am so restless and cannot stay put.
You’re mumbling now about the troughs and peaks
of our shared duvet. Shrill, your high voice squeaks
as you map out our long-familiar walks
uphill, down dale, accompanied by talks.
It’s hard to tell if we’re outside or in.
Above your rolling voice I hear the din
of waterfalls – you tell me that’s Lodore
so let’s walk out, else rain begins to pour…
Each inch of tussocked ground can be re-crossed
with little danger of our getting lost
without so much as moving from the bed.
A shaping spirit stirs within our head
and we are free to come and go all day,
the masters of our esemplastic play.


Dear Coleridge, please do not leave me yet
although you’ve better things to do, I’ll bet.
Another morning’s passed in the same room,
which feels at times like a big padded tomb.
Each day, each minute, as my cough gets worse
I measure my own body for its hearse.
If you could stay with me, then death would seem
a jolly sort of spree. With you to beam
your gentle wise beneficence on me
I’d find a way through the dark twisted wood,
guided by glow-worms, toward something good.
So please don’t go yet, wait a while and see
what changes happen as the meds kick in.
Teach me, dear friend, to take it on the chin
if nothing happens and I’m stranded here
another day, week, month, or even year.

Martin just put his head around the door
to ask me how I’m doing. What he saw
was me beside the window looking out
at Skiddaw’s summit; didn’t hear you shout
with joy to see it glowing, bathed in light;
nor did he stay to watch you sit and write
at my small table, using my best pen.
Two settings have now merged within one den;
you wave your hand about and talk a lot,
unsure if we’re in Borrowdale or not.
You say there’s no such thing as changelessness;
momently changing we cannot express
the lovely fickle newness of each day,
growing more various as we both decay.
Your writing won’t keep up with your own speech.
I hang on every word, remember each,
preparing for the day when I’ll awake
and find you here no longer at daybreak.

Wednesday night

Dear Coleridge, your voice grew faint at last
and I slipped into a slumber deep and fast
while on you wrote into the lonely night
watching my sleeping form, a hapless sight.
At one point you went out and took a shower.
I woke to smell you sweet as any flower –
your hair slicked back, your soft cheeks smooth and pink.
You settled in to write with pen and ink,
your left hand waving while your right hand scrawled –
and just outside our room the night-birds called.
I asked you how things are with Wordsworth now;
if you have made your peace? Your voice was low.
You answered that two centuries have gone
but neither of your minds has yet moved on.
Slights linger, grudges deepen with the years.
Time is no healer; memories bring tears.
Not even Death with his blank grinning mask
can cancel out the questions you must ask
of Time, of Friendship, Loyalty, and Love –
and all this to be weighed by Heaven above.
‘When two souls form a kinship that is true,
there is no need for prayers to see them through;
they make one shapeliness, a solid form
that's strong enough to weather every storm.
But find a hairline crack inside the bowl
and one, two, three years later – goodbye soul.’
You sighed and slowly climbed into the bed,
your right hand pressed in pain to your huge head,
your big heart pounding from the effort spent
on thinking over what all these things meant.
We lie in silence now and watch the moon,
waiting for birdsong. Let the day come soon.


Dear Coleridge, we haven’t slept at all;
that talk of Wordsworth made us trip and stall.
We were left staring at ourselves, dismayed –
as if somehow our friendship had been frayed.
And then your slow sad rolling voice took over
as you lay talking to me like a brother.
You touched on Famine and on two World Wars,
on how the Globe looks from among the Stars,
on where the pockets of real evil lurk,
and how all humans must be paid for work;
on how Association never dies,
on where the Soul is lodged in Butterflies,
on what a Raindrop is the Symbol of
and how it’s drawn back to the Heav’ns above
not by its own volition but by passive waiting,
rewarded by sun’s quiet radiating.
I thought I’d tell you of the internet.
There was no need. It’s something that you get
the whole world over; you've not hung behind
in seeking all the info you can find…
And so for five long hours we talked.
Then up you stood, and waved goodbye, and walked.
You would be gone, you said, about an hour;
till then I must try snoozing in my bower.

Dear Coleridge, I slept a while then woke
to find that you weren’t back yet; so I broke
my promise to the doctors, ventured out
with scarf pulled round my neck, and like a scout
went searching for you up in Headington.
I felt that you’d be looking for some fun
so tried the cafés and the wine bars first –
and there you were, slaking a fair old thirst
in the Britannia, circled by a crowd
who listened as you spouted verse out loud,
rolling your eyes and speaking with your hands.
You waved at me and smiled; I joined your fans.
You ordered me a Bailey’s, which I drank –
then back into a warm soft hazy fug I sank,
hearing your voice which like an anthem rose
above the chatter. Now I wait, and doze.
An hour has passed, the pub is emptying;
we walk home arm in arm; you softly sing.
We crawl into our bed and sleep for hours –
this is the time for storing up our powers.

The night is cold; tomorrow snow is due
and I must say goodbye, my friend, to you.
The time of our communion is spent.
I wonder where our normal habits went
during these eight long days of fighting pain,
waiting for change and listening to rain?
Under the warmth of this huge shared duvet
you’ve had a great deal, Coleridge, to say.
But Death is turning a cold shoulder now
And silence starts to creep in, dark and low.
Thanks for your good company; I trust
We’ll meet again one day – I feel we must.
There is a fellowship in being ill
which beats the climbing of the tallest hill,
swimming the deepest widest blue lagoon
or travelling together to the moon.
Now wrap up warm, close your galoshes tight
and out into the solitude of night.
May healthful days be yours, and may you grow
in quiet peace with the bright world of snow.