From Drinks With Dead Poets

Written in English by Glyn Maxwell


It doesn’t take Coleridge long. He’s thoroughly ensconced by the fire in the snug of the Cross Keys in a haze of ancient smoke and – given he’s only had only fifteen minutes – a remarkable count of bottles and pints and listeners. Of the six or seven grouped around him I see there’s Isabella and her classmates Kornelia (slim, awestruck) and Molly (boozy, bespectacled) come from Doug Spore’s Is Fiction Fiction seminar, there’s also Roy Ford, a Jamaican, one of the actors, who stood me a drink on my first night, he winks as I enter, and a couple of other fellows look round briefly and turn back to the story.

Coleridge, to the fascination of all, is trying to light a pipe: ‘Sunday morning – Hamburg packet – set sail from Yarmouth…’

As I pull up a little stool at the corner, Bella is pleading through the smoke, ‘Do you really enjoy that habit, Mr Coleridge?’

‘God forbid, four times a day – breakfast, half an hour before dinner, afternoon at tea, just before bed-time – but I’ll give it all up,’ and he gets it piping blue smoke as Bella and her pals merrily fake coughing spluttering and dying. Roy Ford’s pouring me some red, brings him back: ‘You set sail from Yarmouth…’

‘For the first time in my life,’ Samuel tells us, ‘beheld my native land retiring from me – all the kirks, chapels, meeting-houses – Now then, said I to a gentleman near me, we’re out of our country. Not yet! he replied, and pointed to the sea: This too is a Briton’s country…’

Ironic Britannic whoops as the smoke stole over the table, and the gang sat back and royally quaffed. I wondered when I’d get a chance to introduce myself, there was still pale light outside – are we far from the sea? I wondered, are we far from the land… I could see this ship had sailed and I needed to join the crew.

‘We were eighteen in number,’ said the poet, ‘five Englishmen, an English lady, a French gentleman and his servant, a Hanoverian and his servant, a Prussian, a Swede, two Danes, a mulatto boy…’ Here most of them glanced at Roy Ford to know how to play this, but his mild gesture and grin said let it go, it’s his story, ‘a German tailor and his wife – the smallest couple I ever beheld – and a Jew.’

I wanted to catch up: A packet is a boat, right?

And ‘Did you hurl?’ someone needed urgently to know.

He glanced my way: ‘Far superior to a stage-coach – as a means of making men open out to each other.’

‘Did you throw up?’ Molly pestered.

‘Faces assumed a doleful frog-colour – I was giddy but not sick. I found I’d – interested the Danes. I’d crept into the boat on the deck and fallen asleep, but was awaked by one of them about – three o’clock in the afternoon – told me they’d been seeking me in every hole and corner, insisted I should drink with them.’

Ha! Danes, I say, still catching up, as Coleridge chuckled ‘Christened me Doctor Teology – dressed as I was!’

All in black, this day on land as that day at sea, and his hair is brown and dirty, his eyes so blazing-bright from the firelight and his wet lips never stop themselves, ‘we drank and talked and sung – then we danced on the deck!’ He lifts his pint to drink, but engrossed as he is in reliving details, soon sets it down again spilling: ‘One came and seated himself by my side – his language, his accent were – so singular!’

Now he smiles, raises a hand as if to indicate he’ll play the role, and plunges into crap comedy Danish – ‘My dear friend, is I not very eloquent? Is I not speak English very fine?’ Then he clears his voice to be himself: ‘Most admirably!’ – and again the Dane – ‘Vat an affection ve haf for each odher!’

Coleridge is so very loud that most of the folks in the pub have by now congregated nearby. I see Heath, Niall, Iona at the far end of the group, probably wary of the bastard I’m being today, several drama students, the desk-boy from the Saddlers, Nathan, who now wears dark-glasses indoors, also format is present in a starling-glittery three-piece suit, he draws ringed planets as he listens.

‘Seven o’clock,’ says Coleridge, ‘the sea rolled higher – and the Dane – eliminated enough of what he’d been swallowing to make room for more!’

‘Yeeuuugggh,’ say all of us.

Then he reaches towards Roy and puts a hand on his shoulder, press-gangs him for the yarn: ‘His servant-boy, Jack, had a good-natured round face…’

Roy frames his grinning face with his hands for they’re a double-act now and the company cheer them on. Coleridge drinks, ‘the Dane now – talked like a madman – entreated me to accompany him to Denmark, he’d introduce me to the King etcetera, he declaimed the Rights of Man: Ve are all Got’s children! The poorest man haf the same rights with me. Jack! More brandy!’

Still game, Roy lifts the poet’s drink towards him, and Sam-as-the-Dane gulps and claps him on the back: ‘Dhere is dhat fellow now! He’s my equal! Ve are all Got’s children…’

God’s kids all drank to that, and in the lull Coleridge, as himself, as if he hadn’t touched a drop, said: ‘I can hear him now…’

‘Wow,’ says Kornelia after consideration, while Isabella wonders from her heavenly lamp-lit corner: ‘Where d’you come from, Mr Samuel Taylor Coleridge?’

Roy laughs: ‘Poor guy just got here and you want the life-story?’

Of this, Sam catches only ‘life-story’ so of course he’s off. I suppose by now it’s crossed my mind that we could keep him here, hold him, keep him safe from tonight’s ‘performance’ of his work…

‘Family on my mother’s side inherited a pig-sty in Exmoor – and nothing better since that time. Father’s side… my grandfather was a woollen-draper in South Molton in Devon. He was reduced to poverty. My father walked off to seek his fortune, proceeded a few miles, sat down on the side of the road, overwhelmed, wept audibly.’

He pauses to drink a long draught, as if drinking in his history once more among the sorrowful young faces.

‘A gentleman passed by, gentleman who knew him. Enquiring into his distress – took my father with him, settled him in a neighbouring town as a schoolmaster. He got money and knowledge, married his first wife, walked to Cambridge, entered Sidney College, distinguished himself for Hebrew and Mathematics.’

He drinks again, returned safely to his station in life, and is ready when I ask him what books he liked as a boy.

‘I read incessantly. My father’s sister kept an everything shop at Crediton – I read through all the gilt-cover little books that could be had – Tom Hickathrift, Jack the Giant-killer, I used to lie by the wall and mope. Robinson Crusoe, Arabian Nights… One tale made so deep an impression I was haunted by spectres…’

‘Do you believe in ghosts?’ says Bella after a silence.

‘No, madam. Seen far too many myself.’

He looks grave, then snorts, then we all do at the unmistakable chime of wit, and at Bella being a madam, then he stops abruptly, looks around at us all as if groggy with waking: ‘I’m not fit for public life.’

He sighs and stoops to sip his drink. A couple of conversations start up on the fringes. Roy Ford leans over to me: ‘Heard you’re teaching Drama in the spring, professor, is that so?’

What? Who told you that?

‘But were ya happy?’ Molly resumes interrogating.

‘God forbid,’ Sam answers. ‘My father was very fond of me, and I was my mother’s darling: in consequence I was very miserable,’ – Molly laughs so hard she spurts cider – ‘No, my father used to hold long conversations with me. Eight years old I walked with him one winter evening, from a farmer’s house a mile from Ottery… He told me the names of the stars, how Jupiter was a thousand times larger than our world… That the twinkling stars were suns that had worlds rolling round them… And when I came home he showed me how they rolled round… Profound delight. But – from reading fairytales, my mind had been – habituated to the Vast. Children should read romances, giants and magicians. I know no other way of giving the mind – a love of the Great, the Whole…’

No one breaks the spell for a while, there are sighs and coughs and whispers. I notice Bella is fair trembling with questions, and now she leans in to ask, the only cure: ‘Mr Coleridge, why do you write?’

‘Because my life is short.’

‘Not true!’ but she has more: ‘Will you ever, I’m sorry, I’ll die if I don’t ask – will you ever finish Kubla Khan?’

This gives him an old smile from the ages, and he reaches for his dormant

pipe, knocks it, sits back against the plum leather and answers her: ‘Tomorrow’s yet to come.’

I look and it’s night outside, it fell so fast, all the lamps on the Green are lit in the mist. I know what’s coming, here it comes. Academy folks arrive in their coats, range around the edges smiling, they’ll be bringing him to the village hall.

In the lull of more drinks arriving at the table I move in, face to face:

It’s an honour to meet you, Mr Coleridge (and he ponders in a strange voice as his hand and mine are shaking) ‘Coleridge, Coleridge… Not so much harm in him. He’s a whirl-brain, talks whatever comes uppermost.’

Are you happy here? (And all I meant was here right now, but he takes the long view out through the dark window) ‘Another winter in England will do for me.

Ha! I hear ya! I’m a poet myself, as it happens.

‘Poets,’ he goes vaguely (christ I hope no one’s listening) ‘gods of love. Gods of love who tame the chaos,’ and he drinks to saying no more.

Mr Coleridge. It’s. Do you. Do you really not mind if an actor reads your Ancient Mariner this evening? (The Academy guys stop dead with concern, their anoraks uncrinkle and crinkle. It’s on the flyer, it is printed what will be.)

‘It’ll be happiness and honour enough,’ he says, not remotely bothered, ‘I’ve now seen all the rainbows.’

Published April 14, 2020
Excerpted from Glyn Maxwell, Drinks With Dead Poets, Oberon Books 2017
© 2017 Glyn Maxwell


Author’s note: Every word said here by Coleridge is taken from his prose writings. The Narrator – Glyn Maxwell in a prolonged dream of an autumn term – is appalled that a famous actor has been hired to read ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ instead of Coleridge himself, but the great poet seems too drunk to care…. Maxwell finds him in the pub.

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