LETTER TO GEORGE COLERIDGE
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
30 March 1794
I long ago theoretically and in a less degree experimentally knew the necessity of Faith in order to regulate Virtues—nor did I ever seriously disbelieve the existence of a future State—In short, my religious Creed bore and perhaps bears a correspondence with my mind and heart—I had too much Vanity to be altogether a Christian—too much tenderness of Nature to be utterly an Inﬁdel, fond of the dazzle of Wit, fond of subtlety of Argument, I could not read without some degree of pleasure the levities of Voltaire, or the reasonings of Helvetius— but tremblingly alive to the feelings of humanity, and susceptible of the charms of Truth my Heart forced me to admire the beauty of Holiness in the Gospel, forced me to love the Jesus, whom my Reason (or perhaps my reasonings) would not permit me to worship—My Faith therefore was made up of the Evangelists and the Deistic Philosophy—a kind of religious Twilight—I said—perhaps bears—Yes! my Brother—for who can say—Now I’ll be a Christian—Faith is neither altogether voluntary or involuntary—We cannot believe what we choose—but we certainly can cultivate such habits of thinking and acting, as will give force and effective Energy to the arguments on either side.
College students are encouraged to challenge the unexamined ideas of their youth. The desired outcome is mature, well-balanced thought but the process is typically angst-ridden for young adults. Coleridge’s brilliance quickened at Cambridge, but his heightened social consciousness and inquisitive mind caused him to doubt both Church and State. Perspective was gained in time (as the letter written later to his brother George at the beginning of this piece shows), but the stage was set for more profound problems.
As Malcolm Guite wrote:
In the midst of all these alternations of excitement, doubt, and some rabble-rousing rhetoric, Coleridge had also been trying again to obtain the scholarships that might have led to an academic career, in this case the Craven Scholarship. He became one of the four ﬁnalists in an intense and all-consuming competition, a rigorous series of examinations, but in the end, in this second year at Cambridge, he failed to win either the Craven or any of the other awards, such as the Browne medal. After the immense effort of the Craven, he seems to have had a physical and emotional collapse and was conﬁned to his room with abscesses, especially an abscessed tooth, which in the end had to be removed. Opium was administered to make the pain bearable and it was recommended he continue to use it during the convalescence. Opium, of course, was completely legal, widely available, and used for a variety of complaints. We will look at it later when we consider the beginning and subsequent aspects of Coleridge’s addiction. But for now, and in what follows, we get a sense of his earliest experiences using it for psychological or physical relief or release. He is just beginning to draw back the dreadful crossbow which will in the end shoot a fatal bolt into his own consciousness, the vast winged spirit of his creative imagination. But he doesn’t know that yet.