Lately, I’ve been relating to the great Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
Unfortunately, my connection hasn’t been to Coleridge as a very young man wandering the English countryside and writing poetry, but rather to a later period of his life—almost exactly two hundred years ago—when he tried to do it all: write, edit, publish, market and sell a weekly newspaper.
Let me explain.
With his friend William Wordsworth, Coleridge was one of the founders of the Romantic Movement in England and one of the Lake Poets. We remember him best for his poems Kubla Khan and the Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
And like fellow bards Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, he went for long walks over hill and dale, sometimes composing his thoughts from the trail:
Friends, whom I never more may meet again,
On springy heath, along the hill-top edge,
Wander in gladness…
Let’s return to ’09. That’s 1809. In that year Coleridge started a weekly newspaper called, “The Friend.” A one-man band he was, writing and producing a publication for his 500 subscribers all by himself. In “The Friend,” Coleridge shared his eclectic interests and expertise on the law, morality, politics, philosophy and literature.
Coleridge burned out after 25 issues.
I bet he didn’t give up “The Friend” because he ran out of things to say. No, it was likely from the frustration of dealing with those IT guys of his time—the typesetters and pressmen—along with periodical distributors. I can just imagine him—can’t imagine him, really—trying to cope with the details of billing, bookkeeping, list management, marketing and subscription sales. When it came time to send out “The Friend,” using the Royal Mail was undoubtedly a royal pain in the arse.
Perhaps I’m guilty of projecting my own frustrations with contemporary publishing back to Coleridge’s time. Maybe in the end, Coleridge thought all of the labors required to share his writings was worth it. “The Friend” was later republished in book form and Coleridge’s writings are believed to have strongly influenced later writers and philosophers including Ralph Waldo Emerson.
Still, it’s hard to picture him being happy as publisher—or anything else—after his days of wandering the Lake District came to an end. The author of “Dejection: An Ode” suffered from long and deep bouts of depression. He separated from his wife shortly before his business start-up, quarreled with his friend Wordsworth, and was a heavy laudanum user—in other words, addicted to opium.
Deep down, we don’t really expect writers to run profitable enterprises, but in actuality, we expect everyone to make a living. No profession save that of saint shall be exempt from earning wages and paying taxes.
Coleridge tended to be highly disorganized, lacking an entrepreneurial orientation or any head for business. This profile fits most of my writer colleagues, as well as many other creative folks I know from artists to inventors to—forgive the stereotype—absent-minded professors.
For a writer whose best inspiration comes from nature, and from long walks in it, I confess that it’s been quite a challenge to me lately to stay indoors and write and edit, publish and market, immersed—and often, frankly, overwhelmed—in production and business details online and off.
There are huge differences between producing “The Friend” in 1809 and producing “The Trailmaster” in 2020—way more differences than similarities. And unlike Coleridge, I am blessedly free of deep depression and opiates. Still, I can’t help relating to the writer’s professional plight.
I’m willing to speculate that if a contemporary of Coleridge asked him if he would rather be walking and writing or marketing and selling, the poet would undoubtedly state his preference for composing prose and poetry. And I can assure you that I greatly prefer searching out a new trail and writing about it instead of sitting in a meeting about social media optimization.
There’s not a happy end to Coleridge’s life. He did not walk back into nature to be healed or regain his creative genius.
Clearly, whether one is facing personal and professional crises then and now, certain advice holds true: don’t alienate friends and family; refrain from substance abuse; work with others who have complementary skills and don’t try to do everything yourself.
And one more bit of advice from the age of the Lake District poets still relevant after two hundred years: Take a walk in nature, renew your spirit, and gain a fresh perspective on what really matters in this life.