Skip to main content Accessibility help
  • Print publication year: 2018
  • Online publication date: November 2019

3 - ‘With no unholy madness’: Gilbert and Coleridge

from Part One - William Gilbert in Romantic Culture


Bless us! I was most intimate with poor Gilbert, who was as mad as a March hare, & who has written letters to me referring to & prolixly repeating conversations of mine which not only never had, but never could have, taken place!

S. T. Coleridge, Marginalia

The Watchman

The most immediate signs of Coleridge's intimacy with ‘poor Gilbert’ are two pieces of Gilbert's writing that appeared in The Watchman, the periodical ‘miscellany’ that Coleridge published every eighth day (thus avoiding a tax on weekly newspapers) between March and May 1796. The Watchman was intended as part of the concerted opposition to the Two Bills that threatened to ban political protest as ‘Treasonable Practices’ or ‘Seditious Meetings’; but these ‘gagging’ Bills became law before The Watchman appeared in print. Hence Coleridge's first essay shied away from direct opposition and talked of ‘the diffusion of that general knowledge which should be the basis or substratum of politics’ (p. 14), an approach that shows remarkable consistency with his later writings.

Gilbert's essay ‘The Commercial Academic: No. I’ by ‘Mr. G—rt’ appeared in The Watchman, V: 2 April 1796. It was first attributed to Gilbert by Lewis Patton (Watchman, pp. 168–72). The strutting barrister rhetoric has enough in common with Gilbert's prose style to give credibility to Patton's attribution. Its topic, macroeconomics, may seem a surprising departure from the macrocosmal astrology Gilbert had been propounding in London, but it certainly proves Cottle's point about Gilbert delighting in argument. Coleridge's praise is qualified (Gilbert's ‘reasonings are perhaps not unimpregnably solid’) but he has a periodical to fill, is hungry for contributions, and a regular series has been promised: ‘The Editor returns his grateful acknowledgements to Mr. G—rt for the following Essay, and will anxiously expect the remaining Numbers’ (p. 168). No further numbers appeared.

Although this is nowhere stated, the contents of Gilbert's essay suggest strongly that he was prompted to write it in response to Coleridge's ‘On the Slave Trade’, which had appeared in the previous issue of The Watchman. Coleridge's essay (based on his ‘Lecture on the Slave-Trade’ given at the Assembly Coffee House on 16 June 1795) argued that human vices (and hence the slave trade) arise from ‘imaginary Wants. […]