18 June (1804): Samuel Taylor Coleridge to Sara Coleridge

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In 1804 Samuel Taylor Coleridge traveled to Malta, hoping the more temperate climate would aid his poor health and end his addiction to opium. During his time there, Alexander Ball, the Governor of Malta, encouraged the poet to write propaganda about British trade routes, and eventually Coleridge was promoted to the position of Public Secretary. Below, he writes to his wife Sara, noting his first impressions of the place in which he would spend his next two years. Upon his return in 1806, Coleridge separated from his wife.

[Malta,] June, 1804

[My Dear Sara,] —[I wrote] to Southey from Gibraltar, directing you to open the letter in case Southey should be in town. You received it, I trust, and learnt from it that I had been pretty well, and that we had had a famous quick passage. At Gibraltar we stayed five days, and so lost our fair wind, and [during our] after-voyage to Malta [there] was [a] storm, that carried away our main yard, etc., long dead calms, every rope of the whole ship reflected in the bright, soft blue sea, and light winds, often varying every quarter of an hour, and more often against us than for us. We were the best sailing vessel in the whole convoy; but every day we had to lie by and wait for the laggards. This is very disheartening; likewise the frequent danger in light winds or calms, or in foggy weather of running foul of each other is another heavy inconvenience of convoy, and, in case of a deep calm in a narrow sea, as in the gut of Gibraltar and in the Archipelago, etc., where calms are most common, a privateering or piratical row-boat might board you and make slaves of you under the very nose of the man-of-war, which would lie a lifeless hulk on the smooth water. For those rowboats, mounting from one to four or five guns, would instantly sink a man-of-war’s boat, and one of them, last war, had very nearly made a British frigate strike. I mention these facts because it is a common notion that going under convoy you are “as sun as a bug in a run.” If I had gone without convoy on board the Speedwell, we should have reached Malta in twenty days from the day I left Portsmouth, but, however, we were congratulated on having had a very good passage for the time of the year, having been only forty days including our stay at Gibraltar; and if there be inconvenience in a convoy, I have reason to know and to be grateful for its advantages. The whole of the voyage from Gibraltar to Malta, excepting the four or five last days, I was wretchedly unwell…The harbour at Valetta is narrow as the neck of a bottle in the entrance; but instantly opens out into a lake with tongues of land, capes, one little island, etc., etc., where the whole navy of England might lie as in a dock in the worst of weather. All around its banks, in the form of an amphitheatre, rise the magnificent houses of Valetta, and its two over-the-water towns, Burmula and Flavia (which are to Valetta what the Borough is the London). The houses are all lofty and built of fine white freestone, something like Bath, only still whiter and newer looking, yet the windows, from the prodigious thickness of the walls, being all out of sight, the whole appeared to me as Carthage to Aeneas, a proud city, well nigh but not quite finished. I walked up a long street of good breadth, all a flight of stairs (no place for beast or carriage, each broad stair composed of a cement-sand of terra pozzolana, hard and smooth as the hardest pavement of smooth rock by the seaside  and very like it). I soon found out Dr. Stodart’s house, which seemed a large pile of building. He was not at home, but I stayed for him, and in about two hours he came, and received me with an explosion of surprise and welcome—more fun than affection in the manner, but just as I wished it… Yesterday and today I have been pretty well. In a hot climate, now that the glass is high as 80 in the shade, the healthiest persons are liable to fever on the least disagreement of food with the first passages, and my general health is, I would fain believe, better on the whole….I will try the most scrupulous regimen of diet and exercise; and I rejoince to find that the heat, great as it is, does not at all annoy me. In about a fortnight I shall probably take a trip into Sicily, and spend the next two or three months in some cooler and less dreary place, and return in September. For eight months in the year the climate of Malta is delightful but a drearier place eye never saw. No stream in the whole island, only one place of springs, which are conveyed by aqueducts and supply the island with about one third of its water; the other two thirds they depend for upon the rain. And the reservoirs under the houses, walls, etc., to preserve the rain are stupendous! The tops of all the houses are flat, and covered with that smooth, hard composition, and on these and everywhere where rain can fall are channels and pipes to conduct it to the reservoirs. Malta is about twenty miles by twelve—a mere rock of freestone. In digging out this they find large quantities of vegetable soil. They separate it, and with the stones they build their houses and garden and field walls, all of an enormous thickness. The fields are seldom so much as half an acre, one above another in that form, so that everything grows as in huge garden pots. The whole island looks like one monstrous fortification. Nothing green meets your eye—one dreary, grey-white,—and all the country towns from the retirement and invisibility of the windows look like towns burnt out and desolate. Yet the fertility is marvellous. You almost see things grow and the population is, I suppose, unexampled. The town of Valetta itself contains about one hundred and ten streets, all at right angles to each other, each having from twelve to fifty houses; but many of them very steep—a few staired all across, and almost all, in some part or other, if not the whole, having the footway on each side so staired. The houses lofty, all looking new. The good houses are built with a court in the centre, and the rooms large and lofty, from sixteen to twenty feet high, and walls enormously thick, all necessary for coolness. The fortifications of Valetta are endless. When I first walked about them, I was struck all of a heap with their strangeness, and when I came to understand a little of their purpose, I was overwhelmed with wonder. Such vast masses—bulky mountain-breasted heights; gardens with pomegranate trees—the prickly pears in the fosses, and the caper (the most beautiful of flowers) growing profusely in the interstices of the high walls and on the battlements. The Maltese are a dark, light-limbed people. Of the women five tenths are ugly; of the remainder, four fifths would be ordinary but that they look so quaint, and one tenth, perhaps, may be called quaint-pretty. The prettiest resemble pretty Jewesses in England. They are the noisiest race under heaven, and Valetta the noisiest place. The sudden shot-up, explosive bellows-cries you ever heard in London would give you the faintest idea of it. Even when you pass by a fruit stall the fellow will put his hand like a speaking trumpet to his mouth and shoot such a thunderbolt of sound full at you. Then the endless jangling of those cursed bells, etc. Sir Alexander Ball and General Valette (the civil and military commanders) have been marvellously attentive —Sir A. B. even friendly and confidential to me.

Poor Mrs. Stoddart was brought to bed of a little girl on the 24th of May, and it died on Tuesday, June 5th. On the night of its birth, poor little lamb! I had such a lively vision of my little Sara, that it brought on a sort of hysterical fit on me. O merciful God! how I tremble at the thought of letters from England. I should be most miserable without them, and yet I shall receive them as a sentence of death! So terribly has fear got the upper hand in my habitual feelings, from my long destitution of hope and joy.

Hartley, Derwent, my sweet children! a father’s blessing on you! With tears and clasped hands I bless you. Oh, I must write no more of this. I have been haunted by the thought that I have lost a box of books containing Shakespeare (Stockdale’s), the four or five first volumes of the “British Poets,” Young’s “Syllabus” (a red paper book), Condillac’s “Logic,” “Thornton on Public Credit,” etc. Be sure you inform me whether or not I did take these books from Keswick. I will write to Southey by the next opportunity. You recollect that I went away without knowing the result of Edith’s confinement; not a day in which I do not think of it…

I hope that in the course of three weeks or a month I may be able to give a more promising account of my health. As it is, I have reason to be satisfied. The effect of years cannot be done away in a few weeks. I am tranquil and resigned, and, even if I should not bring back health, I shall at least bring back experience, and suffer with patience and in silence. Again and again God bless you, my dear Sara! Let me know everything of your health, etc., etc. Oh, the letters are on the sea for me, and what tidings may they not bring to me!

S. T. Coleridge

From Letters of Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Vol. 2). London: Forgotten Books, 1895. pp. 49-50.

FURTHER READING

Read Coleridge’s eulogy, “The Friend,” in honor of the Governor of Malta, Alexander Ball. 

On Coleridge’s time in Malta. 

Notes and photos on the places Coleridge stayed while in Malta.