Coleridge on the Paradox of Friendship and Romantic Love
On sympathy, reciprocity, and satisfying the fulness of our nature.
By Maria Popova
All relationships are asymmetrical. But there are some asymmetries that fray the fabric of the relationship and maim both people involved — none more so than those of a deep friendship where one person feels the tug of romantic love and the other does not, cannot. The challenge, then, is how to preserve the sanctity of friendship from being crushed beneath the weight of unequal expectations.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) addressed this haunting paradox of friendship and romance in his marginalia while anguishing over a decade-deep chaste infatuation with his friend William Wordsworth’s sister-in-law, Sarah Hutchinson, all the while editing his literary journal, The Friend, which he dedicated to Sara.
In the margins of the 1669 classic Religio Medici by Sir Thomas Browne — himself a man of intense and anguished propensity for romantic friendship — the 38-year-old Coleridge writes:
Friendship satisfies the highest parts of our nature; but a [beloved], who is capable of friendship, satisfies all.
He contemplates why friendship alone will always feel less satisfying than a love that includes friendship but reigns supreme over all other relations:
We may love many persons, all very dearly; but we cannot love many persons, all equally dearly. There will be differences, there will be gradations — our nature imperiously asks a summit, a resting-place — it is with the affections in Love, as with the Reason in Religion — we cannot diffuse & equalize — we must have a SUPREME — a One the highest. All languages express this sentiment.
But such supremacy, Coleridge observes, is only real when buoyed by mutuality — by the sheer laws of logic, by the sheer laws of physics and their force-counterforce equivalence, there can be no such “summit” on one side only, or else it is merely an echo of selfishness or delusion. Pulsating beneath this fact is the necessity of accepting that, in some fundamental sense, all unrequited love is not real love but fantasia — and only by letting go of that fantastical longing can symmetry be restored to the lopsided relationship.
In order that a person should continue to love another, better than all others, it seems necessary that this feeling should be reciprocal. For if it be not so, Sympathy is broken off in the very highest point. A. (we will say, by way of illustration) loves B. above all others, in the best & fullest sense of the word, love; but B. loves C. above all others. Either therefore A. does not sympathize with B. in this most important feeling; & then his Love must necessarily be incomplete, & accompanied with a craving after something that is not, & yet might be; or he does sympathize with B. in loving C. above all others — & then, of course, he loves C. better than B. Now it is selfishness, at least it seems so to me, to desire that your Friend should love you better than all others — but not to wish that a Wife should.
Coleridge considers the way a balanced love — be it friendship or romance — helps us integrate ourselves, uniting the mind and the heart into a single force-field of being:
The great business of real unostentatious Virtue is — not to eradicate any genuine instinct or appetite of human nature; but — to establish a concord and unity betwixt all parts of our nature, to give a Feeling & a Passion to our purer Intellect, and to intellectualize our feelings & passions.
Complement with Van Gogh on heartbreak and unrequited love as fuel for creativity and the philosopher-poet David Whyte on the deeper meanings of friendship, love, and heartbreak, then revisit Coleridge on the interplay of terror and transcendence in nature and human nature.
Published March 28, 2023