The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Coleridge on the Paradox of Friendship and Romantic Love

On sympathy, reciprocity, and satisfying the fulness of our nature.

Coleridge on the Paradox of Friendship and Romantic Love

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.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

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.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Coleridge writes:

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.


May Sarton on Grieving a Pet

“It is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal.”

May Sarton on Grieving a Pet

There is an ineffable comfort that our non-human companions bless upon our lives — those beings whose daily task it is to “bite every sorrow until it fled” — and with their loss comes an ineffable species of grief.

Two centuries after the young Lord Byron tried to put it into words in his soulful elegy for his beloved dog, the poet and novelist May Sarton (May 3, 1912–July 16, 1995) captured it in stirring prose in the wake of her beloved cat’s death, reflecting on the emotional rollercoaster of loss — the syncopation of grief and relief that is any death.

May Sarton

In a diary entry from the autumn of 1974, found in her uncommonly rewarding journal collection The House by the Sea, Sarton writes:

In some ways the death of an animal is worse than the death of a person. I wonder why. Partly it is absolutely inward and private, the relation between oneself and an animal, and also there is total dependency. I kept thinking as I drove home, this is all inside me, this grief, and I can’t explain it, nor do I want to, to anyone. Now, six days later, I begin to feel the immense relief of no longer being woken at five by angry miaows, “Hurry up, where’s my breakfast?” from the top of the stairs, no longer having to throw away box after box of half-eaten food because she was so finicky, no longer trundling up three flights with clean kitty litter — but, above all, no longer carrying her, a leaden weight, in my heart. She was the ghost at the feast, here where everything else is so happy. But, oh, my pussy, I wish for your rare purrs and for your sweet soft head butting gently against my arm to be caressed!

Complement with John Updike’s stirring elegy for his dog and Leonard Michaels’s playful, poignant meditation on how our cats reveal us to ourselves, then revisit May Sarton how to cultivate your talent, the relationship between presence, solitude, and love, the cure for despair, and her timeless ode to the art of being alone.


Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“We are lichens on a grand scale.”

Lichens and the Meaning of Life

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” the great naturalist John Muir wrote in the middle of the nineteenth century. “We forget that nature itself is one vast miracle transcending the reality of night and nothingness,” the great naturalist Loren Eiseley wrote a century later as he considered the meaning of life. “We forget that each one of us in his personal life repeats that miracle.”

Because of this delicate interconnectedness of life across time, space, and being, any littlest fragment of the universe can become a lens on the miraculous whole. Sometimes, it is the humblest life-forms that best intimate the majesty of life itself.

Take, for instance, lichens.

The Cowarne Red Apple with lichen, 1811. (Available as a print, as a backpack, and as stationery cards, benefitting The Nature Conservancy.)

Lichens — which are not to be confused with mosses — are some of Earth’s oldest life-forms: emissaries of the ocean gone terrestrial. For epochs, their exact nature was a mystery — until an improbable revolutionary illuminated that they are, in fact, part algae.

In the final stretch of the nineteenth century, Peter Rabbit creator Beatrix Potter punctuated her writing and her painting with a series of experiments with spores, demonstrating that lichens — which Linnaeus considered the “poor peasants of the plant world” — are in fact not plants but a hybrid of fungi and algae: living reminders that the supreme vital force of life is not competition but interdependence, that we survive and thrive not through combat but through collaboration.

Lichens come alive as an enchanting miniature of the miraculous interconnectedness of nature in biologist David George Haskell’s altogether fascinating book The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature (public library).

Having previously written beautifully about the interleaving of life, Haskell details the ecological and evolutionary splendor of lichens as living symbiotes:

The quietude and outer simplicity of the lichens hides the complexity of their inner lives. Lichens are amalgams of two creatures: a fungus and either an alga or a bacterium. The fungus spreads the strands of its body over the ground and provides a welcoming bed. The alga or bacterium nestles inside these strands and uses the sun’s energy to assemble sugar and other nutritious molecules. As in any marriage, both partners are changed by their union. The fungus body spreads out, turning itself into a structure similar to a tree leaf: a protective upper crust, a layer for the light-capturing algae, and tiny pores for breathing. The algal partner loses its cell wall, surrenders protection to the fungus, and gives up sexual activities in favor of faster but less genetically exciting self-cloning. Lichenous fungi can be grown in the lab without their partners, but these widows are malformed and sickly. Similarly, algae and bacteria from lichens can generally survive without their fungal partners, but only in a restricted range of habitats. By stripping off the bonds of individuality the lichens have produced a world-conquering union. They cover nearly ten percent of the land’s surface, especially in the treeless far north, where winter reigns for most of the year.

Having so mastered the art of unselfing, lichens emerge as living testaments to the visionary evolutionary biologist Lynn Margulis’s insistence that “we abide in a symbiotic world.” In their biology lies a poignant metaphor for how we think of the relationships that surround us, lacing our human lives:

Like a farmer tending her apple trees and her field of corn, a lichen is a melding of lives. Once individuality dissolves, the scorecard of victors and victims makes little sense. Is corn oppressed? Does the farmer’s dependence on corn make her a victim? These questions are premised on a separation that does not exist. The heartbeat of humans and the flowering of domesticated plants are one life. “Alone” is not an option… Lichens add physical intimacy to this interdependence, fusing their bodies and intertwining the membranes of their cells, like cornstalks fused with the farmer, bound by evolution’s hand.

But the most beguiling manifestation of lichens’ gift for the art of relationship is found in how they acquire their haunting otherworldly color:

Blue or purple lichens contain blue-green bacteria, the cyanobacteria. Green lichens contain algae. Fungi mix in their own colors by secreting yellow or silver sunscreen pigments. Bacteria, algae, fungi: three venerable trunks of the tree of life twining their pigmented stems.

The algae’s verdure reflects an older union. Jewels of pigment deep inside algal cells soak up the sun’s energy. Through a cascade of chemistry this energy is transmuted into the bonds that join air molecules into sugar and other foods. This sugar powers both the algal cell and its fungal bedfellow. The sun-catching pigments are kept in tiny jewel boxes, chloroplasts, each of which is enclosed in a membrane and comes with its own genetic material. The bottle-green chloroplasts are descendants of bacteria that took up residence inside algal cells one and a half billion years ago. The bacterial tenants gave up their tough outer coats, their sexuality, and their independence, just as algal cells do when they unite with fungi to make lichens. Chloroplasts are not the only bacteria living inside other creatures. All plant, animal, and fungal cells are inhabited by torpedo-shaped mitochondria that function as miniature powerhouses, burning the cells’ food to release energy. These mitochondria were also once free-living bacteria and have, like the chloroplasts, given up sex and freedom in favor of partnership.

With an eye to the ancient union of bacterial genes that gave rise to all modern DNA, Haskell considers the elemental and existential role of symbiosis in every life, including our own:

We are Russian dolls, our lives made possible by other lives within us. But whereas dolls can be taken apart, our cellular and genetic helpers cannot be separated from us, nor we from them. We are lichens on a grand scale.

Complement with what remains the loveliest thing ever written about the symbiotic unself, then revisit bryologist Robin Wall Kimmerer on the enchanting universe of moss and the poetic science of why leaves change color.


An Introvert’s Field Guide to Friendship: Thoreau on the Challenges and Rewards of the Art of Connection

“We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.”

Friendship is the sunshine of life — the quiet radiance that makes our lives not only livable but worth living. (This is why we must use the utmost care in how we wield the word friend.) In my own life, friendship has been the lifeline for my darkest hours of despair, the magnifying lens for my brightest joys, the quiet pulse-beat beneath the daily task of living. You can glean a great deal about a person from the constellation of friends around the gravitational pull of their personhood. “Whatever our degree of friends may be, we come more under their influence than we are aware,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell observed as she contemplated how we co-create each other and recreate ourselves in friendship. Her friend Ralph Waldo Emerson — whom she taught to look through a telescope — believed that all true friendship rests on two pillars. In his own life, he put the theory into practice in his friendship with his young protégé Henry David Thoreau (July 12, 1817–May 6, 1862) — a solitary and achingly introverted person himself, who thought deeply and passionately about the rewards and challenges of friendship.

Henry David Thoreau (Daguerreotype by Benjamin D. Maxham, 1856)

Like all unusual people, Thoreau had a hard time connecting. In a desponded diary entry from his mid-thirties, found in The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837–1861 (public library), he writes:

Why should I speak to my friends? for how rarely is it that I am I; and are they, then, they? We will meet, then, far away.

Several months later, just before the Christmas holidays with their cruel magnifying lens of loneliness for the lonely, he rues his inability to connect openheartedly:

My difficulties with my friends are such as no frankness will settle. There is no precept in the New Testament that will assist me. My nature, it may be, is secret. Others can confess and explain; I cannot.

Thoreau finds himself pocked with self-doubt about his ability to connect, his sense of isolation at times swelling into punitive despair:

Nothing makes me so dejected as to have met my friends, for they make me doubt if it is possible to have any friends. I feel what a fool I am.

Art by Giuliano Cucco from Before I Grew Up by John Miller

Over and over, Thoreau anguishes with the extreme shyness and reticence of his nature, longs for a confidante beyond the diary page, longs for companionship beyond the birds and the trees. On a beautiful spring Sunday, he despairs:

I have got to that pass with my friend that our words do not pass with each other for what they are worth. We speak in vain; there is none to hear. He finds fault with me that I walk alone, when I pine for want of a companion; that I commit my thoughts to a diary even on my walks, instead of seeking to share them generously with a friend; curses my practice even. Awful as it is to contemplate, I pray that, if I am the cold intellectual skeptic whom he rebukes, his curse may take effect, and wither and dry up those sources of my life, and my journal no longer yield me pleasure nor life.

Months after publishing Walden, with its lyrical celebration of solitude, his loneliness deepens into a primal scream of longing for connection:

What if we feel a yearning to which no breast answers? I walk alone. My heart is full. Feelings impede the current of my thoughts. I knock on the earth for my friend. I expect to meet him at every turn; but no friend appears, and perhaps none is dreaming of me.

And yet this openhearted longing is itself the only real raw material of friendship — only by surrendering to it, with all the vulnerability this demands of us, do we become receptive to the longing of others, the mutual yearning for connection that is shared heartbeat of humanity. Thoreau quietly intuits this equivalence, so that when he does connect, when he does feel the warm glow of friendship envelop him, it is nothing less than an exultation:

Ah, my friends, I know you better than you think, and love you better, too.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from a vintage ode to friendship by Janice May Udry

At only twenty-four, Thoreau had arrived at a foundational fact of living — his own grand unified theory of human connection, which he spent the remainder of his short life trying, often with touching difficulty, to put into practice:

Friends are those twain who feel their interests to be one. Each knows that the other might as well have said what he said. All beauty, all music, all delight springs from apparent dualism but real unity. My friend is my real brother.

Pulsating beneath all of his uneasy reckonings is a deep-thinking, deep-feeling recognition of the essence of friendship:

The field where friends have met is consecrated forever. Man seeks friendship out of the desire to realize a home here… The friend is like wax in the rays that fall from our own hearts. My friend does not take my word for anything, but he takes me. He trusts me as I trust myself. We only need to be as true to others as we are to ourselves that there may be ground enough for friendship.

Art by Sophie Blackall from Things to Look Forward to

Complement these fragments from The Journal of Henry David Thoreau — a biblical kind of book, replete with his deep-souled wisdom on how to see more clearly, the myth of productivity, the greatest gift of growing old, the sacredness of public libraries, the creative benefits of keeping a diary, and the only worthwhile definition of success — with Seneca on true and false friendship, Kahlil Gibran on the building blocks of meaningful connection, Henry Miller on the relationship between creativity and community, Lewis Thomas on the poetic science of why we are wired for connection, and this lovely vintage illustrated ode to friendship.


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