The Improvisatore, or John Anderson, My Jo, John `is a neglected work by Coleridge, little read, and held in low estimation by most of his critics. In Coleridge's Later Poetry, for instance, Morton Paley gives it a paragraph; in The Poetic Voices of Coleridge Max F. Schulz wittily mocks what he calls its "noisome smugness." J. Robert Barth acknowledges briefly its playful acceptance of limitations, its wise contentment. (1) But this seven-page mini-drama--part dialogue, part lecture, and part poem--deserves reconsideration for presenting a complex array of Coleridge's personae; it shows him self-consciously accumulating versatile selves in relation to others. It shows him responding to new circumstances, the daily association with talkative women and the heady atmosphere of women's literary productivity throughout England in the 1820s. (2) In this dramatic performance, a humble and sociable 54-year-old man addresses women immediately present to him and at large in the reading public; he adapts his own ideas about love to women's necessarily intense preoccupation with it; with some humor, he sees himself anew.
The Improvisatore focuses upon issues popular in women's writing in the 1820s. Composed in 1826, it was published in 1828 in The Amulet, an album of Christian and sentimental prose and poetry. The annual volume was graced with exquisite engravings of ladies in fashionable dresses and tiny shoes, guiding winsome toddlers or fluffy dogs. (3) Printed on thick paper and bound in rich watered silk, it was small enough to hold in an embroidery basket or to carry on a country walk. Its list of authors featured Mrs. Hemans, L.E.L., Mrs. Hannah More, Miss Jane Porter, Mrs. Emmerson, the late Mrs. Barbauld, and the late Mrs. Henry Tighe, and also included token males such as John Clare, Thomas Hood, and several "Reverends." Like similar gift books named Friendship's Offering, Keepsake, and Bijou, The Amulet appealed to the many middle class women in an ever larger reading public. Coleridge's repeated letters to the editor, Samuel Carter Hall, about publication suggest that he was eager to appear in such an elegant and remunerative setting. (4) Anticipating this wider female audience, Coleridge directed The Improvisatore to two specific young women, whom he called Eliza and Katharine, and adjusted his own thoughts about love, yearning, and the incompleteness of life to women's hopes and dreams.
The realities of Coleridge's social life bear on the publication of this work. Along with his legendary evenings of talk with crowds of male disciples, he also had close women companions in his last fifteen years. His daily life at Highgate in the upper rooms of Dr. Gillman's house--where his comforts were met, his laudanum intake partially monitored, his writings encouraged, and his old and new friends welcome--was enhanced by the surgeon's wife, Mrs. Anne Gillman, her sister Lucy, and many female visitors. (5) In the autumn Coleridge and Mrs. Gillman travelled to Ramsgate, bathed at the shore on the Strait of Dover, and wrote Dr. Gillman detailed accounts of their athletic and social activities. These long vacations without Dr. Gillman aroused a rumor that Coleridge "was living in a state of open a--y with Mrs. ******* at Highgate"; Charles Lamb passed the rumor on to Sara Hutchinson, of all people, adding in his own ironic voice, "Such it is if Ladies will go gadding about with other people's husbands at watering places. How careful we should be to avoid the appearance of evil" (CL 5:512-13). In an 1825 notebook Coleridge called himself the Jacob to Mrs. Gillman's Rachel, (6) a hint that his passions, desperate for Sarah Hutchinson in his thirties and forties, did not atrophy in his fifties. Along with such surges of emotion, he felt for the Gillmans a tender affection, the fulfillment of a dream of living among sisters that he had nurtured since the death of his only sister Nancy when he was nineteen. (7)
In addition to his companionship with Mrs. …