Nicholas Roe at Literary Review:
The Compasses, a dingy pothouse in High Wycombe, was not the most likely place to encounter John Milton, Isaac Newton or Benjamin Franklin. Yet it was here, in March 1794, that Samuel Taylor Coleridge claimed to have met a man of ‘the greatest information and most original genius’. His ‘philosophical theories of heaven and hell’ and ideas of ‘daring impiety’ kept the poet awake until three the next morning. As Coleridge said to his brother, ‘Wisdom may be gathered from the maddest flights of imagination, as medicines were stumbled upon in the wild processes of alchemy.’ Reverend George Coleridge, a patient parish priest, would soon be hearing about ‘Pantisocracy’.
Is it possible that Coleridge’s genius was William Blake, author and printer of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell? We shall never know: certainly, Blake was a lifelong Londoner who rarely stepped beyond the bounds of the city. Rackety prophets and philosophers thronged the revolutionary 1790s – almost every tavern had a Bible-sodden seer with visions of the millennium. It was a decade when even mild-mannered Richard Price, a 67-year-old Unitarian, could be caricatured as an ‘Atheistical-Revolutionist’ insanely conspiring to overthrow Church and State.