“Death in his hand”: theories of apparitions in Coleridge, Ferriar, and Keats

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On a chance meeting in 1819, Samuel Taylor Coleridge told John Keats about his theory of “double touch.” This hypothesis is key to the famous accounts in which each poet mythologizes the other. In his writings on double touch, Coleridge surmises that we engage with our world simultaneously by sensory perception and an energetic connection derived from Mesmerism. Disruption to either aspect of double touch results in the pathological state of “single touch,” symptoms of which can include hallucination. Coleridge developed his theory in dialogue with physician and author John Ferriar. Each theorized that ghost-sightings occur when the mind articulates disease as strong imagery and each used literature, particularly Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1603), as a source of evidence for psychological speculations. Coleridge’s double-touch theory pervades his notebooks and his lectures on drama, and his verbal account provided Keats with a new means to explore the supernatural in narrative verse. Hence, double touch receives its most significant literary treatment in Keats’s compositions over the weeks following his conversation with Coleridge. In particular, “La Belle Dame sans Merci” (1819) proceeds from an initial impulse to parody Coleridge to a serious exploration of double touch. Conversely, Coleridge’s claim to have foretold Keats’s death is influenced by double-touch theory and “La Belle Dame sans Merci.”

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)179-210
Number of pages32
JournalNineteenth-Century Literature
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2023


  • double touch
  • ghosts
  • hallucination
  • Mesmerism
  • “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

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