In the spring of 1804 Coleridge sailed to the Mediterranean in the hope of restoring his health, recreating his poetic energies and solving his emotional problems. During the voyage he kept a very detailed diary, and from this and from his and his friends' letters Alethea Hayter has painted a close-up portrait of Coleridge - both the outer and the inner man - at a comparatively little studied moment of his life, but a pivotal one. It was also an increasingly critical period in the Napoleonic War, and the movements of warships and convoys in the Mediterranean, and the problems of Nelson - personal as well as strategic, and in some ways parallel to Coleridge's - are interwoven with the narrative. Sara Hutchinson, the Wordsworths, Southey, the Lambs and Coleridge's other friends at home are also shown going about their affairs amid their anxieties about him during the six weeks while he travelled through storm and calm to reach an intellectual and emotional destination which was not the one he set out for.
As those readers already familiar with Alethea Hayter's work would expect, "A Voyage in Vain" combines the pleasures of thoroughly researched biography, and criticism and social history, with the narrative sweep of a novel.