1832 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Clarke and Robert Shelton Mackenzie, in The Georgian Era: Memoirs of the most eminent Persons who have flourished in Great Britain (1832-34) 3:424-25.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, was born at Bristol, about 1770, where he received the earliest portion of his education. He was afterwards sent to Christ's Hospital, London, where, he says, in his Biographia Literaria, "I enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though, at the same time, a very severe master, the Rev. James Bowyer, who early moulded my taste to the preference of Demosthenes to Cicero, of Homer and Theocritus to Virgil, and again of Virgil to Ovid, &c." From Christ's Hospital he was sent to Jesus College, Cambridge, where he obtained the Sir William Brown's gold medal, for the best Greek ode, in 1792. About the same time, he became acquainted with Southey, then a student of Baliol College, Oxford, and, like himself, imbued with ardent predilections for poesy and liberty. With him and some other young men, he entered into a scheme, which want of means alone prevented them from putting into execution, for settling on the Susquehannah River, in North America, under a pantisocratic form of society. About 1794, he retired to Alforton, in Somersetshire, where he was joined by his friend Wordsworth, with whom he passed his time in literary pursuits, and in wandering about the Quantock hills, with such an air of mystery, that they became objects of suspicion to the neighbourhood. A spy was set upon their conduct, and an examination actually appears to have taken place, by the village authorities, of a poor rustic who was supposed to have discovered their dangerous designs. Our author has given a ludicrous account of this in the work before quoted from, and the conclusion is worth extracting, as developing somewhat of his habits and poetical character. "Has not this Mr. Coleridge been wandering on the hills towards the channel, and along the shore, with books and papers in his hand, taking charts and maps of the country?" — "Why, as to that, your honour," was the rustic's reply; "I am sure I would not wish to say ill of any body; but it is certain that I have heard—" "Speak out, man! don't be afraid: you are doing your duty to your king and government. What have you heard?" "Why, folks do say, your honour, as how that he is a poet; and that he is going to put Quantock, and all about here, in print; and as they (Wordsworth and Coleridge) be so much together, I suppose that the strange gentleman (Wordsworth) has some consarn in the business." The business which engaged him, was the composition of a poem, to be called The Brook, which, had he finished, it was his intention to have dedicated to the committee of public safety, as containing the charts and maps with which he was reported to have supplied the French government, in aid of their plans of invasion.

A perusal of Bowles's Sonnets appears to have first inspired him with a taste for poetry, of which his earliest specimen was given to the public in a small volume, published previously to the foregoing incident, in which publication a monody on the death of the unfortunate Chatterton was universally admired. In 1795, he published some anti-ministerial pamphlets; and in the following year, made an unsuccessful attempt to establish a periodical paper, called The Watchman, at the persuasion, he says, of sundry philanthropists and anti-polemists. His next publication was a poem on the prospect of peace; he shortly afterwards accompanied Sir Alexander Ball, governor of Malta, as his secretary; and, on his return from this employment, became entitled to a pension. This so far improving his circumstances, as to leave him at full liberty to pursue his literary designs, he engaged in the publication of a variety of works, and delivered two public courses of lectures, one on the plays of Shakspeare, and another on poetry and the belles lettres, which gained him a reputation for considerable oratorical powers. In 1813, he published Remorse, a tragedy; followed, in 1817, by Sibylline Leaves; A Collection of Poems; his Biographia Literaria, or biographical sketches of his life and opinions; and other works, poetical and political. In 1818, he commenced The Friend, a series of essays, that extended to three volumes; and in the tenth and eleventh numbers of which, he says, he has left a record of his principles. In 1825, he published Aids to Reflection, in the formation of a manly character, &c.; and, in 1830, his Treatise on the Constitution of the Church and State, according to the idea of each: with aids towards a right judgment of the late catholic bill. Mr. Coleridge is at present residing at Highgate, where he occasionally receives his literary friends, and passes his time in reading, and the amusements of his garden. He is said to excel all his cotemporaries in powers of argument; and, when once fairly launched on any favourite topic, to be possessed of the faculty of rivetting, for hours, the attention of his audience, by the charm of his eloquence alone.

In addition to the works already mentioned, he wrote, during the peace of Amiens, essays for The Morning Post and Courier. Mr. Fox is said to have pointed his allusion to these contributions, when he declared, that the war, which followed the above treaty, was a war raised by The Morning Post. Whilst Mr. Coleridge was staying at Rome, Buonaparte is said to have sent an order for his arrest, from which he was rescued, partly by the forbearance of the late pope, Pius the Seventh. Our poet, however, has never displayed any evidence of his having been guided by any fixed political creed; and he altogether disowns, as was hinted by The Morning Chronicle, that he ever bettered his fortune by his labours as a political writer. Indeed, it is as a poet only that he will be known by posterity; however zealously his friends may labour to procure a reputation for him as the founder of a sect in morals or philosophy. The chief fault of Coleridge's poetry lies in the style, which has been justly objected to on account of its obscurity, general turgidness of diction, and a profusion of new-coined double epithets. With regard to its obscurity, he says, in the preface to a late edition of his poems, that where he appears unintelligible, "the deficiency is in the reader." This is nothing more or less than to suppose his readers endowed with the powers of divination; for we defy any one who is not in the confidence of the author upon the subject, to solve the riddle which is appended, as a conclusion, to Christabel. He might as well attribute deficiency of capacity to a beholder of his countenance, who should fail, in its workings, to discover the exact emotions of his mind; for Mr. Coleridge has afforded no clearer clue to the generality of his poetical arcana. This is particularly manifest in his singularly wild and striking poem of The Ancient Mariner, on which he is said to have written the following epigram, addressed to himself:

Your poem must eternal be,
Dear sir! it cannot fail;
For, 'tis incomprehensible,
And without head or tail.

Mr. Coleridge is unquestionably at the head of the Lake school of poetry, and excels all his fraternity of that class in feeling, fancy, and sublimity. Some of his minor poems will bear comparison with those of the bards of this or any other age or country; and his verses on Love appear to us the most touching, delicate, and beautiful delineation of that passion, that ever was penned. Mr. Coleridge, who is much esteemed in private life, is, we believe, a widower, but has two sons surviving, who have graduated at the universities.