1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Cyrus Redding, "Memoir of Samuel Taylor Coleridge" Poetical Works of Coleridge, Shelley, and Keats (1829) v-xi.



There is no writer of his time who has been more the theme of panegyric by his friends, and of censure by his enemies, than Coleridge. It has been the custom of the former to injure him by extravagant praise, and of the latter to pour upon his head much unmerited abase. Coleridge has left undone so much which his talents and genius would have enabled him to effect, and has done on the whole so little, that he has given his foes apparent foundation for some of their vituperation. His natural character, however, is indolent; he is far more ambitious of excelling in conversation, and of pouring out his wild philosophical theories — of discoursing about "Fix'd fate, free-will, fore-knowledge absolute" — the mysteries of Kant, and the dreams of metaphysical vanity, than "in building the lofty rhyme." His poems, however, which have been recently collected, form several volumes; and the beauty of some of his pieces so amply redeems the extravagance of others, that there can be but one regret respecting him, namely, that he should have preferred the short-lived perishing applause bestowed upon his conversation, to the lasting renown attending successful poetical efforts. Not but that Coleridge may lay claim to the praise due to a successful worship of the muses; for as long as the English language endures, his Genevieve and Ancient Mariner will be read: but he has been content to do far less than his abilities clearly demonstrate him able to effect.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born at Ottery Saint Mary, a town of Devonshire, in 1773. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, was vicar there, having been previously a schoolmaster at South Molton. He is said to have been a person of considerable learning, and to have published several essays in fugitive publications. He assisted Dr. Kennicot in collating his manuscripts for a Hebrew bible, and, among other things, wrote a dissertation on the [Greek characters]. He was also the author of an excellent Latin grammar. He died in 1782, at the age of sixty-two, much regretted, leaving a considerable family, three of which, if so many, are all who now survive; and of these the poet is the youngest.

Coleridge was educated at Christ's Hospital-school, London. The smallness of his father's living and large family rendered the strictest economy necessary. At this excellent seminary he was soon discovered to be a boy of talent, eccentric but acute. According to his own statement the master, the Rev. J. Bowyer, was a severe disciplinarian after the inane practice of English grammar-school modes, but was fond of encouraging genius, even in the lads he flagellated most unmercifully. He taught with assiduity, and directed the taste of youth to the beauties of the better classical authors, and to comparisons of one with another. "He habituated me," says Coleridge, "to compare Lucretius, Terence, and above all the chaste poems of Catullus, not only with the Roman poets of the so called silver and brazen ages, not with even those of the Augustan era; and, on grounds of plain sense and universal logic, to see and assert the superiority of the former, in the truth and nativeness both of their thoughts and diction. At the same time that we were studying the Greek tragic poets, he made us read Shakspeare and Milton as lessons; and they were the lessons too which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learned from him that poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science, and more difficult; because more subtle and complex, and dependent on more and more fugitive causes. In our English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, image, or metaphor, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words. Lute, harp, and lyre, muse, muses, and inspirations — Pegasus, Parnassus and Hippocrene, were all an abomination to him. In fancy, I can almost hear him now exclaiming—"Harp! harp! lyre! pen and ink, boy, you mean! muse, boy muse! our nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring! O ay! the cloister pump, I suppose." In his Literary Life, Coleridge has gone into the conduct of his master at great length; and, compared to the majority of pedagogues who ruled in grammar-schools at that time, he seems to have been a singular and most honourable exception among them. He sent his pupils to the university excellent Greek and Latin scholars, with some knowledge of Hebrew, and a considerable insight into the construction and beauties of their vernacular language and its most distinguished writers — a rare addition to their classical acquirements in such foundations.

It was owing to a present made to Coleridge of Bowles' sonnets by a school-fellow (the late Dr. Middieton) while a boy of 17, that he was drawn away from theological controversy and wild metaphysics to the charms of poetry. He transcribed these sonnets no less than forty times in eighteen months, in order to make presents of them to his friends; and about the same period he wrote his Ode to Chatterton. "Nothing else," he says, "pleased me; history and particular facts lost all interest in my mind." Poetry had become insipid; all his ideas were directed to his favourite theological subjects and mysticisms, until Bowles' sonnets, and an acquaintance with a very agreeable family, recalled him to more pleasant paths, combined with perhaps far more of rational pursuits.

When eighteen years of age, Coleridge removed to Jesus College, Cambridge. It does not appear that he obtained or even struggled for academic honours. From excess of animal spirits, he was rather a noisy youth, whose general conduct was better than that of many of his fellow-collegians, and as good as most his follies were more remarkable only as being those of a more remarkable personage; and if he could be accused of a vice, it must be sought for in the little attention he was inclined to pay to the dictates of sobriety. It is known that he assisted a friend in composing an essay on English poetry while at that University; that he was not unmindful of the muses himself while there; and that he regretted the loss of the leisure and quiet he had found within its precincts.

In the month of November, 1793, while labouring under a paroxysm of despair, brought on by the combined effects of pecuniary difficulties and love of a young lady, sister of a school-fellow, he set off for London with a party of collegians, and passed a short time there in joyous conviviality. On his return to Cambridge, he remained but a few days, and then abandoned it for ever. He again directed his steps towards the metropolis, and there, after indulging somewhat freely in the pleasures of the bottle, and wandering about the various streets and squares in a state of mind nearly approaching to phrenzy, he finished by enlisting in the 15th dragoons, under the name of Clumberbacht. Here he continued some time, the wonder of his comrades, and a subject of mystery and curiosity to his officers. While engaged in watching a sick comrade, which he did night and day, he is said to have got involved in a dispute with the regimental surgeon; but the disciple of Esculapius had no chance with the follower of the muses; he was astounded and put to flight by the profound erudition and astonishing eloquence of his antagonist. His friends at length found him out, and procured his discharge.

In 1794 Coleridge published a small volume of poems which were much praised by the critics of the time, though it appears they abounded in obscurities and epithets too common with young writers. He also published, in the same year, while residing at Bristol, The Fall of Robespierre, an Historic Drama, which displayed considerable talent. It was written in conjunction with Southey; and what is remarkable in this composition is, that they began it at 7 o'clock one evening, finished it the next day by 12 o'clock noon, and the day after it was printed and published. The language is vigorous, and the speeches are well put together and correctly versified. — Coleridge also, in the winter of that year, delivered a course of lectures on the French revolution, at Bristol.

On leaving the University, Coleridge was full of enthusiasm in the cause of freedom, and occupied with the idea of the regeneration of mankind. He found ardent coadjutors in the same enthusiastic undertaking in Robert Lovell and Robert Southey, the present courtly laureate. This youthful triumvirate proposed schemes for regenerating the world, even before their educations were completed; and dreamed of happy lives in aboriginal forests, republics on the Mississippi, and a newly-dreamed philanthropy. In order to carry their ideas into effect they began operations at Bristol, and were received with considerable applause by several inhabitants of that commercial city, which however remarkable for traffic, has been frequently styled the Boetia of the west of England. Here, in 1795, Coleridge published two pamphlets, one called Consciones ad Populum, or addresses to the people; the other, A protest against certain bills (then pending) for suppressing seditious meetings.

The charm of the political regeneration of nations, though thus warped for a moment, was not broken. Coleridge, Lovell and Southey, finding the old world would not be reformed after their mode, determined to try and found a new one, in which all was to be liberty and happiness. The deep woods of America were to be the site of this new golden region. There all the evils of European society were to be remedied, property was to be in common, and every man a legislator. The name of Pantisocracy was bestowed upon the favoured scheme, while yet it existed only in imagination. Unborn ages of human happiness presented themselves before the tried of philosophical founders of Utopian empires, while they were dreaming of human perfectibility: — a harmless dream at least, and an aspiration after better things than life's realities, which is the best that can be said for it. In the midst of these plans of vast import, the three philosopers fell in love with three sisters of Bristol, named Fricker (one of them, afterwards Mrs Lovell, an actress of the Bristol theatre, another a mantua-maker, and the third kept a day-school), and all their visions of immortal freedom faded into thin air. They married, and occupied themselves with the increase of the corrupt race of the old world, instead of peopling the new. Thus, unhappily for America and mankind, failed the scheme of the Pantisocracy, on which at one time so much of human happiness and political regeneration was by its founders believed to depend. None have revived the phantasy since; but Coleridge has lived to sober down his early extravagant views of political freedom into something like a disavowal of having held them; but he has never changed into a foe of the generous principles of human freedom, which he ever espoused; while Southey has become the enemy of political and religious freedom, the supporter and advocate of arbitrary measures in church and state, and the vituperator of all who support the recorded principles of his early years.

About this time, and with the same object, namely, to spread the principles of true liberty, Coleridge began a weekly paper called The Watchman, which only reached its ninth number, though the editor set out on his travels to procure subscribers among the friends of the doctrines he espoused, and visited Birmingham, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, and Sheffield, for the purpose. The failure of this paper was a severe mortification to the projector. No ground was gained on the score of liberty, though about the same time his self-love was flattered by the success of a volume of poems, which he republished, with some communications from his friends Lamb and Lloyd.

Coleridge married Miss Sarah Fricker its the autumn of 1795, and in the following year his eldest son, Hartley, was born. Two more sons, Berkley and Derwent, were the fruits of this union, In 1797, he resided at Nether Stowey, a village near Bridgewater, in Somersetshire, and wrote there in the spring, at the desire of Sheridan, a tragedy which was, in 1813, brought out under the title of Remorse: the name it originally bore was Osorio. There were some circumstances in this business that led to a suspicion of Sheridan's not having acted with any great regard to truth or feeling. During his residence here Coleridge was in the habit of preaching every Sunday at the Unitarian Chapel in Taunton, and was greatly respected by the better class of his neighbours. Its enjoyed the friendship of Wordsworth, who lived at Allfoxden, about two miles from Stowey, and was occasionally visited by Charles Lamb, John Thelwall, and other congenial spirits. The Brook, a poem that he planned about this period, was never completed.

Coleridge had married before he possessed the means of supporting a family, and he depended principally for subsistence, at Stowey, upon his literary labours, the remuneration for which could be but scanty. At length, in 1798, the kind patronage of the late Thomas Wedgwood, Esq., who granted him a pension of 100 a-year, enabled him to plan a visit to Germany, to which country he proceeded with Wordsworth, and studied the language at Ratzeburg, and then went to Gottingen. He there attended the lectures of Blumenbach on natural history and physiology, and the lectures of Eichhorn on the New Testament; and from professor Tychven he learned the Gothic Grammar. He read the Minnesinger and the verses of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg cobbler, but his time was principally devoted to literature and philosophy. At the end of his Biographia Literaria Coleridge has published some letters, which relate to his sojourn in Germany. He sailed, September 16th 1798, and on the 19th landed at Hamburgh. It was on the 20th of the same month that he says he was introduced to the brother of the great poet Klopstock, to professor Ebeling, and ultimately to the poet himself. He had an impression of awe on his spirits when he set out to visit the German Milton, whose humble house stood about a quarter of a mile from the city gate. He was much disappointed in the countenance of Klopstock, which was inexpressive, and without peculiarity in any of the features. Klopstock was lively and courteous; talked of Milton and Glover, and preferred the verse of the latter to the former, — a very curious mistake, but natural enough in a foreigner. He spoke with indignation of the English translations of his Messiah. He said his first ode was fifty years older than his last, and hoped Coleridge would revenge him on Englishmen by translating the Messiah.

On his return from Germany, Coleridge went to reside at Keswick, in Cumberland. He had made a great addition to his stock of knowledge, and he seems to have spared no pains, to store up what was either useful or speculative. He had become master of most of the early German writers, or rather of the state of early German literature. He dived deeply into the mystical stream of Teutonic philosophy. There the predilections of his earlier years no doubt came upon him in aid of his researches into a labyrinth which no human clue will ever unravel; or which, were one found capable of so doing, would reveal a mighty nothing. Long, he says, while meditating in England, had his heart been with Paul and John, and his head with Spinoza. He then became convinced of the doctrine of St. Paul, and from an antitrinitarian became a believer in the Trinity, and in Christianity as commonly received; or, to use his own word, found a "re-conversion." Yet, for all his arguments on the subject, he had better have retained his early creed, and saved the time wasted in travelling back to exactly the same point where he set out, for he finds that faith necessary at last which he had been taught in his church, was necessary at his first outset in life. His arguments, pro and con, not being of use to any of the community, and the exclusive property of their owner, he had only to look back upon his laborious trifling, as Grotius did upon his own toils, when death was upon him. Metaphysics are most unprofitable things; as political economists say, their labours are of the most "unproductive class" in the community of thinkers.

The next step of our poet in a life which seems to have had no settled object, but to have been steered compassless along, was to undertake the political and literary departments of the Morning Post newspaper, and in the duties of this situation he was engaged in the spring of 1802. No man was less fitted for a popular writer; and, in common with his early connections, Coleridge seems to have had no fixed political principles that the public could understand, though he perhaps was able to reconcile in his own bosom all that others might imagine contradictory, and no doubt he did so conscientiously. His style and manner of writing, the learning and depth of his disquisitions forever came into play, and rendered him unintelligible, or, what is equally fatal, unreadable to the mass. It was singular too, that he disclosed in his biography so strongly his unsettled political principles, which showed that he had not studied politics as he had studied poetry, Kant, and theology. The public of each party looks upon a political writer as a sort of champion around whom it rallies, and feels it impossible to trust the changeable leader, or applaud the addresses of him who is inconsistent or wavering in principles: it will not back out any but the firm unflinching partisan. In truth, what an ill compliment do men pay to their own judgment, when they run counter to, and shift about from points they have declared in indelible ink are founded on truth and reason, irrefutable and eternal! They must either have been superficial smatterers in what they first promulgated, and have appeared prematurely in print, or they must be tinctured with something like the hue of uncrimsoned apostacy. The members of what is called the Lake School have been more or less strongly marked with this reprehensible change of political creed, but Coleridge the least of them. In truth he got nothing by any change he ventured upon, and, what is more, he expected nothing; the world is therefore bound to say of him what cannot be said of his friends, if it be true, that it believes most cordially in his sincerity — and that his obliquity in politics was caused by his superficial knowledge of them, and his devotion of his high mental powers to different questions. Notwithstanding this, those who will not make a candid allowance for him, have expressed wonder how the author of the Consciones ad Populum, and the Watchman, the friend of freedom, and one of the founders of the Pantisocracy, could afterwards regard the drivelling and chicanery of the pettifogging minister, Perceval, as glorious in British political history, and he himself as the "best and wisest" of ministers! Although Coleridge has avowed his belief that he is not calculated for a popular writer, he has endeavoured to show that his own writings in the Morning Post were greatly influential on the public mind. Coleridge himself confesses that his Morning Post essays, though written in defence or furtherance of the measures of the government, added nothing to his fortune or reputation. How should they be effective, when their writer, who not long before, addressed the people, and echoed from his compositions the principles of freedom and the rights of the people, now wrote with scorn of "mob-sycophants," and of the a "half-witted vulgar?" It is a consolation to know that our author himself laments the waste of his manhood and intellect in this way. What might he not have given to the world that is enduring and admirable, in the room of these misplaced political lucubrations! Who that has read his better works will not subscribe to this truth?

His translation of Schiller's Wallenstein may be denominated a free one, and is finely executed. It is impossible to give in the English language a more effective idea of the work of the great German dramatist. This version was made from a copy which the author himself afterwards revised and altered, and the translator subsequently republished his version in a more correct form, with the additional passages and alterations of Schiller. This translation will long remain as the most effective which has been achieved of the works of the German dramatists in the British tongue.

The censure which has been cast upon our poet for not writing more which is worthy of his reputation, has been met by his enumeration of what he has done in all ways and times; and, in truth, he has written a vast deal which has passed unnoticed, upon fleeting politics, and in newspaper columns, literary as well as political. To the world these last go for nothing, though their author calculates the thought and labour they cost him at full value. He concedes something, however, to this prevailing idea respecting him, when he says, "On my own account, I may perhaps have had sufficient reason to lament my deficiency in self-control, and the neglect of concentrating my powers to the realization of some permanent work. But to verse, rather than to prose, if to either, belongs 'the voice of mourning,' for

Keen pangs of love awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart,
And fears self-will'd that shunn'd the eye of hope,
And hope that scarce could know itself from fear;
Sense of past youth, and manhood come is vain,
And genius given and knowledge won in vain,
And all which I had cull'd in wood-walks wild,
And all which patient toil had rear'd, and all
Commune with thee had open'd out — but flowers
Strew'd on my corpse, and borne upon my bier,
In the same coffin, for the self-same grave!
S. T. C.

In another part of his works, Coleridge says, speaking of what in poetry he had written, "as to myself, I have published so little, and that little of so little importance, as to make it almost ludicrous to mention my name at all." It is evident, therefore, that a sense of what he might have done for fame, and of the little he has done, is felt by the poet; and yet, the little he has produced has among it gems of the purest lustre, the brilliancy of which time will not deaden until the universal voice of nature be heard no longer, and poetry perish beneath the dull load of life's hacknied realities.

The poem of Christabel, Coleridge says, was composed in consequence of an agreement with Mr. Wordsworth, that they should mutually produce specimens of poetry which should contain "the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader, by a faithful adherence to the truth of nature, and the power of giving the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of imagination. The sudden charm, which accidents of light and shade, which moon-light or sun-set diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared to represent the practicability of combining both." Further he observes on this thought, "that a series of poems might be composed of two sorts. In the one, the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, supernatural; and the excellence to be aimed at was to consist in the interesting of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real, etc. For the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life." Thus, it appears, originated the poems of the Ancient Mariner, and Christabel, by Coleridge, and the Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth.

Perhaps there is no English writer living who understood better than Coleridge the elements of poetry, and the way in which they may be best combined to produce certain impressions. His definitions of the merits and differences in style and poetic genius, between the earliest and latest writers of his country, are superior to those which any one else has it in his power to make; for, in truth, he long and deeply meditated upon them, and no one can be dissatisfied by the reasons he gives, and the examples he furnishes to bear out his theories and opinions. These things he does as well or better in conversation than in writing. His conversational powers are indeed unrivalled, and it is to be feared that, to excel in these, he has sacrificed what are more durable; and that he has resigned, for the pleasure of gratifying an attentive listening circle, and pleasing thereby his self-love by its applause, touch that would have delighted the world. His flow of words, delivery, and variety of information are so great, and he finds it so captivating to enchain his auditors to the ear of his triumphant eloquence that he has sacrificed to this gratification what might have sufficed to confer upon him a celebrity a thousand times more to be coveted by a spirit akin to his own.

It is equally creditable to the taste and judgment of Coleridge, that he was one of the first to point out, with temper and sound reasoning, the fallacy of a great portion of Wordsworth's poetic theory, namely, that which relates to low life. Wordsworth contends that a proper poetic diction is a language taken from the mouths of men in general, in their natural conversation under the influence of natural feelings. Coleridge wisely asserts, that philosophers are the authors of the best parts of language, not clowns, and that Milton's language is more that of real life than the language of a cottager. This subject he has most ably treated in chapter 17 of his Biographia Literaria.

Two years after he had abandoned the Morning Post, he set off for Malta, where he most unexpectedly arrived on a visit to his friend Dr. Stodart, then king's advocate in that island, and was introduced by him to the governor, Sir Alexander Ball, who appointed him his secretary. He remained in the island fulfilling the duties of his situation, for which he seems to have been but indifferently qualified, a very short period. One advantage, however, he derived from his official employ: that of the pension granted by Government to those who have served in similar situations. On his way home he visited Italy; entered Rome, and examined its host of ancient and modern curiosities, and added fresh matter for thought to his rapidly accumulating store of ideas. Of this visit he gives several anecdotes; among them one respecting the horns of Moses on Michael Angelo's celebrated statue of that lawgiver, intended to elucidate the character of Frenchmen. Coleridge has been all his life a hater of France and Frenchmen, arising from his belief in their being completely destitute of moral or poetical feeling. A Prussian, who was with him while looking upon the statue, observed that a Frenchman was the only animal, "in the human shape, that by no possibility can lift itself op to religion or poetry." A foolish and untrue remark on the countrymen of Fenelon and Pascal, of Massillon and Corneille. Just then, however, two French officers of rank happened to enter the church, and the Goth from the Elbe remarked that, the first things they would notice would be the "horns and beard" (upon which the Prussian and Coleridge had just been rearing theories and quoting history), and that the associations the Frenchmen would connect with them "would he those of a he-goat and a cuckold." It happened that the Prus-Goth was right: the officers did pass some such joke upon the figure. Hence, by inference, would the poet have his readers deduce the character of a people, whose literature, science, and civilization are perhaps only not the very first in the world.

Another instance of his fixed and absurd dislike of every thing French, occurred during the delivery of a course of Lectures on Poetry, at the Royal Institution, in the spring of 1808; in one of which he astonished his auditory by thanking his Maker, in the most serious manner, for so ordering events, that he was totally ignorant of a single word of "that frightful jargon, the French language!" And yet, notwithstanding this public avowal of his entire ignorance of the language Mr. C. is said to have been in the habit, while conversing with his friends, of expressing the utmost contempt for the literature of that country!

Whelmed in the wild mazes of metaphysics, and for ever mingling its speculations with all he does or says, Coleridge has of late produced nothing equal to the power of his pen. A few verses in an annual, or a sonnet in a magazine, are the utmost of his efforts. He resides at Hampstead, in the house of a friend having a good garden, where he walks for hours together enwrapped in visions of new theories of theology, or upon the most abstruse of meditations. He goes into the world at times, to the social dinner-party, where he gratifies his self-love by pouring out the stores of his mind in conversation to admiring listeners. Were he not apt to be too profound, he would make an excellent talker, or rather "un grand causeur" for a second Madame de Sevigne, if such an accomplished female is to he found in the nineteenth century, either its England or France. The fluency of Coleridge's language, the light he throws upon his subjects, and the pleasure he feels in communicating his ideas, and his knowledge, innate or acquired, are equally remarkable to the stranger. He has been accused of indolence, not perhaps with reason: the misdirection of his distinguished talents would he a better explanation of that for which he has been blameable. He attempts to justify himself on the score of quantity, by asserting that some of his best things were published in newspapers. The world differs with him upon this question, and always will do so, when it is recollected what he has had the power to effect. It will not forgive him for writing upon party, and in support of principles that even now are pretty nearly exploded, "what was meant for mankind." Coleridge mistook his walk when he set up for a politician, and it is to be feared the public have a great deal to regret on account of it. He will not be known hereafter by his Meriting Post articles, but by his verses. Whatever pains his political papers may have cost him, and from his own account they were laboriously composed, they will avail him nothing with posterity. The verses of Coleridge give him his claim to lasting celebrity, and it is in vain that he would have the world think otherwise. He says, "Would that the criterion of a scholar's utility were the number and moral value of the truths which he has been the means of throwing into the general circulation, or the number and value of the minds whom, by his conversation or letters, he has excited into activity, and supplied with the germs of their after-growth! A distinguished rank might not indeed then be awarded to my exertions, but I should dare look forward to an honourable acquittal."

In temper and disposition Coleridge is kind and amiable. His person is bulky and his physiognomy is heavy, but his eye is remarkably fine; and neither envy nor uncharitableness have made any successful impression in attacking his moral character. His family have long resided with Mr. Southey's in the north of England; the narrow pecuniary circumstances of our poet are assigned as the reason. It is arduously desired by all lovers of the Muses, that the author of the Ancient Mariner, and of Genevieve, may see life protracted to a green old age, and yet produce works which may rival those of his departed years.