Samuel Taylor Coleridge

William Bates, after William Maginn; Maclise Gallery (1883; 1898) 178-85.

COLERIDGE, whose effigy is now before us in the third step of that animal which formed the subject of the Sphinx's riddle, — the "noticeable man with large grey eyes," — the "founder of the romantic school of poetry," — the "Platonist of the nineteenth century," — the "pourer forth of wisdom in language as mellifluous as that of Nestor," — may be regarded, as these epithets indicate, under the triform aspect of a POET, a THINKER, and a TALKER. To take first the last, — which was, perhaps, not least, — as a TALKER he was doubtless superlatively great, — that is, in a certain sense; and it is by his talking that the outcome of his life is partly to be measured. Nor improperly so; for although talking and doing are incompatible, the one ceasing when the other begins, yet, inasmuch as the extremes meet, when talking exists in a certain quantity and quality, it arrives at the dignity and importance of doing. And thus it comes to pass that, in the case of Coleridge, his son Derwent, and some few others, talking and doing are one and the same thing. It was in monologue, not conversation, that Coleridge shone. He rambled on uninterruptedly for hours — his auditors intoxicated by the ambrosial ichor that fell from the lips of the "old man eloquent," and careless about the logical sequence, or even the very subject, of his rambling discourse. Like the knightly hero of Butler, in Hudibras,—

—he could not ope
His mouth but out there flew a trope.

"Did you ever hear me preach?" said he to Lamb. "I n-n-never heard you do anything else," was the stuttering reply. "Coleridge was a marvellous talker," said Rogers, "one morning when Hookham Frere also breakfasted with me, Coleridge talked for three hours without intermission about poetry, — and so admirably, that I wish every word he uttered had been written down." The same authority goes on to say: — "Sometimes his harangues were quite unintelligible, not only to myself but to others," an illustration of which we gain from another source better than from the reminiscences of Mr. Dyce. "Wordsworth and myself," said Rogers, "had walked to Highgate to call on Coleridge, when he was living at Gillman's. We sat with him two hours, he talking the whole time without intermission. When we left the house, we walked for some time without speaking. 'What a wonderful man he is!' exclaimed Wordsworth. 'Wonderful, indeed,' said I.' What a depth of thought, what richness of expression!' continued Wordsworth. 'There's nothing like him that ever I heard! ' rejoined I. Another pause. 'Pray,' inquired Wordsworth, 'did you precisely understand what he said about the Kantian philosophy?' R. 'Not precisely.' W. 'Or about the plurality of worlds?' R. 'I can't say I did. In fact, if the truth must out, I did not understand a syllable from one end of his monologue to the other.' W. 'No more did I.'" Thus these honest interlocutors unconsciously echoed the words of Saint Augustin, who records of the speech of some Coleridge of his day:— "Verborum flumen ubique vidi, mantis et judicii vix guttam." If all spectators, hearers, and readers were as candid, many a wind-bag would fall to earth for want of the puff of spurious praise which keeps it aloft. But the flock will continue to follow the bell-wether, vanity fear the imputation of ignorance, and omne ignotum pro magnifico be the rule of common judgment to the end of time.

Ralph Waldo Emerson, who made a journey to England for the special purpose of visiting Carlyle, does not seem to have been greatly impressed by Coleridge, and diagnosed of his case that he "suffered from a determination of words to the mouth." Leigh Hunt, on the other hand, said, "If the world is to remain always as it is, give me, to all eternity, new talk of Coleridge, and new essays of Charles Lamb; they will reconcile it beyond all others, and that is much;" and Gotzenburger, a German artist who visited England records, "I saw there many men of talent, but only three men of genius, — Coleridge, Flaxman and Blake; and of the three, Blake was the greatest."

As a POET, Coleridge is unquestionably great; and here, too, greater by his influence and principles than his actual achievements. He had no "finger industry," as he said to Cottle, who was pressing him for "copy," though his brain was always at work, — small comfort to the expectant compositor! Hence it is, — to his ill-health and his fatal habits, — that his morning promise, — probably no other poet had done what he had done at thirty, — has never been fulfilled, and that the monument of his fame in the British Walhalla is a mere Torso, showing only by its fragmentary magnificence what the entire figure seemed destined to be.

His most graceful poem — Christabel, — remained twenty years unpublished; but, says Fraser, "not unknown. And when its example had raised the ballad epic, or poetical novel, to its highest and most magnificent state, it made its appearance, in the eyes of the general reading public, an imitation of its own progeny." Pope had, a century before, bidden the aspirant:—

From vulgar bounds with brave disorder part
And snatch a grace beyond the reach of art;

but had still, by his practice, cast a cold spell over English poetry. Coleridge was one of the first to free himself from the restraint of the icy fetters, and led the way with this weird, beautiful creation, in which "the spiritual and material are so exquisitely blended that it is difficult to know where they run into each other." There is no doubt that he, eminently a copyist and a follower of other minds, had been largely influenced by Goethe, Herder, and the ballad and romantic poets of the German "Sturm und Drang" period, just as this had cast off the authority of classical tradition, and followed the unrestricted flight of Homer, Shakespeare, Ossian, and the ballad literature so industriously collected by Percy, Ritson, and Evans. With rapid infection, Scott caught the sacred flame, and the whole cope of heaven was soon ablaze with new and unfamiliar fires.

Christabel — or rather Christobell — still remains a fragment:—

—Ah! who shall lift the wand of magic power
And the lost clue regain?
The unfinished window in Aladdin s tower
Unfinished must remain.—

An attempt, however, has of course been made to complete this beautiful poem. A "continuation" will be found in the European Magazine, April, 1815, No. 57, and there is a clever parody, under the title of Christabess, by S. T. Colebritche, Esq., a right woeful Poem, translated from the doggerel by Sir Vinegar Sponge (London, 8vo, 1816). No burlesque, however, on the style and manner of Coleridge could possibly be happier than that of the late Mr. Prowse, in Tom Hood's Comic Almanac for 1868:—

It is an old Philosopher,
He stoppeth one of three:—
By thy gleaming face and snowy hair,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?
He held aloft a mystic scroll
With the letters "S. T. C.," etc.

This capital parody, — I wish I could give it in its entirety — leads me to the Rime of The Ancient Mariner, — an extraordinary work as to the true scope and purport of which a misapprehension exists which I cannot now attempt to correct. Of this a parody will be found in Blackwood's Magazine, vol. iv. p. 571, and there is an excellent translation into German in the Gedichte of Ferdinand Freiligrath (1843, 8vo, p. 387). It is in this poem that the passage occurs which has been cited to show that Coleridge had a prevision of the Atmospheric Railway: of which said passage it may be asked, if it does not mean this, what on earth or in heaven does it mean?—

But why drives on that ship so fast?
Without or wave or wind;
The air is cut away before
And closes from behind.

This suggestive poem was, about the year 1868, illustrated by twenty-five "poetic and dramatic scenes, designed and etched by David Scott, S.A.," (imperial folio), and in 1863, the Art Union of London issued twenty plates, in oblong folio, designed in outline by J. Noel Paton, R.S.A.

Leigh Hunt considered the poetry of Coleridge "on the whole to have been the finest of its line, — that is to say, the most quintessential, the most purely emanating from imaginative feeling, unadulterated by thoughts and matter," and elsewhere expressed the opinion, that, in the production of this kind of verse, there has been "no greater name than his since the days of Milton." Of its extreme beauty of rhythm it is remarked by Mr. Monkhouse, in his recent Life of J. M. W. Turner (p. 160), that "Coleridge, whose verses exceed almost all other English verses in beauty of sound, could not tell one note of music from another." No wonder. What is called a "musical ear," and the perception of melody of versification, are two totally different things, entirely unconnected with each other.

What about Coleridge as a PHILOSOPHER. Those still among us, in whose ears the music of his voice yet lingers, may exclaim exultingly to us, who only know his conversational glories by tradition, — "quid si ipsum audiissetis?" — as Aeschines said to the Rhodians, when they were enchanted by the mere perusal of the speeches of Demosthenes. It is doubtless in a great degree to the suasive power of this marvellous eloquence that is to be attributed the in press which he made upon the intellectual life of Cambridge. He must be regarded as the true founder of a school, whose influence is, day by day, gaining expansion, the author, as it has been said, of the latitudinarian cultus, "the order of whose succession may be indicated in the names of Maurice, Julian Hare, and Charles Kingsley," whose tutor on Dartmoor had been Derwent, the poet's son. But as for the vaunted "philosophy" of Coleridge, we have it in many forms before us, and can now judge of it, abstractedly, for ourselves. The Times newspaper says somewhere that it is wholly incredulous as to his depth, and that it regards his "philosophy" as "the most monstrous sham since Swedenborg." Tenneman, too, places him as "no systematic writer, but a metaphysical dilettante." To his "philosophy" may, indeed, be applied the epigram, which he is said to have written himself upon Christabel;—

Your poem must eternal be
Dear sir, it cannot fail
For 'tis incomprehensible
And wants both head and tail;

and to himself, as a metaphysician, the lines of Shelley:—

All things he seemed to understand
Of old or new, at sea or land
But his own soul, which was a mist.

Lovers of obscurity should be reminded that it is because of the muddiness, not the depth, of the water, that they cannot see the pebbles in the bed of the stream I should almost be vain enough to say with Madame de Stael, when reproached for not understanding Goethe, — "Monsieur, je comprends tout ce qui merite d'etre compris, ce que je ne comprends pas n'est rien." But this seems, like every other thing, a matter of taste. Chalmers complained to Irving of the obscurity of Coleridge, but the latter replied, "You Scotchmen would handle an idea as a butcher handles an ox. For my part, I love to see an idea looming through the mist." Very good; but it should be remembered that natural objects are magnified when seen through a hazy medium, and that a street-lamp must not be set down as the sun because a London fog has invested it with a portentous halo. I have honestly tried to make myself acquainted with the general views and bearings of Coleridge's "Philosophy," but without success. I have found it obscure, turgid, immethodic, and mystical; a pathless forest, horrent with transcendental terminology, and penetrated by no straggling ray of the lumen siccum of the Baconian metaphysics. Besides, what there is cannot be called his own. It has already been pointed out, beyond the power of refutation, that he is largely indebted for his philosophy and his profoundest views on the aesthetics of art to Schelling, a philosopher of the German school. From this writer Coleridge has adopted much, garbled more, and often translated, without the slightest acknowledgment, entire pages verbatim another less-known metaphysician, Maasz, he has laid under heavy contributions. The brothers Stolberg afforded him the original, almost word for word, for his fine lines, To a Cataract; Frederica Brun (see Preface to Table Talk), many of the principal ideas in his admired Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni, and lastly, Schiller, the exquisite distiches, in which the classical metres are so happily described and exemplified, as follows:—

Strongly it bears us along, in swelling and limitless billows;
Nothing before, and nothing behind, but the sky and the ocean.

In the Hexameter rises the fountain's silvery column;
In the Pentameter aye falling in melody back.

This is a somewhat painful subject, and opens up a curious question, not only as to the psychological condition of the man who could thus appropriate the thoughts and very words of others without acknowledgment, but also the critical character of the readers, who accepted as a marvellous system of "philosophy" the garbled and mutilated transcendentalism of a young German philosopher who had just left his teens! But I have no further space to discuss the matter, and refer the curious reader to Tait's Magazine, September, 1834; the British Magazine, January, 1835; and Blackwood's Magazine, March, 1840. It is but fair, however, to state that there is good evidence that Schelling himself held Coleridge in high esteem, and said that it was an "utter shame" to accuse him of plagiarizing from him.

It has been pointed out, in an able paper in the Cornhill Magazine (October, 1860, p. 426), that Coleridge, in his Essay towards the Formation of a more Comprehensive Theory of Life, — though giving utterance to some opinions which are doubtful or obscure, — seems to have anticipated, so far as his general view is concerned, almost the entire advance of physiological knowledge since his day. His idea is, that physical life is a process, or a mode of operation, of the same powers which we recognize under other names, as magnetism, electricity, or chemical affinity. These, by their own properties, effect all the results observed in life, but they are grouped in a special way, the various forms of action being so united, as to constitute, out of many parts, a mutually dependent whole. The distinctive character of living things is the exhibition in them of a "principle of individuation," which constitutes them units, separated from, while yet partakers in, that which is around them. "Life," he says, "supposes an universal principle in nature, with a limiting power in every particular animal, constantly acting to individualize, and, as it were, figure the former. Thus Life is not a thing, but an act and a process."' And, tracing the chain of organic being upwards, through its various grades, he points out how the great characteristic of advancing elevation in the scale of life consists in the ever more perfect individualization of the creature; its being marked off from the rest of creation, and placed in an attitude of freedom to use and subordinate her process.

It would appear that to some extent a charge of ingratitude and disingenuousness may lie against Coleridge. In the Gentleman's Magazine, for June, 1838 (pp. 577-590), an account of the various writings of the poet for the newspapers is given by Daniel Stuart. Here his misstatements as to the inadequacy of the remuneration he had received from the proprietors of the Morning Post, the Courier, etc., are pointed out, — both in the Biographia Literaria, and the Life by Mr. Gillman, and also by Henry Nelson Coleridge, in his Remains of the poet. Here also his pecuniary obligations to Mr. Sharp are mentioned, and letters given in extenso, full of expressions of gratitude and friendship, — all which was forgotten in the Biographia.

A few hasty facts in the life of S. T. Coleridge. He was born at Ottery St. Mary's, Devon, October 21st, 1772; educated at Christ's Hospital; entered Jesus (College, Cambridge, in 1791, where he gained the Browne Medal for his Greek ode on the Slave-trade, and was one of four selected candidates for the University Scholarship, vacant by the election of Porson (who was examiner on the occasion) to the Greek Professorship; left the University without a degree, and enlisted as a private in the 15th Dragoons; got his discharge; joined Southey at Bristol, and started the Watchman; married in 1795; became a Unitarian preacher at Taunton; was enabled by the Wedgwoods to go to Germany,—

—The land where Professors in plenty be,
The land that produces a Kant with a K
And many a cant with a C;
Where Hegel taught to his profit and fame,
That something and nothing were one and the same;

studied at Gottingen; returned, and betook himself to the Lakes; in 1804, visited his friend, Dr. Stoddart, at Malta, and for fifteen months acted there as secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, the governor of the island; returned to England; undertook the literary and poetical department of the Morning Post; delivered a course of lectures in 1808, on poetry and the fine arts, at the Royal Institution; published the Friend; left the Lakes finally in 1810; took up his abode in London with Basil Montague, the "water-drinking barrister" (son of Lord Sandwich and the murdered Miss Reay); went, about 1816, to stay a week with his friend Mr. Gillman a surgeon residing at the Grove, Highgate, and remained there for the rest of his life, dying, after a long illness, July 25th, 1834, in the sixty-second year of his age.

There are some capital lines, — as good as if they had proceeded from the beery pen of "Drunken Barnaby," himself, — by the late Mortimer Collins, in his clever novel The Marquis and Merchant (vol. iii. p. 200). He speaks of "the capital of Berkshire," — where John Bunyan, in days of persecution, came to preach, disguised as a waggoner, — where Coleridge was discovered as a private of cavalry, under the name of Silas Tomkin Comberbatch:—

At Reading too, when trial was warmest,
Bunyan, that sturdy Nonconformist
Whose Pilgrim's Progress is the raptest
Of books, came preaching at the Baptist
Chapel, in the frock of a waggoner.
—Time passes: lo, who draws his flaggon here?
Who, in a tap-room vowed to Bacchus,
Lovingly reads Horatius Flaccus?
How came that queer fish to arrive at
The level of a cavalry private?
Who shall, in magic irresistible,
Hereafter clothe the tale of Christabel;
And make his Ancient Mariner's glistening
Eye compel the world to listening.

The romantic incident in the career of Coleridge alluded to in these lines is so well known, and so clearly indicated here as to render any further elucidation superfluous.

If, in the former half of the present century, the hates were bitter and unreasoning, the loves were strong and the praise exaggerated. Each clique seemed to resolve itself into a society for mutual adulation, and its members sought to outdo each other in the laudation they bestowed. Thus the "Opium Eater," De Quincey, absurdly styles Coleridge "the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and most comprehensive, that has yet existed among men." W. S. Landor calls this "impiety to Shakespeare," and "treason to Milton; "but, in an equally absurd spirit of hyperbole, expressed the thought that every one besides, including Bacon, Byron and Scott, is to him as a gun-flint compared to a granite mountain! From such an eulogist one may well pray to be spared:—

'Tis hard to say, so coarse the daub he lays
Which sullies most, the censure or the praise.

Lamb loved his early friend to idolatry, and never overgot his death. "What was his mansion," said he, "is converted into a chapel." The tablet to his memory in Highgate church records "that his disposition was unalterably sweet and angelic. He was an ever-enduring, ever-long friend, the gentlest and kindest teacher, the most engaging home companion." This is proved, to a great extent, by the love which he excited. But he cannot be said to have possessed strength or decision of character; he may have loved truth, but he failed to attain it; he was a slave to the use of opium, and sacrificed his social obligations for it, he broke engagements, and "knew not the sanctity of a pledged word." J. and T. Wedgwood allowed him 150 per annum to finish his education In Germany; Joseph Cottle, of Bristol, was profuse in liberality to him; Southey kept his wife and children, he received for many years a pension of 100 per annum as one of the ten Royal Associates of the Royal Society of Literature; and, finally, was indebted to the Gillmans, of Highgate, for a home, and all the comforts of life, from middle life to its close, — when he might almost have said, with the younger Scaliger, — "Ego ab obitu patris mei semper eleemosynis vixi."

Coleridge wrote, in his lifetime, an epitaph for himself, which is perhaps worthy of record here, — though what is meant by the last two lines, if my life depended upon it, l could not say:—

Stop, Christian passer-by; stop, child of God
And read with gentle breath. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he—
O, lift a thought in prayer for S. T. C.
That he, who many a year with toil of breath
Found death in life, may here find life in death
Mercy for praise — to be forgiven for fame
He asked and hoped through Christ. Do thou the same.