1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

S. C. Hall, in The Book of Gems. The Modern Poets and Artists of Great Britain (1838) 50.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLLRIDGE was born on the 20th of October 1772, at Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. His father was a learned clergyman; and the Poet was the youngest of eleven children. In 1782; he was admitted into Christ's Hospital, London, where, according to his own account, he "enjoyed the inestimable advantage of a very sensible, though at the same time, a very severe master." At a premature age, even before his fifteenth year, he had "bewildered himself in metaphysical and theological controversy;" yet, he pursued his studies with so much zeal and perseverance, that in 1791 he became Grecian, or captain of the school, which entitled him to an exhibition at the University; he was entered at Jesus College, Cambridge. Three years afterwards, "in an inauspicious hour he left the friendly cloisters," without assigning any cause, and without taking his degree; and again came to London. There, without the means of support, he wandered for some days about the streets, and enlisted in the 15th Dragoons. While doing duty at Reading, he wrote on the wall of the stable a Latin sentence, which chanced to meet the eye of one of the officers. The inquiry that followed led to his discharge. In 1794, he published a small volume of Poems. Subsequently, the taint of French republicanism fell upon him; and he lectured at Bristol in praise of the Daemon that had stolen, and was for a time welcomed in, the garb of liberty. In 1795, he married; and in 1798, he visited Germany. In 1800, he returned to England; and although he had formerly professed Unitarianism, and had preached to a congregation at Taunton, he became a firm adherent to the doctrines of Christianity; or, to use his own expression, found a "reconversion." Afterwards, he "wasted the prime and manhood of his intellect," as the Editor of a Newspaper. During the last nineteen years of his life he resided with his faithful and devoted friends Mr. and Mrs. Gillman, at Highgate; lecturing occasionally, writing poetry and prose, and delighting and instructing all who had the good fortune to be admitted to his society. He died on the 25th of July, 1834.

The friends who knew him best, and under the shelter of whose roof-tree the later and the happier years of his chequered life were passed, have recorded their opinion of his character on the tablet that marks his grave in the Church at Highgate; and all who enjoyed the privilege of his acquaintance will bear testimony to its truth. It tells of his profound learning and discursive genius; his private worth; his social and Christian virtues; and adds, that his disposition was unalterably sweet and angelic: that he was an ever-enduring, ever-loving friend; the gentlest and kindest teacher — the most engaging home companion.

Hazlitt, who knew him in his youth, describes him as rather above the middle size, inclining to corpulency; as having a dreamy countenance, a forehead broad and high, with large projecting eye-brows, and "eyes rolling like a sea with darkened lustre." The description applies with almost equal accuracy to the Poet in age. The wonderful eloquence of his conversation is a prominent theme with all who have written or spoken of him; it was full of matter: his bookish lore, and his wide and intimate acquaintance with men and things were enlivened by a grace and sprightliness absolutely startling; — his manner was singularly attractive, and the tones of his voice were perfect music.

Few have obtained greater celebrity in the world of letters; yet few have so wasted the energies of a naturally great mind; few, in short, have done SO LITTLE of the purposed and promised MUCH. Some of the most perfect examples that our language can supply, are to be found among his Poems, full of the simplest and purest nature, yet pregnant with the deepest and most subtle philosophy. His judgment and taste were sound and refined to a degree; and when he spoke of the "little he had published" as being of "little importance," it was because his conception of excellence exceeded even his power to convey it. Those who read is wildest productions — Christabel, and the Ancient Mariner — will readily appreciate the fertile imagination and prodigious strength of the writer; and if they turn to the gentler efforts of his genius, they will find so many illustrations of a passage which prefaces an edition of his Juvenile Verses: "Poetry has been to me its 'exceeding great reward;' it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me."