COLERIDGE, whose simple, unworldly character is as well known as his genius, seems to have inherited his particular disposition from his father. His father was the Rev. John Coleridge, the vicar of Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. He was a learned man, the head master of the free grammar school at Ottery, as well as vicar. He had been previously head master of the school at South Molton, and was one of the persons who assisted Dr. Kennicott in his Hebrew Bible. "He was an exceedingly studious man," says Gillman, on the authority of Coleridge himself, "pious, of primitive manners, and the most simple habits: passing events were little heeded by him, and therefore he was usually characterized as 'the absent man.'" Coleridge was born October 2lst, 1772, the youngest of thirteen children, of which nine were sons, one of whom died in infancy. Of all these sons Coleridge is said to have most resembled his father in mind and habit. His mother was, except for education, in which she was deficient, a most fitting wife for such a man. She was an active, careful housekeeper and manager, looked well after worldly affairs, and was ambitious to place her sons well in the world. She always told them to look after good, substantial, sensible women, and not after fine harpsichord ladies. Coleridge used to relate many instances of his father's absence of mind, one or two of which we may quote. On one occasion, having to breakfast with his bishop, he went, as was the practice of that day, into a barber's shop to have his head shaved, wigs being then in common use. Just as the operation was completed, the clock struck nine, the hour at which the bishop punctually breakfasted. Roused as from a reverie, he instantly left the barber's shop, and in his haste forgetting his wig, appeared at the breakfast table, where the bishop and his party had assembled. The bishop, well acquainted with his absent manners, courteously and playfully requested him to walk into an adjoining room, and give his opinion of a mirror which had arrived from London a few days previously, and which disclosed to his astonished guest the consequence of his haste and forgetfulness.
The old gentleman, Coleridge also related, had to take a journey on some professional business, which would detain him from home for three or four days: his good wife, in her care and watchfulness, had packed a few things in a small trunk, and gave them in charge to her husband, with strong injunctions that he was to put on a clean shirt every day. On his return home, his wife went to search for his linen, when, to her dismay, it was not in the trunk. A closer search, however, discovered that the vicar had strictly obeyed her injunctions, and had put on daily a clean shirt, but had forgotten to remove the one underneath. This might have been the pleasantest and most portable mode of carrying half a dozen shirts in winter, but not so in the dog-days.
The poor idolized him and paid him the greatest reverence; and amongst other causes, for the odd one of quoting the original Hebrew liberally in his sermons. They felt themselves particularly favoured by his giving them "the very words the Spirit spoke in;" the agricultural population flocked in from the neighbourhood with great eagerness to hear him on this account; and such an opinion did they acquire of his learning, that they regarded his successor with much contempt, because he addressed them in simple English. This worthy old man died when Coleridge was about seven years old only.
He seems to have been a delicate child, of timid disposition. Being so much younger than his brothers, he never came in to be a playfellow of theirs, and thus to acquire physical hardihood and activity. "I was," he says, "in earliest childhood huffed away from the enjoyment of muscular activity in play, to take refuge at my mother's side, or on my little stool to read my book, and to listen to the talk of my elders. I was driven from life in motion, to life in thought and sensation. I never played except by myself, and then only acting over what I had been reading or fancying; or half one, half the other, with a stick cutting down weeds and nettles, as one of the seven champions of Christendom. Alas! I had all the simplicity, all the docility of a Child, but none of the child's habits. I never thought as a child, never had the language of a child. I forget whether it was in my fifth or sixth year, but I believe the latter, in consequence of some quarrel between me and my brother, in the first week in October, I ran away from fear of being whipped, and passed the whole night, a night of rain and storm, on a bleak side of a hill on the Otter, and was there found at daybreak without the power of using my limbs, about six yards from the naked bank of the river."
This anecdote has been differently related by Cottle, and by the author of Pen and Pencil Sketches. They, state that little Sammy Coleridge, as they call him, when between three and four years of age, had got a thread and a crooked pin from his elder sister Ann, and, unknown to the family, had set out to fish in the Otter. That he had wandered on and on, till, overtaken by fatigue, he lay down and slept. That he continued out all night, to the consternation of the family, and was found by a waggoner the next morning, who, going along the road at four o'clock, thought he heard a child's voice. He stopped, and listened. He now heard the voice cry out, "Betty! Betty! I can't pull up the clothes." The waggoner went to the margin of the river, where he saw, to his astonishment, a little child with a withy bough in his hand, which hung over the stream, pulling hard, and on the very point of dragging himself into the water. The child when awakened, as well as frightened, could only say his name was Sammy, and the waggoner carrying him into Ottery, joy indescribable spread through the town and the parsonage.
Which version of this story is the more correct, who shall decide? Little Coleridge, at the age of ten, was placed in Christ's Hospital in London, through the influence of Judge Buller, who had been educated by his father. This school was then, it seems, conducted in a very miserable and unkind manner. Coleridge was half starved there, neglected and wretched. The first bitter experiences of children who have had tolerable homes, of such as have had a decent house over their heads, and decent parents or friends, is on going to school. There has, no doubt, been much improvement in these as in other respects of late years. Schoolmasters, like other men, have felt the growing influences of civilization and true feeling. But there is yet much to be done in schools. Let it be remembered that fagging and flogging still continue in our great public schools of Westminster, Eton, and others. Riding the other day on the top of an omnibus through London, we could, from that popular eminence, see the master of a naval and military school exercising his vocation with the cane on one of his unhappy scholars. This I presume is a part of what the boys are systematically taught there — the preparatory initiation into the floggings that they are likely to get in the army or navy. That is bad and brutalizing enough, but that we are not yet advanced beyond the absurd idea of driving learning into our gentlemen with the cudgel and the birch, says very little indeed for our advance in true social philosophy. Southey gives a very lively idea of the school change in a boy's life, in his Hymn to the Penates.
When first a little one I left my home,
I can remember the first grief I felt,
And the first painful smile that clothed my front
With feelings not its own. Sadly at night
I sate me down beside a stranger's hearth;
And when the lingering hour of rest was come,
First wet with tears my pillow.
In The Retrospect he has still more clearly depicted it:—
Corston, twelve years in various fortunes fled
Have passed in restless progress o'er my head,
Since in thy vale, beneath the master's rule,
I roamed an inmate of the village school.
The place, he tells us, had been the ample dwelling of the lord of the manor, but—
Here now in petty empire o'er the school,
The mighty master held despotic rule;
Trembling in silence, all his deeds we saw,
His look a mandate, and his word a law;
Severe his voice, severe and stern his mien,
And wondrous strict he was, and wondrous wise, I ween.
Even now, through many a long long year I trace
The hour when first with awe I viewed his face;
Even now, recall my entrance at the dome,—
'Twas the first day I ever left my home!
Years, intervening, have not worn away
The deep remembrance of that wretched day.
Methinks e'en now the interview I see,
The mistress's kind smile, the master's glee.
Much of my future happiness they said,
Much of the easy life the scholars led;
Of spacious playground, and of wholesome air,
The best instruction, and the tenderest care;
And when I followed to the garden door
My father, till, through tears, I saw no more,—
How civilly they soothed my parting pain,
And how they never spake so civilly again.
Bravo! Southey! In these lines how many feelings of how many oppressed little hearts you have given vent to! Improvement, I do believe, has found its way, in a great degree, since then into private schools; but in many of them still, how much remains to be done! How much more may the spirits of masters and mistresses be humanized How much more the law of love be substituted for the law of severity It cannot he too deeply impressed on the hearts of those who take the charge of children often at a great distance, that there is no tyranny so cowardly and mean as that which is exercised, not over grown men, but over tender children.
Coleridge calls this change, being "first plucked up and transplanted;" and adds — "Oh, what a change! I was a depressed, moping, friendless, poor orphan, half starved; — at that time the portion of food to the Bluecoats was cruelly insufficient for those who had no friends to supply them." For those who had friends to supply them, the distinction set up was of the most detestable kind. They had luxuries brought in and served up before these poor half-starved little wretches. Charles Lamb, under the title of Elia, describes his own case as one of these favoured ones. "I remember Lamb at school, and can well remember that he had some peculiar advantages, which I and others of his schoolfellows had not. His friends lived in town and were at hand, and he had the privilege of going to see them almost as often as he wished, through some invidious distinction which was denied us. The present treasurer of the Inner Temple can explain how it happened. He had his tea and hot rolls in the morning, while we were battening upon our quarter of a penny loaf; our crug moistened with attenuated small beer in wooden piggins, smacking of the pitched leathern jack it was poured from. On Mondays, milk porritch, blue and tasteless, and the pease soup of Saturday, coarse and choking, were enriched for him with a slice of 'extraordinary bread and butter' from the hot loaf of the Temple. The Wednesday's mess of millet, somewhat less repugnant — (we had three banyan to four meat days in the week) — was endeared to his palate with a lump of double-refined, and a smack of ginger, or the fragrant cinnamon, to make it go down the more glibly. In lieu of our half-pickled Sundays, or quite fresh boiled beef on Thursdays, strong as caro equina, with detestable marigolds floating in the pail to poison the broth; our scanty mutton crags on Fridays; and rather more savoury, but grudging portions of the same flesh, rotten-roasted, or rare, on the Tuesdays — the only dish which excited our appetites, and disappointed our stomachs in almost equal proportion he had his hot plate of roast veal, or the more tempting griskin, exotics unknown to our palates, cooked in the paternal kitchen."
"I," says Coleridge, giving its the other side of the case, "was a poor friendless boy; my parents, and those who should have cared for me, were far away. Those few acquaintances of theirs, which they could reckon on being kind to me in the great city, after a little forced notice, which they had the grace to take of me on my first arrival in town, soon grew tired of my holiday visits. They seemed to them to recur too often, though I thought them few enough; one after another, they all failed me, and I felt myself alone among six hundred playmates. O, the cruelty of separating a poor lad from his early homestead! The yearnings which I used to have towards it in those unfledged years! How in my dreams would my native town, far in the west, come back, with its churches, and trees, and faces! To this late hour of my life do I trace the impressions left by the painful recollections of those friendless holidays. The long warm days of summer never return but they bring with them a gloom from the haunting memories of those whole day's leave, when, by some strange arrangement, we were turned out for the live-long day, upon our own hands, whether we had friends to go to or none. I remember those bathing excursions to the New river, which Lamb recalls with such relish, better, I think, than he can, for he was a home-seeking lad, and did not care for such water parties. How we would sally forth into the fields, and strip under the first warmth of the sun, and wanton like young dace in the streams, getting appetites for the noon which those of us that were penniless had not the means of allaying; while the cattle, and the birds, and the fishes were at feed about us, and we had nothing to satisfy our cravings: the very beauty of the day, the exercise of the pastime, and the sense of liberty, setting a keener edge upon them! How, faint and languid, finally, we would return, towards nightfall, to our desired morsel, half rejoicing, half reluctant, that the hours of uneasy liberty had expired!
"It was worse, in the days of winter, to go prowling about the streets objectless; shivering at cold windows of print shops, to extract a little amusement; or, haply, as a last resort, in the hope of a little novelty, to pay a fifty times repeated visit to the lions in the Tower, to whose levee, by courtesy immemorial, we had a prescriptive right of admission, and where our individual faces would he as well known to the warden as those of his own charges."
What an amount of cruelty may be perpetrated even under the show of favour! what hard days for the stomach, under the guise of holidays! Coleridge was, from all accounts, at this time, "a delicate and suffering boy." His stomach was weak, his feet tender, so that he was obliged to wear very large easy shoes. This might be one cause why he more readily fell into sedentary reading habits, He was to be found during play hours, often, with the knees of his breeches unbuttoned, and his shoes down at the heel, walking to and fro, or sitting on a step, or in a corner, deeply engaged in some hook. The future author of the Ancient Mariner, and translator of Wallenstein, sitting on door steps and at corners, with his book on his knee, was a very interesting object, if the Ancient Mariner and Wallenstein could have been seen seated in that head of black cropped hair; as it was, it did excite attention; and Bowyer, one of those clever brutes who, on the strength of a good store of Latin and Greek, think themselves authorized to rain a good store of blows on the poor children in their power, testified his hopes of Coleridge's progress by continually and severely punishing him. He was often heard to say that "the lad was so ordinary a looking lad, with his black head, that he generally gave him, at the end of a flogging, an extra cut; for, said he, you are such an ugly fellow."
Books were the poor fellow's solace for the flagellations of the masters and the neglect of the boys, amongst whom Lamb was not to be reckoned, for he was very fond of him and kind to him. "From eight to fourteen I was a playless day-dreamer," he observes; "a helluo librorum; my appetite for which was indulged by a singular incident — a stranger who was struck by my conversation, made me free of a circulating library in Kingstreet, Cheapside."
This incident, says Gillman, was indeed singular. Going down the Strand, in one of his daydreams, fancying himself swimming across the Hellespont, thrusting his hands before him as in the act of swimming, one hand came in contact with a gentleman's pocket. The gentleman seized his hand; turned round, and looked at him with some anger, exclaiming — "What! so young and so wicked!" at the same time accusing him of an attempt to pick his pocket. The frightened boy sobbed out his denial of the intention, and explained to him how he thought himself Leander swimming across the Hellespont. The gentleman was so struck and delighted with the novelty of the thing, and with the simplicity and intelligence of the boy, that he subscribed, as before stated, to the library, in consequence of which Coleridge was further enabled to indulge his love of reading.
It is stated that at this school he laid the foundation of those bodily sufferings, which made his life one of sickness and torture, and occasioned his melancholy resort to opium. He greatly injured his health, it is said, and reduced his strength by his bathing excursions; but is it not quite as likely that the deficiency of food, and those holiday days when he was turned out to starvation, had quite as much to do with it? On one occasion he swam across the New river in his clothes, and dried them on his back. This is supposed to have laid the foundation of his rheumatic pains; but may not that lying out all night in the rain at a former day have been even a still earlier predisposing cause? However that might be, he says, that "full half the time from seventeen to eighteen was passed in the sick-ward of Christ's Hospital, afflicted with jaundice and rheumatic fever."
At an earlier day he had undergone a medical treatment which was oddly enough the cause of his breaking out into verse. He had a remarkably delicate white skin, which was once the cause of great punishment to him. His dame had undertaken to cure him of the itch, with which the boys of his ward had suffered much; but Coleridge was doomed to suffer more than his comrades, from the use of sulphur ointment, through the great sagacity of his dame, who with her extraordinary eyes, aided by the power of glasses, could see the malady in the skin, deep and out of power of common vision; and consequently, as often as she employed this miraculous sight, she found, or thought she found, fresh reason for continuing the friction, to the prolonged suffering and mortification of her patient. This occurred when he was about ten years of age, and gave rise to his first attempt at making a verse, as follows:—
O lord, have mercy on me! For I am very sad!
For why, good Lord? I've got the itch,
And eke I've get the tad!
the school name for ringworm.
In classical study Coleridge made wonderful progress, though but little in mathematics. He read on through the catalogue, folios and all, of the library in King-street, and was always in a low fever of excitement. His whole being was, he says, with eyes closed to every object of present sense, to crumple himself up in a sunny corner, and read, read, read; fancying himself on Robinson Crusoe's island, finding a mountain of plum cake and eating a room for himself, and then eating out chairs and tables, — hunger and fancy!
So little affection had Coleridge for the school, that he greatly wanted at fifteen to put himself apprentice to a shoemaker. It was of the same class of odd attempts as his future one at soldiering.
"Near the school there resided a worthy, and in their rank of life, a respectable middle-aged couple. The husband kept a little shop and was a shoemaker, with whom Coleridge had become intimate. The wife also had been kind and attentive to him, and that was sufficient to captivate his affectionate nature, which had existed from earliest childhood, and strongly endeared him to all around him. Coleridge became exceedingly desirous of being apprenticed to this man, to learn the art of shoemaking; and in due time, when some of the boys were old enough to leave the school and be put to trade, Coleridge, being of the number, tutored his friend Crispin how to apply to the head master, and not to heed his anger should he become irate. Accordingly, Crispin applied at the hour proposed to see Bowyer, who having heard the proposal to take Coleridge as an apprentice, and Coleridge's answer and assent to become a shoemaker, broke forth with his favourite adjuration: — 'Ods my life, man, what d'ye mean?' At the sound of his angry voice Crispin stood motionless, till the angry pedagogue, becoming infuriate, pushed the intruder out of the room with such force that Crispin might have sustained an action at law against him for the assault. Thus, to Coleridge's mortification and regret, as he afterwards in joke would say, 'I lost the opportunity of supplying safeguards to the understandings of those who perhaps will never thank me for what I am aiming to do in exercising their reason.'
Disappointed in becoming a shoemaker, he was next on fire to become a surgeon. His brother Luke was now in London, walking the London hospitals. Here every Saturday he got leave and went, delighted beyond everything if he were permitted to hold the plasters, or attend dressings. He now plunged headlong into books of medicine, Latin, Greek, or English; devoured whole medical dictionaries; then fell from physic to metaphysics; thence to the writings of infidels; fell in love, like all embryo poets, and wrote verse. He was, however, destined neither to snake shoes nor set bones, but for the university; whither he went in 1791, at the age of nineteen, being elected to Jesus college, Cambridge.
Here his friend Middleton, afterwards bishop of Calcutta, who had been his most distinguished schoolfellow at Christ's hospital, had preceded him, and was an undergraduate at Pembroke college. Their friendship was revived, and Coleridge used to go to Pembroke college sometimes to read with him. One day he found Middleton intent on his book, having on a long pair of boots reaching to the knees, and beside him, on a chair next to the one he was sitting on, a pistol. Coleridge had scarcely sat down before he was startled by the report of the pistol. "Did you see that?" said Middleton. "See what?" said Coleridge. "That rat I just sent into its hole again. Did you feel the shot? It was to defend my legs that I put on these boots. I am frightening these rats from my books, which, without some precaution, I shall have devoured." Middleton, notwithstanding his hard studies, failed in his contest for the classical medal, and so in his hopes of a fellowship, — a good thing eventually for him, for it drove him out of college into the world and a bishopric.
Coleridge came to the university with a high character for talent and learning; and the Blues, as they are called, or Christ's Hospital boys, anticipated his doing great honour to their body. This he eventually did by his poetical fame, and might have done by his college honours, had he but been as well versed in mathematics as in the classics. In his first year he contested for the prize for the Greek ode, and won it. In his second year he stood for the Craven scholarship, and of sixteen or eighteen competitors four were selected to contend for the prize; these were, Dr. Butler, late bishop of Lichfield; Dr. Keate, the late head master of Eton; Mr. Bethell, and Coleridge. Dr. Butler was the successful candidate, and Coleridge was supposed to stand next. But college honours were contingent on a good mathematical stand; this Coleridge, who hated mathematics, despaired of, and determined to quit the university. He was, moreover, harassed with debts, the most serious of which, it seems, was incurred immediately on his arriving at Cambridge. He was no sooner at his college, than a polite upholsterer accosted him, requesting to be permitted to furnish his rooms. The next question was, "How would you like to have them furnished?" The answer, prompt and innocent enough, was, "Just as you please, Sir," — thinking the individual employed by the college. The rooms were therefore furnished according to the taste of the artizan, and the bill presented to the astonished Coleridge. On quitting the college, it seems that his debts were about one hundred pounds — no great matter, but to him as overwhelming as if they had been a thousand. Cottle, in his account of him, says, he had fallen in love, as well as into debt, with a Mary G —, who rejected his offer, he made his way to London, and there, of all things in the world, enlisted for a soldier. The story is very curious, and as related, both by Cottle and Gillman, who were intimate with him at different periods of his life, is no doubt true.
In a state of great dejection of mind, he strolled about the streets of London till night came on, when he seated himself on the steps of a house in Chancery-lane, speculating on the future. In thus situation, overwhelmed with his own painful thoughts, and in misery himself, he had now to contend with the misery of others, — for he was accosted by various kinds of beggars importuning him for money, and forcing on him their real or pretended sorrows. To these applicants he emptied his pockets of his remaining cash. Walking along Chancery-lane, he noticed a bill posted on the wall — "Wanted a few smart lads for the 15th Elliott's Light Dragoons:" he paused a moment, and said to himself, "Well, I have had all my life a violent antipathy to soldiers and horses, the sooner I cure myself of these absurd prejudices the better; and so I will enlist in this regiment. Forthwith, he went as directed to the place of enlistment. On his arrival, he was accosted by an old sergeant, with a remarkably benevolent countenance, to whom he stated his wish. The old man, looking at him attentively, asked him if he had been in bed? On being answered in the negative, he desired him to take his, made him breakfast, and bade him rest himself awhile, which he did. This feeling sergeant, finding him refreshed in his body, but still suffering apparently from melancholy, in kind words begged him to be of good cheer, and consider well the step he was about to take: gave him half a guinea, which he was to repay at his convenience, desiring him at the same time to go to the play, and shake off his melancholy, and not to return to him. The first part of the advice Coleridge attended to, but returned after the play to the quarters he had left. At the sight of him, this kind-hearted man burst into tears. "Then it must he so," said he. This sudden and unexpected sympathy from an entire stranger deeply affected Coleridge, and nearly shook his resolution; but still considering that he could not in honour even to the sergeant retreat, he kept his secret, and, after a short chat, they retired to rest. In the morning, the sergeant mustered his recruits, and Coleridge, with his new comrades, was marched to Reading. On his arrival at the quarters of the regiment, the general of the district inspected the recruits, and looking hard at Coleridge, with a military air, "What's your name, Sir?" He had previously determined to give one thoroughly Kamtschatkan, but having observed one somewhere, over a door, Cumberbatch, he thought this sufficiently outlandish, and therefore gave it with a slight alteration, which implied a joke on himself as a horseman. Silas Tomken Comberbacke, as thus it is spelled in the books at the War-office. "What do you come here for?" said the officer, as if doubting that he had any business there. "Sir," said Coleridge, "for what most other persons come, to be made a soldier." "Do you think," said the general, "you can run a Frenchman through the body?" "I don't know," replied Coleridge, "as I never tried, but I'll let a Frenchman run me through before I'll run away." "That will do," said the general, and Coleridge was turned into the ranks.
Here, in his new capacity, laborious duties devolved on Mr. Coleridge. He endeavoured to think on Caesar, Epaminondas, and Leonidas, with other ancient heroes, and composed himself to his fate, remembering that in every service there must he a commencement; but still he found confronting him no imaginary difficulties. Perhaps he who had most cause of dissatisfaction was the drill-sergeant, who thought his professional character endangered; for, after using his utmost efforts to bring his raw recruit into anything like a training, he expressed the most serious fears, from his unconquerable awkwardness, that he never should he able to make a proper soldier of him. It appears that he never advanced beyond the awkward squad, and that the drill-sergeant was obliged continually to warn the members of this squad by vociferously exclaiming — "Take care of that Cumberback! take care of him, for he will ride over you!" and other such complimentary warnings.
Coleridge, or Cumberbatch, or Cumberback, could never manage to rub down his own horse. The creature, he said, was a vicious one, and would return kick or bite for all such attempts; but then, in justice to the poor animal, the awkwardness of the attempts should be taken into the account. Cumberback at this time complained of a pain at the pit of his stomach, accompanied with sickness, which totally prevented his stooping, and in consequence he could never rub the heels of his horse at all. He would very quietly have left his horse unrubbed, but then he got a good rubbing down himself from the drill-sergeant. Between sergeant and steed he was in a poor case, for when he mounted his horse, it, like Gilpin's nag,
What thing upon its back had got,
Did wonder more and more.
But the same amiable and benevolent conduct which was so interwoven in his nature, soon made him friends, and his new comrades vied with each other in their endeavours to be useful to him. They assisted to clean his horse, and he amply repaid the obligation by writing all their letters to their sweethearts and wives. Such an amanuensis we may well affirm no lucky set of soldiers ever had before. Their lasses and good wives must have wondered at the new burst of affectionate eloquence in the regiment.
Poor Cumberback's skill in horsemanship did not progress. He was always encountering accidents and troubles. So little did he often calculate for a due equilibrium, that in mounting on one side — perhaps the wrong stirrup — the probability was, especially if his horse moved, that he lost his balance, and if he did not roll back on this side, came down ponderously oil the other! The men, spite of their liking for him, would burst into a laugh, and say to one another, "Silas is off again!" Silas had often heard of campaigns, but he never before had so correct an idea of hard service.
From his inability to learn his exercise, the men considered him a sort of natural, though of a peculiar kind — a talking natural. This fancy he stoutly resisted, but no matter — what was it that he could do cleverly? — therefore a natural he must be.
But now came a change. He had been placed as a sentinel at the door of a ball-room, or some public place of resort, when two of his officers passing in, stopped for a moment near Coleridge talking about Euripides, two lines being quoted by one of them as from that poet. At the sound of Greek the sentinel instinctively turned his ear, when, with all deference, touching his cap, he said, "I hope your honour will excuse me, but the lines you have repeated are not quite accurately cited. These are the lines;" which he gave in their true form. "Besides," said Cumberback, "instead of being in Euripides they will be found in the second antistrophe of the Oedipus of Sophocles." "Why, who the d—l are you?" said the officer, "old Faustus ground young again?" — "I am only your honour's humble sentinel," said Coleridge, again touching his cap.
The officers hastened into the room, and inquired about that "odd fish" at the door; when one of the mess, the surgeon, it is believed, told them that he had had his eye upon him, but he could neither tell where he came from, nor anything about his family of the Comberbacks. "But," continued he, "instead of an 'odd fish,' I suspect him to be a 'stray bird' from the Oxford or Cambridge aviary." They learned also the laughable fact that he was bruised all over by frequent falls from his horse. The officers kindly took pity on the poor scholar, and had him removed to the medical department, where he was appointed "assistant" in the regimental hospital. This change was a vast improvement in Mr. Coleridge's condition; and happy was the day also on which it took place, for the sake of the sick patients; for Silas Tomken Comberback's amusing stories, they said, did them more good than all the doctor's physic. If he began talking to one or two of his comrades, — for they were all on a perfect equality, except that those who were clever in their exercise lifted their heads a little above the awkward squad, of which Comberback was, by acclamation, the preeminent member, — if he began to talk, however, to one or two, others drew near, increasing momently, till by and by the sick beds were deserted, and Comberback formed the centre of a large circle. Many ludicrous dialogues occurred between Coleridge and his new disciples, particularly with the "geographer."
On one occasion he told them of the Peloponnesian war, which lasted twenty-seven years. "There must have been famous promotions there," said one poor fellow, haggard as a death's head. Another, tottering with disease, ejaculated, "Can you tell, Silas, how many rose from the ranks?"
He now still more excited their wonderment by recapitulating the feats of Achimedes. As the narrative proceeded, one restrained his scepticism till he was almost ready to burst, and then vociferated, "Silas, that's a lie!" "D'ye think so?" said Coleridge, smiling, and went on with his story. The idea, however, got amongst them that Silas's fancy was on the stretch, when Coleridge, finding that this would not do, changed his subject, and told them of a famous general called Alexander the Great. As by a magic spell, the flagging attention was revived, and several, at the same moment, to testify their eagerness, called out, "The general! the general I'll tell you all about him," said Coleridge, and impatience marked every countenance. He then told them who was the father of this Alexander the Great, — no other than Philip of Macedon. "I never heard of him," said one. "I think I have," said another, ashamed of being thought ignorant. "Silas, wasn't he a Cornish man? I knew one of the Alexanders at Truro."
Coleridge now went on, describing to them, in glowing colours, the valour, the wars, and the conquests of this famous general. "Ah," said one man, whose open mouth had complimented the speaker for the preceding half hour, "Ah," said he, "Silas, this Alexander must have been as great a man as our colonel!" Coleridge now told them of the "Retreat of the Ten Thousand." "I don't like to hear of retreat," said one. "Nor I," said a second; "I'm for marching on." Coleridge now told of the incessant conflicts of those brave warriors, and of the virtues of the square." "They were a parcel of crack men," said one. "Yes," said another, "their bayonets fixed, and sleeping on their arms day and night." "I should like to know," said a fourth, "what rations were given with all that hard fighting;" on which an Irishman replied, "To be sure, every time the sun rose, two pounds of good ox beef and plenty of whisky."
At another time he told them of the invasion of Xerxes, and his crossing the wide Hellespont. "Ah!" said a young recruit, a native of an obscure village in Kent, who had acquired a decent smattering of geography, knowing well that the earth went round, was divided into land and water, and that there were more countries on the globe than England, and who now wished to show off a little before his comrades — "Silas, I know where that 'Hellspont' is. I think it must be the mouth of the Thames, for 'tis very wide."
Coleridge now told them of the heroes of Thermopylae; when the geographer interrupted him by saying, "Silas, I know, too, where that there Moppily is, it's somewhere up in the north." "You are quite right, Jack," said Coleridge, "it is to the north of the line." A conscious elevation marked his countenance; and he rose at once five degrees in the estimation of his friends.
But the days of Comberback were drawing to an end. An officer, supposed to be Captain Nathaniel Ogle, who sold out of that regiment towards the end of the same year that Coleridge left it, had, it is said, had his attention drawn towards this singular private, by finding the following sentence written on the walls of the stable where Comberback's horse equipage hung. "Eheu! quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem!" He showed him particular distinction. When Captain Ogle walked the streets, Coleridge walked behind him as his orderly; but when out of town, they walked abreast, to the great mystification of his comrades, who could not comprehend how a man out of the awkward squad could merit this honour. It was probably Ogle who wormed the secret out of Coleridge, and informed his friends where he was. It has, however, been said to have been through a young man, who had lately left Cambridge for the army, and on his road through Reading to join his regiment, met Coleridge in the street, in his dragoon's dress, who was about to pass him; on which he said, "No, Coleridge, this will not do; we have been seeking you this six months. I must and will converse with you, and have no hesitation in declaring that I shall immediately inform your friends that I have found you."
Whether owing to one or both of these causes, but as Comberback was sitting as usual at the foot of a bed, in the hospital, in the midst of one of his talks, and surrounded by his usual gaping auditors, the door suddenly opened, and in came two or three gentlemen, his friends, looking in vain some time for their man, amid the uniform dresses. At length they pitched on their man, and taking him by the arm, led him in silence out of the room. As the supposed deserter passed the door, one of the astonished auditors uttered, with a sigh — "Poor Silas! I wish they may let him off with a cool five hundred!"
Comberback was no more! but his memory was long and affectionately preserved amongst his hospital companions, one of whom he had volunteered to attend during a most malignant attack of small-pox, when all others deserted him, and had waited on him, and watched by him, for six weeks. To prevent contagion, the patient and his noble-hearted nurse, and eventual saviour, were put into an out-house, where Coleridge continued all that time, night and day, administering medicine, guarding him from himself during violent delirium, and when again capable of listening, sitting by his bed, and reading to him. In the annals of humanity, that act must stand as one of the truest heroism.
Connected with this singular passage in Coleridge's life, an old friend of his told Cottle this anecdote. The inspecting officer of his regiment, on one occasion, was examining the guns of the men; and coming to one piece which was rusty, he called out in an authoritative tone, "Whose rusty gun is this?" "Is it very rusty, Sir?" asked Coleridge. "Yes, Comberbatch, it is," said the officer, sternly. "Then, Sir," replied Coleridge, "it must be mine!" The oddity of the reply disarmed the officer, and the "poor scholar" escaped without punishment.
There are various anecdotes abroad, at once illustrative of Coleridge's queer horsemanship and happy knack at repartee, of which a specimen or two may be given here, before we dismiss him as a trooper.
His awkwardness on horseback was so marked that it attracted general notice. Once riding along the turnpike road in the county of Durham, a wag approaching him, noticed his peculiarity, and thought the rider a fine subject for a little fun. Drawing near, he thus accosted Coleridge, "I say, young man, did you meet a tailor on the road?" "Yes," replied Coleridge, "I did, and he told me if I went a little further I should meet a goose." The goose trotted on, quite satisfied with what he had got.
Coleridge is represented as being at this time on his way to a neighbouring race-course. That a farmer, at whose house he was staying, knowing his sorry horsemanship, had put him on the least and poorest animal he had, with old saddle and bridle and rusty stirrups. On this Rosinante, Coleridge went in a black dress coat, with black breeches, black silk stockings and shoes. Two other friends, as better horsemen, were intrusted with better steeds, and soon left him on the road. At length, reaching the race ground, and thrusting his way through the crowd, he arrived at the spot of attraction to which all were hastening. Here he confronted a barouche and four, filled with smart ladies and attendant gentlemen. In it was also seated a baronet of sporting celebrity, steward of the course, and member of the house of Commons; well known as having been bought and sold in several parliaments. The baronet eyed the figure of Coleridge, as he slowly passed the door of the barouche, and thus accosted him: "A pretty piece of blood, Sir, you have there." "Yes!" answered Coleridge. "Rare paces, I have no doubt, Sir!" "Yes," answered Coleridge, "he brought me here a matter of four miles an hour." He was at no loss to perceive the honourable baronet's drift, who wished to show off before the ladies: so he quietly waited the opportunity of a suitable reply. "What a free hand he has!" continued Nimrod; "how finely he carries his tail! Bridle and saddle well suited, and appropriately appointed!" "Yes," said Coleridge. "Will you sell him?" asked the sporting baronet. "Yes," was the answer, "if I can have my price." "Name your price, then, putting the rider into the bargain!" "My price," replied Coleridge, "for the horse, Sir, if I sell him, is one hundred guineas; as to the rider, never having been in parliament, and never intending to go, his price is not yet fixed." The baronet sat down more suddenly than he had risen — the ladies began to titter — while Coleridge quietly now moved on.
Coleridge returned to Cambridge, but only for a very short time. The French Revolution, in its early promise, had raised the spirit of enthusiasm for liberty in the bosom of all generous-natured young men. This had brought together Coleridge, Southey, and others of the like temperament. Coleridge now went to visit Southey, at Oxford, where they hit upon the Pantisocracy scheme, an offshoot from the root of Rousseau's visions of primitive life. Coleridge is said first to have broached it, and that it was eagerly adopted by Southey, and a college friend of his, George Burnet. These young men, soon after, set off to Bristol, Southey's native place, where they were soon joined by Coleridge. Here Southey, Coleridge, and Burnet occupied the same lodging; Robert Lovell, a young quaker, had adopted this scheme, and they all concluded to embark for America, where, on the banks of the Susquehannah, they were to found their colony of peace and perfection, to follow their own ploughs, harvest their own corn, and show forth to the world the union of a patriarchal life of labour, with the highest exercise of intellect and virtue. Luckily for them, the mainspring was wanting. Without the root of all evil, they could not rear this tree of all good fruits. They were obliged to borrow cash of CottIe even to pay for their lodgings; and the shrewd bookseller, while he listened to then' animated descriptions of their future transatlantic Eden, chuckled to himself on the impossibility of their ever carrying it out. The dream gradually came to an end. Lovell died unexpectedly, being carried off by a fever, brought on through a cold, caught on a journey to Salisbury. Symptoms of jarring had shown themselves amongst the friends, which were rather ominous for the permanence of a pantisocracy. Coleridge had quarrelled with Lovell before he died, because Lovell, who was married to a Miss Fricker, opposed Coleridge's marriage with her sister till he had better prospects. Coleridge and Southey quarrelled about the pantisocracy afterwards. The most important results to Southey and Coleridge of this pantisocratic coalition were, that they eventually married the two sisters of Lovell's wife. Both these young poets, with their minds now fermenting with new schemes of politics and doctrines of religion, commenced at Bristol as lecturers and authors. The profits of the lectures were to pay for the voyage to America; they did not even pay the rent. Coleridge lectured on the English Rebellion and Charles I., the French Revolution, and on Religion and Philosophy; Southey, on General History: both displaying their peculiar talents and characters — Coleridge all imagination, absence of mind, and impracticability; Southey, with less genius, but more order, prudence, and worldly tact. Both of those remarkable men began by proclaiming the most ultra-liberalism in politics and theology — both came gradually back to the opinions which early associations and education had riveted on them unknown to themselves, but with very different degrees of rapidity, and finally with a very different tone. Coleridge ran through infidelity, unitarianism, the philosophy, of Berkeley, Spinoza, Hartley, and Kant; and came back finally to good old Church-of Englandism, but full of love and tolerance. Southey, more prudent, and notoriously timid, was at once startled by the horrors of the French committed in the name of liberty; saw that the way of worldly prosperity was closed for life to him who was not orthodox, and became at once orthodox. But the consciousness of that sudden change hung for ever upon him. He knew that reproach would always pursue the suspicious reconversion, and on that consciousness grew bitterness and intolerance. Coleridge, having wandered through all opinions himself, was afraid to condemn too harshly those who differed from him. He contented himself with loving God, and preaching the true principles of Christianity:
He prayeth best who loveth best
Both man and beast, both great and small;
For the great God who loveth us
He made and loveth all.
Southey, on the contrary, stalked into the fearful regions of bigotry, assumed in imagination the throne and thunderbolts of Deity, and
Dealt damnation round the land
On all he deemed his foes.
But this was the worst view of Southey's character. He had that lower class of virtues which Coleridge had not, and out of his prudence and timidity sprung that worldly substance which Coleridge was never likely to acquire, and by which he kindly made up for some of Coleridge's deficiencies. Coleridge could not provide properly for his family; Southey helped to provide for them, and invited Coleridge's wife and daughter to his house, where for many years they had a house. In all domestic relations, Southey was admirable; he failed only in those which would have given him it name, perhaps, little short of Milton for glorious patriotism, had he proceeded to the end as he began.
Of the literary life of Southey, Coleridge, and Wordsworth, who soon after joined them in the west, I have yet to speak. We must now follow Coleridge.
The circumstances which had brought Coleridge to Bristol, though they did not end in pantisocracy, ended in marriage, which for some years fixed him in that part of the country. Cottle, who, a poet of some merit himself; saw the great talent of these young men, offered Southey fifty guineas for his Joan of Arc, and became its publisher. He also offered Coleridge thirty guineas for a volume of poems, the cash to be advanced whien he pleased from time to time. On this slender foundation, Coleridge began the world. He took a cottage at Clevedon, some miles from Bristol, and thither he took his bride. It appears truly to have been the poetic idea — love in a cottage, for there was love and little more. Cottle says it had walls, and doors, and windows, but as for furniture, only such as became a philosopher. This was not enough even for poetic lovers. Two days after the wedding, the poet wrote to Cottle to send him the following unpoetical, but very essential articles: — "A riddle-slice; a candle-box; two ventilators; two glasses for the wash-hand stand; one tin dust-pan; one small tin tea-kettle; one pair of candlesticks; one carpet brush; one flour-dredge; three tin extinguishers; two mats; a pair of slippers; a cheese-toaster; two large tin spoons; a bible; a keg of porter; coffee, raisins, currants, catsup, nutmegs, allspice, rice, ginger, and mace."
So Coleridge began the world. Cottle, having sent these articles, hastened after them to congratulate the young couple. This is his account of their residence. "The situation of the cottage was peculiarly eligible. It was in the extremity, not in the centre of the village. It had the benefit of being but one story high; and, as the rent was only five pounds per annum, and the taxes nought, Mr. Coleridge had the satisfaction of knowing that, by fairly mounting his Pegasus, he could make as many verses in a week as would pay his rent for a year. There was also a small garden, with several pretty flowers, and the 'tallest tree-rose' did not fail to be pointed out, which 'peeped at the chamber window,' and has been honoured with some beautiful lines."
The cottage is there yet in its garden; but Coleridge did not long inhabit it. He soon found that even Clevedon was too far out of the world for books and intellect; and returning to Bristol, took lodgings on Redcliff-hill. From this abode He soon again departed, being invited by his friend, Mr. Thomas Poole, of Nether Stowey, to visit him there. During this visit, he wrote some of his first volume of poems, including the Religious Musings; he then returned to Bristol, and started the idea of his Watchman, and made that journey through the principal manufacturing towns, to obtain subscribers for it, which he so amusingly describes in his Biographia Literaria. This was a failure; but about this time, Charles Lloyd, the eldest son of Charles Lloyd, the banker, of Birmingham, whom Byron has commemorated in the alliterative line of "— Lovell, Lamb, and Lloyd," was smitten with the admiration of Coleridge's genius, and offered to come and reside with him. He therefore took a larger house on Kingsdown, where Lloyd was his inmate. Mr. Poole, of Stowey, however, was not easy to be without the society of Coleridge; he sent him word that there was a nice cottage there at liberty, of only seven pounds per annum rent, and pressed him to come and fix there. Thither Coleridge went, Lloyd also agreeing to accompany them. Unfortunately, Lloyd had the germs of insanity as well as poetry in him, He was subject to fits, which agitated and alarmed Coleridge. They eventually disagreed, and Lloyd left, but was afterwards reconciled, well perceiving that his morbid nervousness had had much to do with the difference.
This place became for two years Coleridge's home. Here he wrote some of his most beautiful poetry. "The manhood of Coleridge's true poetical life," has been observed by a cotemporary, "was in the year 1797." He was yet only twenty-five years of age; but his poetical faculty had now acquired a wide grasp and a deep power. Here he wrote his Tragedy of Remorse, Christabelle, the Dark Ladie, the Ancient Mariner, which was published in the Lyrical Ballads jointly with Wordsworth's first poems, his ode on the Departing Year, and his Fears in Solitude. These works are at once imbued with the highest spirit of his poetry, and the noblest sentiments of humanity. Here he was visited by Charles Lamb, Charles Lloyd, Southey, Hazlitt, De Quincy, who had previously presented him generously with £300; the two great potters, the Wedgwoods, and other eminent men. Wordsworth lived near him at Allfoxden, and was in almost daily intercourse with him. The foot of Quantock was to Coleridge, says one of his biographers, a memorable spot. Here his studies were serious and deep. They were directed not only to poetry, but into the great bulk of theological philosophy. Here, with his friend, Thomas Poole, a man sympathizing in all his tastes, and with Wordsworth, he roamed over the Quantock hills, drinking in at every step new knowledge and impressions of nature. In his Biographia Literaria, he says, "My walks were almost daily on the top of Quantock, and amongst its sloping coombs." He had got an idea of writing a poem called THE BROOK, tracing a stream which he had found, from its source in the hills amongst the yellow-red moss, and conical glass-shaped tufts of bent, to the first break, or fall, where its drops become audible, and it begins to form a channel; thence to the peat and turf barn, itself built of the same dark masses as it sheltered; to the sheepfold; to the first cultivated spot of ground; to the lonely cottage, and its bleak garden won from the heath; to the hamlets, the market towns, the manufactories, and the sea-port. It will be seen, that this was not quite on so fine a scale as Childe Harold, and that Wordsworth has carried out the idea in the Sonnets on the river Duddon, not quite so amply as the original idea itself. He says, when strolling alone he was always with book paper, and pencil in hand, making studies from nature, whence his striking and accurate transcripts of such things. It will be noticed in the article on Wordsworth, that these rambles, in the ignorant minds of the country people, converted him and Coleridge into suspicious characters. Coleridge was so open and simple, that they said, "As to Coleridge, he is a whirl-brain, that talks whatever comes uppermost; but that Wordsworth he is a dark traitor. You never hear him say a syllable on the subject!"
Coleridge himself, in his Biographia Literaria, tells us, that a certain baronet in the neighbourhood got government to send down a spy to watch them. That this spy was a very honest fellow, for a wonder. That he heard them, he said, at first. talking a deal of Spy Nosey (Spinosa), and thought they were up to him, as his nose was none of the smallest; but he soon found that it was all about books. Coleridge also gives the amusing dialogue between the innkeeper and the baronet, the innkeeper having been ordered to entertain the spy, but, like the spy, soon found that the strange gentlemen were only poets, and going to put Quantock into verse.
Many are the testimonies of attachment to this neighbourhood and the wild Quantock hills, to be found in the poems of Coleridge; and in the third book of the Excursion, Wordsworth describes the Quantock and their rambles with all the gusto of a fond memory. First we have a peep at his own abode. We are conveyed—
To a low cottage in a sunny bay,
Where the salt sea innocuously breaks,
And the sea breeze as innocently breathes
On Devon's leafy shores a sheltered hold
In a soft clime, encouraging the soil
To a luxuriant bounty. As our steps
Approach the embowered abode — our chosen seat,
See rooted in the earth, her kindly bed
The unendangered myrtle, decked with flowers,
Before the threshold and, to welcome us!
While, in the flowering myrtle's neighbourhood,
Not overlooked, but courting no regard,
Those native plants, the holly and the yew,
Give modest intimation to the mind
How willingly their aid they would unite
With the green myrtle, to endear the hours
Of winter, and protect that pleasant place.
This, though placed in Devon instead of Somerset, accurately describes Wordsworth's pleasant nook there; but the Quantock walks are more strikingly like.
Wild were the walks upon those lonely downs,
Track leading into track, how marked, how worn,
Into light verdure, between fern and gorse,
Winding away its never-ending line
On their smooth surface, evidence was none;
But, there, lay open to our daily haunt,
A range of unappropriated earth,
Where youth's ambitious feet might move at large;
Whence, unmolested wanderers, we beheld
The shining giver of the day diffuse
His brightness o'er a track of sea and land
Gay as our spirits, free as our desires,
As our enjoyments boundless. From those heights
We dropped at pleasure into sylvan coombs,
Where arbours of impenetrable shade,
And mossy seats, detained its side by side,
With hearts at ease, and knowledge in our breasts
That all the grove and all the day was ours.
In Coleridge's poem of Fears in Solitude, a noble-hearted poem, these hills, and one of these very dells, are described with equal graphic truth and affection.
A green and silent spot amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O'er stiller place
No singing skylark ever poised himself;
The hills are heathy, save that swelling slope,
Which hath a gay and gorgeous covering on,
All golden with the never bloomless furze
Which now blooms most profusely; but the dell,
Bathed by the mist, is fresh and delicate
As vernal corn fields, or the unripe flax,
When through its half-transparent stalks at eve,
The level sunshine glimmers with green light.
Oh! 'tis a quiet, spirit healing nook!
Which all, methinks, would love: but chiefly he,
The humble man, who, in his youthful years,
Knew just so much of folly as had made
His early manhood more securely wise!
Here might he lie on fern or withered heath,
While from the singing lark, that sings unseen
The minstrelsy that solitude loves best,
And from the sun, and from the breezy air,
Sweet influences trembled o'er his frame;
And he with many feelings, many thoughts,
Made up a meditative joy, and found
Religious musings in the forms of nature!
And so his senses gradually wrapt
In a half sleep, he dreams of better worlds,
And dreaming hears thee still, O singing lark,
That singest like an angel in the clouds.
Here, buried in summer beauty from the world, in this green and delicious oratory, he lay and poured out those finely human thoughts on war and patriotism, which enrich this poem; which closes with a descriptive view of these hills, the wide prospects from them, and of little quiet Stowey lying at their feet.
But now the gentle dew-fall sends abroad
The fruit like perfume of the golden furze;
The light has left the summit of the hill;
Though still a sunny gleam lies beautiful
Aslant the ivied beacon. Now farewell,
Farewell, awhile, O soft and silent spot!
On the green sheep-track, up the heathy hill,
Homeward I wend my way; and lo! recalled
From bodings that have well-nigh wearied me,
I find myself upon the brow, and pause
Startled! And after lonely sojourning
In such a quiet and surrounded nook,
This burst of prospect, — here the shadowy main,
Dim tinted, there the mighty majesty
Of that huge amphitheatre of rich
And dewy fields, seems like society
Conversing with the mind, and giving it
A livelier impulse and a dance of thought!
And now, beloved Stowey! I behold
Thy church tower, and, methinks, the four huge elms
Clustering, which mark the mansion of my friend;
And close behind them, hidden from my view,
Is my own lowly cottage, where my babe,
And my babe's another, dwell in peace! With light
And quickened footsteps thitherward I tend,
Remembering thee, O green and silent dell!
And grateful that, by nature's quietness
And solitary musings, all my heart
Is softened, and made worthy to indulge
Love, and the thoughts that yearn for all mankind.
Stowey, like all other places where remarkable men have lived, even but a few years ago, impresses us with a melancholy sense of rapid change, of the swift flight of human life. There is the little town, there ascend beyond it the green slopes and airy range of the Quantock hills, scattered with masses of woodland, which give a feeling of deep solitude. But where is the poet, who used here to live, and there to wander and think? Where is his friend Poole? All are gone, and village and country are again resigned to the use of simple and little-informed people, who take poets for spies and dark traitors. The little town is vastly like a continental one. It consists of one street, which at an old market cross diverges into two others, exactly forming all old-fashioned letter Y. The houses are, like continental ones, white, and down the street rolls a little full stream, quite in the fashion of a foreign village, with broad flags laid across to get at the houses. It stands in a particularly agreeable, rich, and well-wooded country, with the range of the Quantock hills, at some half mile distance, and from them a fine view of the sea and the Welsh coast, on the other side of the Bristol channel.
The house in which Thomas Poole used to live, and where Coleridge and his friend had a second home, is about the centre of the village. It is a large old-fashioned house, with pleasant garden, and ample farm-yard, with paddocks behind. It is now inhabited by a medical man and his sister, who do all honour to the memory of Coleridge, and very courteously allow you to see the house. The lady obligingly took me round the garden, and pointed out to me the windows of the room overlooking it, where so many remarkable men used to assemble.
Mr. Poole, who was a bachelor, and a magistrate, died a few years ago, leaving behind him the character of an upright man, and a genuine friend to the poor. On his monument its the church is inscribed, that he was the friend of Coleridge and Southey.
The cottage inhabited by Coleridge is the last on the left hand going out towards Allfoxden. It is now, according to the very common and odd fate of poet's cottages, a Tom and Jerry shop. Moore's native abode is a whisky shop; Burns's native cottage is a little public-house; Shelley's house at Great Marlowe is a beer shop; it is said that a public-house has been built on the spot where Scott was born, since I was in that city; Coleridge's house here is a beer shop. Its rent was but £7 a-year, and it could not be expected to be very superb. It stands close to the road, and has nothing now to distinguish it from any other ordinary pot-house. Where Coleridge sate penning the Ode to the Nightingale, with its
Jug, jug, jug,
And that low note more sweet than all;
which the printer, by a very natural association, but to his infinite consternation, converted into
Jag, jug, jug,
And that low note more sweet than ale;
sate, when I entered, a number of country fellows, and thought their ale more sweet than any poet's or nightingale's low notes. Behind the house, however, there were traces of the past pleasantness, two good large gardens, and the old orchard where Coleridge sate on the apple-tree, "crooked earthward;" and while Charles Lamb and his sister vent to ascend the hills and gaze on the sea, himself detained by an accident, wrote his beautiful lines, "This Lime-tree Bower, my prison," including this magnificent picture:—
Yes, they wander on
In gladness all but thee, methinks, most glad,
My gentle-hearted Charles for thou hast pined
And hungered after nature, many a year;
In the great city pent, winning thy way,
With sad yet patient soul, through evil and pain,
And strange calamity Ah! slowly sink
Behind the western ridge, thou glorious sun!
Shine in the slant beams of the sinking orb,
Ye purple heath flowers richlier beam, ye clouds!
Live in the yellow light, ye distant groves!
And kindle, thou blue ocean So my friend,
Struck with deep joy, may stand as I have stood,
Silent with swimming sense yea, gazing round
On the wide landscape, gaze till all doth seem
Less gross than bodily and of such hues
As veil the Almighty Spirit when yet he makes
Spirits perceive his presence.
The woman in the house, — her husband was out in the fields, and her sister, had neither of them heard of such a thing as a poet. When I asked leave to see the house and garden, on account of a gentleman who had once lived there, "Yes," said the landlady, quite a young woman, "a gentleman called one day, some time ago, and said he wished to drink a glass of ale in this house, because a great man had lived in it."
"A great man, did he say? Why, he was a poet."
"A poet, Sir, what is that?"
"Don't you know what a poet is?"
"But you know what a ballad singer is?"
"Oh yes; to be sure."
"Well, a poet makes ballads and songs, and things of that kind."
"Oh, lauks-o'me! why the gentleman said it was a great man."
"Well, he was just what I tell you — a poet — a ballad maker, and all that. Nothing more, I assure you."
"Good lauk-a-me! how could the gentleman say it was a great man! Is it the same man you mean, think you?"
"Oh! no doubt of it. But let me see your garden."
The sister went to show it me. There were, as I have said, two gardens, lying high above the house, so that you could see over part of the town, and, in the other direction, the upland slopes and hills. Behind the garden was still the orchard, in which Coleridge had so often mused. Returning towards the house, the remains of a fine bay tree caught my attention, amid the ruins of the garden near the house, now defaced with weeds, and scattered with old tubs and empty beer barrels.
"That," said I, "was once a fine bay tree."
"Ay, that was here when we came."
"No doubt of it. That poet planted it, as sure as it is there. That is just one of those people's tricks. Where they go they are always planting that tree."
"Good Lord, do they? what odd men they must be!" said the young woman.
Such is the intelligence of the common people in the west, and in many other parts of England. Is it any wonder that the parents of these people took Coleridge for a spy, and Wordsworth for a dark traitor? But these young women were very civil, if not very enlightened. As I returned through the house, the young landlady, evidently desirous to enter into further discourse, came smiling up, and said, "It's very pleasant to see relations addicting to the old place." Not knowing exactly what she meant, but supposing that she imagined I had come to see the house because the poet was a relation of mine, I said,
"Very; but I was no relation of the poet's." "No and yet you come to see the house and perhaps you have come a good way?"
"Yes, from London."
"From London! what on purpose?"
"Yes, entirely on purpose."
Here the amazement of herself, her sister, and the men drinking, grew astoundingly. "Ah!" I added, "he was a great man — a very great man — he was a particular friend of Mr. Poole's."
"Oh, indeed!" said they. "Ay, he must have been a gentleman, then, for Mr. Poole was a very great man, and a justice."
Having elevated the character of Coleridge from that of a poet into the friend of a justice of the peace, I considered that I had vindicated his memory, and took my leave.
In September, 1798, Coleridge quitted Stowey and England, in company with Wordsworth, for a tour in Germany. His two wealthy friends, Thomas and Josiah Wedgwood, the great Staffordshire potters, had settled on him £150 a-year for life, which, with other slight means, enabled him to undertake this journey, with Wordsworth and his sister. The Wedgwoods were Unitarians, and now looked on Coleridge as the great champion of the cause, for he preached at Taunton and other places in the chapels of that denomination; and in his journey on account of the Watchman, had done so in most of the large manufacturing towns, entering the pulpit in a blue coat and white waistcoat, that not a rag of the woman of Babylon might be seen on him. These are his own words, in his Biographia Literaria. Thomas Wedgwood either died long before Coleridge, and so the annuity died with him, or he might have withdrawn his moiety when Coleridge ceased to fulfil his religious hopes: it did however cease; but the £75 from Josiah Wedgwood was paid punctually to the day of his death.
From this journey to Germany we may date a great change in the tone of Coleridge's mind. He became more metaphysical, and a thorough Kantist. From this period, there can be no doubt, on looking over his poems, that his poetry suffered from the effects of his philosophy. But to this journey we owe also the able translation of Wallenstein, which was then a new production, the original being published only on the eve of Coleridge's return to England, September, 1799, and the translation appearing in 1800. In Coleridge's own account of this tour, the description of the ascent of the Brocken is one of the most living and graphic possible. Having gone over the ground myself, the whole scene, and feeling of the scene, has never since been revived by anything which I have read in any degree like the account of Coleridge. In that, too, is to be found the same story of their rude treatment at an inn in Hesse, which is given in the article on Wordsworth.
On Coleridge's return to England, he settled in London for a time, and brought out his translation of Wallenstein, which was purchased by the Messrs. Longman, on the condition that the English version, and Schiller's play in German, should be published simultaneously. Coleridge now engaged to execute the literary and political department of the Morning Post, to which Southey, Wordsworth, and Lamb were also contributors. In this situation he was accused by Mr. Fox, under the broad appellation of the Morning Post, but with allusion to his articles, of having broken up the peace of Amiens, and renewing the war. It was a war, said Fox, produced by the Morning Post. His strictures on Buonaparte occasioned that tyrant to select him for one of the objects of his vengeance, and to issue an order for his arrest when in Italy. Coleridge, on quitting the Morning Post, went to reside near his friends Southey and Wordsworth. He was much at the houses of each. In 1801, he regularly took a house at Keswick, thinking, like his two great friends, to reside there permanently. The house, if not built for him, was expressly finished for hint by a then neighbour, Mr. Jackson; but it was soon found that the neighbourhood of the lakes was too damp for his rheumatic habit. In 1803, his health was so lunch worse that it was considered necessary for him to seek a warmer climate; and he accepted an invitation from his friend Mr., and since Sir John Stoddart, to visit him at Malta, which he accepted. Here he acted for some time as public secretary of the island. In 1803 he returned, not much benefitted by his sojourn. He came back through Italy, and at Rome saw Allston, the American painter, and Tieck, the German poet. It was on this occasion that he was warned of the order of Buonaparte to arrest hum; and hastening to Leghorn with a passport furnished him by the Pope, was carried out to sea by an American captain. At sea, however, they were chased by a French vessel, which so alarmed the American that he compelled Coleridge to throw all his papers overboard, by which all the fruits of his literary labours in Rome were lost.
On his return to England he again went to the lakes, but this time was more with Wordsworth than with Southey. Wordsworth was at this time living at Grasmere, and we have a humorous account of Coleridge, in his "Stanzas in my pocket copy of Thomson's Castle of Indolence," as "the noticeable man with large grey eyes." In another place Wordsworth has, in one line descriptive of him there, given us one of the most beautiful portraitures of a poet dreamer, — "The brooding poet with the heavenly eyes." At Grasmere he planned The Friend, Wordsworth and some other of his friends furnishing a few contributions. From this period till 1816 he appears to have been fluctuating between the Lakes, London, and the west of England. In 1807 we find him at Bristol; and then at Stowey again at Mr. Poole's. It was at this time that De Quincey sought an interview with him. He went to Stowey, did not meet with Coleridge, but stayed two days with Mr. Poole; and describes him and his house thus: — "A plain-dressed man, in a rustic old-fashioned house, amply furnished with modern luxuries, and a good library. Mr. Poole had travelled extensively, and had so entirely dedicated himself to his humbler fellow-countrymen, who resided in his neighbourhood, that for many miles round he was the general arbiter of their disputes, the guide and counsellor of their daily life; besides being appointed executor and guardian to his children by every third man who died in or about the town of Nether Stowey."
De Quincey followed Coleridge to Bridgewater, and found him thus: — "In Bridgewater I noticed a gateway, standing under which was a man, corresponding to the description given me of Coleridge, whom I shall presently describe. In height he seemed to be five feet eight inches; in reality he was about an inch and a half taller, though, in the latter part of life, from a lateral curvature in the spine, he shortened gradually from two to three inches. His person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence; his complexion was fair, though not what painters technically style fair, because it was associated with black hair; his eyes were large and soft in their expression; and it was by a peculiar appearance of haze or dimness which mixed with their light, that I recognised my object. This Was Coleridge. I examined him steadily for a moment or more, and it struck me that he neither saw myself, nor any other object in the street. He was in a deep reverie; for I had dismounted, made two or three trifling arrangements at the inn door, and advanced close to him, before he seemed apparently conscious of my presence. The sound of my voice announcing my name first awoke him. He stared, and for a moment seemed at a loss to understand my purpose, or his own situation, for he repeated rapidly a number of words which had no relation to either of us. There was no mauvaise honte in his manner, but simple perplexity, and an apparent difficulty in recovering his position amongst daylight realities. This little scene over, he received me with a kindness of manner so marked that it might be called gracious."
Mr. De Quincey then tells us that Coleridge was at this moment domesticated with a most amiable and enlightened family, descendants of Chubb, the philosophic writer; and that walking out in the evening with Coleridge, in the streets of Bridgewater, he never saw a man so much interrupted by the courteous attentions of young and old.
In 1809 we find him again at the Lakes; in 1810 he left them again with Mr. Basil Montague, and remained some time at his house. in 1811 he was visiting at Hammersmith with Mr. Morgan, a common friend of himself and Southey, whose acquaintance they had made at Bristol; and here he delivered a course of lectures on Shakspeare and Milton. While still residing with Mr. Morgan, his Tragedy of Remorse was brought upon the stage at Drury-lane, at the instance of Lord Byron, then one of the managing committee, with admirable success. After this he retired to the village of Calne, in Wiltshire, with his friend Morgan, partly to be near Lisle Bowles; where he arranged and published his Sibylline Leaves, and wrote the greater part of the Biographia Literaria. He also dedicated to Mr. Morgan the Zapolya, which was offered to Mr. Douglas Kinnaird, for Drury-lane, and declined. The effect of this refusal Coleridge has noticed in some lines at the end of the Biographia Literaria, quoted from this very play:—
O we are querulous creatures! Little less
Than all things can suffice to make us happy;
Though little more than nothing is enough
To make us wretched.
In 1816 he took refuge under the roof of Mr. Gillman, the surgeon, at Highgate, where he continued till his death. The motive for his going to reside with this gentleman was, that he might exercise a salutary restraint upon him as it regarded the taking of opium. His rheumatic pains had first led him to adopt the use of this insidious drug; and it had, as usual, in time, acquired so much power over him as to render his life miserable. He became the victim of its worst terrors, and so much its slave, that all his resolutions and precautions to break the habit, he regularly himself defeated. At one time a friend of his hired a man to attend him everywhere and to sternly refuse all his solicitations for, or attempts to get opium; but thus man he cheated at his pleasure. He would send the man on some trifling errand, while on their walks, turn into a druggist's shop, and secure a good stock of the article. Mr. Gillman, who had only himself and wife in his family, was recommended to him as the proper man to exercise a constant, steady, but kindly authority over hint in this respect. Coleridge, at the first interview, was so much delighted with die prospect of this house, that he was impatient to get there, and came very characteristically with Christabel in his hand, to send to his host. With the Gillmans Coleridge continued till his death; and his abode here is too well known to need much mention of it. Here he held a species of soiree, at which numbers of persons were in the habit of attending, to listen to his extraordinary conversations, or rather monologues. Those who heard him on these occasions used to declare that you could form no adequate idea of the intellect of the man till you had also heard him. Yet, by some strange neglect, or some wish of his own, these extraordinary harangues were never taken down; which, if they merited the praises conferred on them, is a loss to the world, as well as to his full fame.
The house which Mr. Gillman occupied is now occupied by a Mr. Brendon. There is nothing remarkable about the house except its view. Coleridge's room looked upon a delicious prospect of wood and meadow, with a gay garden full of colour, under the window. When a friend of his first saw him there, he said he thought he had taken his dwelling-place like an abbot. There he cultivated his flowers, and had a set of birds for his pensioners, who came to breakfast with him. He might be seen taking his daily stroll up and down near Highgate, with his black coat and white locks, and a book in his hand; and was a great acquaintance of the little children. He loved, says the same authority, to read great folios, and to make old voyages with Purchas and Marco Polo; the seas being in good visionary condition, and the vessel well stocked with botargoes.