Mr. Coleridge was barn in 1773 at the market town of Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, was for many years Vicar of that parish, after having been an eminent schoolmaster at South Moulton, on the northern side of that county. He was also the author of some Scriptural Dissertations, and of a critical Latin Grammar, which was by no means an ordinary production. He died in 1782, having had a numerous family, of whom the male survivors were: 1. Colonel Coleridge; 2. the Rev. Edward Coleridge, of Ottery; 3. the Rev. George Coleridge, of the same place; and 4. the distinguished Poet and Philosopher now deceased.
It may well be supposed that with so large a family, and having had only a small living, Mr. Coleridge could not leave much behind him; and accordingly, some friends procured admission for the youngest son in Christ's Hospital, where he soon distinguished himself as a boy of acute parts and eccentric habits. To his master, the Rev. James Bowyer, he expressed the deepest obligations; he was a severe disciplinarian, but produced excellent scholars. Mr. Coleridge says — "He early moulded my taste to the preference of Demosthenes to Cicero, of Homer and Theocritus to Virgil, and again of Virgil to Ovid. He habituated me to compare Lucretius, Terence, and above all, the chaster poems of Catullus, not only with the Roman poets, of the, so called, Silver and Brazen ages, but with even those of the Augustan era; and on grounds of plain sense and universal logic to see and assert the superiority of the former, in the truth and nativeness, both of their thoughts and diction. At the same time that we were studying the Greek Tragic Poets, he made us read Shakespeare and Milton as lessons; and they were the lessons too which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure. I learned from him that poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science, and more difficult, because more subtle, more complex, and dependent on more, and more fugitive causes. In our English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, metaphor, or image, unsupported by sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words. Lute, harp, and lyre, muse, muses, and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene, were all an abomination to him. In fancy, I can almost hear him now exclaiming — "Harp? Harp Lyre Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, muse? Your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring? Oh, aye! the cloister-pump, I suppose!"
Another friend, to whom Mr. Coleridge acknowledges his obligations, while on that noble foundation, was Dr. Middleton, afterwards Bishop of Calcutta, who was then in the first form, or, in the language of the school, a Grecian. From him, among other favours, he received a present of Mr. Bowles's Sonnets, with which our student was so enthusiastically delighted, that in less than eighteen months he made more than forty transcriptions of them, for the purpose of giving them to persons who had in any way won his regard. The possession of these poems wrought a great, and indeed radical, change in the mind of our author, who hitherto, and even before his fifteenth year, had bewildered himself in metaphysical speculation and theological controversy.
"Nothing else," says Mr. Coleridge, "pleased me. History, and particular facts, lost all interest in my mind. Poetry (though for a school-boy of that age, I was above par in English versification, and had already produced two or three compositions, which, I may venture to say, without reference to my age, were somewhat above mediocrity, and which had gained me more credit than the sound good sense of my old master was at all pleased with,) poetry itself, yea, novels and romances, became insipid to me. In my friendless wanderings, on our leave days, (for I was an orphan, and had scarce any connections in London) highly was I delighted, if any passenger, especially if he was dressed in black, would enter into conversation with me. For I soon found the means of directing it to my favourite subjects,
Of Providence, fore-knowledge, will, and fate,
Fix'd fate, free-will, fore-knowledge absolute,
And found no end, in wandering mazes lost."
At the age of nineteen our author removed to Jesus College, Cambridge; but of his academical history we know but little; nor does it appear, indeed, that he either graduated or stood a candidate for the literary honours of the university. While there, however, he assisted one of his friends in the composition of an essay on English Poetry, intended for a society at Exeter, but which piece is not inserted in their published volume.
We presume that it was at this period of his life that he enlisted as a common soldier in the Dragoons. Upon this singular fact, or what might be called in the metaphysician's own language "psychological curiosity," the following authentic account has been communicated to the public by the Rev. W. L. Bowles, who is, perhaps, the only person now living who could explain all the circumstances from Mr. Coleridge's own mouth, with whom he became acquainted after a sonnet addressed to him in his poems; and who, moreover, was intimate with that very officer who alone procured Coleridge his discharge:
"The regiment was the 15th, Elliott's Light Dragoons; the officer was Nathaniel Ogle, eldest son of Dr. Newton Ogle, Dean of Winchester, and brother of the late Mrs. Sheridan; he was a scholar, and, leaving Merton College, he entered this regiment a cornet. Some years afterwards — I believe he was then Captain of Coleridge's troop-going into the stables, at Reading, he remarked written on the white wall, under one of the saddles, in large pencil characters, the following sentence, in Latin — 'Eheu! quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem!'
"Being struck with the circumstance, and himself a scholar, Captain Ogle inquired of a soldier whether he knew to whom the saddle belonged. 'Please your honour, to Comberback,' answered the dragoon. 'Comberback!' said his captain; 'send him to me.' Comberback presented himself, with the inside of his hand in front of his cap. His officer mildly said, 'Comberback, did you write the Latin sentence which I have just read, under your saddle?' 'Please your honour,' answered the soldier, 'I wrote it?' 'Then, my lad, you are not what you appear to be. I shall speak to the commanding officer, and you may depend on my speaking as a friend.' The commanding officer, I think, was General Churchill. Comberback was examined, and it was found out, that having left Jesus College, Cambridge, and being in London without resources, he had enlisted in this regiment. He was soon discharged, — not from his democratic feelings; for, whatever those feelings might be, as a soldier he was remarkably orderly and obedient, though he could not rub down his own horse. He was discharged from respect to his friends and his station. His friends having been informed of his situation, a chaise was soon at the door of the Bear Inn, Reading, and the officers of the 15th cordially shaking his hands, particularly the officer who had been the means of his discharge, he drove off, not without a tear in his eye, whilst his old companions of the-tap room gave him three hearty cheers as the wheels rapidly rolled away along the road to London and Cambridge.
"It should be mentioned, that by far the most correct, sublime, chaste, and beautiful of his poems, meo judicio, his 'Religious Musings,' was written, 'non inter sylvas academi,' but in the tap-room at Reading. A fine subject for a painting by Wilkie."
In 1791, Coleridge ventured to publish a small volume of juvenile Poems, which were very favourably spoken of by the periodical critics, as the buds of hope, and promises of better works to come: though the same reviewers concurred in objecting to them, obscurity, a general turgidness of diction, and a profusion of new-coined double epithets. The same year he printed "The Fall of Robespierre, an historic drama," in which the Conventional speeches were happily versified, and the sentiments expressed in language classically correct and uncommonly vigorous. The French Revolution had at this time turned the heads of many persons, and this was the case with Mr. Coleridge, who became such a zealot in the cause of universal liberty as to abandon the friendly cloisters of his college to embark in the quixotic enterprise of reforming the world. He had, at this time, formed a close intimacy with Mr. Southey and Robert Lovell, on a visit to Oxford; and, their sentiments being perfectly in unison, the triumvirate began to project schemes for ameliorating the condition of human society. They began their operations at Bristol in a course of Lectures delivered by our young adventurer, with considerable applause from certain classes in that renowned trading city. Here, also, in 1795, Mr. Coleridge published two political pamphlets, one entitled, "Conciones ad Populum, or Addresses to the People;" and the other, "A Protest against certain Bills then pending for Suppressing Seditious Meetings."
In an inauspicious hour also he was persuaded to commence a weekly paper, "The Watchman;" and as the object of it was to diffuse the new political doctrines, he set out like Wildgoose in Mr. Graves's admirable novel, to make proselytes, and above all, to procure subscribers. No "Diffusion Society" had then prepared his way in the manufacturing towns; the Watchman languished on to the tenth number, and then its warning voice was heard no more.
This woeful disappointment in his political expectations was in some measure relieved by the favourable reception given to a volume of Poems, the quick sale of which induced him to a republication, with the addition of some communications from his friends, Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd.
Still the ardour for liberty, and the establishment of a perfect order of things, continued to prevail, and Mr. Coleridge, with his friends Southey and Lovell, were bent upon trying their skill as political philosophers, not in correcting the evils of an old state, but in the settlement of a new one. This Utopia, which was to bear the high-sounding name of PANTISOCRACY, they proposed to found on the banks of the Susquehanna, where all property was to be held in common, and every man in his turn to be a legislator. But while preparations were making to carry this fine project into execution, the whole scheme blew up by a spark of another description; for in the midst of their dreams of immortality, these rivals of Solon, Lycurgus, and Numa, became enamoured of three sisters of the name of Fricker. Thus the business of Love thrust out the mighty concern of what Jeremy Bentham was wont to call the science of Codification, and in a short time our author and his two associates, instead of seeking happiness in the wilds of America, were content to sit down in the bosom of domestic enjoyment, according to the laws and usages of their fathers. In plain terms, all three married; and the scheme of foreign colonization being given up, they began to think about settling in their own country. Mr. Coleridge went to reside at Nether Stowey, a small town near Bridgewater, where he contracted an acquaintance with Mr. Wordsworth.
At this period the circumstances of our author were far from being comfortable, and his principal subsistence depended upon literary labours, the remuneration for which, at such a distance from the metropolis, could not be adequate to the necessities of a growing family. In this perplexity he was relieved by the generous and munificent patronage of Mr. Josiah and Mr. Thomas Wedgwood, who enabled him to finish his education in Germany, where he began to study the language at Ratzeburg; after acquiring which he went through Hanover to Gottingen. Here he diligently attended the lectures of Blumenbach on physiology and natural history; and those of Eichhorn on the New Testament: but his chief application was to philosophy and polite literature. This important event in the life of Mr. Coleridge occurred in 1798, and during his residence abroad he had the satisfaction of meeting Mr. Wordsworth, then on a tour in Germany with his sister. Soon after the return of our author from Germany, he undertook the literary and political department of the Morning Post, on entering into which engagement, it was stipulated that the paper should be conducted on certain fixed and announced principles, from which the editor should neither be obliged nor requested to deviate in favour of any party or circumstance. This connexion continued during the Addington Administration, after which, the paper being transferred to other proprietors, Mr. Coleridge relinquished the management. While he was in this concern he published translations of two of Schiller's Dramas, on the story of Wallenstein.
Mr. Coleridge now became Secretary to Sir Alexander Ball, whom he accompanied to Malta, of which island that distinguished officer was appointed Governor; but this situation our author did not long retain, nor did it prove any otherwise advantageous to him than by extending his knowledge of the world, and giving him an opportunity of treading the classic ground of Italy. During his wanderings, his wife and family resided under the roof of Mr. Southey, at Keswick, and thither our poet bent his course on his return to England.
We next find him lecturing on poetry at the Royal Institution, and an occasional writer in the Courier, his political principles having now undergone a complete transmutation. In 1812 he produced a series of miscellaneous Essays, entituled "The Friend;" which, though they had but a very limited circulation, he subsequently revised, enlarged, and reprinted. The year following appeared "Remorse;" a tragedy.
This was originally written some years before at the suggestion of his friend Mr. Bowles, in consequence of a wish expressed by Sheridan, but who, when he saw it, had considered it unsuitable for performance.
In 1816 Mr. Coleridge published Christabel, &c.; and the Statesman's Manual, a Lay Sermon; in 1817 his Biographia Literaria, in two vols.; in 1818 Sibylline Leaves, a collection of Poems; and a Second Lay Sermon; and in 1818 Zapolya, a Christmas Tale.
For many years he continued his lectures at Literary Institutions, though with repugnance to the task. In a letter written in 1819, he says—
"Wo is me! that at forty-six I am under the necessity of appearing as a lecturer, and obliged to regard every hour that I give to the permanent, whether as a poet or philosopher, an hour stolen from others' as well as from my own maintenance; so that, after a life (for I might be said to have commenced in earliest childhood) — a life of observation, meditation, and almost encyclopedic studies, I am forced to bewail, as in my poem addressed to Mr. Wordsworth—
Sense of past youth and manhood come in vain,
And genius given and knowledge won in vain,
And all which I had culled in wood-walks wild,
And all which patient toil had reared, and all
Commune with Thee had opened out, — but flowers
Strewed on my corse, and borne upon my bier,
In the same coffin to the self-same grave.
Wo from without, but well for me, however, from within, that I have been 'more sinned against than sinning.' My lectures are, though not very numerously, yet very respectably attended — and as respectfully attended to. My next Friday's lecture will, if I do not grossly 'flatter-blind' myself, be interesting, and the points of view not only original, but new to the audience. I make this distinction, because sixteen, or rather seventeen, years ago, I delivered eighteen lectures on Shakespeare at the Royal Institution — three-fourths of which appeared at that time startling paradoxes, which have since been adopted even by men who at the time made use of them as proofs of my flighty and parodoxical turn of mind — all tending to prove that Shakespeare's judgment was, if possible, still more wonderful than his genius: or rather, that the contradistinction itself between judgment and genius, rested on an utterly false theory. This, and its proofs and grounds have been, I should not have said adopted, but produced as their own legitimate children — nay, the merit given to a foreign writer, whose lectures were not given orally till two years after mine — rather than to their countryman, though I dare appeal to the most adequate judges — as Sir G. Beaumont, the Bishop of Durham, Mr. Sotheby, and afterwards to Mr. Rogers and Lord Byron, whether there is one single principle in Schlegel's work (which is not an admitted drawback from its merits) that was not established and applied in detail by me."
This letter has been lately published in the "The Canterbury Magazine;" and in the Literary Gazette another has appeared on the same subject, which was addressed in the same year to John Britton, esq. with reference to some lectures Coleridge then delivered at the Russel Institution. This contains the following interesting passage, describing his method and management in these compositions:
"The fact is this: during a course of lectures, I faithfully employ all the intervening days in collecting and digesting the materials; whether I have or have not lectured on the same subject before, making no difference. The day of the lecture, till the hour of commencement, I devote to the consideration, what of the mass before me is best fitted to answer the purposes of a lecture — i.e. to keep the audience awake and interested during the delivery, and to leave a sting behind — i.e. a disposition to study the subject anew, under the light of a new principle. Several times, however, partly from apprehension respecting my health and animal spirits, partly from the wish to possess copies that might afterwards be marketable among the publishers, I have previously written the lecture; but before I had proceeded twenty minutes, I have been obliged to push the MSS. away, and give the subject a new turn. Nay, this was so notorious, that many of my auditors used to threaten me, when they saw any number of written papers on my desk, to steal them away; declaring they never felt so secure of a good lecture, as when they perceived that I had not a single scrap of writing before me. I take far, far more pains than would go to the set composition of a lecture, both by varied reading and by meditation; but for the words, illustrations, &c. I know almost as little as any one of my audience (i.e. those of any thing like the same education with myself) what they will be five minutes before the lecture begins. Such is my way, for such is my Nature; and in attempting any other, I should only torment myself in order to disappoint my auditors." In a subsequent passage of the same letter he says, "Were it in my power, my works should be confined to the second volume of my 'Literary Life,' the Essays of the third volume of the 'Friend,' from page 67 to page 265, with about fifty or sixty pages from the two former volumes, and some half-dozen of my poems."
There has been still another interesting letter lately published in the newspapers, which was written in 1826 in reply to an application for pecuniary relief from a brother poet, and in which he thus describes his own situation:
"September 2, 1826.
O, it is sad, sir, to know distress, and to feel for it, and yet to have no power of remedy! Conscious that my circumstances have neither been the penalty of sloth, nor of extravagance, nor of vicious habits, but to have resulted from the refusal, since earliest manhood, to sacrifice my conscience to my temporal interests, and from the practice of writing what my fellow-citizens want rather than what they like, I suffer no pang of shame in avowing to you that I do not possess so many shillings as you mention pounds, and that if I were arrested for a debt of eight sovereigns, I have no other means of procuring the money but by the sale of ray books, that are to me the staff of life. The whole of my yearly income does not amount to the prime cost of my necessary maintenance, clothes, shelter, food, and medicine; the rest I owe to the more than brotherly regard of my disinterested friend, Mr. Giliman, to whose medical skill I owe, under God, that I am alive, and to whose, and his amiable wife's unceasing kindness l am indebted for all that makes life endurable. Even when my health is at the best, I can only exert myself for a few hours in the twenty-four, and these I conscientiously devote to the completion of the great works, in the matter and composition of which I have been employed the last twenty years of a laborious life — if hard thinking and hard reading constitute labour. But for the last six months, such has been the languor and debility of my frame — languor alternating with severe pain — that I have not been able even to maintain the scanty correspondence with the few friends I possess. By publications I, or rather two or three generous friends, have lost about £300 — for I cannot, at least will not, write in reviews — and what I can write the public will not read, so that I have no connexion with any magazine, paper, or periodical of any kind, nor have I had interest enough to procure in any review or journal even the announcement of my own last work — the Aids to Reflection. I neither live for the world nor in the world."
The last memorable circumstance in Coleridge's life, was the publication of a complete edition of his Poems, on which his fame will rest, in three volumes by Pickering. It may not be amiss to point out their threefold nature; as works of passionate and exalted meditation, witness his "Sunrise in the Valley of Chamnouni," his "Lines on an Autumnal Evening," his "Religious Musings," his "Ode to the Departing Year," and many other of his earlier poems; — as outpourings of the wild inspiration of old romance, his "Ancient Mariner," his "Genevieve," and his "Christabel" — and his latest verses, as treasuring in a few lines, matured philosophy — mingling wisdom with retrospect, and intimations of holy truths with pleasant and simple images. Nor must we forget his version of "Wallenstein," a master-translation of a masterwork; or his original dramatic compositions, too full of deep thought and delicate imagery for a stage.
After all, however, it was in his conversation that Mr. Coleridge was most remarkable. In an admirable article on his poetical and peculiar genius, which appeared just before his death, in No. 103 of the Quarterly Review, are the following remarks on this subject:
"Perhaps our readers may have heard repeated a saying of Mr. Wordsworth, that many men of his age had done wonderful things, as Davy, Scott, Cuvier, &c.; but that Coleridge was the only wonderful man he ever knew. Something, of course, must be allowed in this, as in all other such cases, for the antithesis; but we believe the fact really to be, that the greater part of those who have occasionally visited Mr. Coleridge, have left him with a feeling akin to the judgment indicated in the above remark. They admire the man more than his works, or they forget the works in the absorbing impression made by the living author. And no wonder. Those who remember him in his more vigorous days can bear witness to the peculiarity and transcendent power of his conversational eloquence. It was unlike anything that could be heard elsewhere; the kind was different, the degree was different, the manner was different. The boundless range of scientific knowledge, the brilliancy and exquisite nicety of illustration, the deep and ready reasoning, the strangeness and immensity of bookish lore — were not all; the dramatic story, the joke, the pun, the festivity, must be added — and with these the clerical-looking dress, the thick waving silver hair, the youthful-coloured cheek, the indefinable mouth and lips, the quick yet steady and penetrating greenish grey eye, the slow and continuous enunciation, and the everlasting music of his tones, — all went to make up the image and to constitute the living presence of the man. Even now his conversation is characterized by all the essentials of its former excellence; there is the same individuality, the same unexpectedness, the same universal grasp; nothing is too high, nothing too low for it: it glances from earth to heaven, from heaven to earth, with a speed and a splendour, an ease and a power, which almost seem inspired.
"So much of the intellectual life and influence of Mr. Coleridge has consisted in the oral communication of his opinions, that no sketch could be reasonably complete without a distinct notice of the peculiar character of his powers in this particular. We believe it has not been the lot of any other literary man in England, since Dr. Johnson, to command the devoted admiration and steady zeal of so many and such widely differing disciples. The fulness, the inwardness, the ultimate scope of his doctrines, has never yet been published in print, and if disclosed, it has been from time to time in the higher moments of conversation, when occasion, and mood, and person begot an exalted crisis. More than once has Mr. Coleridge said, that with a pen in hand he felt a thousand checks and difficulties in the expression of his meaning; but that — authorship aside — he never found the smallest hitch or impediment in the fullest utterance of his most subtle fancies by word of mouth. His abstrusest thoughts became rythmical and clear, when chaunted to their own music."
Mr. Coleridge died under the roof of his invaluable friend Mr. Gillman, at Highgate, and his body was laid in the vaults of the new church there. His funeral was strictly private, and his hearse was followed by a very few intimate friends only. Many of the admirers of his great attainments and his high literary fame and reputation would have wished to attend, but they were not invited, some even excluded, by the friends who had the conduct of his funeral, and who were best acquainted with the dislike of the deceased to empty ostentation, and with the just but meek and Christian feelings and sentiments of his last moments.
A month or two before his death, he wrote his own humble and affectionate epitaph:—
Stop, Christian passer by! Stop, Child of God!
And read with gentle breast. 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.