1844 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Robert Chambers, in Cyclopaedia of English Literature (1844; 1850) 2:333-37.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, a remarkable man and rich imaginative poet, enjoyed a high reputation during the latter years of his life for his colloquial eloquence and metaphysical and critical powers, of which only a few fragmentary specimens remain. His poetry also indicated more than it achieved. Visions of grace, tenderness, and majesty, seem ever to have haunted him. Some of these he embodied in exquisite verse; but lie wanted concentration and steadiness of purpose to avail himself sufficiently of his intellectual riches. A happier destiny was also perhaps wanting; for much of Coleridge's life was spent in poverty and dependence, amidst disappointment and ill-health, and in the irregularity caused by an unfortunate and excessive use of opium, which tyrannised over him for many years with unrelenting severity. Amidst daily drudgery for the periodical press, and in nightly dreams distempered and feverish, he wasted, to use his own expression, "the prime and manhood of his intellect." The poet was a native of Devonshire, being born on the 20th of October 1772 at Ottery St Mary, of which parish his father was vicar. He received the principal part of his education at Christ's Hospital, where he had Charles Lamb for a schoolfellow. He describes himself as being, from eight to fourteen, "a playless day-dreamer, a 'helluo librorum;'" and in this instance "the child was father of the man," for such was Coleridge to the end of his life. A stranger whom he had accidentally met one day on the streets of London, and who was struck with his conversation, made him free of a circulating library, and he read through the catalogue, folios and all. At fourteen, he had, like Gibbon, a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a schoolboy would have been ashamed. He had no ambition; his father was dead, and he actually thought of apprenticing himself to a shoemaker who lived near the school. The head master, Bowyer, interfered, and prevented this additional honour to the craft of St. Crispin, already made illustrious by Gifford and Bloomfield. Coleridge became deputy-Grecian, or head scholar, and obtained an exhibition or presentation from Christ's hospital to Jesus' college, Cambridge, where he remained from 1791 to 1793. He quitted college abruptly, without taking a degree, having become obnoxious to his superiors from his attachment to the principles of the French Revolution.

When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,
And with that oath which smote air, earth, and sea,
Stamped her strong foot, and said she would be free,
Bear witness for me, how I hoped and feared!
With what a joy my lofty gratulation
Unawed I sang, amid a slavish band
And when to whelm the disenchanted nation,
Like fiends embattled by a wizard's wand,
The monarchs marched in evil day,
And Britain joined the dire array;
Though dear her shores and circling ocean,
Though many friendships, many youthful loves
Had swollen the patriot emotion,
And flung a magic light o'er all her hills and groves,
Yet still my voice, unaltered, sang defeat
To all that braved the tyrant-quelling lance,
And shame too long delayed and vain retreat!
For ne'er, O Liberty with partial aim
I dimmed thy light, or damped thy holy flame;
But blessed the paeans of delivered France,
And hung my head, and wept at Britain's name.
FRANCE, AN ODE.

In London, Coleridge soon felt himself forlorn and destitute, and lie enlisted as a soldier in the 15th, Elliot's Light Dragoons. "On his arrival at the quarters of the regiment," says his friend and biographer Mr. Gillman, "the general of the district inspected the recruits, and looking hard at Coleridge, with a military air, inquired, 'What's your name, sir?' 'Comberbach.' (The name be had assumed.) 'What do you come lucre for, sir?' as if doubting whether 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 do not know,' replied Coleridge, 'as I never tried; but I'll let a Frenchman run me through the body before I'll run away.' 'That will do,' said the general, and Coleridge was turned into the ranks." The poet made a poor dragoon, and never advanced beyond the awkward squad. He wrote letters, however, for all his comrades, and they attended to his horse and accoutrements. After four months' service (December 1793 to April 1794), the history and circumstances of Coleridge became known. He had written under his saddle, on the stable wall, a Latin sentence ("Eheu! quam infortunii miserrimum eat fuisse felicem!") which led to an inquiry on the part of the captain of his troop, who had more regard for the classics than Ensign Northerton in Tom Jones. Coleridge was discharged, and restored to his family, and friends. The same year he published his Juvenile Poems, and a drama on the "Fall of Robespierre." He was then an ardent republican and a Socinian — full of high hopes and anticipations, "the golden exhalations of the dawn." In conjunction with two other poetical enthusiasts — Southey and Lloyd — he resolved on emigrating to America, where the party were to found, amidst the wilds of Susquehanna, a Pantisocracy, or state of society in which all things were to be in common, and neither king nor priest could rear their felicity. "From building castles in the air," as Southey has said, "to framing commonwealths, was an easy transition." The dream was never realised (it is said from a very prosaic cause — the want of funds), and Coleridge, Sonthey, and Lloyd married three sisters — the Miss Frickers of Bristol. Coleridge, still ardent, wrote two political pamphlets, concluding "that troth should he spoken at all times, but more especially at those times when to speak truth is dangerous." He established also a periodical in prose and verse, entitled The Watchman, with the motto, "that all might know the truth, and that the truth might make us free." He watched in vain. Coleridge's incurable want of order and punctuality, and his philosophical theories, tired out and disgusted his readers, and the work was discontinued after the ninth number. Of the unsaleable nature of this publication, he relates an amusing illustration. Happening one day to rise at an earlier hour than usual, he observed his servant girl putting an extravagant quantity of paper into the grate, in order to light the fire, and he mildly checked her for her wastefulness. "La, sir, (replied Nanny) why, it is only Watchmen." He went to reside in a cottage at Nether Stowey, at the foot of the Quantock hills, Somersetshire, which he has commemorated in his poetry.

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 front my view,
Is my own lowly cottage, where my babe
And my babe's mother dwell in peace! With light
And quickened footsteps thitherward I tread.

Mr. Wordsworth lived at Allfoxden, about two miles from Stowey, and the kindred feelings and pursuits of the two poets bound them in the closest friendship. At Stowey, Coleridge wrote some of his most beautiful poetry — his "Ode on the Departing Year;" "Fears in Solitude;" "France, an Ode;" "Frost at Midnight;" the first part of "Christabel;" the "Ancient Mariner;" and his tragedy of "Remorse." The luxuriant fulness and individuality of his poetry show that he was then happy, no less than eager, in his studies. The two or three years spent at Stowey seem to have been at once the most felicitous and the most illustrious of Coleridge's literary life. He had established his name for ever, though it was long in struggling to distinction. During his residence at Stowey, Coleridge officiated as Unitarian preacher at Taunton, and afterwards at Shrewsbury. In 1798 the "generous and munificent patronage" of Messrs Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood, Staffordshire, enabled the poet to proceed to Germany to complete his education, and he resided there fourteen months. At Ratzburg and Gottingen he acquired a well-grounded knowledge of the German language and literature, and was confirmed in his bias towards philosophical and metaphysical studies. On his return in 1800, he found Southey established at Keswick, and Wordsworth at Grassmere. He went to live with the former, and there his opinions underwent a total change. The Jacobin became a royalist, and the Unitarian a warm and devoted believer in the Trinity. In the same year he published his translation of Schiller's Wallenstein, into which he had thrown some of the finest graces of his own fancy. The following passage may be considered a revelation of Coleridge's poetical faith and belief, conveyed in language picturesque and musical:—

Oh! never rudely will I blame his faith
In the might of stars and angels! 'Tis not merely
The human being's pride that peoples space
With life and mystical predominance;
Since likewise for the stricken heart of love
This visible nature, and this common world,
Is all too narrow: yea, a deeper import
Lurks in the legend told my infant years,
Than lies upon that truth we live to learn.
For fable is love's world, his house, his birthplace;
Delightedly dwells he 'mong fays, and talismans,
And spirits; and delightedly believes
Divinities, being himself divine.
"The intelligible forms of ancient poets,
The fair humanities of old religion,
The power, the beauty, and the majesty,
That had their haunts in dale, or piny mountain,
Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,
Or chasms and watery depths; all these have vanished.
They live no longer in the faith of reason!"
But still the heart doth need a language; still
Doth the old instinct bring back the old names;
And to you starry world they now are gone,
Spirits or gods, that used to share this earth
Spirits man as with their friend; and to the lover,
Yonder they move, from yonder visible sky
Shoot influence down; and even at this day
'Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,
And Venus who brings everything that's fair.

The lines which we have printed in italics are an expansion of two of Schiller's, which Mr. Hayward (another German poetical translator) thus literally renders:—

The old fable-existences are no more;
The fascinating race has emigrated (wandered out or away).

As a means of subsistence Coleridge reluctantly consented to undertake the literary and political department of the Morning Post, in which he supported the measures of government In 1804 we find him in Malta, secretary to the governor, Sir Alexander Ball, with a salary of £800 per annum. He hold this lucrative office only nine months, having disagreed with the governor; and, after a tour in Italy, returned to England to resume his precarious labours as an author and lecturer. The desultory irregular habits of the poet, caused partly by his addiction to opium, and the dreamy indolence and procrastination which marked him throughout life, seem to have frustrated every chance and opportunity of self-advancement. Living again at Grassmere, he issued a second periodical, The Friend, which extended to twenty-seven numbers. The essays were sometimes acute and eloquent, but as often rhapsodical, imperfect, and full of German mysticism. In 1816, chiefly at the recommendation of Lord Byron, the "wild and wondrous tale" of "Christabel" was published. The first part, as we have mentioned, was written at Stowey as far back as 1797, and a second had been added on his return from Germany in 1800. The poem was still unfinished; but it would have been almost as difficult to complete the Fairy Queen, as to continue in the same spirit that witching strain of supernatural fancy and melodious verse. Another drama, Zapoyla (founded on the Winter's Tale), was published by Coleridge in 1818, and, with the exception of some minor poems, completes his poetical works. He wrote several characteristic prose disquisitions — The Statesman's Manual, or the Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight; a Lay Sermon (1816); a Second Lay Sermon, addressed to the Higher and Middle Classes on the existing Distresses and Discontents (1817); Biographia Literaria, two volumes, 1817; Aids to Reflection (1825); On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830); &c. He meditated a great theological and philosophical work, his "magnum opus," on "Christianity as the only revelation of permanent and universal validity," which was to "reduce all knowledge into harmony" — to "unite the insulated fragments of truth, and therewith to frame a perfect mirror." He planned also an epic poem on the destruction of Jerusalem, which he considered the only subject now remaining for an epic poem; a subject which, like Milton's Fall of Man, should interest all Christendom, as the Homeric War of Troy interested all Greece. "Here," said he, "there would be the completion of the prophecies; the termination of the first revealed national religion under the violent assault of paganism, itself the immediate forerunner and condition of the spread of a revealed mundane religion; and then you would have the character of the human and the Jew; and the awfulness, the completeness, the justice. I schemed it at twenty-five, but, alas! 'venturum expectat.'" This ambition to execute some great work, and his constitutional infirmity of purpose, which made him defer or recoil from such an effort, he has portrayed with great beauty and pathos in an address to Wordsworth, composed after the latter had recited to him a poem "on the growth of an individual mind."—

Ah! as I listened with a heart forlorn,
The pulses of my being beat anew:
And even as life returns upon the drowned,
Life's joy rekindling roused a throng of pains—
Keen pangs of love, awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart
And fears self-willed, that shunned the eye of hope;
And hope that scarce would know itself from fear;
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, for the self-same grave!

These were prophetic breathings, and should be a warning to young and ardent genius. In such magnificent alternations of hope and despair, and in discoursing on poetry and philosophy — sometimes committing a golden thought to the blank leaf of a book or to a private letter, but generally content with oral communication — the poet's time glided past. He had found an asylum in the house of a private friend, Mr. James Gilman, surgeon, Highgate, where he resided for the lost nineteen years of his life. Here he was visited by numerous friends and admirers, who were happy to listen to his inspired monologues, which he poured forth with exhaustless fecundity. "We believe," says one of those rapt and enthusiastic listeners, "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 — some of them having become, and ethers being likely to become, fresh and independent sources of light and moral action in themselves upon the principles of their common master. One half of these affectionate disciples have learned their lessons of philosophy from the teacher's month. He has been to them as an old oracle of the academy or Lyceum. 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 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 rhythmical and clear when chanted to their own music" [author's note: Quarterly Review, vol. iii. p. 5. With one so impulsive as Coleridge, and liable to fits of depression and to ill-health, those appearances must have been very unequal. We have known three men of genius, all poets, who frequently listened to him, and yet described him as generally obscure, pedantic, and tedious. In his happiest moods, however, he have been great and overwhelming. His voice and countenance were harmonious and beautiful]. Mr. Coleridge died at Highgate on the 25th of July 1834. In the preceding winter he had written the following epitaph, striking from its simplicity and humility, for himself:—

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—
Oh! 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.

Immediately on the death of Coleridge, several compilations were made of his table-talk, correspondence, and literary remains. His fame had been gradually extending, and public curiosity was excited with respect to the genius and opinions of a man who combined such various and dissimilar powers, and who was supposed capable of any task, however gigantic. Some of these Titanic fragments are valuable — particularly his Shakspearian criticism. They attest his profound thought and curious erudition, and display his fine critical taste and discernment. In penetrating into and embracing the whole meaning of a favourite author — unfolding the nice shades and distinctions of thought, character, feeling, or melody — darting on it the light of his own creative mind and suggestive fancy — and perhaps linking the whole to some glorious original conception or image, Coleridge stands unrivalled. He does not appear as a critic, but as an eloquent and gifted expounder of kindred excellence and genius. He seems like one who has the key to every hidden chamber of profound and subtle thought and every ethereal conception. We cannot think, however, that he could ever have built up a regular system of ethics or criticism. He wanted the art to combine and arrange his materials. He was too languid and irresolute. He had never attained the art of writing with clearness and precision; for he is often unintelligible, turgid, and verbose, as if he struggled in vain after perspicacity and method. His intellect could not subordinate the "shaping spirit" of his imagination.

The poetical works of Coleridge have been collected and published in three volumes. They are various in style and manner, embracing ode, tragedy, and epigram, love poems, and strains of patriotism and superstition — a wild witchery of imagination, and, at other times, severe and stately thought and intellectual retrospection. His language is often rich end musical, highly figurative and ornate. Many of his minor poems are characterised by tenderness and beauty, but others are disfigured by passages of turgid sentimentalism and puerile affectation. The most original and striking of his productions is his well-known tale of "The Ancient Mariner." According to De Quincy, the germ of this story is contained in a passage of Shelvocke, one of the classical circumnavigators of the earth, who states that his second captain, being a melancholy man, was possessed by a fancy that some long season of foul weather was owing to an albatross which had steadily pursued the ship, upon which he shot the bird, but without mending their condition. Coleridge makes the ancient mariner relate the circumstances attending his act of inhumanity to one of three wedding guests whom he meets and detains on his way to the marriage feast. "He holds him with his glittering eye," and invests his narration with a deep preternatural character and interest, and with touches of exquisite tenderness and energetic description. The versification is irregular, in the style of the old ballads, and most of the action of the piece is unnatural; yet the poem is full of vivid and original imagination. "There is nothing also like it," says one of his critics; "it is a poem by itself; between it and other compositions, in 'pari materia,' there is a chasm which you cannot overpass. The sensitive reader feels himself insulated, and a sea of wonder and mystery flows round him as round the spell-stricken ship itself." Coleridge further illustrates his theory of the connection between the material and the spiritual world in his unfinished poem of "Christabel," a romantic supernatural tale, filled with wild imagery and the most remarkable modulation of verse. The versification is founded on what the poet calls a new principle (though it was evidently practised by Chaucer and Shakepeare), namely, that of counting in each line the number of accentuated words, not the number of syllables. "Though the latter," he says, "may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four." This irregular harmony delighted both Scott and Byron, by whom it was imitated. We add a brief specimen:—

The night is chill; the forest bare;
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak!
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady's cheek;
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.

Hush, beating heart of Christabel!
Jesu Maria shield her well!
She foldeth her arms beneath her cloak,
And stole to the other side of the oak.
What sees she there!
There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone:
The neck that made that white robe wan,
Her stately neck and arms were bare;
Her blue-veined feet unsandalled were;
And wildly glittered here and there
The gems entangled in her hair.
I guess 'twas frightful there to see
A lady so richly clad as she—
Beautiful exceedingly!

A finer passage is that describing broken friendships:—

Alas! they had been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny; and youth is vain:
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain.
And thus it chanced, as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother:
They parted — ne'er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining;
They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder:
A dreary sea now flows between.
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.

This metrical harmony of Coleridge exercises a sort of fascination even when it is found united to incoherent images and absurd conceptions. Thus, in "Khubla Khan," a fragment written from recollections of a dream, we have the following melodious rhapsody:—

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the eaves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with eaves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer
In a vision once I saw:
It was an Abyssinian maid,
And on her dulcimer she played,
Singing of Mount Abora.
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome, those eaves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.

The odes of Coleridge are highly passionate and elevated in conception. That on France was considered by Shelley to be the finest English ode of modern times. The hymn on Chamuouni is equally lofty and brilliant. His "Genevieve" is a pure and exquisite love-poem, without that gorgeous diffuseness which characterises the odes, yet more chastely and carefully finished, and abounding in the delicate and subtle traits of his imagination. Coleridge was deficient in the rapid energy and strong passion necessary for the drama. The poetical beauty of certain passages would not, on the stage, atone for the paucity of action and want of interest in his two plays, though, as works of genius, they vastly excel those of a more recent date which prove highly successful in representation.