1838 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Henry Fothergill Chorley, "Samuel Taylor Coleridge" The Authors of England (1838) 37-43.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, author of "The Ancient Mariner,", and the translator of "Wallenstein," was born on the 20th of October 1772, at Ottery St. Mary, in Devonshire; the eleventh and youngest child of the Rev. John Coleridge, Vicar of that parish. His father having procured a presentation to Christ's Hospital for him, he was placed there in 1782, in the same year with his friend Charles Lamb, who was three years younger than himself. Here, under the care of the Rev. James Bowyer, head master of the grammar-school, he was early distinguished for the scholarship, and it may be added, for those peculiarities of mind and personal habits that marked his after career. Mr. Bowyer, we are told in Mr. Coleridge's interesting and singular "Biographia Literaria," was not only a zealous and clear-sighted guide for him to the riches of the Greek and Roman poets, but a searching and sarcastic critic of the metrical school exercises in which his pupil gave his first tokens of possessing original genius. Thus it happened that young Coleridge's taste was cultivated and rendered fastidious before his powers were at all developed: and, apart from the peculiar physical organization which throughout after life operated on his mind as a burden and a hindrance in the work of production and accomplishment, this very circumstance of his education, at first sight seeming so advantageous, may have contributed to indispose him to attempt any continuous effort, or to complete it if attempted.

Other studies, which even then exercised over him a master-influence, were not less unfavourable to his yielding wholly to poetical impulses. "At a very premature age," says he, "even before my fifteenth year, I had bewildered myself in metaphysics, and in theological controversy. History, and particular facts, lost all interest in my mind. * * In my friendless wanderings on our 'leave days' (for I was an orphan, and had scarcely any connexions in London), highly was I delighted if any passenger, especially if dressed in black, would enter into conversation with me, for I soon found the means of directing it to my favourite subjects—

Of providence, foreknowledge, will and fate—
Fixed fate, freewill, foreknowledge, absolute.

From the perplexities of these momentous topics, so disproportionate with his mental strength at that period, the boy metaphysician was, for a time, diverted, by his making friendship with the sonnets of the Rev. Mr. Bowles. So ardently did he adopt these, that, his funds not warranting purchases, "he made," he tells us, "within less than a year and a half, no less than forty transcriptions, as the best presents I could offer to those, who had in any way won my regard." The freshness of their imagery, the healthy simplicity of their language, not only enchanted their enthusiastic admirer, but invited him to attempt something of his own, which should possess similar excellences.

It was not, however, till the year 1794, that he ventured into print. In the interim his fortunes had undergone strange vicissitudes. He had remained at Christ's Hospital till he was nineteen, when having, as grecian, or captain of the school, won an exhibition to the university, he entered Jesus College, Cambridge, on the 7th of September, 1791. But the discipline of a college was no less uncongenial, whether to the man or to his mind, than they subsequently proved to the gentle-hearted Shelley. From his cradle to his grave Mr. Coleridge was marked by singularity of habits, amounting to the most entire nonconformity with the ways and calculations of men. In the common relations of life, he was undecided, and inconsiderate, — loving better to sit still and discuss some knotty point, than to rise up and act. The same languor of spirit, which prevented him from ever advancing his worldly fortunes, and which, ere long, took the form of bodily disease, the same perverseness which made him, when travelling to solicit subscriptions for a periodical (The Watchman) which he was about to establish, choose for the subject of an harangue, in the house of one whose patronage in his undertaking he was seeking, the unprofltableness and unlawfulness of all periodicals, — rendered him desultory and capricious in his college studies, allowed him to fall into pecuniary difficulties, and finally contributed to his quitting college without having taken his degree. Like some others of his friends, too, he had disqualified himself for a university career, by having caught the Jacobinical spirit of the time, as "Robespierre," a hastily produced drama, which he wrote in conjunction with his friend Southey — as that tremendous philippic, "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," sufficiently attest. The history of mind would contain few more curious chapters than that which should trace the changes in opinion of those young authors, who entered the world together so fiercely resolved to stand or fall under the banner of liberty and equality !

On leaving Cambridge Mr. Coleridge was exposed to the severest privations, and after a few days of distress and perplexity in London, took the desperate step of enlisting himself as a private soldier, in the 15th regiment, Elliot's Light Dragoons, under the assumed name of "Comberback," with the view of retrieving his fortunes. But he was as unapt and unready in all bodily exercises, as he was rich in recondite learning. Though orderly and obedient, he could not rub down his horse; and being detected by his commanding officer, Captain Ogle, as the scrawler of a Latin quotation upon the wall of the stables at Reading, where the regiment was quartered, the circumstance led to his discharge. It may be added, on the authority, and in the words of the Rev. W. L. Bowles, that "by far the most correct, sublime, chaste, and beautiful of his poems, "Religious Musings," was written 'non inter sylvas Academi,' but in the taproom at Reading."

The date of Mr. Coleridge's first publication, which took place shortly after this period, has been given. The work was favourably received by a few, and cried down only by such superficial and overweening critics as welcomed Mr. Wordsworth's first poetical essays with a fatal "This will never do!" In the winter of 1794-5, having joined the Pantisocratians (to whom fuller allusion is made elsewhere), we find him lecturing at Bristol on the French Revolution, but without much method or regularity, and it was eminently characteristic of the man (who must always be considered separately from the poet and the metaphysician), that he rushed into the scheme without any worldly substance, and even considered himself as furthering its purposes by his early marriage with Miss Fricker, which took place in the same year.

The scheme of Pantisocracy was soon found but a broken reed to lean upon, and the poet, having settled himself at Nether Stowey — where many of his most delicious verses were written, — was obliged to endeavour to make his literary talents available for his maintenance. A periodical, devoted to the utterance of liberal opinions, was planned, "by sundry philanthropists and antipolemists." This was the "Watchman," whose ill success might be augured from the anecdote mentioned awhile since; and having lingered through its short and sickly life, no one will wonder at finding it presently used as waste paper for the lighting of fires in its editor's cottage. Mr. Coleridge also eked out his means, at this time, by contributing occasional poems to a morning paper.

In the year 1797 his volume of poetry went to a second edition, and, at Sheridan's request, he wrote his beautiful tragedy of "Remorse," which, however, was not performed till the year 1813, and then with but moderate success. About this time Mr. Wordsworth was resident at Nether Stowey; with this gentleman Mr. Coleridge contracted a close and affectionate intimacy. Each of the two was anxious to do his part in what they conceived might prove the revival of true poetry, and between them the "Lyrical Ballads" were planned. In the execution of this joint work, Mr. Coleridge was "to direct his endeavours to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest, and a resemblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination, that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." In fulfilment of this intention the "Ancient Mariner" (that marvel among modern legends), the "Genevieve," — in itself the most exquisite of love-tales, and yet but thrown off as the introduction to a story of mystery never completed;—and the first part of "Christabell" were written. The second part of this fragment, whose fate it has been to be first more scorned, next more quoted, lastly more admired, than most contemporary poems, was not added till after its author's return from Germany. It was while Mr. Coleridge was residing at Nether Stowey, that he occasionally officiated as an Unitarian Minister, at Taunton; and he might probably have been promoted to the regular charge of a congregation at Shrewsbury, had not the liberality of his friends, the Mr. Wedgwoods, offered him the alternative of the means wherewith he might proceed to Germany, and complete his studies according to his own plan. The latter he was sure to accept. Mr. Hazlitt has left a delightful record among his literary remains, — of Mr. Coleridge's trial sermon at Shrewsbury, and of his fascinating powers of eloquence and conversation; this is followed by a no less interesting picture of the poet's manner of life at Nether Stowey. Had it been possible, these should have been quoted here, together with Mr. Coleridge's own anecdote from the "Biographia," telling how he was dogged by a government spy for many weeks together, while he was wandering among the Quantock hills, and dreaming of one of the thousand works, of which "His eyes made pictures, when they were shut" — but which his hand never executed — a contemplative and descriptive poem to be called "the Brook."

It was on the 16th of September, 1798, that Mr. Coleridge set sail for Hamburgh, from Yarmouth. The details of this voyage, of his interview with Klopstock, of his subsequent residences at Ratzeburg and Gottingen, are journalized in his own delightful letters: it is enough for us to say, that he returned to his own country in 1801, imbued with the best spirit of German literature; his researches into its philosophy having wrought for him the somewhat unforseen result of a change from the Unitarian to the Trinitarian belief. That he continued a staunch disciple of the latter faith for the remainder of his days, his prose works and his will afford ample evidence.

On his return to England, Mr. Coleridge took up his residence at Keswick, in the neighbourhood of his friends Wordsworth and Southey; there he translated Schiller's "Wallenstein," which was published immediately; and though, for its wonderful spirit and fidelity, — the latter not a dry closeness of words, but a rendering of thoughts by thoughts, — it was, on its appearing, felt to be a remarkable work unique in our language, and raising the translator to an equality with his original author — it was long and strangely neglected, a second edition not being called for till the year 1828. Now, could we call up "the old man eloquent," as Sir Walter Scott threatened might be done, to compel him to complete the half-told legend of "Christabel," we should be tempted (could only one wish be granted) to demand of him a version of the untranslatable "Faust," secure that in his hands that wonderful drama would be as admirably naturalized into our literature, as the masterwork of " Schiller."

Shortly after his return from Germany, Mr. Coleridge joined himself as a literary and political contributor to the Morning Post, stipulating, in the first instance, "that the paper should be conducted on certain fixed principles, these being anti-ministerial, and with greater earnestness and zeal, both antijacobin, and antigallican." He laments over the time and talent expended in this compulsory toil, which would have been easily discharged, nor felt burdensome, by any one more happily constituted, or self-trained for diligent effort. And, in afterwards speaking of literature as a profession, he would, like too many beside him, do reason and justice wrong, by describing its drudgery in gloomier colours, than are used with reference to the uninteresting labour necessary to every other profession. But his mind was always teeming and pregnant, rather than active; and it was enchained in a feeble body, to the wants of which, perhaps, self-indulgence had given too much mastery. Mr. Coleridge could move others by his inspired conversation, by a few words crowded into the margin of a book, or let drop in conversation; he could clear up a dark point in literature, or illustrate a principle in philosophy, or open an avenue for his disciples to advance along in the pursuit of truth; but to work himself, save in a fragmentary manner, he seems to have been positively unable. We find him in 1804, at Malta, appointed as Secretary to Sir Alexander Ball; — with a superior whom he loved, as may be seen by the elaborate and grave panegyric he has left in "The Friend," — and a liberal salary. But he was incapable of performing the duties of office even under such favourable circumstances; and after a ramble through Italy and Rome, he returned to England, again to prove the precariousness of the life of those whose sole dependence is upon thoughts which they cannot, or will not, take the labour and patience to work out in a complete and available form.

In writing Mr. Coleridge's life, this feature of his character should be fully displayed and dwelt upon: even in this brief sketch it claims a distinct mention, though with reverence and sympathy. On his return to England we find him lecturing on poetry and the fine arts, at the Royal Institution, in the year 1808: next sojourning at Grasmere, where he planned and published "The Friend," a periodical which was dropped at the twenty-eighth number. Nor is this wonderful: there was a want of variety in the topics embraced in this miscellany; and the metaphysical and philosophical subjects on which its contriver delighted principally to dwell, were grave and involved; nor by their manner of treatment likely to be rendered acceptable to a public large enough to support a periodical, had he been regular enough to have continued it. "The tendency of his mind," writes one who understood him well, "to speculations of the most remote and subtle character, led him into regions where to follow was no easy flight. To read his philosophical discourses is a mental exercise which few are now willing to undertake; and it is not surprising that many will describe him as vague, intricate, and rhapsodical. For those, however, who study his writings as they deserve and demand, they are highly suggestive, and full of no common instruction, as excursions of a mind which in compass and elevation had certainly no peer among his English contemporaries. Of the peculiar character of his philosophy, as applied to various branches of knowledge, whether in ethics, criticism, history, or metaphysical science, it would be impossible to afford even the most imperfect sketch in this place. He may be said to have finally adopted an eclectic system of his own, strongly tinctured with the academic doctrines, and enriched with ideas gathered from the eminent German teachers of philosophy, to which he added a certain devout mysticism resting upon revealed religion. In the utterance of his tenets, circumstance no less than choice directed him to the dogmatic method; which, indeed, to be fixed in the conviction of certain positive and supreme truths, he must in any case naturally have followed. * * * His age was chiefly devoted to the verbal exposition of his scheme of a Christian philosophy, in which his mind had found a calm and satisfied refuge: his Aids to Reflection can but be considered as prolusions to the longer discourse, the Magnum Opus, in which he meant to unfold his system in all its fulness."

The above passage, as containing in some wise a general character of the prose works of this extraordinary man, has been permitted to break the fragile thread of our biographical notice. But there is little more to be told. After living for a short time at Grasmere, he came again to London, and finally set up his rest at Highgate, in the house of Mr. and Mrs. Gilman. With these faithful friends he continued to sojourn during the remainder of his life. In 1816 (to complete the list of his works) "Christabel" was published; then followed his "Lay Sermons;" next, in 1817, his "Biographia Literaria," the anecdotical part of which, in its want of method and connection, is as eminently typical of the man, as its introduced digressions are of the philosopher. Besides these, we must mention a volume of poems entitled "Sybilline Leaves," containing the "Genevieve," the "Hymn in the Valley of Chamouni," (that noblest of modern sacred odes,) and "Zapolya," a drama imitating in its form the peerless "Winter's Tale" of Shakspeare, which, though full of beauty, is like the "Remorse," at once too delicate in its language and imagery, and too devoid of one master-interest, to be successful before our vitiated stage audiences. It might be the consciousness of his failure, as much as the conviction of the viciousness of the nascent school of poetry and fiction, that embittered his critique upon Maturin's "Bertram," appended to the "Biographia," — a piece of savage labour thrown away. "Zapolya" was never represented. The list of Mr. Coleridge's works published in his lifetime, will, we believe, be completed by a small volume published in 1830, "On the Constitution of the Church and State," bearing on the Catholic Question.

There is no space here for an analysis of Mr. Coleridge's poems: among which, to increase the impossibility of such an essay, there will be found a singular variety and difference of manner. In some he is devout and enthusiastic, soaring to the most august themes, with a steadiness of wing and loftiness of harmony peculiar to himself: in others, tender and quaint, dallying among dainty images and conceits; and in his later verses, wrapping up thoughts in a garb enigmatical and fantastic, after the manner of some of our elder writers. In his ballads, again, he has caught the true spirit of the supernatural beyond all his compeers; his mind broods over the mysterious tale he is about to unfold, and his words fall from him unconsciously, each verse, as it were, intimating a portent. In all he shows himself to be perhaps the greatest modern master of versification: his poetry has a music deeper than that of chime and cadence, the thoughts and images, not merely the words and the measures, succeed each other in a rare harmony, besides being clothed in language of a select and unborrowed richness.

For the last many years of his life Mr. Coleridge lived pleasantly among his friends, at one time deriving a small pension from the Royal bounty, dreaming of a thousand mighty works to be achieved, committing the seeds of these, in the shape of notes and criticisms, to the flyleaves and margins of such books as fell in his way; and haranguing with a magical eloquence to those whom he drew round him to "love and learn." He established, it has been happily said, in excuse for the literary unproductiveness of his later years, a "Normal school" of philosophy for those who should in turn disseminate his well-beloved doctrines to a wider circle of pupils. Few, even among the uninitiated, left his presence without being a thought the richer; few books passed from under his hands without being graced by some golden sentence of illustration or criticism. The latter are daily coming to light; such as have been given to the world are precious evidences of the largeness of his mind, of the extent of his accomplishments, and the keenness of his perception. As a master and teacher among us, whose mind, dwelling apart from busy life was devoted to the study and oral diffusion of what was lofty, and noble, and worthy, we ought to love his memory — though we may not forget that there is warning as well as authority associated with his name!