1809 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Anonymous, "Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Esq." The Cabinet NS 1 (February 1809) 99-104.



We regret that our industry has been able to procure little more intelligence of this distinguished writer, than what anecdote and conversational intercourse supply: even this, however, we venture to submit to our readers, under the persuasion, that no information which tends to bring them better acquainted with a man, whose writings are calculated to elevate the thoughts and to refine the heart, will be unacceptable. Mr. Coleridge is the younger son of a most respectable family in Devonshire. From the prefatory poem to his volume it appears that his father enjoyed the living of Ottery St. Mary in that country, and that his brother is the present incumbent. Mr. C. received his education at Christ's Hospital, an institution which, whatever might have been the original intentions of its founder, has certainly contributed more to the public benefit, by offering an asylum to the children of respectable families in the upper classes of society. Having completed his education at this excellent seminary, where his talents early commanded the respect of his school-fellows, Mr. C. removed to Jesus College, Cambridge, with habits not very congenial with the studies of a place, which calculates a man's abilities too much by the number of hours he applies to his books, and where a man gains honour, as Montesquieu says of the Spaniards, in exact proportion to the number of hours that he can remain quiescent in his chair. Mr. C., in short, possessed no inclination for the dry and sedentary study of mathematics; and, if the following anecdote be true, it appears that he was not content to shew a passive disregard for the pursuits of his new residence. Being a candidate for that grand prize of academical composition, an university scholarship, Mr. C. was desired, among other chronological questions, to state the age in which Euclid lived, and to give some account of this prince of mathematicians. Our author, with much sang froid, after a competent answer to the other questions, replied to the last, that the person in question was one of whom he neither knew nor wished to know any thing. This reply can only be excused by the petulance of youth; but those who know the horror which so profane an opinion must have excited among men, many of whom, like the besotted geometrician recorded in history, would refuse to go to Heaven unless with an edition of Euclid in their pockets, will pardon the impertinence for the boldness of the reply. Candide, when he was buffeted for having spoken irreverently of the Sophi's whiskers, could not have excited more indignation, however, than this reply caused at Cambridge. Another answer, which Mr. C. made to the master of his college, when questioned about non-attendance at chapel, has been recorded in the Anti-Jacobin, and censured with full as much severity as it deserved. Mr. C. was a successful candidate for Sir Wm. Browne's medal, which is an annual prize for the best Greek ode on a given subject. This, we believe, is the only academical honour to which Mr. C.'s indolence allowed him to aspire; and even this, we have heard, he attained by the gentle violence of his friends, who, regretting his idleness, made him a prisoner in a room, where there was no other accommodation but pen, ink, and paper, and thus reduced him to write in self-defence. The ode, we are told, was produced in a few hours, and, making allowances for the marvellous part of the story, is said to have possessed very great merit. Mr. Coleridge left the University without taking a degree, and many of his subsequent adventures and situations in life are said to have been full as novel and romantic as any the most sanguine admirer of the eccentricities of genius could have wished him to have gone through. One anecdote we cannot suppress, as it is equally honourable to the talents of Mr. C. and to the liberality of a friend of literature; we allude to the annuity which Mr. Wedgewood generously conferred on the subject of this memoir, as a means of rendering him wholly independent, and of giving him leisure to cultivate his talents to their full extent. Mr. C. has for some years resided with his family near the lakes in Cumberland, a spot which, with many readers, will be considered almost as classical ground, from its being the favourite residence of the disciples of the Wordsworth school. This retreat his health obliged him to quit in 1797, when he travelled to Malta, where he acted for some time as secretary to Sir Alexander Ball; and last summer he visited the metropolis, for the purpose of lecturing at the Royal Institution.

As a writer, we consider Mr. Coleridge inferior to few of the present day; and we reperuse his nervous and manly poems with peculiar pleasure after the effeminate love ditties and namby-pamby cantos which have of late been showered upon the public. The leading feature in his poetical character appears to be a strong and ardent love of domesticity. The days of childhood and the scenes of infancy are among the favourite themes of all the followers of the Muses; but they appear to be remembered by most of them, merely as affording a contrast to the evils of maturer age. It is only when oppressed with ill-health, that our bards recur to those scenes where they were yet strangers to disease; and they recall those past days when life was new, and every thing full of promise, merely because they are wearied with present languor and disappointment. There is a degree of selfishness in this, which diminishes the pleasure that such imagery and recollections are calculated to excite. Nothing, however, of this appears in the writings of the poet before us; his tone of home enjoyment is pure, unalloyed, and delicate in the highest degree. It is in the bosom of his family that he appears to enjoy those happy moments when simple existence is a luxury; and the expression, with which he records his sensations, remind us of that evangelical purity of sentiment which breathes through the writings of Cowper, and "Betrays a temper sore with tenderness." Nothing, too, can be more affectionate than the impressions which past times and distant scenes appear to make upon him; and, what is the surest test of genuine domestic tendency, all his remembrances have a locality about them; they embrace not only the persons with whom he was conversant, but they identify with such persons the places which they most frequented: "the dwelling where his father dwelt" appears to comprise his most exquisite ideas of earthly happiness. What can be more interesting than the following reflections on quitting a place of retirement?

Low was our pretty cot! our tallest rose
Peep'd at the chamber-window. We could hear
At silent noon, and eve, and early morn,
The sea's faint murmur. In the open air
Our myrtles blossom'd; and across the porch
Thick jasmine twin'd: the little landscape round
Was green and woody, and refresh'd the eye.
It was a spot, which you might aptly call
The Valley of Seclusion! Once I saw
(Hallowing his Sabbath-day by quietness)
A wealthy son of Commerce saunter by,
Bristowa's citizen: methought it calm'd
His thirst of idle gold, and made him muse
With wiser feelings; for he paus'd, and look'd
With a pleas'd sadness, and gaz'd all around,
Then ey'd our cottage, and gaz'd round again,
And sigh'd, and said, it was a blessed place,
And we were blessed.

Or what more sweet than the following burst of domestic tenderness?

My pensive Sara! Thy soft cheek reclin'd
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
With white-flower'd jasmin, and the broad-leav'd myrtle,
And watch the clouds that late were rich with light,
Slow-sadd'ning round, and mark the star of eve
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scent
Snatch'd from yon bean-field! And the world so hush'd!
Hark! the still murmur of the distant sea
Tells us of silence! and th' Eolian lute,
How by the desultory breeze caress'd,
Like some coy maid half-yielding to her lover,
It pours such sweet upbraidings, as must needs
Tempt to repeat the wrong! And now, its strings
Boldlier swept, the long sequacious notes
Over delicious surges sink and rise,
Such a soft floating witchery of sound—
Methinks it should have been impossible
Not to love all things in a world like this,
Where ev'n the breezes of the simple air
Possess the power and spirit of melody.

But the muse of Mr. Coleridge was not attuned to one stop only. The period when began his poetical career formed also the commencement of those tremendous scenes which have since desolated Europe, defying all argument and former experience, and baffling reason itself. Poets are not in general politicians, and Mr. C. like other men of warm temperament, hailed the French Revolution as the dawn of better days. With what ardour he viewed the struggles of that unhappy nation for freedom, every page of his poems evinces; nay, to such a degree was his mind heated with the subject, that he seriously proposed, in concert with some companions of congenial sentiments, to abandon his native soil, and in the wilds of America to form a pantosocratic establishment, which should know none of the restrictions of civilized, or, as they termed it, degraded society. The following nervous expressions, from many others which might be quoted, will shew, that however ill Mr. C. might reason as a politician, he could rail with all the pointed sarcasm of a true poet.

From all sides rush the thirsty brood of War!
Austria, and that foul Woman of the North,
The lustful murd'ress of her wedded Lord!
And he, connatural Mind! whom (in their songs
So bards of elder times had haply feign'd)
Some Fury fondled in her hate to man,
Bidding her serpent-hair in mazy surge
Lick his young face, and at his mouth inbreathe
Horrible sympathy! And leagued with these
Each petty German princeling, nurs'd in gore!
Soul-harden'd barterers of human blood!
Death's prime slave-merchants! Scorpion-whips of Fate!

Mr. C. confesses that he has not succeeded in the sonnet; nor indeed do we know any one but Charlotte Smith who has: his specimens, however, bear all the marks of a classical and highly polished mind, and the 5th, 6th, and 10th are of a very superior description. His address To a Friend, in Answer to a melancholy Letter, though unacknowledged, is a close and masterly imitation of an ode in Casimir.

We cannot conclude these remarks, without noticing the general air of melancholy which runs through the poems of this gentleman. Mr. C. in his preface resents all such charges from the "sleek favourites of fortune," as savouring of egotism; but as he will not be apt to suspect us of being contained in this description of persons, and as we think the remarks may be of some use to young sinners in poetry, who are generally diligent readers of monthly publications, we shall venture to enter our protest against such sombre views of life. Many men become poets, because they are unhappy; but we suspect there are many more who make themselves unhappy, in order that they may become poets. There is something so interesting in an appearance of perpetual affliction, that young readers become entrapped into an artificial unhappiness and melancholy, because it is the most gentlemanlike way of writing, and because it is a very easy way of writing. We would not insinuate that a man of Mr. C.'s genius needs any such stilts; but we certainly think it an unnecessary degree of sensibility in him, that he should feel himself obliged, in case he met the poet Schiller,

With mute awe gazing on the bard to brood,
Then weep aloud in a wild ecstacy.

His splenetic outcries against warriors, lords, and priests, and particularly against hideous trade, who "Loud-laughing packs his bales of human anguish," together with the wandering tendency of his religious opinions, we humbly conceive, may be attributed to that sloth-jaundiced disposition, of which the poet complains, as inherent in himself. A regular employment of six hours in the day would dissipate all such opinions; it is true that we should lose some fine bursts of poetry by this, but Mr. Coleridge would be a much happier man.