1825 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

John Herman Merivale, Diary Entry, 20 August 1825; Anna Wilhelmina Merivale, Family Memorials (1884) 261-64.



August 20. On Thursday I went to Hampstead, took an early dinner with [Laurence] Rogers, and at six o'clock in the evening went with him and Mrs. Rogers to Coleridge's soiree at Highgate. The Philosopher lives in the house of a Mr. Gilman, surgeon and apothecary, on the Terrace at the entrance from Kentish Town — the site (it is said) of Arundel House where Bacon died. I am told that Coleridge was at first put under the medical surveillance of this gentleman when, a few years since, he was disordered in mind, and that he has ever since continued to reside with him as a friend. The good host and hostess seem to be very much attached to their guest, who attracts many visitors on Thursday evenings, when he holds forth to the general edification. Basil Montagu has often pressed me to go with him, he being a constant attendant: but something or other has always occurred to prevent me, and I now went under the auspices of my excellent friend Rogers. The first report on our arrival was that the Philosopher was so ill as to make it doubtful whether he would be able to join us; and we spent nearly an hour (during which we were joined by the learned Basil, his lady, and Irving) before he made his appearance, which he did at last (as Mrs. Rogers told me) in consequence of her having informed him that I had come purposely to be introduced to him. Nothing could be more courteous than his manner of welcoming, and his hopes that I should renew my visit. He soon took his chair, and began to hold forth ex cathedra. He brought downstairs with him the folio edition of Baxter's History of his Life and Times, as a sort of text to preach from, and at first began to eulogize the book and its author. The former bore witness to the value he appears to set upon it from the

number of registers inserted in almost every page. The author he designated as most eminently entitled of any character he knows to the blessings of the peace-maker. From Baxter the strain of his argument flowed almost imperceptibly into Metaphysics and the most abstruse mysteries of Religion. The distinguishing characteristic of Man he holds to be the persuasion of his own imperishable nature — that we want no Revelation to teach it us — that, on the contrary, the inbred and irradicable conviction is only weakened by the fallacy of making it depend on a solitary miracle for its support — and hence, more than from any other cause, flows irreligion and a disbelief in futurity. That the true use of miracles is not as evidence of Religion, but simply as the credentials of those who are divinely instructed to work them. That the Scriptures are for the unlearned equally with the learned — the very foundation of their authority resting in the universality of their application — that (on the other hand) the Unitarian doctrine requires the support of learned argument and controversy, and therefore cannot be the true one. That it follows from this that a Unitarian cannot conscientiously attempt proselytism. What right has he to shake the belief of one who is unable to appreciate his reasoning, derived as it is from a critical acquaintance with the niceties of ancient language? The truth of Christianity cannot depend upon this knowledge, confined (as it must be) to so few, and so utterly irreducible to certainty even in the minds of those few. Nothing but assertion and counter-assertion — no conviction. Hence also follows the absurdity of affixing to the word "Inspiration" the notion of verbal Inspiration. If the Scriptures were, (according to the vulgar understanding) written at the immediate dictation of the Holy Spirit, why did not the same Holy Spirit accompany the translators, seeing that it is of infinitely more importance to the world at large that the translations should be correct than even the original. Milton's Treatise — Strange that so accurate a reasoner should omit the first step and not define what he means by Inspiration. His errors proceed from his not being able to break through the trammels of the popular acceptation. The language of Scripture is utterly incompatible with that acceptation: e.g. the commencement of Luke's Gospel. Would an Officer, undertaking at the immediate command and under the dictation of the Duke of Wellington to write a history of the Peninsular War, begin by referring to a few serjeants and corporals of his acquaintance who happened to be eye-witnesses for the truth of his relation? He attempted to illustrate the doctrine of the Trinity from the Divine attribute of Omnipresence. If the entire Godhead occupies every point of space, why may He not dwell at the same instant in three (or in three millions) of persons? From the Unitarians he changed his battery to the Scotch Presbyterian Church — and so resolved were all present to do nothing but listen, that even this attack failed to rouse the Caledonian Apostle, who (except by the interposition of one solitary attempt at illustration) was a silent hearer during the whole evening. For myself I was certainly very much struck with his wonderful powers both of speech and thought, with the flow of his imagery and happiness of his illustrations — but I was often unable to follow him, and concur fully in the observation I have heard made on the cloudy brilliancy of his discourse. My curiosity is not by any means satisfied; on the contrary I feel strongly urged to repeat my visit and endeavour to form a more distinct idea of his real powers than I possess at present.

Sunday, Sept. 4. To-day Herman and I walked to Highgate, where we went to church; thence to Hampstead, where we (with my wife and Reginald who joined us from Town) dined at my father's. After church Herman and I called at Coleridge's, (which was the main object of our going to Highgate,) and we had an hour of most interesting conversation with (or rather holding forth of) that most singular and highly gifted man. He began with Religion and Metaphysics, and talked of the universal belief in fallen Angels, I hardly know whether as an argument in proof of their actual existence, and think it can hardly have been so meant, as he seemed to enter into my suggestion, that the passage in the Psalms seemingly allusive to this popular article of faith may have reference to a pre-existent world such as is now asserted, by geologists. We then talked (or rather he talked) of Predestination and Coplestone, whom he called a worthy good man, but seemed to value very little as a metaphysician! I could not follow him in this part of his discourse, which appeared to me abundantly mystical. Referring to our friend Rogers, he maintained that a man may be too thoroughly good to become distinguished, and that to be so (i.e. distinguished,) a man should have some spice of the Devil in his composition — nay, that a portion of the devilish may stand a man in stead of all actual talents and acquirements — e.g. Bonaparte, whom he holds to be infinitely overrated. Thence we slid into Grammar — Matthiae's Greek-Philosophical Grammar, &c., addressing himself in particular and very kindly to Herman. Thence to Webster on Witchcraft , and writers on Witchcraft generally. Baxter — (another instance of a man being too unmixedly good) — Jacob Behmen, &c. I left him, still unconvinced both of the soundness and clearness of his perceptions, but astonished at his vast flow of words, retentiveness of memory, fecundity of illustration, and exalted powers of eloquence, and with a determination not to throw away the privilege he seems disposed to grant me of a more intimate acquaintance.