Samuel Taylor Coleridge

John Dix, in "Reminiscences of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Charles Lamb" Pen and Ink Sketches of Poets, Preachers, and Politicians (1846) 129-39.

To avoid the tedium of following one "literary character" throughout my whole period of intercourse with him, I propose to beg the reader's company in my successive introductions to the few I knew, and recur to each in the manner that chance afterwards conducted myself.

I had just returned from my Lake visit, referred to in the preceding pages, and was strolling in a beautiful meadow of romantic site, five miles from the metropolis, and outside of the village of Highgate, when I passed a rather corpulent, clerkly-looking man of the middle size, sauntering along, the autumn evening being a glorious one, when a courteous kind of voice said, "Look to your pocket-handkerchief, sir," which was, indeed, nearly trailing the ground behind. Turning to thank him, I saw a pale, rather heavy, phlegmatic-looking face, apparently of from fifty to sixty years' standing, with grey hairs, grey eyes, of a benign expression, yet somewhat inexpressive as a whole, marked with a peculiar languor, that might be a calm interval of pain, or profound pensiveness, or an absence of mind that often mimics deep thought, when perhaps the mind rests from thinking. His twinkling eyes seemed to enjoy the landscape. A rich sweep of meadows far below our feet closed by the renowned metropolis, its vast overhanging cloud now actually adorning the view, being umbered by the level sun — a dusky red aerial roof of majestic circular extent, in the boundless fading blue, dim cupolas, and spires innumerable glittering or darkening beneath it; in the midst one, in form and stature proudly eminent, rising dark as a rock of black marble, and as stupendous — ST. PAUL'S CATHEDRAL.

"The clergyman of Highgate, possibly," I said to myself. Yet there was a something of the remains of troublous thinking, a look of worn and wearied sensibility, that hardly suited the idea of fat, contented piety "looking downward on the earth" which, as yielding an English clergyman a tenth of the treasures of her "ample lap," may very reasonably attract down to her even the eye of an enlightened son of mother church. He looked very like a comfortable priest, at least, and only that cast of thought redeemed the whole outer man from fulfilling the idea of Thomson's "round fat oily man of God." "What if that should be Coleridge himself?" I meditated again; and reconnoitred my gentleman from a distance, whose only business seemed the same as mine, to catch the last of a glorious day unbroken by walls. "After all, perhaps, he is one of the happy, sleek cits located in romantic Highgate, just waiting "dinner going up;" and now he seemed fixed in reverie, gazing at mighty London, (from this point of view truly picturesque.) "He's trying now to guess exactly the whereabout of his little dusky room behind a huge warehouse in the Minories, or the old alley streets, that unluckily escaped the fire; now he looks at his watch. Ah! he smells, in the fine frenzy of gastric imagination, the soup!" Unworthy conjecture! — no — his was the poet's eye — he was admiring nature; albeit all Cockaigne was in his cue. It was Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the metaphysician and poet — both, or must not truth almost say neither, or not the perfection of either, through the collision of the two characters? I had in my pocket letters from the North, partly introductory, and next day recognised the saviour of my bit of silk in the celebrated inmate of Mr. Gilman's house at Highgate.

Alas! it is too probable that part of that troublous expression was as much matter of the vile s.d. misery as if he had indeed been the cit of my last conceit! The philosopher's mind for years suffered martyrdom from the conflict of generous impatience of obligation, and dire necessity of receiving it. The noble disinterestedness of his host, Mr. Gilman, and his attached hostess, rendered their favours, perhaps, still more painful to receive. In all his embryo schemes of literary ambition, the prospect of emancipation from fruitless wishes to prove his gratitude certainly formed one chief charm.

Hurrying on to another part of my brief intercourse, I shall throw together what I remember of the effects of his general deportment on my mind. Of course, I was more anxious to hear, than be heard. Yet I confess, I did fancy that the consciousness of what his friends told the public, and the public repeated, of his wondrous eloquence, was too visible, imparting a very little of what we dislike in a be-praised beauty's perpetual simper — an itch for admiration, prompting constant self-recollection. He seemed aware that strangers expected a treat from that eloquent mouth. The bees that clustered round his lips (no doubt) in infancy, could not, however, have deposited sweets inexhaustible; and the vast flow of his eloquence hence sometimes brawled roughly among metaphysical rocks of the strangest form, or wandered away fairly out of the sight of vulgar, mortal, intellectual eyes. As to any interjected obstacle that his hearer might venture to edge in — a suggested flaw in his argument, or doubt to be resolved — it caused not a ripple. He smiled — gesticulated seeming assent, (with too much an air of adult indulgence to innocent child's prattle,) and pursued his "high argument" just the same, never recurring to yours. Mr. Serjeant Talfourd has said, that he thus in a large circle "pleased everybody, — by conceding the point without dispute." Query? I knew several whom this lofty sort of patience did not please or content. Moreover, his love of the mystic — his strange admiration of that dashing theorist Kant, who has a sword ready for every Gordian knot in metaphysics under the name of "Practical Reason," could find little sympathy in others. He has shipped an immense cargo of this lore in his work "Biographia Literaria." He was in full employ upon this work, as I afterwards learned, at the period I allude to; and this might have caused his conversation to be more than usually abstruse. I was charmed with the vague splendours of his thoughts, coruscating like a boreal aurora, but I confess the matter of fact that gave rise to them seemed indeed veiled by them — veiled by "excess of light;" and when he had at last done, the matter which this glory or halo of language was to impress upon the mind, remained somewhat in the state of the earthly movements — wars, battles, sieges — prefigured by that heavenly northern illumination. The actual required a seer as profound, and vision as strong in second sight, as that prophetical future. It was too like that state produced, according to Dr. Johnson, by the gorgeous poetry of Akenside — "sometimes amazed, always delighted, — it recollects little, and carries away nothing."

He told me that he owed all his poetical inspiration to Bowles's sonnets. He has said, I believe, the same in his Life, which I cannot say I ever met with; and not only his love for poetry, but his fortunate reclamation from a rage for metaphysical disputation that threatened to utterly engross his entire mind. Probably many will think that he never was cured — that his dreaminess still runs into his poetry, and the fantastic creations of his imagination turn all his philosophy into dreams. His metaphysics sorely clog the wings of his fancy: Pegasus falls into a heavy trot over thorny ground full of old roots, and his fancy flies away with him while theorizing up to the "highest heaven of invention," leaving common sense to wonder at his vast flight to the clouds, and how far within none know, until he comes down again with a demonstration from Latmos, or some such grand mount, blessed with lunar favour and influence.

Of the daily, almost hourly, arrivals of packets — letters with new works, imploring his obstetric aid in their struggles to avoid the fate of the still-born children of the press, — of religious debutants on a more sacred stage, all crowding under the wing of a public character, he complained almost with groaning; yet I did somehow conceit a — not "roguish," yet self-complacent "twinkle in his eye," that hinted some spice of comfort under the mountain of supplications, the penalty of "finding oneself famous." Indeed, I had proof of the fact, even on the few occasions of my seeing him at home.

He inquired about Edinburgh chit-chat with ostensible indifference, but ill-concealed eagerness, especially of the doings and sayings of the great little pole-star of the literary world — Jeffrey, whose battery of long range against him, as one of the "knot of hypochondriacal and whining poets that haunt the Lakes," as he wickedly described them, evidently broke through his habitually lofty elevation of thoughts, which kept, or seemed to keep, a calm for ever round him. He even anxiously hinted repeatedly his non-relationship to that family, in a manner which I fancied his friend Wordsworth (whose opinions of Coleridge I had listened to not a fortnight before,) would have deemed an "unkind cut" at least, and Southey not less so. Of his friend Wordsworth, however, he spoke with admiration, though disclaiming for himself, as well as him, all pretension to being considered of any school, much less founders of one. Yet Wordsworth enunciated the pretension himself in the long preamble to the Lyrical Ballads, and the fact seemed certain; but it was not for me to controvert so eminent a man's manifesto of abdication for himself and compeers. Mr. Wordsworth had, however, so recently maintained the precise contrary, even to eager vindication of its peculiar tenets, as constituting a new "school," chiefly that the most familiar dialect is fit for poetry, and the humblest subjects for its matter, that I felt rather astonished, and thought that poets differed more widely even than doctors.

At a subsequent interview, Mr. Coleridge favoured me with some hints of an attempt on his own Life — which I found afterwards was even then almost completed, being published either that year or the next. I refer to the "Biographia Literaria." I fancied then that it was one of the shadowy embryos of his fertile mind, never to be embodied, for he was never without a project, and the last was usually the chosen one, his well-beloved above the rest, on which he proposed to "build his fame."

Lamb, the inimitable Elia, (of whom I had two glimpses in my life, and never more, though yearning for acquaintanceship,) has, with his usual novel humour, alluded to these "castles in the air" of his friend, in a letter to Mr. Manning, then in China. The whole letter is as admirable as it is singular. A strange mingled yarn runs through it, of mirth and melancholy, not alternately, which is common enough, but the identical sentiment at once solemn and ridiculous, breathing mortality and its terrors, and fantastic fancy with its fun; the certain deadly futurity being drawn as present, while all is life and gaiety; yet that prospective reality of death, and change, and decay, all the while forcing itself on the merry voluptuary till he sighs while he laughs, and "breaks the course of laughter with a sigh." Charles Lamb says, "Coleridge is just dead, having lived just long enough to close the eyes of Wordsworth, who died but a week or two before. Poor Col! but two days before he died, he wrote to a bookseller, proposing an epic poem — 'The Wanderings of Cain,' in twenty-four books. He is said to have left behind him above forty thousand treatises on metaphysics and divinity — one of them completed. They are, perhaps, already to be found round sweetmeats at this season."

Apropos of Charles Lamb, I may here speak of the writer of this letter to Mr. Manning, as much an original as his epistle.

I think it was on a Sunday that, entering Mr. Coleridge's residence, I passed in the hall a plain, quizzical, slightly-made little gentleman and a lady, just departing to catch the last Highgate stage to London. The lingering of the cheerful couple at the door with their host seemed to indicate reluctance to end their pleasant day. I found that this was the facetious, the feeling, the fancy-fraught, the delightful "Elia" — CHARLES LAMB, the India House slave, the genius martyred on the altar of Plutus, — not for his own emolument, but that of a company. The galley-slave, probably, has rarely much soul into which the "iron" of his chain can enter, as Sterne expresses it; no one can read Lamb's effusions, and doubt that a gentle, generous, exalted soul existed under all his playfulness, and "informed" and "o'er-informed" that fragile tenement.

I could hear a parting bon-mot let off, which hung fire as usual; Lamb's stutter never being wholly forgotten, as I believe is usual with persons liable to that infirmity. It elicited his sister's ready laugh, however, and the more restrained response in the fashion of the thoughtful poet. Lamb's dress was black; he wore small-clothes and high gaiters. His stature was low; his whole figure so slight, as to appear more diminutive perhaps than it really was. He said he was as tall as Kean; but of this, as I never saw Edmund off the stage, I cannot judge. His forehead was ample; his hair dark, thick, and curling; his head, indeed, looking rather too big for its support, but it was what would have been deemed a very fine one on a "fine man," according to vulgar parlance. His nose was aquiline, and the mouth very expressive. The melancholy and mirth of the inner man seemed peculiarly depicted on his pensive yet half-smiling countenance.

Perhaps Nature never created two superior minds less akin than those of the two friends thus cordially parting, — one so tolerant, so lowly of spirit, so charitable from a fine humanity, — the other, not the reverse, indeed, of these, but endued with a moral sense of a far more stubborn nature, more self-esteem, less indulgence for human fallibility. Yet Coleridge stood himself a very monument of mutability in judgment. Scarcely less, indeed, did Dr. Southey differ from Robert Southey, author of the revolutionary effusion, "Wat Tyler," than did then and there the clerkly-apparelled, placid advocate of Conservative principles, (though the term was then Tory,) he who had written in the "Morning Post" government print, — he utterly opposed to all radical changes, from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the denounced Jacobin of the "Anti-jacobin," the marked as one of the French-fed disciples of anarchy,romantic for "liberty" — planning, with Southey and Lloyd, emigration to the New World, to fly the tyrannies of the Old. I say, if any man ever had cause to be lenient toward dissent from his own opinions, it was Coleridge himself, since he had proof in himself that sincerity and high talent is compatible with the utmost extremes of political sentiment at different periods, ay, of moral and religious; for in these, too, he composed a dual man.

As these are literally "random recollections," I shall now advert to an odd incident which threw another of the now-celebrated characters in my way. I think it occurred on the same Sunday evening just referred to, but with it I will commence another chapter ["Notices of Shelley and Hazlitt"].