1827 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

A. P., "An Essay on Coleridge's Life and Poetry" Living Poets of England: Specimens of the Living British Poets (1827) 1:413-19.



SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE, is a native of Bristol and formerly a member of Jesus College, Cambridge. When the late Sir Alexander Ball was appointed governor of Malta, Mr. Coleridge went with him in quality of Secretary.

Mr. Wordsworth may, in some respects, be compared to Jacques, in As You Like It; but in regard to reveries, his friend, S. Taylor Coleridge, leaves far behind him Shakspeare's contemplative philosopher, who, however, has the advantage of never having been a ministerial journalist.

From morn to night I am myself a dreamer,
And slight things bring on me the idle mood;

says one of the characters in his metaphysical tragedy. It is but just to add, that Coleridge would, perhaps, be the greatest of modern poets, if he were not the most indolent. He is an extraordinary dreamer, and all his poetry seems to be composed in his sleep. Kubla-Khan, one of his day dreams, is preceded by a little preface, in which he states, that while engaged in transcribing his poem, he was called away on business, and that, on his return home, he was unable to catch the thread of his narrative; consequently, the story is but half told. He offers no better apology for all the unfinished fragments contained in his poetic collections, entitled Sybiline Leaves.

Every one of Coleridge's productions has been left incomplete, through mere indolence. It unfortunately happened, that while he attended the German universities, his enthusiastic imagination imbibed the contagion of that philosophic and religious mysticism, which, like a cloud, envelopes the greater portion of his writings, and often renders the brilliant flashes of his genius less vivid than they would otherwise he. This obscurity is particularly remarkable in his prose. Coleridge is said to be the only man who has thoroughly understood Kant and Fichte; but, it is to be regretted, that such an advantage should sometimes have the effect of rendering his own writings unintelligible. Madame de Stael, while she has explained Kant, according to her own ideas, has, at least, written in a way to be understood; but Coleridge seems only to have added the impenetrable veil of his own theories to those of the German philosopher.

Coleridge's reputation long rested on the hopes excited by his youthful genius, or on the exaggerated praises bestowed by his admirers on certain poems, which, it was affirmed, would astonish the world, but which, eventually, proved to be mere abortions. He is now praised, not for what he will do, but for what he might do. He has, however, in his portfolio, a work on which high expectations are founded. This is, his Lectures on Shakespeare. Those who have read them, speak with contempt of Schlegel's lectures. Coleridge, it appears, possesses, in an eminent degree, the charm of ex-tempore composition, and even his ordinary conversation displays beautiful effusions of eloquence. He should always have a short-hand writer at his side, to note down his brilliant inspirations. Coleridge had, at one time, a sort of disciple, who, unfortunately, was not a Boswell. Instead of the active admiration of Johnson's biographer, John Chester could only listen to his master and give him verbal assurances of ecstacy.

A remarkable characteristic of Coleridge's poetry, is, that its simplicity and ease are admirably blended with great richness of expression, and with continual harmony and elegance. Even the faulty metre of his verses seems to be calculated. It is music in which the rules of composition are violated, but which is, nevertheless, perfectly appropriate to the sentiment it is intended to express. There is something very fantastic in Coleridge's rhythm, when his subjects are borrowed from the phantasmagoria of his own dreams. His philosophic fragments have not the solemn and somewhat monotonous tone of Wordsworth; they present the energy of Milton, and the beauty of Shakespeare.

The reveries of love are, in Coleridge's verses, described with captivating melancholy and simplicity. Few writers have better understood the delicacy of that passion. Coleridge has represented its most poetic ideality, and even to the emotions of the senses he has given the language of the imagination. It is he who makes a lover say, when speaking of his mistress—

Her voice, that even in her mirthful mood,
Has made me wish to steal away and weep.

The little poem of "Genevieve" or "Love" abounds in touches no less charming. It is a sweet picture of the metaphysics of first love, and possesses a great deal of that grace which has been so highly admired in Dante's "Qual giorno no leggiamo mai."

"Love" was one of Wordsworth's collection of lyrical ballads; but Coleridge subsequently separated his works from those of his friend. According to the plan mutually agreed upon between them, Coleridge was to make choice of imaginary heroes and subjects, without, however, renouncing the advantage of imparting to them a degree of interest and an air of probability, sufficient to obtain from his readers what he terms poetic faith — that is to say, the voluntary suspension of the critical spirit of incredulous reason. The Ancient Mariner is Coleridge's best ballad. It is a whimsical conception; but we cannot, like the author's friends, pronounce it to be at once astonishing and original. It is, they affirm, a poem which must be felt, admired, and meditated upon, but which cannot possibly be described, analyzed, or criticised. We doubt whether it would, in France, be acknowledged to be the most singular of the creations of genius. But to the lakists it is not a thing of this material world. They regard the melodious verses of this poem as the melancholy and mysterious murmur of a dream; to them the images have the beauty, grandeur, and incoherence of a vision, in which imposing shadows are mingled with graceful and distinct forms. Every fault is pardoned, the superfluous ornaments, the redundance of the language, and the vagueness and confusion of the narrative.

The poem opens with the celebration of a wedding. Joyous music is heard, and lights burning at a distance guide the guests to the festival. One of them is stopped by an old man, who seizes him by the hand, and insists on speaking to him; he gets away from him; but the stranger, who is the old mariner, has an irresistible charm in his look, and possesses a singular power of fascination. The sailor, without any preamble, relates that he once embarked on hoard a vessel to sail for the South Sea. The ship steered with a favourable wind as far as the Line, when suddenly a violent storm arose, and it was driven into the icy regions. A sea bird, the Albatross, is received with joy and hospitality by the ship's crew. The appearance of this bird is regarded as a good augury. It accompanies the vessel, but is killed by the old sailor. The fair weather ceases, and the crew overwhelm the sailor with reproaches; but, on the return of a favourable gale, they justify him, and thus become accomplices in his crime. A calm suddenly arises, and the vessel is impeded in her course. The Albatross is now about to be avenged. The miseries which assail the ship's crew, the feverish thirst which torments them amidst the vast plain of water by which they are surrounded, all are the result of the old sailor's cruelty. An exclamation of joy escapes from them at the sight of an approaching vessel; but they are filled with horror, on discovering that the ship is sailing without the aid of either wind or current. It proves only to be the skeleton of a vessel. The crew consists of two phantoms, viz. Death, and another which the narrator terms Life in Death. These two phantoms dispute for the possession of the old sailor, and cast dice to determine which shall have the prize. Life in Death is the winner. The old sailor sees his comrades perish in the waves, venting imprecations on him, in their dying moments. Amidst the pangs of remorse, and the gloomy reflections of which he is now the victim, a sentiment of charity still lingers in his heart, and is the means of saving him. He ejaculates a prayer, and from that moment he is cheered by returning hope. The Holy Virgin sends to his aid a refreshing slumber and a shower of rain, and he hears strange voices and an extraordinary commotion in the elements.

The vessel moves, the dead bodies, which have been floating on the waves, utter groans, and rise up, but without speaking or moving their eyes. The pilot stations himself at the helm, and the vessel sails on, though not a breath of air is stirring. The sailors are all at their posts, and their limbs are in motion like insensible machines.

However, the Spirit of the Pole claims his revenge, and obtains it. The misery of the sailor again commences; but after expiating his offence by a long series of torments and terrors, he at length reaches his native shore. The angels, who have temporarily re-animated the bodies of the ship's crew, re-assume their forms of light. A hermit receives the sailor on the shore. He unfolds to him his dreadful history, and he is afterwards doomed to wander through the world, and to tell his tale, in order to warn men, by his example, to respect God's creatures.

Coleridge has lavished a vast store of poetry and imagination on this little production; and he has displayed singular ingenuity in the management of the style. The language of the mariner is sometimes rapid and impetuous, like the tempest by which the vessel is hurled along; and to this succeeds a measured solemnity, indicative of the calm. The interruptions of the auditor, the sprightly music of the nuptial festival, mingling with the accents of remorse and fear, all are calculated to excite superstitious terror and melancholy. This poem, it is said, produces a most impressive effect, when recited by Coleridge himself.

Christabel, which is a composition of the same class, has been too highly extolled by Lord Byron. It is an incomplete effusion.

There is certainly some analogy between the talent of Coleridge and that of the German poet, Burger, the author of Leonora. I should almost be inclined to say that the English poet is the more German of the two; for even in his pictures of ordinary life, where he has to trace the most natural emotions, his imagination loves to soar beyond the visible world, and gather rich and mysterious colours from the realms of illusion. Coleridge has even applied his phantasmagoria to politics. His pretended eclogue, entitled, Fire, Famine, and Slaughter, was an energetic malediction upon Pitt, in the time of his power. In La Vendee, on a plain ravaged by war, the three personified scourges meet, and express their gratitude to the minister, who supplied them with so many victims. The scene of the three furies in Manfred would form an admirable pendant to this.

Coleridge has translated, or rather imitated Schiller's Wallenstein; for the German piece receives new beauty from its English dress, while a mere translator usually impoverishes his author. The tragedy of Zapoloya is imitated from Shakspeare's Winter's Tale, with this difference, that as Coleridge, could not, like his model, venture to pass over an interval of twenty years between one act and another, he has written a second piece, detached from the first, under the title of Prelude. This concession to Aristotle is singular enough on the part of so fanciful a writer; but he has strongly expressed his disapproval of dramatic licences, in some critical remarks on Maturin's Bertram, and the plays of Kotzebue. Coleridge's tragedies are indeed sometimes mystical, but never so extravagant as his poem of the Ancient Mariner would lead one to suppose. Remorse is the only one of his dramatic productions which has attained any degree of success on the stage. The character of Ordonio is profoundly conceived; but unfortunately every thing seems to be sacrificed to that one character. Every succeeding scene developes a new trait in this moral monster, who is a compound of pride, selfishness, honour, and generosity. Lord Byron has pourtrayed so many heroes of this stamp, that they have now almost forfeited all claim to originality. The great merit of the tragedy of Remorse is the beautiful poetry of its details. The piece is, however, more full of incident and interest than metaphysical tragedies usually are.

The scene is laid in Grenada, during the reign of Philip II., towards the close of the civil wars with the Moors, who are subjected to the utmost rigour of persecution. The inquisitor Montveidro, however, plays only a secondary part. The Marquess de Valdez has two sons, Alvar and Ordonio. The former, who is betrothed to an orphan, named Theresa, his father's ward, sets out on his travels, after receiving the plighted faith of his mistress, together with her portrait, which he is to wear concealed in his bosom as the secret, but solemn, pledge of their future union. Ordonio, who is himself enamoured of Theresa, is an invisible witness of the parting interview of the lovers, and on being informed of his brother's approaching return, he dispatches three Moors to assassinate him. One of these Moors is Isidore, a man devoted to the interests of Ordonio, by whom his life has been saved. Isidore is, however, only prevailed on to become the murderer of Alvar, by being persuaded that he is the enemy of his benefactor. Alvar defends himself courageously, and, finally, comes to an explanation with Isidore, who, discovering him to be the brother of Ordonio, is satisfied with his promise of exiling himself from Grenada, for the space of a year; and he receives from him the portrait of Theresa. Alvar the more readily surrenders the portrait of his mistress, because be is at that moment induced to believe that Theresa has betrayed him, and is favouring the suit of Ordonio. The latter supposing his brother to be no more, offers his hand to Theresa, who long refuses to believe the death of Alvar. Ordonio renders a fresh service to Isidore; in return for which, he requires him to use means to convince Theresa that Alvar is numbered with the dead. To effect this object, he wishes him to assume the character of a magician: this Isidore refuses to do; but he refers Ordonio to a mysterious stranger, who has just arrived in Grenada, and who, he assures him, will readily obey his commands. This is no other than Alvar himself; and Ordonio, in communicating his treacherous instructions, unconsciously reveals to him the innocence of Theresa. He gives him the precious portrait, which the pretended magician is to produce, after a mysterious invocation addressed to the shade of the deceased; but Alvar exhibits, to the astonished eyes of his brother and his bride, a picture representing his supposed murder. This scene is interrupted by Ordonio's exclamations of rage, and by the entrance of the familiars of the inquisition, who seize Alvar for practising sorcery, and throw him into a dungeon. Ordonio, thinking himself betrayed by Isidore, vows his destruction and that of the stranger. He, however, executes only half his revenge; and Alvar, who has already made himself known to Theresa, confounds the traitor, by consigning him to the torments of remorse, which, as the author says—

Is as the heart in which it grows:
If that be gentle, it drops balmy dews
Of true repentance; but if proud and gloomy,
It is a poison-tree, that, pierced to the inmost,
Weeps only tears of poison!

In the midst of his misery, Ordonio is surprised by a party of Moors, headed by Alhadra. This Alhadra, who is a forcibly drawn character, is the wife of Isidore, whose death she avenges, by plunging a dagger into the heart of Ordonio.

The following passage is taken from the scene in which Alhadra describes her anguish on discovering the murder of Isidore:

I stood listening,
Impatient for the footsteps of my husband!
NAOMI.
Thou call'd'st him!
ALHAD.
I crept into the cavern—
'Twas dark and very silent. (Turns wildly,)
What said'st thou?
No! no! I did not dare to call Isidore,
Lest I should hear no answer! a brief while,
Belike, I lost all thought and memory
Of that for which I came! After that pause,
O Heaven! I heard a groan, and followed it—
And yet another groan, which guided me
Into a strange recess — and there was light,
A hideous light! his torch lay on the ground;
Its flame burnt dimly o'er a chasm's brink!
I spake, and whilst I spake, a feeble groan
Came from that chasm! It was his last! his death groan!
NAOMI.
Comfort her Alla!
ALHAD.
I stood in unimaginable trance,
And agony that cannot be remember'd,
Listening with horrid hope to hear a groan!
But I had heard his last — my husband's death-groan!