1873 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Joseph Devey, "The Lake Poets. Coleridge" A Comparative View of Modern English Poets (1873) 104-11.



Wordsworth appears to have derived much of his material spiritualism from Coleridge, as Byron subsequently did from Shelley. The two poets who narrowly escaped each other at Cambridge were thrown much together in later life, and there can be little doubt that the philosophy of Schelling, which Coleridge had mastered in Germany, was made to cast its glittering veil over the thoughts of his companion. Of Coleridge's admiration for Wordsworth, the Biographia Literaria is evidence, one half of which is taken up with a panegyric of his works. Of Wordsworth's admiration for Coleridge, the noble passage in the sixth book of the "Prelude" is no less conclusive, which also shows to what extent his companion's dreamy speculations had haunted the writer's mind:—

Of rivers, fields,
And groves I speak to thee, my friend, to thee
Who yet a livened schoolboy in the depths
Of the huge city, on the leaded roof
Of that wide edifice, thy school's home,
Wert used to lie and gaze upon the clouds
Moving in heaven; or of that pleasure tired,
To shut thine eyes, and by internal light
See trees and meadows, and thy native stream
Far distant, thus beheld from year to year
Of a long tribe....

I have thought
Of thee, thy learning, gorgeous eloquence,
And all the strength and plumage of thy youth,
Thy subtle speculations, toils abstruse
Among the schoolmen, and Platonic forms
Of wild ideal pageantry, shaped out
From things well matched or ill, and words for things,
The self-created sustenance of a mind
Debarred from Nature's living images,
Compelled to be a life unto herself,
And unrelentingly progressed by thirst
Of greatness, love, and beauty.

The two companions supplemented each other's verses. They interchanged suggestions. They published poetry in common; and Coleridge, even more than Wordsworth, viewed the different appearances of nature as so many modifications of the everlasting mind—

It were a vain endeavour,
Though I should gaze for ever
On that fair light that lingers in the west;
I may not hope from outward forms to win
The passion and the life whose fountains are within.
O Lady! we receive but what we give,
And in our life alone does nature live;
Ours is her wedding garment, ours her shroud.
[Ode to Dejection]

Coleridge, however, repudiated Wordsworth's views respecting the baldness of poetic language, and the confining the region of the muse to the hamlet and the smithy. He even soared beyond the sphere of reflection into the higher one of passion, but into passion so etherealized that it may be fairly called the metaphysics of love. There is no voluptuousness, no swoonings on the breast of his beloved, no absorption of the animal functions in the imperious desires awakened by incarnate loveliness, but at best a dreaming reverie, a melancholy spirituality, with moonlight as a background, projecting in front the pale shadows of a coy lover and a bashful mistress. Such are his pictures of Genevieve and Christabel — creations which, though of the highest spiritual beauty, seem rather the product of an ethereal fancy refined by abstract theories than the genuine flesh and blood embodiments of our earth. In fact, the ethical views which Coleridge and Wordsworth had intruded into the sphere of art, however suited to the delineation of nature, were quite out of place in the representation of human feelings and passions. The advantage, therefore, which Coleridge had over Wordsworth in a wider range of subject, he did not turn to much account, while he falls infinitely below him in developing the many-sided relations of nature to humanity. In contrasting, however, the two men, it is not fair to overlook their widely different positions. Fortune made for the one munificent provision, and gave him health to enjoy it, while poverty and disease continued, like avenging furies, to buffet Coleridge, and drove him a homeless wanderer over the earth. It was, therefore, quite natural that the one should concentrate his mind upon a series of lofty efforts, while the other should only, as it were, take up his harp when the fit was on him, to abandon it when the first glow of heat had subsided, or the struggle for existence called him away. Yet in the fragments he has left, he has shown greater representative power in dealing with human incident than Wordsworth. He also excels him in the embodiment of character and in lyrical sweetness; but in genuine simplicity, deep pathos, and the ideal delineation of nature, he is so inferior to Wordsworth that the points in which he stands above him are lost sight of altogether.

It must, however, be allowed that there was that desultoriness in the mind of Coleridge, that disposition to grasp at everything and really master nothing, that love for bewildering digressions, that fluctuation of resolve, inconstancy of purpose in all he undertook, which would have been fatal to preeminent success in any branch of art, even had Coleridge been, what assuredly he was not, the spoilt child of Fortune. No sooner had he broken into one subject than it was laid down for another. If one day he was toiling in the labyrinth of German metaphysics, the next he was sure to be buried in astrological lore, or in speculations about the millennium, which were in turn destined to be pushed aside for some abstruse theories about Shakespeare's relations to art. There was the same inconstancy in his convictions as in his pursuits, for Coleridge was always the victim of the reigning impression dominating his mind. By turns he became a visionary republican, a practical socialist, a dreaming theosophist, an inveterate Tory. For the conventicle he gave up the church, and abandoned both for Spinozism, only to come round to the church again. In such a fluctuating region there was no fixed strata in which the offshoots of poetry could take firm root; for ideas require time to ripen like everything else. Nor will artistic genius ever come to maturity if its productions have to be unceasingly plucked up and planted in new soil, or developed under opposing contrarieties of belief. The imagination of a man who changes his convictions with each revolving moon can never be fired, or his conceptions struck out, with that heat which is necessary for the production of grand and striking impressions. These, fixity and earnestness of thought can alone supply. It would have been as reasonable to expect umbrageous oaks to spring up out of a strata of shifting sand as great works from a mind so changeable and fluctuating as Coleridge's.

This uncertainty of tenure in the poet's intellectual domain, combined with his love for abstract speculation, make his creations seem but the reflex of the broken and disjointed efforts of his life. Nothing is complete; all is fragmentary and unreal, having little relation with the outside world, and wanting that coloured variety of woof and warp which destiny had blended in the web of his career. Few pass through so many strange phases of existence as Coleridge, — collegian, soldier, dramatic lecturer, moralist, newspaper scribe, preacher, Colonial Secretary, habitual tourist, and metaphysician. Had one tithe of his experiences in these varied characters been reproduced in his poems, they would have presented a charming diversity of aspect. But the airy abstractions in which he indulged, and the narcotic which he swallowed as an antidote to bodily infirmities, threw over all his pieces the same silken veil of dreamy sentimentality. Hence there is little of the ring of actual life in his poems. We wander in his pages through a hall of magnificent torsos as if by moonlight, but the sense of beauty with which they haunt us is dimmed with the regret that the sculptor did not finish his statues, and bring them out on their pedestals into actual day. "Christabel" contains more genuine poetry, as far as it goes, than anything of the same kind in Scott or Wordsworth. But there it lies, tantalizing us with conjectures which its creator could not solve in any way satisfactory to himself. He therefore left the mystery unexplained to exercise the ingenuity of critics. In the "Dark Ladie," "Genevieve," "The Three Graves," "Kubla Khan," the "Wanderings of Cain," and "Hymn to the Earth," we find the same fragmentary and visionary treatment. It is hard to believe that one who can execute so well the little he attempts, could not complete the intellectual feast to which he invites us; but where we are so systematically compelled to content ourselves with fragments, the conclusion is forced upon us of the incompetency of the host to provide a regular entertainment.

If I were asked to individualize the character of Coleridge's poetry, I should place its distinctive feature in bringing into prominence the relations of man with the spiritual universe. Wordsworth merges man into nature, Coleridge nature into man. The material world in his verses is either lost sight of, or refined away until the spiritual peers through its shell like the moon through a cloud, deriving fresh lustre from illumining the gauze-like vapours which vainly strive to hide its light from earth. In this branch of his art, the "Ancient Mariner" is unrivalled. The punishment of man's thoughtlessness in dislodging a spirit by shooting the alabatross, the spectre bark and its two skeleton inmates dicing for the possession of the culprit, the conversation of the weird powers over the vessel impelled onward by invisible agency, the reanimation of the dead bodies of the sailors by an angelic troupe, who cast them off again to reassume their own bright forms, — all these project the spiritual world so prominently in the foreground as to make the material seem nothing but its fluctuating shadow. Again, in "Christabel," we have the substance of a tale representing a lady suffering for the faults of her lover, who is restored to peace by the pains so vicariously endured. But a spirit, in the person of Geraldine, was designed as the instrument of the change, through whom, as a flood-gate, the light of the spiritual universe was to stream on material creation. There is something very weird-like and novel in the path Coleridge thus struck out for himself; but to make efforts of this kind powerfully impress the imagination, they must not only be complete in themselves, but definitely connected with the real world. Coleridge's poems, however, from his failure in these two particulars, frequently assume the appearance of dreams. His whole life appears to have been a hunt after material shadows. It is only when he draws creatures from the clouds that he gets among realities.

Apart from this disposition to sink the material in the spiritual, there is nothing in the poetry of Coleridge that would characterise a writer of pre-eminent rank in those departments which he selected for the exercise of his skill. His muse is rather tender and sweet than pathetic and grand. Fancy in him struggles with imagination for mastery; but his imagination generally embodies the beautiful, and seldom the sublime. It is rarely informed with lofty images, or fired by splendid passion. We are always charmed with its strokes, but never absolutely carried off our feet. The music is perfect, the imagery is striking, and the execution as far as it goes leaves little on the score of harmony to be desired; but deep pathos, or startling contrasts, or any whirlwind of emotion, or rapid gusts of feeling, or a quick succession of bold figures, or completeness of conception arising spontaneously out of the structural unity of parts, we look for in vain. Hence, his success in the ode I should hardly call first-rate. And he cuts by no means so good a figure in the drama as he does in the ode. Few only of his fugitive pieces are of a high order of merit; but even were they all so, these would not, from the contemplative element which abounds in them, place him in the front rank. It is upon his position as a narrative poet, and as a narrative poet alone, that Coleridge must rest his principal claim to distinction. But the visionary and disjointed pieces which he has left us in this walk of his art, are not such as to entitle him to a place in the second division of poets, though they display genius which, had they been properly developed and matured, would undoubtedly have done so.

It is, therefore, to be regretted that one who appeared so capable of weaving enchanting melodies out of lofty themes, of ennobling man's nature by connecting him with the infinite, of setting right the tortuosities of the lower world by the laws of the higher, who exercised so potent a spell over spiritual forms that he could bring down their images with such effulgence as to dim the actual into shade, should away the great bulk of his energies in spasmodic effort, or in eking out a scanty provision for the common necessities of nature. Had society been juster to Coleridge, he might have been truer to himself. As it was, he early lost his sense of manly independence by having to lean on the bounty of others. This sucked the soul out of poetic inspiration, and drove him, as he sings himself; to seek relief in philosophic studies:

There was a time...
When Hope grew round me, like the twining vine,
And fruits and foliage, not my own, seemed mine.
But now afflictions how me down to the earth,
Nor care I that they rob me of my mirth;
But, oh each visitation
Suspends what nature gave me at my birth,
My shaping spirit of imagination.
For not to think of what I needs must feel,
But to be still and patient all I can;
And haply by abstruse research to steal
From my own nature all the natural man:
This was my sole resource, my only plan,
Till that which suits a part infects the whole,
And now is almost grown the habit of my soul.
[Ode to Dejection.]

Coleridge, then, was driven by sheer force of circumstances to divide his allegiance between poetry and philosophy. He fell between two stools. Both claim him for their own, and both suffered from the too constant intrusion of its rival. Even now among his countrymen, he stands higher as a metaphysician than as a poet. But there can hardly be a doubt that, as philosophy becomes more known, this judgment will be reversed. For an accurate thinker Coleridge was not; while as a poet, could his imagination have found free vent, could his keen perception have been unassailed by the coarse clamours of material existence, he would probably have left productions behind him second to none of his age.