1854 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Robert Shelton Mackenzie, Note in Noctes Ambrosianae, ed. Mackenzie (1854) 4:57n.



Coleridge, from an early age, was a slave to opium. The evidence of this is ample, and so stated in Cottle's Reminiscences. At a moderate estimate, Coleridge expended 200 a year on this baneful drug. The result was that, however active his mind, his faculties were deficient in concentration, and, during the last five-and-twenty years, he did little more than talk. With his learning, genius, and high poetic powers, he might have been one of the Classics of his age. As it is, his prose and verse constitute little more than a Book of Beginnings. His German translations, Biographical papers, Aids to Reflection, and some of his poems show what he might have done. The lyric called Genevieve is unsurpassed in delicate yet passionate emotional expression. He has himself stated, in a preface to his poems, that where they appear unintelligible, "the deficiency is in the reader." Yet, on his Ancient Mariner, he wrote this epigram, addressed to himself:—

Your poem must eternal be,
Dear Sir! it cannot fail;
For, 'tis incomprehensible,
And without head or tail.

It was pleasant to hear Coleridge recite one of his own poem. He used to sit with his eyes half shut, his body gently waving to and fro, his hand humouring the verses, and his voice uttering them in a sort of sing-song, which, however, was not monotonous — the fault of Wordsworth's recitation, by the way. His conversation was a long and dreamy monologue, branching off into any quantity of subjects. Coleridge died in 1834, aged sixty-four.