1837 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Joseph Cottle

Henry Nelson Coleridge, "Cottle's Recollections" Quarterly Review 59 (July 1837) 25-32.



We had closed the preceding remarks, when Mr. Joseph Cottle's "Early Recollections of S. T. Coleridge" fell in our way. We have read the two volumes through, and can truly say that a sense of pity for the age and self-exposure of the writer alone enables us to express with calmness the feelings which the perusal has excited.

Mr. Cottle says in his preface (p. xxv.), that in this work he has "endeavoured, however imperfect the accomplishment, to exhibit an example of what biography ought to be (sic), in order to redeem its character, an undisguised portraiture of the man, rather than a stream of undeviating eulogy." Whether the biographical literature of this country really needs the exhibition of a new pattern to redeem its character from the stains which Walton, Hacket, Johnson, Southey, and others, in their different ages and manners, have thrown upon it, we will not stay to inquire; we simply limit ourselves to a fervent hope on behalf of common decency and common sense, that, let the reformation come when and whence it may, it will not take Mr. Cottle's present endeavours for a model. The refuse of advertisements and handbills, the sweepings of a shop, the shreds of a ledger, the rank residuum of a life of gossip, — this forty-years' deposit of Bristol garbage, smeared in the very idiocy of anecdote-mongering on a shapeless fragment, and a false name scratched in the filth — is the short result, but imperfect description, of this new exemplar of biography "as it ought to be."

There is a writer with whose name Mr. Cottle has made himself very familiar, but of whose heart, mind, principles, or works he knows as much as a fly of the elephant's proboscis, which it sticks on and annoys, — who has left in an immortal work the following remarks, which we recommend to Mr. Cottle's quiet consideration:—

"An inquisitiveness into the minutest circumstances and casual sayings of eminent contemporaries is indeed quite natural; but so are all our follies, and the more natural they are, the more caution should we exert in guarding against them. To scribble trifles even on the perishable glass of an inn window, is the mark of an idler; but to engrave them on the marble monument, sacred to the memory of the departed great, is something worse than idleness. The spirit of genuine biography is in nothing more conspicuous than in the firmness with which it withstands the cravings of worthless curiosity, as distinguished from the thirst after useful knowledge. For, in the first place, such anecdotes as derive their whole and sole interest from the great name of the person concerning whom they are related, and neither illustrate his general character nor his particular actions, would scarcely have been noticed or remembered except by men of weak minds: it is not unlikely, therefore, that they were misapprehended at the time, and it is most probable that they have been related as incorrectly as they were noticed injudiciously. Nor are the consequences of such garrulous biography merely negative. For as insignificant stories can derive no real respectability from the eminence of the person who happens to be the subject of them, but rather an additional deformity of disproportion, they are apt to have their insipidity seasoned by the same bad passions that accompany the habit of gossiping in general; and the misapprehensions of weak men meeting with the misinterpretations of malignant men, have not seldom formed the ground-work of the most grievous calumnies. In the second place, these trifles are subversive of the great end of biography, which is to fix the attention, and to interest the feelings, of men on those qualities and actions which have made a particular life worthy of being recorded. It is, no doubt, the duty of an honest biographer to pourtray the prominent imperfections as well as excellencies of his hero; but I am at a loss to conceive how this can be deemed an excuse for heaping together a multitude of particulars, which can prove nothing of any man that might not have been safely taken for granted of all men. In the present age (emphatically the age of personality) there are more than ordinary motives for withholding all encouragement from this mania of busying ourselves with the names of others, which is still more alarming as a symptom, than it is troublesome as a disease. The reader must be still less acquainted with contemporary literature than myself — a case not likely to occur — if he needs me to inform him, that there are men, who, trading in the silliest anecdotes, in unprovoked abuse and senseless eulogy, think themselves nevertheless both worthily and honourably employed, if only all this be done in good set terms, and from the press, and of public characters; — a class which has increased so rapidly of late, that it becomes difficult to discover what characters are to be considered as private.

"Alas! if these wretched misusers of language, — the means of giving wings to thought, — the means of multiplying the presence of an individual mind, — alas! had they ever known how great a thing the possession of any one simple truth is, and how mean a thing a mere fact is, except as seen in the light of some comprehensive truth; if they had but once experienced the unborrowed complacency, the inward independence, the home-bred strength, with which every clear conception of the reason is accompanied, they would shrink from their own pages as at the remembrance of a crime. For a crime it is — (and the man who hesitates in pronouncing it such must be ignorant of what mankind owe to books, what he himself owes to them, in spite of his ignorance) — thus to introduce the spirit of vulgar scandal and personal inquietude into the closet and the library, environing with evil passions the very sanctuaries to which we should flee for refuge from them. For to what do these publications appeal, whether they present themselves as biography or as anonymous criticism, but to the same feelings which the scandal-bearers and time-killers of ordinary life seek to gratify in themselves and their listeners? And both the authors and admirers of such publications, in what respect are they less truants and deserters from their own hearts, and from their appointed task of understanding and amending them, than the most garrulous female chronicler of the goings-on of yesterday in the families of her neighbours and townsfolk?" — The Friend.

Miserande poeta,
Ipse tibi aeerunmas vaticinate tuas!

We disclaim any contest with, and seek no triumph over, Mr. Joseph Cottle; not even the duty of inflicting a deeply deserved rebuke shall induce us to sully these pages with a citation of any of his injurious fooleries. It is enough to state that he had the fortune of becoming acquainted with Mr. Coleridge during the residence of the youthful poet in and near Bristol — "a period in which, as a nucleus," (? so Mr. Cottle writes) "so many men of genius were there congregated as to justify the designation, the Augustan age of Bristol;" and that being a bookseller at that time (1794-5-6-7), he published Coleridge's first collection of poems, and rendered him a great deal of assistance by occasional advances and gifts of small sums of money, and by other friendly services. These sums and services are faithfully recorded in Mr. Cottle's volumes; they enter into his latest as well as earliest recollections of a great man; not a guinea nor a shilling is forgotten. You have the account from the books. The writer, in his preface, (p. xv.,) supposes that some persons from false shame would "protest against all notice of pecuniary transactions, and particularly of one noble instance of liberality" — meaning a gift of 300 to Coleridge by Mr. De Quincey. We cannot but think that this supposition must be a piece of mere affectation or stupid misapprehension. Surely no friend of Coleridge's could wish — much less attempt — to conceal, upon the fitting occasion, any act of pecuniary kindness shown to him, — least of all one, the liberality of which appears to have constituted the smallest part of the obligation. The poverty which stood in need of such assistance is often enough confessed by the poet in his own writings, and is notorious; and those who knew him best, best know that, though not uncaused by improvidence, it was a poverty unstained by meanness or crime. To have stated this, its origin, its sufferings, its mitigations, and the names of the happy mitigators — would have been — would still be — right and proper; but to rake up receipts, and to schedule every guinea for the wretched guinea's sake! — Perhaps it is matter of taste; and certainly Mr. Cottle has done no disservice in this to any one but himself. According to any way of stating the account between himself and the subject of this exemplary piece of biography, Mr. Cottle must, we should think, acknowledge, upon calmly reperusing the pages of his work, that he has paid himself the balance in full with interest.

Mr. Cottle quotes (vol. ii. p. 90) a deeply affecting passage from the posthumous collection which we have been reviewing, and we agree with him in believing that in this passage the author, with a profound yet tender fidelity, has drawn a picture of himself. It is a very solemn warning, and we will aid Mr. Cottle in giving it publicity:—

"AN ADMONITION.

There are two sides to every question. If thou hast genius and poverty to thy lot, dwell on the foolish, perplexing, imprudent, dangerous, and even immoral conduct of promise-breach in small things, of want of punctuality, of procrastination in all its shapes and disguises. Force men to reverence thy moral strength in and for itself, — seeking no excuse or palliations from fortune, or sickness, or a too full mind that, in opulence of conception, overrated its powers of application. But if thy fate should he different; shouldest thou possess competence, health, and ease of mind, and then be thyself called upon to judge such faults in another so gifted, — O! then, upon the other view of the question, say, Am I in ease and comfort, and dare I wonder that he, poor fellow, acted so and so? Dare I accuse him? Ought I not to shadow forth to myself that, glad and luxuriating in a short escape from anxiety, his mind over-promised for itself; that, want of combating with his eager desire to produce things worthy of fame, he dreamed of the nobler when he should have been producing the meaner, and so had the meaner obtruded on his moral being, when the nobler was making full way on his intellectual? Think of the manifoldness of his accumulated petty calls! Think, in short, on all that should be like a voice from Heaven to warn thyself against this and this, and call it all up for pity and for palliation;—

(Here, in the middle of a sentence, Mr. Cottle breaks off without any mark or intimation of an imperfect quotation. What remained was but little, and it is strange that Mr. Cottle should not have felt its pertinency. We will supply the omission.)

—"and then draw the balance. Take him in his whole, — his head, his heart, his wishes, his innocence of all selfish crime, and a hundred years hence, what will be the result? The good, — were it but a single volume that made truth more visible, and goodness more lovely, and pleasure at once more akin to virtue and, self-doubled, more pleasurable! — and the evil, — while he lived, it injured none but himself; and where is it now? In his grave. FOLLOW IT NOT THITHER." — Rem., vol. i. p. 368.

Why was this omitted? Perhaps we shall see.

Mr. Cottle has devoted a considerable portion of his second volume to a detailed exposure of all that he was admitted in confidence to see, or which he could learn, of that unhappy period of poor Mr. Coleridge's life, during which an impatience of the miserable pains and restlessness arising from indigestion and a diseased interior had made him the struggling slave of opium. Mr. Cottle, in his preface, (p. xvii.,) affects (for here again it seems his mere affectation) to suppose that some will "strenuously denounce all reference to Mr. Coleridge's unhappy passion for opium," — (if this writer understands the meaning of the word "passion," then he utters, as we conceive, a wilful untruth in this application of it,) — "or suggest, if noticed, that it should be expressed in the most general and indefinite terms, so that it should attach to him as lightly as water to the feathers of some bird of the ocean." But he says, p. xviii.,

"Without pausing to determine whether some minds, from their contracted horizons, may, or may not, condemn all beyond the limit of their own sight, I have aimed to present him (Coleridge) in his true features, and not without those disclosures, essential to any life of Mr. C., which claimed impartiality for its basis."

And he concludes by saying that he has adopted

"that course which accorded with his own sense of right; duly reflecting on, and adjusting, the claims of the dead, the timid, and the public. Such, I believe," he writes, "has scrupulously been done; and happy am I to subjoin, that this procedure has met with the full concurrence of many of Mr. Coleridge's oldest and truest friends. The ultimate appeal is to the reader."

There is a species of wrong-headedness in the moral sense, which is sometimes more hopelessly proof against the suggestions of reason and right feeling than a state of the most open profligacy. We have a notable instance of it here. Unable, or unwilling, to distinguish between the statement and censure of a vice or a weakness, and a pandering to the vilest curiosity by a narrative of the loathsome minutiae of either, this respectable writer of biography, "as it ought to be," in performance, as he says, of a solemn duty, prints and publishes a mass of wretched reminiscences, which, unless sick rooms are to be invaded, and the symptoms and phases of bodily disease recorded for the delectation of the crowd, the least supposable attention to the decencies of life, the most ordinary regard for the awfulness of our common humanity, would have left, where they were found, in the shade. And he does this, as conscience-bound, to deter men and women from "consuming opium." As if any human being in this country, and after one notorious publication, could really need any warning upon such a subject, least of all in a form, the only possible effect of which must be to corrupt where it does not disgust! He would write the life of Rochester, and set about warning young men from Rochester's courses by publishing his pocket-book and the items of his apothecary's bill!

But this by the way. If, passing from the abstract character and tendency of Mr. Cottle's procedure in this affair, we venture to ask who or what has given him a moral right to deal with the memory of Coleridge, as he has done in these volumes? — the answer is, that "Mr. Coleridge is a man who, from his intellectual eminence, ceases to be private property, but is transferred, with all his appendages, to the treasury of the public." (Pref., p. xviii.) Gracious Heaven! Is it come to this? Is this doctrine to prevail? For the very reason that it may please God to bestow a more than ordinary share of his wonderful gifts of genius and imagination on a chosen individual — is that favoured man to be treated with less tenderness and respect than is due by the laws of civilized society to the vulgarest of the species? Is it poetasters and foolish gossips only that may be loved? Does a great man cease to be a man? And if so, are "his appendages," his wife and children for example, guiltless, it may be, of his intellectual eminence, to be nevertheless confiscated for his crime "to the treasury of the public?" Wherefore? — we demand. Is it because a profounder reverence, a more trembling sensibility, may in such a case be naturally supposed to add a keener sense of insult to the outrage and an unusual poignancy to the wound? A restraint is acknowledged during life; — death supervenes, and the children represent the name, and breathe in the memory of their father. Let "the horizon of their minds" be never so "contracted," — upon what moral ground, we repeat, does the intellectual eminence of the parent justify Mr. Cottle in this his barbarous violation of their lawful feelings — surely without their concurrence, — in all probability, in contemptuous disregard of their remonstrances?

But the poor sufferer, in the depth of his remorse, wrote a letter to a friend, in which he "entreated that after his death a full and unqualified narrative of his wretchedness and its guilty cause might be made public, that, at least, some little good might be effected by the direful example." It can be no justification to Mr. Cottle, at least, for he confesses that he had fully resolved on doing the worst that he has done, before he was aware of the existence of such letter. But as to the publication of it by Mr. Cottle, he says, "Mr. Wade handed this letter to me, that it might be made public, in conformity with his departed friend's injunction." (vol. ii. p. 185.) Now, in the first place, where is the injunction to publish this confidential communication itself to be found? Certainly not in the letter in question — the reasonable implication is quite the reverse. But were it otherwise, how do the facts stand? The writer lived twenty years after the date of this paper; he attained, by God's blessing on the medical care of watchful friends, to better health and a firmer tone of body; he became emphatically a great teacher, one — to speak a very simple and notorious fact — to whose influence more men of distinguished powers of mind have owed, and confessed that they owed, their conversion from heresy and even total infidelity to the pure light of Catholic Christianity, than to any other individual of this age: he never concealed his former sufferings or weakness, yet sought every occasion to speak in solemn, though mournful, censure of the melancholy self-exposure contained in the well-known work of a man of genius: he, five years before his death, in the full possession of all his great abilities, made and published his last will, a document of almost awful impressiveness, and thereby he expressly confided to the judgment of his executor, a chosen friend, the task of publishing such of his letters, to be collected from or contributed by his correspondents, as that friend might deem expedient. Mr. Cottle asks (pref. p. xxiv) — not without some insolence of manner — "who (sic) can be authorised in hazarding the declaration, equally invalid, that Mr. Coleridge's wishes, with respect to the publication of his Testamentary Letter (sic), were ever different from those he had so deliberately avowed?" Repeating our inquiry where Mr. Coleridge ever expressed any wishes for the publication of this letter to Mr. Wade, we, in our turn, will ask Mr. Cottle himself, what he thinks would have been the feelings of Samuel Taylor Coleridge if, after entrusting, with a really testamentary voice, to his executor the delicate office of publishing such of his letters as that selected individual should deem expedient, he had been told that his old friend Joseph Cottle had resolved to print the letters and communications which appear in these volumes, not only without the authority, but, as we are led to infer, against the respectful, but earnest, reclamation of that accredited representative himself?

One word more. Mr. Cottle will have reason to feel that in what we have been compelled to say upon his book, we have spoken more in sorrow than in anger. He cannot but see, upon a little sober reflection, that if our disposition had been hostile, he has enabled us to gratify it to the full. We might have made him ridiculous — a single page of selections would have been more lasting and effectual for that purpose than the satire of Byron himself. But we have abstained, and do abstain, from availing ourselves of the opportunity. The mistake of a strong desire for the actual possession of literary ability, is not peculiar to Mr. Cottle; and we would wish our remarks to come in a moral tone only to him. Indeed, if these volumes had been couched in the semi-ruffian style of an obscure publication of a year or two ago, we should have passed them by unregarded; but when "conscience," and "duty," and "religion," are put forth as the inducement and the justification, the matter is different. The profligate savagery of one kind of book effectually works its own rejection with every civilized individual; whilst the smooth tone and pious guise of another may in part conceal, but in reality aggravate and extend, the venom and the scope of its example. A more pernicious instance of the latter kind than these volumes exhibit we do not remember.