1798 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Anna Seward to Henry Francis Cary, 4 March 1798; Letters, ed. Scott (1811) 5:54-62.



Lichfield, March 4, 1798.

Lister has given me your Epitaph on Mason. The leading thought is ingenious, and expressed with clearness, brevity, and classic elegance; but forgive me if I acknowledge that, while it appears happy as an epigram, I think the Muses, being a part of Pagan mythology, should not be introduced on a tombstone; — that no authority can sanction their admittance-that our machinery, in that line of composition, should be confined to personifying the talents and the virtues.

I return your Coleridge, and have purchased one myself. It would disgrace a poetic reader not to have him on their shelves. His ideas are bold, beautiful, and original. He is no cold copyist — Nature is the exhaustless volume he unclasps. In his style, perhaps, simplicity sometimes degenerates into a too studied homeliness of phrase; and he does not, in his blank verse, float the pause so gracefully as he might. From the latitude I have heard attributed to his morals, it surprised me to find his writings so deeply tinged with religious enthusiasm. Either he is a methodist, or an hypocrite. I hope it is the former. His poem, entitled Religious Musings, thrilled me with horror. I tremble lest his prognostics there should be all in all accomplished. Good God! how that poem makes one shudder at the blasphemy of sheltering the exterminating spirit with which we have pursued this desperate war, under the pretence of defending Christianity! — Christianity was not attacked in these realms. If atheism and deism might blot it from the continent, nothing but war, whose events are always uncertain, could endanger it in these dominions, whose situation is insular, and whose navy is so powerful.

Coleridge's Ode on the departing Year, which, reading in the newspapers, I had disliked as turgid and obscure, is so much changed in this volume, as to impress me with a conviction of its being one of the grandest odes in our language. Such odes are the proudest, noblest boast of poetry, after the epics of Homer and Milton, and the dramas of Shakespeare. But, to return to the Ode on the departing Year. In this edition, its ideas are become luminous, as they were bold, and it has received very fine additions. So will it ever be, when true genius devotes it powers to correcting at leisure its hasty and crude essays.

Some four years since, Mr. Coleridge's friend, Kennedy, gave me C.'s Monody on Chatterton in manuscript. On comparing it with that poem in this collection, I have there also found great extension and improvement. In this monody, there is a picturesque half-line taken from my Elegy on Captain Cook,

Loud she laments, and long the nymph shall stray,
With wild unequal step, round Cook's morai.

With wild unequal step he pass'd along,
Oft pouring on the winds a broken song.

The second line is verbatim from Ossian. I believe inequality of step, as symptomatic of an agonized mind, will not be found in any poet antecedent to my Elegy on Cook.

Charles Lloyd has fine poetic talents — his style is of the same school, and he may be considered as forming a poetic triumvirate with his friends Coleridge and Southey, much to the classic glory of England at this periods and confuting afresh the idiot assertion, made from time to time, concerning the paucity of Aonian inspiration in the seventeenth century, and the exhausted state of poetic fancy. Poetic fancy is exhaustless. Whoever possesses it from nature, and looks at her scenes, and all their endless varieties, with his own eyes, rather than applying to them the recollected descriptions of other poets; whoever moralizes and philosophizes life, and its events, from lynx-eyed observation and sensitive feeling, and, while he is writing, banishes all recollection of the writings of his predecessors, will always produce poetry interesting, nervous, and original.

C. Lloyd is a very sweet sonnet-writer indeed — superior in that line of composition to Coleridge, and nearly equalling Southey.

Coleridge seems aware, in his Dissertation on Sonnets, in this volume, that the composition of them is not his forte. I have an idea, that what he there says of Petrarch's sonnets, is not very far from the truth. Judging of them by the translations and imitations of them, which I have seen, they want that pathetic simplicity which is the chief grace of love-verses, whatever form they assume. As sonnets, where the thought should be single, the ideas in Petrarch's are too complicated, too metaphysic.

It is curious that, overlooking Milton's, he should consider those of Bowles and C. Smith as models. Their construction of each set is so dissimilar, that the sonnet laws cannot be deduced from both. Bowles's are Miltonic, if not so strictly regular as are Milton's. All I have seen of C. Smith's, which are her first set, are merely short elegies closing with a couplet, and without any of those breaks in the lines, which are so very impressive.

You, at the tender age of fourteen, found the strict rules, as to rhyme and measure of the legitimate sonnet, no impediment to the effusions of your fancy, and of your heart, or to the flowing sweetness of your verse. We find all those rules observed by your juvenile muse, without any sentences of harsh inversion, any quaint phrases, or incongruous mixture of obsolete and Spenserian words.

I have published several from my Centenary of Sonnets, which, for their hour of publication, awaits the return of public tranquillity, if it ever returns, to this nation, too justly alarmed by the approach of dangers it has provoked. I dare assert, that the regularity of their construction, after rules deduced from the Miltonic sonnet, is free from all the laboured harshness which Coleridge falsely supposes attached to that order of verse. What nonsense men of genius will sometimes talk!

But what say you to his strange inconceivable preference of Schiller's terrible graces to Shakespeare's?!! — as if the agonized feelings of Lear, houseless amid the peltings of the midnight tempest, uttering curses on his children, wrung from his tortured heart by filial ingratitude, was not a subject of as sublime and heart-piercing horror as the cry of a famished man, at midnight, from a cavern into which he had been thrown by a cruel son. Mr. C. attributes approachless sublimity to that single circumstance — wishing that he had invented it — and died, that nothing less tremendous in conception might stamp him mortal. Let him open the thrilling pages of Lear, and he will find multiplied touches of as soul-harrowing horror and woe.

His assertion, in a note, page 88, of the unrivalled powers, among the poets of the present day, of Wordsworth's muse in poetic essentialities, induced me instantly to send for his poems. I was extremely surprised, for it was a name I had not once heard of, though I find his poems had been published some time. This superiority which Coleridge assigns to them, is just as founded as the asserted superiority of Schiller to Shakespeare. Wordsworth has genius — but his poetry is harsh, turgid, and obscure. He is chiefly a poetic landscape painter — but his pictures want distinctness. It is strange that Mr. C. should, in that note, attribute originality to Wordsworth's expression, green radiance, for the light of the glow-worm. That light is perfectly stellar, and Ossian calls the stars green in twenty parts of his poetry, translated and published, before Wordsworth, who is a very young man, was in existence.

I who had always, since I first in childhood began to observe the characteristic appearances of the objects of nature, seen the stars and the glow-worm effusing greenish beams, wondered, on my introduction to the muses, to find none of their votaries pointing out that tinge in the lustre of some of the largest and brightest, and in the light of the glow-worm. When Ossian came out, in my early youth, I was charmed to find him confirming, by his epithet green for the stars, the accuracy of my visual perception. The following lines are in my Langollen Vale:

While glow-worm lamps effuse a pale green light,
Such as in mossy lanes illume the starless night.

Coleridge, like most other good poets, uses the compound epithet very lavishly, aware, no doubt, of its power to condense sense, and to present poetic picture with suddenness and force. He pretends, in his preface to this the second edition of his poems, that, in compliment to the reviewers, he has abridged the number of his compound epithets. That surely could not be, considering the great plenty of them in this same second edition. He was certainly laughing at the critics by the mock humility of this unreal lopping.

Charles Lamb, several of whose poems are in this volume, is of the school of Coleridge, Southey, and Lloyd, and no contemptible disciple — but while he imitates, he does not equal them. Adieu!