1828 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Leigh Hunt, "Mr. Coleridge" Lord Byron and some of his Contemporaries (1828) 300-04.



Mr. LAMB'S friend, Mr. COLERIDGE, is as little fitted for action as he, but on a different account. His person is of a good height, but as sluggish and solid as the other's is light and fragile. He has, perhaps, suffered it to look old before its time, for want of exercise. His hair, too, is quite white (though he cannot much exceed fifty); and as he generally dresses in black, and has a very tranquil demeanour, his appearance is gentlemanly, and begins to be reverend. Nevertheless, there is something invincibly young in the look of his face: it is round and fresh-coloured, with agreeable features, and an open, indolent, good-natured mouth. This boy-like expression is very becoming to one who dreams as he did when he was a child, and who passes his life apart from the rest of the world, with a book, and his flowers. His forehead is prodigious, — a great piece of placid marble; and his fine eyes, in which all the activity of his mind seems to concentrate, move under it with a sprightly ease, as if it were pastime to them to carry all that thought.

And it is pastime. Mr. Hazlitt says, that Mr. Coleridge's genius appears to him like a spirit, all head and wings, eternally floating about in aetherialities. He gives me a different impression. I fancy him a good-natured wizard, very fond of earth, and conscious of reposing with weight enough in his easy chair, but able to conjure his aetherialities about him in the twinkling of an eye. He can also change them by thousands, and dismiss them as easily when his dinner comes. It is a mighty intellect put upon a sensual body; and the reason why he does little more with it than talk and dream, is that it is agreeable to such a body to do little else. I do not mean that Mr. Coleridge is a sensualist in an ill sense. He is capable of too many innocent pleasures, to take any pleasure in the way that a man of the world would take it. The idlest things he did would have a warrant. But if all the senses, in their time, have not found lodging in that humane plenitude of his, never believe they did in Thomson or in Bocaccio. Two affirmatives in him make a negative. He is very metaphysical and very corporeal; and he does nothing. His brains plead all sorts of questions before him, and he hears them with so much impartiality, (his spleen not giving him any trouble,) that he thinks he might as well sit in his easy chair and hear them for ever, without coming to a conclusion. It has been said that he took opium to deaden the sharpness of his cogitations. I will undertake to affirm, that if he ever took any thing to deaden a sensation within him, it was for no greater or more marvellous reason than other people take it; which is, because they do not take enough exercise, and so plague their heads with their livers. Opium, perhaps, might settle an uneasiness of this sort in Mr. Coleridge, as it did in a much less man with a much greater body, the Shadwell of Dryden. He would then resume his natural ease, and sit, and be happy, till the want of exercise must be again supplied. The vanity of criticism, like all our other vanities, except that of dress, (which so far has an involuntary philosophy in it,) is always forgetting that we are at least half made up of body. Mr. Hazlitt is angry that Mr. Coleridge is not as zealous in behalf of liberty as he used to be when young. I am sorry for it, too; and, if other men, as well as Mr. Hazlitt, did not keep me in heart, should think that the world was destined to be repeatedly lost, for want either of perseverance or calmness. But Mr. Coleridge had less right to begin his zeal in favour of liberty, than he had to leave it off. He should have bethought himself first, whether he had the courage not to get fat.

As to the charge against him, of eternally probing the depths of his own mind, and trying what he can make of them out of the ordinary road of logic and philosophy, I see no harm in a man's taking this new sort of experiment upon him, whatever little chance there may be of his doing any thing with it. He is but one man; his faculties incline him to the task, and are suitable to it; and it is impossible to say what new worlds may be laid open, some day or other, by this apparently hopeless process. The fault of Mr. Coleridge, like that of all thinkers indisposed to action, is, that he is too content with things as they are, — at least, too fond of thinking that old corruptions are full of good things, if the world did but understand them. Now, here is the dilemma; for it requires an understanding like his own to refine upon and turn them to good as he might do; and what the world require is not metaphysical refinement, but a hearty use of good sense. Mr. Coleridge, indeed, can refine his meaning, so as to accommodate it with great good-nature to every one that comes across him; and doubtless he finds more agreement of intention among people of different opinions, than they themselves are aware of, which it is good to let them see. But when not enchained by his harmony, they fall asunder again, or go and commit the greatest absurdities for want of the subtle connecting tie; as may be seen in the books of his disciple Mr. Irving, who, eloquent in one page, and reasoning in a manner that a child ought to be ashamed of in the next, thinks to avail himself now-a-days of the old menacing tone of damnation without being thought a quack or an idiot, purely because Mr. Coleridge showed him last Friday that damnation was not what its preachers took it for. With the same subtlety and good-nature of interpretation, Mr. Coleridge will persuade a Deist that he is a Christian, and an Atheist that he believes in God: all which would be very good, if the world could get on by it, and not remain stationary; but, meanwhile, millions are wretched with having too little to eat, and thousands with having too much; and these subtleties are like people talking in their sleep, when they should be up and helping.

However, if the world is to remain always as it is, give me to all eternity new talk of Coleridge, and new essays of Charles Lamb. They will reconcile it beyond all others; and that is much.

Mr. Coleridge is fat, and begins to lament, in very delightful verses, that he is getting infirm. There is no old age in his verses. I heard him the other day, under the grove at Highgate, repeat one of his melodious lamentations, as he walked up and down, his voice undulating in a stream of music, and his regrets of youth sparkling with visions ever young. At the same time, he did me the honour to show me, that he did not think so ill of all modern liberalism as some might suppose, denouncing the pretensions of the money-getting in a style which I should hardly venture upon, and never could equal; and asking, with a triumphant eloquence, what chastity itself were worth, if it were a casket, not to keep love in, but hate, and strife, and worldliness? On the same occasion, he built up a metaphor out of a flower, in a style surpassing the famous passage in Milton; deducing it from its root in religious mystery, and carrying it up into the bright consummate flower, "the bridal chamber of reproductiveness." Of all "the Muse's mysteries," he is as great a high-priest as Spenser; and Spenser himself might have gone to Highgate to hear him talk, and think him for his Ancient Mariner. His voice does not always sound very sincere; but perhaps the humble and deprecating tone of it, on those occasions, is out of consideration for his hearer's infirmities, rather than produced by his own. He recited his Kubla Khan, one morning, to Lord Byron, in his Lordship's house in Piccadilly, when I happened to be in another room. I remember the other's coming away from him, highly struck with his poem, and saying how wonderfully he talked. This is the impression of every body who hears him.

It is no secret that Mr. Coleridge lives in the Grove at Highgate with a friendly family, who have sense and kindness enough to know that they do themselves an honour by looking after the comforts of such a man. His room looks upon a delicious prospect of wood and meadow, with coloured gardens under the window, like an embroidery to the mantle. I thought, when I first saw it, that he had taken up his dwelling-place like an abbot. Here he cultivates his flowers, and has a set of birds for his pensioners, who come to breakfast with him. He may be seen taking his daily stroll up and down, with his black coat and white locks, and a book in his hand; and is a great acquaintance of the little children. His main occupation, I believe, is reading. He loves to read old folios, and to make old voyages with Purchas and Marco Polo; the seas being in good visionary condition, and the vessel well-stocked with botargoes.