1833 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Allan Cunningham, in "Biographical and Critical History of the Literature of the last Fifty Years" in The Athenaeum (16 November 1833) 769.



There are poets whose fame has arisen as much from a sense entertained of their genius as from the charms of their productions. To this class belongs Samuel Taylor Coleridge. His poems are various and unequal: sometimes vigorous and soaring; often tender and moral; frequently gentle, insinuating and persuasive, and studded all over with fine thoughts, expressed in a brief clear way. There are passages, too, of great boldness, and gushings out of a singular and whimsical fancy. On his incomparable Genevieve he has lavished all the melting graces of poetry and chivalry; in his Ancient Mariner he has sailed, and in his Christabel flown, to the very limits of invention and belief, and in his chaunt of Fire, Famine and Slaughter, he has revived the vehement strains of the sibyls, or rather furies, and given us a song worthy of the prime agents of perdition. These poems are of first-rate excellence, each after its kind; it is true that Christabel is a fragment, and so peculiarly wild in conception, that it startles even poetic-minded critics; but it overflows with poetry; there are indications in it of a higher reach than the author has elsewhere ventured upon, and a vein of superstition runs through the whole, bestowing a wild supernatural grandeur upon it, which is in harmony with popular belief. The poet seems either to have exhausted his invention, or else felt conscious that he had flown too high in the regions of fancy for ordinary minds to follow him, for he stops in his aerial tour, closes the page, and refuses to make any further revelation. He seems to have had in his mind the romance of Merlin, a monkish fiction, and a fine one, but difficult to deal with in these matter-of-fact days. The Ancient Marriner arises out of feelings common to our nature, and contains a lesson, and a wondrous one, on our kindness to the dumb but living creation around us. The Mariner wantonly shoots an albatross, reckoned a bird of good omen with sailors, and is punished, with all his crew, for his cruelty. The singular way in which this is told, and the super-human adventures of the seamen and their ship, render this ballad both daring and original.

His translation of Wallenstein, I have heard commended, by good judges, as superior to the drama whose language it professes to speak; and his Remorse, though a play for the closet rather than the stage, has passages full of passion and fire. In prose his powers are not at all equal; he is occasionally, indeed, graphic and lively, as when he gives an account of his voyage; often dramatic, as in the description of his success as a preacher of lay sermons; but he is too frequently obscure and mystical.

He was born in the year 1773; was educated at Christ's Hospital, where he reached the rank of Grecian, and distinguished himself by his eloquence; he soon made himself known as a poet; married one of the sisters of Mrs. Southey; wrote political articles in the newspaper; delivered lectures on poetry; and published his collected works, in two beautiful volumes. He now resides near London, sees company on the Friday evenings, and sends away all strangers charmed with the eloquence of his conversation. He has written nothing of late: as his fame will be settled by his best poems, he is as sure of future reputation as any poet of this age.