1864 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Henry Nelson Coleridge

Charles Knight, in Passages of a Working Life (1864) 1:289-91.



Henry Nelson Coleridge was in 1820 a scholar of King's College, Cambridge. At the time when he was a contributor to The Etonian he had given evidence of his great abilities and scholarship, by winning two of Sir William Brown's medals — one for the Greek ode and one for the Latin ode. His poetical faculty, although not of a common order, was less remarkable than his literary taste. The nephew of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, his admiration of those who were then sneered at as "the Lake School" was only natural. But it required some courage in the young critic to stand up to defend Wordsworth and Coleridge from that never-ceasing ridicule of the Edinburgh Reviewers, which, it appears, was in some favour at Eton. He did more than this. He endeavoured to explain and illustrate Wordsworth as a very singular and peculiar poet, quite set apart from the troop of every-day metrists, and living and breathing in a world of his own. When Wordsworth was then spoken of as a great poet, the ordinary question was, "Why is he not more popular?" The process through which public opinion gradually turns from an ephemeral popularity, permanently to repose upon works of imagination that are not extravagant stimulants, is admirably illustrated by his own experience: — "I remember distinctly, when Lalla Rookh first came out, I read it through at one sitting. To say I was delighted with it is a poor word for my feelings; I was transported out of myself — entranced, or what you will. The men did not appear to me half fierce and beautiful enough, and the women had nothing in their eyes at all like those of the gazelle; — not to mention that the flowers were very meagre, and the wind cold, and the chapel-organ out of tune, and 'the blessed Sun himself' but a poor substitute for the god of the Guebres. This seems extravagant, and yet I believe that many a young heart has felt nearly the same, if those feelings were uttered. Well — after a few days it occurred to me as something very odd that I had no patience now with old Homer, or Virgil, or Milton, and scarcely with Shakspeare; — they were not transporting enough. This made me reflect upon the causes which could work such a revolution in me; for I used to think the aforesaid poets the very first in their lines, and lo! now a greater than they had swept them out of my favour! After the cooling interval of three weeks I sate down to read this book again — but oh! 'quantum mutatas ab illo Hectore!' I cannot describe my feelings, but suffice it to say, the potent charm had vanished; but still I was bewitched in a minor degree by the glare and dazzle of the scenery and the music of the versification. Will you believe me, that a whole year afterwards I read this same book a third time; and then I felt the trouble of making the experiment, that the only parts of the work that are worth a farthing are precisely those which are the simplest, the most plain, and free from the beauties of the author, and which, on that very account, I, on my first acquaintance with him, disliked or neglected."

Henry Coleridge, by his republication of The Friend, and other materials for a proper estimation of his illustrious uncle's labours, testified in his maturer years a profound admiration of his character as a philosopher and a critic. But the Cambridge scholar, while regarding him as the greatest poetical genius of that day, does not hesitate to ask, "Where are we to find in Mr. Coleridge's philosophy that solid, sensible ground upon which we may venture to build up an abiding-place for our doubts and our desires?" Such are the changes which years produce in every mind in which the process of educating itself is always going on.