1851 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

David Macbeth Moir, in Sketches of the Poetical Literature of the Past Half-Century (1851; 1852) 83-89.



We must now return to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who, in almost every respect save genius, was the reverse of Wordsworth. The latter steadfastly pursued his purposes, and with a coolness of determination formed his plans and worked them out, scorning the obstacles before him; or dauntlessly grappling with them, persevering through good and bad report, until he overcame them. Neglect, ridicule, obloquy, disparagement, had no modifying, no controlling power over him. Strong in what he believed to be right, he either stood unmoved amid the hurtling storm, until its fury passed over him, or stoically trod on through the briers and thorns of disappointment. Not so his equal, and probably, at one time, superior in genius — Coleridge — who started in the race like a Flying Childers, and yet, infirm of purpose, drew up ere the race was half run. Take Coleridge at thirty, and no poet of any age or country had done what he had; while, at the same time, those who knew him best felt that these things were but as the "morning giving promise of a glorious day." All concur in declaring that his published writings at that period — original, and wild, and wonderful as they might seem — conveyed no adequate idea of his capabilities, of the periscopic knowledge and gigantic faculties of the man. By that time he had indited The Friend — eloquent, rambling, discursive, full of fragmental magnificence, of high-sounding promises, of transcendental metaphysics, and of "elaborate passages that led to nothing." From The Monody on Chatterton, written at seventeen — and a portion of which I had the melancholy pleasure, when seated by his bedside at Hampstead, of hearing him recite, in those tones delicate, yet deep, and "long drawn out," which can never be forgotten — from that elegy to his Christabel, and Ancient Mariner, his Genevieve, and Kubla Khan — his career had been one of triumphant progression — the promise of what might have led to another Shakspeare or Milton; although a grown-up Coleridge must have been a tertium quid — a something, if equal to, yet very different from either. This was not to be. The seeming daybreak turned out to be but an aurora borealis. Titanic in its dimensions, his statue was to prove only a Torso.

We have here to regard Coleridge simply as a poet, not as the scholar, the philosopher, the politician, the translator, the essayist, or general prose writer. Leading off his verse stands The Ancient Marinere — probably the most characteristic manifestation of his powers — and one of the strongest and wildest sallies of pure imagination anywhere to be found, whether in reference to machinery or manner. It is a unique performance, reminding us of nothing else. We cannot idealise anything relating to earth so utterly unworldly as it is — so far removed beyond the boundary of common associations. The Lenora, The Wild Huntsman, and the tower scene in The Robbers, are all inferior to it — are tame in comparison; as are the demonologies of Godwin, Maturin, Lewis, Byron, and Shelley. The supernaturalisms of all these seem only touched with magic; The Ancient Marinere is saturated with it. His figure is long, and lank, and lean, as is the ribbed sea-sand; he is himself under a spell, and has strange power of speech; he wanders from land to land involuntarily; and in his glittering eye abides a snaky fascination, which compels even the abhorrent to stand still and listen. His tale is now of stormy seas,

Where ice mast-high came floating by,
As green as emerald;

and anon of tropic regions, where,

All in a hot and copper sky,
The burning sun at noon,
Right up above the mast did stand,
No bigger than the moon;

turning the stagnant waters of ocean into snakes, "blue, glossy green, and velvet black," which "coiled and swam in their tracks of golden fire;" while the crew remained as

—in a painted ship,
Upon a painted ocean.

The movements of the verse are quite in accordance with the scenes and sounds described — "all carved out of the carver's brain," in a trance of imagination.

Next to this, "but oh, how different!" is the Introduction to the Tale of the Dark Ladie. It breathes the very soul of harmony, and is bathed "in the purple light of love." Nothing can be conceived more softly warm, more delicately, more deliciously beautiful. The time is when

The moonshine stealing o'er the scene,
Has blended with the tints of eve;

and with the two lovers before us, we are made to feel, not only that

All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs this mortal frame,
Are but the ministers of Love,
And feed his sacred flame;

but that it is even nursed by

—hopes, and fears, that kindle hope,
Ma undistinguishable throng,
And gentle wishes long subdued—
Subdued, and cherished long.

Not less necromantic were the warp and woof of that loom in which Coleridge wove the web of Christabel. In that tale, the spiritual and material are so exquisitely blended that it is difficult to know where they run into each other. The rhythm consists of a notation of accents, not of syllables — well according with the grotesque imagery, the wild situations, and the fragmental abruptness of the legend. Christabel is said to have been the key-note on which Sir Walter Scott pitched his Lay of the Last Minstrel; indeed, he himself tells us as much, and that its strange music was ever murmuring in his ears; and its publication, after having lain twenty summers in MS. — nearly thrice the Horatian term of probation — was pressed upon its author by Lord Byron, who, in his notes to The Siege of Corinth, rapturously writes of it as "that singularly wild, and original, and beautiful poem." The framework is Gothic and the incidents, both natural and supernatural, are in admirable keeping. The lady — "beautiful exceedingly" — has her mystic character brought out by touches the must delicately fine and discriminative, — her faltering at the crossing the hospitable threshold — her dread and inability of prayer — the moaning of the old watch-dog in his sleep — the flickering of the half-dead embers, as she crosses the hall — and the swooning under the lamp "fastened to an angel's feet." And, amid this twilight mysticism, we have occasional gushes of glowing human tenderness, such as the following:—

Alas! they hail been friends in youth;
But whispering tongues can poison truth;
And Constancy lives in realms above;
And life is thorny, and youth is vain;
And to be wroth with one we love,
Doth work like madness in the brain.
And thus it chanced, as I divine,
With Roland and Sir Leoline.

As a man of genius, Coleridge appeared to have eaten of mandragora, or of "the insane root that takes the reason prisoner." His studies lay not in classical sunshine, but in the twilight of monastic speculation, and of Gothic romance. He voyaged not with Cook or Anson, but with Shelvocke and Davis — "ancient marineres;" his natural history was not that of Buffon and Cuvier, but of Pontopiddan and Saxo-Grammaticus; his alchemy not that of Black and Davy, but of Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus; his philosophy not that Reid or Paley, but of Thomas Aquinas and Jacob Behmen. He would not keep the high-road if he could find a bye-path; and he thrust aside the obvious and true, to clutch at the quaint and the curious. In short, in defiance of the jeweller's estimate, he would have prefered a moonstone, simply because it had fallen down from another sphere, to the richest diamond ever dug from the minds of Golconda.

It has been imputed to Coleridge, that, notwithstanding the multifarious riches of his own mind, he was fond of borrowing ideas from others. Nor was this without foundation; and it was wrong. But after all, and deducting every item that has been claimed for others, enough, and more than enough, remains to leave his high literary status beyond challenge. That he took — and, in that instance, why not? — the germinal idea of the Ancient Mariner from that passage of Shelvocke in Purchas's Pilgrims, which narrates the circumstance of foul weather having followed the killing of an albatross, is likely, for we find the incident there; but, then, who could have made of it what ho has done? The same may be said of his imputed plagiarisms from the philosophy of Schelling, front whom he took what certainly "not enriched him" or others; and of his obligations to the poetry of Count Stolberg, and Frederica Brun. That his sublime, his magnificent Miltonic Hymn before Sunrise in the Vale of Chamouni, was engrafted on some verses by the lady there can be little doubt, for no such parallelisms ever accidentally occurred. Yet, after all, he has taken no more than the starting-point the whole of the glowing and glorious pouring forth of the heart and spirit, which follows, appertaining exclusively to the English poet. The Remorse, and Zapolya do not fall to be considered here, (the last is scarcely worthy of his fame;) nor do his translations from Schiller, which are first-rate. Coleridge wanted the art of arranging and combining his materials, or could not screw up the courage necessary for such a task. The finest of his minor compositions are Kubla Khan, The Pains of Sleep, Youth and Age, The Chapel of William Tell, and The Wanderings of Cain, an impassioned prose poem. Many think that Coleridge did not fulfil his destiny. In this I can scarcely agree. He might have done many more things, but scarcely any mightier; and, from what he has left, the most remote posterity will be entitled to say — "ex pede Herculem."

The following little poem combines in itself many of the distinctive characteristics of its author's genius, and seems to me to be nearly perfect in its touchingly simple and serene beauty:—

Verse, a breeze mid blossoms straying,
Where Hope clung feeding, like a bee—
Both were mine! Life went a-Maying
With Nature, Hope, and Poesy,
When I was young!
When I was young? Ah woeful when!
Ah for the change 'twixt now and then!
This breathing house not built with hands,
This body that does me grievous wrong,
O'er airy cliffs and glittering sands.
How lightly then it flashed along!—
Like those trim skiffs, unknown of yore
On winding lakes and rivers wide,
That ask no aid of sail or oar,
That fear no spite of wind or tide,
Naught cared this body for wind or weather
When youth and I lived in't together.

Flowers are lovely; Love is flower-like;
Friendship is a sheltering tree;
O the joys that came down shower like,
Of Friendship, Love, and Liberty,
Ere I was old!
Ere I was old? Ah woeful ere!
Which tells me Youth's no longer here!
O Youth for years so many and sweet,
'Tis known that thou and I were one;
I'll think it but a fond deceit—
It cannot be that thou art gone;
Thy vesper-bell hath not yet toll'd,
And thou wert aye a masquer bold;
What strange disguise hast now put on,
To make believe that thou art gone?
I see these locks in silvery slips,
This drooping gait, this altered size;
But spring-tide blossoms on thy lips,
And tears take sunshine from thine eyes!
Life is but thought; so think I will
That Youth and I are housemates still.