Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Walter Pater, in The English Poets: Selections with Critical Introductions, ed. Thomas Humphry Ward (1880) 4:102-14.

Coleridge's prose writings on philosophy, politics, religion and criticism, were but one element in a whole life-time of endeavours to present the then recent metaphysics of Germany to English readers, as a legitimate expansion of the older, classical and native, masters of what has been variously called the a priori, or absolute, or spiritual, or Platonic view of things. To introduce that spiritual philosophy, as represented by the more transcendental parts of Kant, and by Schelling, into all subjects, as a system of reason in them, one and ever identical with itself, however various the matter through which it was diffused, became with him the motive of an unflagging enthusiasm, which seems to have been the one thread of continuity in a life otherwise singularly wanting in unity of purpose, and in which he was certainly far from uniformly at his best. Fragmentary and obscure, but often eloquent, and always at once earnest and ingenious, those writings, supplementing his remarkable gift of conversation, were directly and indirectly influential, even on some the furthest removed from Coleridge's own masters; on John Stuart Mill, for instance, and some of the earlier writers of the high-church school. Like his verse, they display him also in two other characters — as a student of words, and as a psychologist, that is, as a more minute observer than other men of the phenomena of mind. To note the recondite associations of words, old or new; to expound the logic, the reasonable soul, of their various uses; to recover the interest of older writers who had had a phraseology of their own — this was a vein of enquiry allied to his undoubted gift of tracking out and analysing curious modes of thought. A quaint fragment on Human Life might serve to illustrate his study of the earlier English philosophical poetry. The latter gift, that power of the "subtle-souled psychologist," as Shelley calls him, seems to have been connected with a tendency to disease in the physical temperament, to something of a morbid want of balance in the parts where the physical and intellectual elements mix most intimately together, with a kind of languid visionariness, deep-seated in the very constitution of the "narcotist" who had quite a gift for "plucking the poisons of self-harm," and which the actual habit of taking opium, accidentally acquired, did but reinforce. This morbid languor of nature, connected both with his fitfulness of purpose and his rich delicate dreaminess, qualifies Coleridge's poetic composition even more than his prose; his verse, with the exception of his avowedly political poems, being, unlike that of the "Lake School," to which in some respects he belongs, singularly unaffected by any moral, or professional, or personal effort and ambition, — "written," as he says, "after the more violent emotions of sorrow, to give him pleasure, when perhaps nothing else could;" but coming thus, indeed, very close to his own most intimately personal characteristics, and having a certain languidly soothing grace or cadence, for its most fixed quality, from first to last. After some Platonic soliloquy on a flower opening on a fine day in February, he goes on—

Dim similitudes
Weaving in mortal strains, I've stolen one hour
From anxious self, life's cruel task-master!
And the warm wooings of this sunny day
Tremble along my frame and harmonise
The attempered organ, that even saddest thoughts
Mix with some sweet sensations, like harsh tunes
Played deftly on a soft-toned instrument.

The expression of two opposed yet allied elements of sensibility in these lines is very true to Coleridge; — the grievous agitation, the grievous listlessness, almost never entirely relieved, with a certain physical voluptuousness. He has spoken several times of the scent of the bean-field in the air: the tropical notes in a chilly climate — his is a nature which will make the most of these, which finds a sort of caress in these things. Kubla Khan, a fragment of a poem actually composed in some certainly not quite healthy sleep, is perhaps chiefly interesting as showing, by the mode of its composition, how physical, how much a matter of a diseased and valetudinarian temperament in its moments of relief, Coleridge's happiest gift really was; and, side by side with Kubla Khan, should be read, as Coleridge placed it, the Pains of Sleep, to illustrate that retarding physical burden in his temperament, that "unimpassioned grief," the source of which was so near the source of those pleasures. Connected also with this, and again in contrast with Wordsworth, is the limited quantity of his poetical performance, which he himself regrets so eloquently in the lines addressed to Wordsworth after his recitation of The Prelude, It is like some exotic plant just managing to blossom a little in the somewhat un-English air of Coleridge's own birth-place, but never quite well there.

The period of Coleridge's residence at Nether Stowey, 1797-1798, was his annus mirabilis. Nearly all the chief works by which his poetic fame will live were then composed or planned. What shapes itself for criticism as the main phenomenon of Coleridge's poetic life, is not, as with most poets, the gradual development of a poetic gift, determined, enriched, retarded, by the circumstances of the poet's life, but the sudden blossoming, through one short season, of such a gift already perfect in its kind, which thereafter deteriorates as suddenly, with something like premature old age. Connecting this phenomenon with the leading motive of his prose writings, we might note it as the deterioration of a productive or creative power into one merely metaphysical or discursive. In the unambitious conception of his function as a poet, and in the limited quantity of his poetical performance, as I have said, he was a contrast to his friend Wordsworth. That friendship with Wordsworth, the chief "developing" circumstance of his poetic life, comprehended a very close intellectual sympathy; and in this association chiefly, lies whatever truth there may be in the popular classification of Coleridge as a member of what is called the "Lake School." Coleridge's philosophical speculations do really turn on the ideas which underlay Wordsworth's poetical practice. His prose works are one long explanation of all that is involved in that famous distinction between the Fancy and the Imagination. Of what is understood by both as the imaginative quality in the use of mere poetic figures, we may take some words of Shakespeare as an example:—

My cousin Suffolk,
My soul shall thine keep company to heaven:
Tarry, sweet soul, for mine, then fly abreast.

The complete infusion here, of the figure into the thought, so vividly realised that though the birds are not actually mentioned yet the sense of their flight, conveyed to us by the single word "abreast," comes to be more than half of the thought itself; — this, as the expression of exalted feeling, is an instance of what Coleridge meant by Imagination. And this sort of identification of the poet's thought, of himself with the image or figure which serves him, is the secret, sometimes, of a singularly entire realisation of that image, which makes this figure of Coleridge's, for instance, "imaginative":—

Amid the howl of more than wintry storms,
The halcyon hears the voice of vernal hours
Already on the wing.

There are many such figures both in Coleridge's prose and verse. He has too his passages of that sort of impassioned contemplation on the permanent and elementary conditions of nature and humanity, which Wordsworth held to be the essence of the poetic life, and its object to awaken in other men — those "moments," as Coleridge says, addressing him,—

Moments awful,
Now in thy inner life, and now abroad,
When power streamed from thee, and thy soul received
The light reflected, as a light bestowed.

The whole of the poem from which those lines are taken, "composed on the night after Wordsworth's recitation of a poem on the growth of an individual mind," is, in its strain of impassioned contemplation, and in the combined justness and elevation of its philosophical expression—

high and passionate thoughts
To their own music chanted;—

entirely sympathetic with The Prelude which it celebrates, and of which the subject is, in effect, the generation of the spirit of the "Lake poetry." The Lines to Joseph Cottle have the same philosophically imaginative character; the Ode to Dejection being Coleridge's most sustained effort of this sort.

It is in a highly sensitive apprehension of the aspects of external nature that Coleridge identifies himself most closely with one of the main tendencies of the "Lake School;" a tendency instinctive, and no mere matter of theory, in him as in Wordsworth. That record of the

green light
Which lingers in the west,

and again, of

the western sky
And its peculiar tint of yellow green,

which Byron found ludicrously untrue, but which surely needs no defence, is a characteristic example of a singular watchfulness for the minute fact and expression of natural scenery, pervading all he writes — a closeness to the exact physiognomy of nature, having something to do with that idealistic philosophy, which sees in the external world no mere concurrence of mechanical agencies, but an animated body, informed and made expressive, like the body of man, by an indwelling intelligence. It was a tendency, doubtless, in the air, for Shelley too is affected by it, and Turner, with the school of landscape which followed him. "I had found," Coleridge tells us,

That outward forms, the loftiest, still receive
Their finer influence from the world within;
Fair ciphers of vague import, where the eye
Traces no spot, in which the heart may read
History and prophecy....

and this induces in him no indifference to actual colour and form and process, but such minute realism as this—

The thin grey cloud is spread on high,
It covers but not hides the sky.
The moon is behind and at the full;
And yet she looks both small and dull;

or this, which has a touch of "romantic" weirdness—

Nought was green upon the oak
But moss and rarest misletoe;

or this—

There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high.
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky;—

or this, with a weirdness again, like that of some wild French etcher—

Lo! the new-moon winter-bright!
And over-spread with phantom light,
(With swimming phantom light o'erspread,
But rimmed and circled with a silver thread,)
I see the old moon in her lap, foretelling
The coming on of rain and squally blast:

He has the same imaginative apprehension of the silent and unseen processes of nature, its "ministries" of dew and frost, for instance; as when he writes in April—

A balmy night! and though the stars be dim,
Yet let us think upon the vernal showers
That gladden the green earth, and we shall find
A pleasure in the dimness of the sun.

Of such imaginative treatment of landscape there is no better instance than in the description of the Dell, in Fears in Solitude—

A green and silent spot amid the hills,
A small and silent dell! O'er stiller place
No singing sky-lark ever poised himself—
But the dell,
Bathed by the mist is fresh and delicate
As vernal cornfield, or the unripe flax
When, through its half-transparent stalks, at eve,
The level sunshine glimmers with green light—
The gust that roared and died away
To the distant tree—
heard and only heard
Is this low dell, bowed not the delicate grass.

This curious dwelling of the mind on one particular spot, till it seems to attain real expression and a sort of soul in it — a mood so characteristic of the "Lake School" — occurs in an earnest political poem, "written in April, 1798, during the alarm of an invasion;" and that silent dell is the background against which the tumultuous fears of the poet are in strong relief; while the quiet sense of it, maintained all through them, gives a real poetic unity to the piece. Good political poetry — political poetry that shall be permanently moving — can, perhaps, only be written on motives which, for those whom they concern, have ceased to be open questions and are really beyond argument; and Coleridge's political poems are for the most part on open questions. For although it was a great part of his intellectual ambition to subject political questions to the action of the fundamental ideas of his philosophy, he was still an ardent partisan, first on one side, then on the other, of the actual politics of the end of the last and the beginning of the present century, where there is still room for much difference of opinion. Yet The Destiny of Nations, though formless as a whole, and unfinished, has many traces of his most elevated speculation, cast into that sort of imaginative philosophical expression, in which, in effect, the language itself is inseparable from, or a part of the thought. France, an Ode, begins with the famous apostrophe to Liberty:—

Ye Clouds I that far above me that and pause,
Whose pathless march no mortal may control!
Ye Ocean-Waves! that wheresoe'er ye roll,
Yield homage only to eternal laws!
Ye Woods! that listen to the night-bird's singing,
Midway the smooth and perilous slope reclined.
Save when your own imperious branches swinging,
Have made a solemn music of the wind!
Where like a man beloved of God,
Through gloom which never woodman trod,
How oft, pursuing fancies holy,
My moonlight way o'er towering weeds I wound,
Inspired, beyond the guess at folly.
By each rude shape and wild unconquerable sound!
O ye loud Waves! and O ye Forests high!
And O ye Clouds that far above me soar'd!
Thou rising Sun! thou blue rejoicing Sky!
Yea, everything that is and will be free!
Bear witness for me, wheresoe'er ye be,
With what deep worship I have still adored
The spirit of divinest liberty.

And the whole ode, though, in Coleridge's way, not quite equal to that exordium, is an example of strong national sentiment, partly in indignant reaction against his own earlier sympathy with the French republic, inspiring a composition which, in spite of some turgid lines, really justifies itself as poetry, and has that true unity of effect which the ode requires. Liberty, after all his hopes of young France, is only to be found in nature:—

Thou speedest on thy subtle pinions
The guide of homeless winds, and playmate of the waves!

In his changes of political sentiment Coleridge was associated with the "Lake School;" and there is yet one other very different sort of sentiment in which he is one with that school, yet all himself, his sympathy, namely, with the animal world. That was a sentiment connected at once with the love of outward nature in himself and in the "Lake School," and its assertion of the natural affections in their simplicity; with the homeliness and pity, consequent upon that assertion. The Lines to a Young Ass, tethered,

Where the close-eaten grass is scarcely seen,
While sweet around her waves the tempting green,

which had seemed merely whimsical in their day, indicate a vein of interest constant in Coleridge's poems, and at its height in his chief poems — in Christabel, where it has its effect, as it were antipathetically, in the vivid realisation of the serpentine element in Geraldine's nature; and in The Ancient Mariner, whose late is interwoven with that of the wonderful bird, the curse for whose death begins to pass away at the Mariner's blessing of the water-snakes, and where the moral of the love of all creatures, as a sort of religious duty, is definitely expressed.

Christabel, though not printed till 1816, was written mainly in the year 1797. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner was printed as a contribution to the Lyrical Ballads, in 1798. These two poems belong to the great year of Coleridge's poetic production, his twenty-fifth year. In poetic quality, above all in that most poetic of all qualities, a keen sense of and delight in beauty, the infection of which lays hold upon the reader, they are quite out of proportion to all his other composition. The form in both is that of the ballad, with some of its terminology, and some also of its quaint conceits. They connect themselves with that revival of ballad literature, of which Percy's Relics, and, in another way, Macpherson's Ossian are monuments, and which afterwards so powerfully affected Scott.

Young-eyed poesy
All deftly, masked as hoar antiquity.—

The Ancient Mariner, as also in its measure Christabel, is a "romantic" poem, impressing us by bold invention, and appealing to that taste for the supernatural, that longing for a shudder, to which the "romantic" school in Germany, and its derivatives in England and France, directly ministered. In Coleridge personally, this taste had been encouraged by his odd and out-of-the-way reading in the old-fashioned literature of the marvelous — books like Purchas's Pilgrims, early voyages like Hakluyt's, old naturalists and visionary moralists like Thomas Burnet, from whom he quotes the motto of The Ancient Mariner — "Facile credo, plures esse naturas invisibiles quam visibiles in rerum universilate," &c. Fancies of the strange things which may very well happen, even in broad daylight, to men shut up alone in ships far off on the sea, seem to have arisen in the human mind in all ages with a peculiar readiness, and often have about them, from the story of the theft of Dionysus downwards, the fascination of a certain dreamy grace, which distinguishes them from other kinds of marvellous inventions. This sort of fascination The Ancient Mariner brings to its highest degree; it is the delicacy, the dreamy grace in his presentation of the marvellous, which makes Coleridge's work so remarkable. The too palpable intruders from a spiritual world, in almost all ghost literature, in Scott and Shakespeare even, have a kind of coarseness or crudeness. Coleridge's power is in the very fineness with which, as with some really ghostly finger, he brings home to our inmost sense his inventions, daring as they are — the skeleton ship, the polar spirit, the inspiriting of the dead bodies of the ship's crew; The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has the plausibility, the perfect adaptation to reason and the general aspect of life, which belongs to the marvellous when actually presented as part of a credible experience, in our dreams. Doubtless the mere experience of the opium-eater, the habit he must almost necessarily fall into of noting the more elusive phenomena of dreams, had something to do with that; in its essence, however, it is connected with a more purely intellectual circumstance in the development of Coleridge's poetic gift. Some one once asked William Blake, to whom Coleridge has many resemblances, when either is at his best, (that whole episode of the inspiriting of the ship's crew in The Ancient Mariner being comparable to Blake's well-known design of the morning stars singing together,) whether he had ever seen a ghost, and was surprised when the famous seer, who ought, one might think, to have seen so many, answered frankly, "Only once!" His "spirits," at once more delicate, and so much more real than any ghost — at once the burden and the privilege of his temperament — like it, were an integral element in his every-day life. And the difference of mood expressed in that question and its answer, is indicative of a change of temper in regard to the supernatural, which has passed over the whole modern mind, and of which the true measure is the influence of the writings of Swedenborg: and what that change is we may see, if we compare the vision by which Swedenborg was called, as he thought, to his work, with the ghost which called Hamlet; or the spells of Marlowe's Faust with those of Goethe's. The modern mind, so minutely self-scrutinising, if it is to be affected at all by a sense of the supernatural, requires to be more finely touched than was possible in the older romantic presentment of it. The spectral object, so crude, so impossible, has become plausible, as "the spot upon the brain that will show itself without," and is understood to be but a condition of one's own mind, for which, according to the scepticism latent at least in so much of our modern philosophy, the so-called real things themselves are but spectra, after all.

It is this finer, more delicately marvellous supernaturalism, the fruit of his more delicate psychology, which Coleridge infuses into romantic narrative, itself also then a new, or revived thing in English literature; and with a fineness of weird effect in The Ancient Mariner, unknown in those old, more simple, romantic legends and ballads. It is a flower of medieval, or later German romance, growing up in the peculiarly compounded atmosphere of modern psychological speculation, and putting forth in it wholly new qualities. The quaint prose commentary, which runs side by side with the verse of The Ancient Mariner, illustrates this — a composition of quite a different shade of beauty and merit from that of the verse which it accompanies, connecting this the chief poem of Coleridge with his philosophy, and emphasizing in it that psychological element of which I have spoken, its curious soul-lore.

Completeness, the perfectly rounded unity and wholeness of the impression it leaves on the mind of a reader who really gives himself to it, — that, too, is one of the characteristics of a really excellent work, in the poetic, as in every other kind of art; and by this completeness The Ancient Mariner certainly gains upon Christabel, — a completeness, entire as that of Wordsworth's Leech-gatherer, or Keats's Saint Agnes' Eve, each typical in its way of such wholeness or entirety of effect on a careful reader. It is Coleridge's own great complete work, the one really finished thing, in a life of many beginnings. Christabel remained a fragment — the first, and portions of a second, part, on which two other parts should have followed, each with its own "conclusion"; and we seem to have lost more by its incompleteness than the mere amount of excellent verse; for what Coleridge tells us about it suggests the notion of a very exquisitely limited design, with that pleasing sense of unity, which is secured in the The Ancient Mariner, partly by the skill with which the incidents of the marriage-feast break in, dreamily, from time to time, upon the main story; and with which the whole night-mare story itself is made to end, so pleasantly and reassuringly, among the clear, fresh sounds and lights of the bay, where it began, with

The moon-light steeped in silentness
The steady weather-cock.

So different from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in regard to this completeness of effect, Christabel illustrates the same complexion of motives, the same intellectual situation. Here too the work is that peculiar to one who touches the characteristic motives of the old romantic ballad in a spirit made subtle and fine by modern reflexion, and which we feel, I think, in such passages as—

But though my slumber had gone by,
This dream it would not pass away—


It seems to live upon mine eye;—
For she belike, hath drunken deep
Of all the blessedness of sleep;—

and again—

With such perplexity of mind
As dreams too lively have behind.

And the gift of handling the finer passages of human feeling, at once with power and delicacy, which was another of the results of that finer psychology, of his exquisitely refined habit of self-reflexion, is illustrated by a passage on Friendship in the Second Part:—

Alas! they had 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,
Each spake words of high disdain
And insult to his heart's best brother:
They parted — ne'er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining—
They stood aloof the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now flows between;—
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,
Shall wholly do away, I ween,
The marks of that which once hath been.

I suppose these lines leave almost every reader with a quickened sense of the beauty and compass of human feeling; and it is the sense of such richness and beauty which, in spite of his "dejection," in spite of that burden of his morbid lassitude, accompanies Coleridge himself through life. A warm poetic joy in every thing beautiful, whether it be a moral sentiment, like the friendship of Roland or Leoline, or only the flakes of falling light from the water-snakes — this joy, visiting him, now and again, after sickly dreams, waking or sleeping, as a relief not to be forgotten, and with such a power of felicitous expression that the infection of it passes irresistibly to the reader, — this is the predominant quality in the matter of his poetry, as cadence is the predominant quality of its form. "We bless Thee for our creation!" he might have said, in his later period of definite religious assent, "because the world is so beautiful; the world of ideas — living spirits, detached from the divine nature itself, to inform and lift the heavy mass of material things; the world of man, above all in his melodious and intelligible speech; the world of living creatures and natural scenery; the world of dreams. What he really did say, by way of a Tombless Epitaph, is true enough of himself—

Sickness, 'tis true,
Whole years of weary days, besieged him close,
Even to the gates and inlets of his life!
But it is true, no less, that strenuous, firm,
And with a natural gladness, he maintained
The citadel unconquered, and in joy
Was strong to follow the delightful Muse.
For not a hidden path, that to the shades
Of the beloved Parnassian forest leads,
Lurked undiscovered by him; not a rill
There issues from the fount of Hippocrene,
But he had traced it upward to its source,
Through open glade, dark glen, and secret dell,
Knew the gay wild flowers on its banks, and culled
Its med'cinable herbs. Yea, oft alone,
Piercing the long-neglected holy cave,
The haunt obscure of old Philosophy,
He bade with lifted torch its starry walls
Sparkle, as erst they sparkled to the flame
Of odorous lamps tended by Saint and Sage.
O framed for calmer times and nobler hearts!
O studious Poet, eloquent for truth!
Philosopher! contemning wealth and death,
Yet docile, childlike, full of Life and Lore!