1818 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Anonymous,"An Estimate of the Literary Character and Works of Mr. Coleridge" The Monthly Magazine 46 (December 1818) 407-09.



The man of genius, struggling with adverse circumstances, is one of the most affecting subjects which can be presented to the imagination. We see him first in remote and humble life, a delicate and ingenuous child, moved to sorrow by the slightest chiding, and pining over the recollection of the most trivial neglect; beloved, however, by his parents with a degree of solicitude beyond the common affection which they feel for their other children, — persons of virtuous dispositions, — their best efforts are employed to give him an education that may fit him for some department of business where hard labour is not required; and he is sent to a school among his superiors in fortune, where his diffidence is regarded as sullenness, and his thoughtfulness as stupidity. His progress is slow; and he retires front this scene without leaving any favourable impression. His next appearance is either in the office of a lawyer, or the shop of an apothecary, or perhaps in the counting-house of a merchant. The bent of his mind lies not to his business; and his parents, unable to discriminate the stirrings of awakening genius from discontent, become anxious respecting him; and, ascribing the change in his character to the profitless course of his reading, embitter the little leisure that he can devote to study, by reproaching him with misspending his time. By and by he acquires confidence in himself, and, in defiance of the anger of his friends, ventures before the public as an author. He has no literary, associate to point out the indications of talent scattered through his first imperfect essays, and his publication consequently incurs contempt. Conscious, however, of possessing within himself the springs of a force not yet excited, and instructed by his first failure, he perseveres on towards the goal in view, and appears, at length, a second time with a little more success. Thus, step by step, unknown, uncheered, unpatronised, be gradually establishes a name; but his privations, his mortifications, his anxieties, and his sufferings, unparticipated and concealed, have, in the mean time, undermined his constitution, and he dies. He is then missed by the public, his works become sought after, the trade take up the question of his merits, and, about a century after his decease, the public assign to him a place among the ornaments of his country.

Mr. Coleridge is professedly a man of genius, but we do not know in what respects his career resembles that of the solitary whom we have thus described. It is however well known, that, if he has not been duly applauded in his own time, it has neither been owing to any lack of endeavour on his part, nor to want of assistance from his friends. We know not, indeed, a literary name oftener before the public than that of Coleridge, and we have never ceased to wonder how it should happen to be so. He has, it is true, occasionally sent forth lambent and luminous indications of talent; and we have contemplated them, from time to time, as the aurora some glorious day, far out of the usual course of things. But, instead of a reddening morn, brightening more and more, the ineffectual phantom has as often been succeeded by a drizzle of nebulous sensibility, or a storm of sound and fury signifying nothing.

It has been prettily observed, that the genius of Mr. Coleridge has wings, but is without hands. It is not, however, in this respect only that it resembles the cherub of a tomb-stone, for it has a marvellous affection towards all the varieties of cadaveries, ghosts, and other church-yard denizens and luminaries. But, to drop the metaphor, it seems to us that this learned Theban possesses the faculty of rousing but one class of intellectual associations, namely, those which are connected with such superstitious sentiments as have a tendency to excite the passion of insane fear. For, whenever he has tried to do any thing else, his failures are among the most laughable extravagancies in literature. While, therefore, we do admit that he is possessed of one peculiar talent, and that one also in some degree "wildly original," we at the same time take leave to question whether such a faculty is not more akin to genuine frenzy than to that sound and vigorous intellectual power which transmits a portion of its own energy in the impulse that it gives to the public mind, "The Antient Mariner" of this poet is, in our opinion, the only, one of his productions which justifies his pretensions to the title of a man of genius.

It is full of vivid description, touches of an affecting simplicity, and, above all, it exhibits in the best manner that peculiar talent which may be considered as characteristic of his powers. It is, without doubt, the finest superstitious ballad in literature, the Lenora of Burger not excepted; and as far superior to the Thalabas and Kehamahs of his friend and reciprocal trumpeter, Southey, the poet-laureate, as the incidents in those stories are remote from probability and common sense. Indeed, common sense and probability have very little to do with any of their poems; but, admitting the principles on which they have constructed them, the fiction in the Antient Mariner is far better sustained. His poem of Christabel is only fit for the inmates of Bedlam. We are not acquainted in the history of literature with so great an insult offered to the public understanding as the publication of that rapsody of delirium, or with any thing so amusing as the sly roguery of those who, with such matchless command of countenance, ventured to recommend it to attention. It has, no doubt, here and there flashes of poetical expression, as every thing from the pen of Mr. Coleridge cannot but possess. But of coherency, and all that shows the superintendence of judgment or reason in composition, it is void and destitute. The indited ravings of a genuine madness would excite pity for the author, but the author of such a work is beyond compassion.

Mr. Coleridge is justly celebrated for his translations of Schiller, and it is much to be lamented that he has not been induced to favor the public with a complete version of that great poet's works. There is no other writer of the present day qualified to perform the task half so well. But, alas! he has taken to preaching lay Sermons, demonstrating that he is an apostate in politics, and that in his reasoning he can be as absurd and unintelligible as in his rhyming. He has also delivered lectures on Shakespeare, whose works he does not at all understand; and he has published two anomalous volumes himself, which contain a few passages of good writing, but so larded with idealess nonsense, that they only serve to show that the author has estimated his stature by the length of his shadow in a sun-set of his understanding. — Some years ago he obtained a representation of a tragedy, called Remorse, which was received with a respectable degree of attention; but, as it contained no idea, either of incident or reflection, that showed the author to be possessed of any knowledge of human nature, it has sunk into oblivion, notwithstanding the beautiful fancies and elegant frenzy with which it abounds. In a word, if Mr. Coleridge is really a man of true genius, it is high time that he should give the world some proof less equivocal than any thing he has yet done.