1829 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

H., "Samuel Taylor Coleridge" La Belle Assemblee S3 9 (June 1829) 235-40.



Coleridge is a native of Bristol, a city which, though devoted to commerce, has given birth to an extraordinary number of individuals most highly gifted in literature and in the arts. The education of his boyhood was received at Christchurch, usually denominated the Blue Coat School, in London; and his further studies were pursued at Jesus College, Oxford. There he was universally regarded as a man of genius; and that the opinion entertained of him was not erroneous, he soon gave ample proof. His first publication was a volume of poems, which experienced a very flattering reception, and in which his Monody on the Death of Chatterton was, with other pieces, greatly admired. He had the credit, though we apprehend incorrectly, of assisting his friend Southey in his Joan of Arc. In 1795 he published Consciones ad Populum, or Addresses to the People; a pamphlet entitled A Protest against certain Bills, or the Plot discovered; and an Address to the People against Ministerial Treason. In 1796, he attempted a weekly paper entitled The Watchman, which soon fell. About the same time he published a poem called A Prospect of Peace. This, we believe, has not been preserved in association with his collected works. Amongst other productions by Mr. Coleridge were a Series of Essays under the title of The Friend, and some Lay Sermons. Some years since he delivered a course of Lectures on the Plays of Shakspeare; and also a course of Lectures on Poetry and the Belles Lettres. When Sir Alexander Ball went out as Governor of Malta, he took Mr. Coleridge with him as his secretary; by this means he became entitled to the pension usually granted by Government on such occasions; and it is, we believe, chiefly upon that pension that he now lives in a state of quiet retirement, devoted to literature and the muse, at Highgate. In his youth, during the first furor of liberty, excited by the breaking out of the French Revolution, Coleridge, with two or three of his enthusiastic friends, indulged the idea of crossing the Atlantic, and fixing their abode somewhere amongst the wilds of America; but, when he had more calmly contemplated the sanguinary horrors endured by France, and inflicted by her upon other Continental States, his warmth subsided, and he seems to have concluded that, with reference to England, "there was no place like home."

There cannot be a fitter time for taking into consideration the merits of Coleridge, than just on the appearance of a new and complete edition of his poems — the second within six or eight months.

If Coleridge had not slumbered at his post — if, to use his own expressive words, his poetic powers had not been in a state of suspended animation for years — Byron, magnificently, toweringly great as he is, would never have been regarded as the first poet of the age. Coleridge draws from a deeper spring even than Byron. The genius of these men is so essentially different, that they cannot become objects of comparison yet, we may say, that Coleridge has all Byron's beauty, without any of his deformity; — all his virtue — far more than all — without any of his vice. Coleridge has written nought that can awaken a pruriency of imagination — nought that can raise a blush upon the cheek of innocence — nought that can threaten to weigh down his spirit in its departing hour. Religion is his rock, his well of inspiration. His fancy is sportive — his imagination glorious — his range, his grasp of mind, all but omnipotent. How sweet, and tender, and holy are his love poems! How wild and wonderful are his ballads! How rich, and deep, and glowing are his descriptions! How sublime are his odes! How grand, how majestic, how overpowering are the march and flow of his blank verse! Ay, grand, majestic, and overpowering as the blank verse of Milton himself. And how is all this to be accounted for? Chiefly by the depth, the intenseness of inward feeling. "The communicativeness of our nature," says Coleridge, "leads us to describe our own sorrows; in the endeavour to describe them, intellectual activity is exerted; and from intellectual activity there results a pleasure, which is gradually associated, and mingles as a corrective, with the painful subject of the description." How admirable is his defence of egotism; or, rather, how ably does he repel the charge of egotism which is sometimes ridiculously urged against poets. "A poet's feelings are all strong." "By a law of our. nature, he, who labours under a strong feeling, is impelled to seek for sympathy." And is it not in nature, too, that what is earnestly sought for should be as certainly found? "If I could judge of others by myself," he adds, "I should not hesitate to affirm, that the most interesting passages are those in which the author developes his own feelings. The sweet voice of Cona never sounds so sweetly, as when it speaks of itself; and I should almost suspect that man of an unkindly heart, who could read the opening of the third book of the Paradise Lost, without peculiar emotion." It has been well observed, that "the subjects in which genius rejoices are not the vain and the transitory, but the true and the eternal, which are the same through all changes of society, and shifting varieties of fashion." No poet can have felt the truth of this more deeply than Coleridge — none has exemplified it more fully. Based in the purity and holiness of nature, his poetry is the poetry of the past, of the present, and of the future — the poetry of ALL time.

Let us commence with his Religious Musings, a poem written almost five-and-thirty years since, yet combining with all the freshness and fire of youth, all the vigour of a lusty manhood.

We have said that his blank verse is grand, majestic, and overpowering; yet, truth compels us to admit that it has "been rightly charged with a profusion of double epithets, and a general turgidness." We must admit, too, that his thoughts are at times clothed in language, mystical, metaphysical, and obscure. Yet this censure is not universally, not even GENERALLY applicable: witness these lines — and many others that might be quoted from the same poem — which form the commencement of The Eolian Harp:—

My Pensive Sara! thy soft cheek reclined
Thus on mine arm, most soothing sweet it is
To sit beside our cot, our cot o'ergrown
With white-flowered jasmin, and the broad-leaved myrtle,
(Meet emblems they of Innocence and Love!)
And watch the clouds, that late were rich with light,
Slow saddening round, and mark the star of eve

Serenely brilliant (such should wisdom be)
Shine opposite! How exquisite the scents
Snatched from yon bean-field! and the world so bushed
The stilly murmur of the distant sea
Tells us of silence.

But it is more with the thought, the sentiment, the feeling that is evinced in Religious Musings, than with the structure of the verse, that we are interested. Pope has said well, that "The proper study of mankind is man." Coleridge has enlarged finely on this idea:—

—'Tis the sublime of man,
Our noontide Majesty, to know ourselves
Parts and proportions of one wonderous whole!
This fraternizes man, this constitutes
Our charities and bearings. But 'tis God
Diffused through all, that doth make all one whole.

Here, at this early period of Coleridge's life, and again, in The Eolian Harp, the poet's acquaintance with German philosophy, peeps out:—

But what if all of animated nature
Be but organic harps diversely framed,
That, tremble into thought, as o'er them sweeps
Plastic and vast, one intellectual breeze,
At once the soul of each, and God of all?

It must be confessed that the idea is beautiful — is nobly, grandly philosophical. Like the infant science of phrenology, the philosophy of our continental friends is ridiculed in this country, only because it is not understood. Yet it is founded in simplicity, in truth, in the sacred sympathies of our nature. Reflect but for a moment upon our intimate connexion not only with our own species but with the brute creation — not only with the animal but with the vegetable world. From the man to the elephant, from the elephant to the worm, do we not involuntarily sympathize with animal suffering? Nor does our sympathy terminate here — it extends, widening and widening, though weakening and weakening, as the circles that are produced by the falling of a stone in the water, throughout all nature. Independently, if we may so express ourselves, of the association of ideas, we cannot, without feelings of regret, and sorrow, and affectionate sympathy, behold a tree, a plant, or a flower, subjected to injury, to suffering, or to death. Our ancient belief in planetary influences, in supernatural omens, in the reappearance of the dead — our unceasing dissatisfaction with the present, and panting for the future — the hallowed love which we feel for each other, and the deep devotion with which we cherish the memory of the departed — ay, even our quenchless hopes of immortality, are all traceable to the same grand source — sympathy; — a feeling, though we avow it not, that, from the insect to the angel, from the angel to the Deity, we are all parts of one great whole! Nor is there aught in this sublime feeling that can militate against the divine truths of revelation. The discoveries which, within the last six months, have taken place, and which are at this moment taking place, by means of the microscope, increase and confirm the belief; they prove, incontestably, that all nature, animal, vegetable, and even mineral, is instinct with life — and why not with sentient life? How does the thought elevate our ideas of the power, the wisdom, and the goodness of the Supreme! And where is the mind that can comprehend and feel this vastness and immensity, this infinity, more deeply than Coleridge's?

There is one Mind, one omnipresent Mind,
Omnific, his most holy name is Love.
Truth of subliming import, with the which
Who feeds and saturates his constant soul,
He from his small particular orbit flies.
With blessed outstarting. From himself he flies,
Stands in the sun, and with no partial gaze
Views all creation; and he loves it all,
And blesses it, and calls it very good!
This is indeed to dwell with the most High!
Cherubs and rapture — trembling seraphim,
Can press no nearer to the Almighty's throne.

The Odes — two or three of them at least — of this marvellously gifted man, are perhaps superior even to his blank verse. The Ode on the Departing Year, written at the close of 1796, and devoted, in a great measure, to her whom the writer designates as

—that foul WOMAN of the NORTH,
The lustful murderess of her wedded Lord!

is certainly one of the most sublime odes in our language. Its imagery is wild, grand, magnificent, and appalling; its force of expression gigantic. It rolls, and bounds, and thunders, like an avalanche. Instantly must it be recognised by its commencement—

Spirit, who sweepast the wild harp of Time!
It is most hard, with an untroubled ear,
Thy dark inwoven harmonies to hear!

We have little room for quotation, yet, as a fair specimen of the whole — as a striking exemplification of Coleridge's genius — we must give the third stanza entire:—

I marked Ambition in his war-array!
I heard the mailed Monarch', troublous cry-
"Ah! wherefore does the Northern Conqueress stay!
Groans not her chariot on its onward way?"
Fly, mailed Monarch, fly!
Stunned by Death's twice mortal mace,
No more on Murder's lurid face
The insatiate bag shall gloat with drunken eye!
Manes of the unnumbered slain!
Ye that gasped on Warsaw's plain!
Ye that erst at Ismael's tower,
When human ruin choked the streams,
Fell in conquest's glutted hour,
Mid women's shrieks and infants' screams!
Spirits of the uncoffined slain,
Sudden blasts of triumph swelling,
Oft, at night, in misty train,
Rush around her narrow dwelling!
The exterminating fiend is fled—
(Foul her life, and dark her doom)
Mighty armies of the dead
Dance like death-fires round her tomb!
Then with prophetic song relate,
Each some tyrant-murderer's fate!

Some of Coleridge's compound epithets, &c., possess tremendous power; imparting to the passages in which they occur, almost preternatural strength:—

The fiend-hag on her perilous couch doth leap,
Muttering distempered triumph in her charmed sleep.
Speak! from thy storm-black Heaven, O speak aloud!
And on the darkling foe
Open thine eye of fire from some uncertain cloud!
O dart the flash! O rise and deal the blow!

This, too, is powerful:—

And ever when the dream of night,
Renews the phantom to my sight,
Cold sweat-drops gather on my limb,;
My ears throb hot; my eye-balls start
My brain with horrid tumult swims;
Wild is the tempest of my heart;
And my thick and struggling breath
Imitates the toil of Heath!

And now, how sweet and lovely is the contrast — how charming is the picture that follows — how bold, yet how exquisitely beautiful, is the figure with which our quotation closes:—

O, Albion! O my mother Isle!
Thy vallies, fair as Eden's bowers,
Glitter green with sunny showers;
Thy grassy upland's gentle swells
Echo to the bleat of flocks;
(Those grassy hills, those glittering dells
Proudly ramparted with rocks)
And ocean mid his uproar wild
Speaks safety to his ISLAND-CHILD!

In the same ode we find "Strange-eyed Destruction," with "her lidless dragon-eyes," &c. These are the concluding lines:—

Now I recentre my immortal mind
in the deep Sabbath of week self-content,
Cleansed from the vaporous passions that bedim
God's Image, sister of the seraphim.

In the ode, now called "France," originally, if we mistake not, "The Recantation," if there be less of the sublime, there is more of the beautiful; it indeed breathes, in every line, "The spirit of divinest liberty."

Forgive me, Freedom! O forgive those dreams!
I hear thy voice, I hear thy loud lament,
From bleak Helvetia's icy caverns sent—
I hear thy groans upon her blood-stained streams!
Heroes, that for your peaceful country perished,
And ye that, fleeing, spot your mountain snows
With bleeding wounds; forgive me, that I cherished
One thought that ever blessed your cruel foes!

Were it not that Coleridge, like Shakspeare, is the poet of nature, we should say, after reading the pieces already noticed, that, in "Dejection, an Ode;" he is unlike himself; for now, abandoning the bold, the terrific, and the sublime, we find him all ease, and grace, and tenderness:—

All this long eve, so balmy and serene,
Have I been gazing on the western sky,
And its peculiar tint of yellow green:
And still I gaze — and with how blank an eye!
And those thin clouds above; in flakes and bars,
That give away their motion to the stars;
Those stars, that glide behind them or between,
Now sparkling, now bedimmed, but always seen:
Yon crescent moon as fixed as if it grew
In its own cloudless, starless lake of blue;
I see them all so excellently fair,
I see, not feel how beautiful they are!

Pathos, the sweetest and most simple, is one of the distinguishing characteristics of Coleridge's muse. That quaint, singular, and extraordinary poem, The Ancient Mariner, abounds with "touches of profoundest tenderness, amidst the wildest and most bewildering terrors." Nor is it less remarkable for the knowledge which it displays of the wonderful phenomena of nature. The effect of a dead calm at sea can never be more picturesquely described by words, than in these:—

Day after day, day after day,
We stuck, nor breath nor motion
As idle as a painted ship
Upon a painted ocean.

What a subject — the approach of the skeleton ship — would this be for Danby's magic pencil!—

The western wave was all a-flame,
The day was well nigh done!
Almost upon the western wave
Rested the broad bright Sun;
When that strange shape drove suddenly
Betwixt us and the Sun.

And straight the Sun was flecked with bars,
(Heaven's Mother send us grace!)
As if though a dungeon grate he peered
With broad and burning face.
Alas! (thought I, and my heart beat loud)
How fast she nears and nears!
Are those her sails that glance in the Sun,
Like restless gossameres?

Are those her ribs through which the Sun
Did peer as through a grate?
And is that Woman all her crew?
Is that a DEATH? and are there two?
Is DEATH that woman's mate.
Her lips were red, her looks were free,
Her locks were yellow as gold;
Her skin was as white as leprosy,
The night-mare LIFE-IN-DEATH was she,
Who thicks man's blood with cold.

Had we space, we could point out a thousand beauties: as we have not, we must content ourselves with the divine moral:—

He prayeth well, who loveth well
Both man and bird and beast.
He prayeth best, who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all.

And what are we to say of his "holy and most sweet tale of Christabel, with its rich enchantments, and its richer humanities?" Why, that to those who have minds to comprehend, taste to appreciate, and hearts to feel its merit, it is a priceless pearl of beauty. Why does not Coleridge finish this inimitable production? The first part was written in Somersetshire, in 1797; the second in Cumberland, in 1800; and, said the writer, in 1816, "as, in my very first conception of the tale, I had the whole present to my mind, with the wholeness, no less than with the loveliness of a vision, I trust that I shall yet be able to embody in verse the three parts yet to come." They who do not consider this to be exquisite poetry, can possess little skill in the deep magic of song:—

The night is chill; the forest bare
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady's cheek—
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 topmast twig that looks up at the sky.

If Coleridge had never written an amatory line, besides his divine poem of Genevieve, he would have written sufficient to stamp him pre-eminently the bard of love — of love in its best, its sweetest, its tenderest, its holiest sense:—

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

All impulses of soul and sense
Had thrilled my guileless Genevieve;
The music and the doleful tale,
The rich and balmy eve;

And hopes and fears that kindle hope,
An undistinguishable throng,
And gentle wishes long subdued,
Subdued and cherished long!

She wept with pity and delight,
She blushed with love, and virgin-shame;
And like the murmur of a dream,
I heard her breathe my name....

She half enclosed me with her arms,
She pressed me with a meek embrace;
And bending back her head, looked up,
And gated upon my face.

'Twas partly Love, and partly Fear,
And partly 'twas a bashful art,
That I might rather feel than see,
The swelling of her heart.

I calmed her fears, and she was calm,
And told her love with virgin-pride;
And so I won my Genevieve,
My bright and beauteous Bride.

In turning over Coleridge's love poems, in the present edition, we miss one which was wont, in earlier days, to be a great favourite with us. We mean a piece entitled kisses, which thus commenced:—

Cupid, if storying legends tell Bright,
Once framed a rich elixir of delight, &c.

Its close was—

With half the God his Cyprian mother blest,
And breathed on Sara's lovelier lips the rest.

This piece ought unquestionably to be restored, as a suitable companion to The Kiss, commencing—

One kiss, dear maid! I said and sighed—
Your scorn the little boon denied;
Ah, why refuse the blameless bliss?
Can danger lurk within a kiss?

In Recollections of Love, there is one peculiarly beautiful and poetic idea:—

No voice as yet had made the air
Be music with your name; yet why
That asking look? that yearning sigh?
That sense of promise every where?
Beloved! flew your spirit by?

As when a mother doth explore
The rose-mark on her long-lost child,
I met, I loved you, maiden mild!
As whom I long bad loved before—
So deeply had I been beguiled.

You stood before me like a thought,
A DREAM REMEMBERED IN A DREAM.

We have not in general been greatly delighted with Coleridge's sonnets: his little poems, under that denomination, want the easy, graceful, mellifluous flow of the true sonnet. There is one, however, "composed on a journey homeward, the author having received intelligence of the birth of a son," which we regard as peculiarly excellent; possessing infinite sweetness, tenderness, and beauty; and its companion — the one by which it is immediately followed — addressed "to a friend who asked how I felt when the nurse first presented my infant to me," and commencing thus, is scarcely its inferior:—

Charles! my slow heart was only sad, when first
I scanned that face of feeble Infancy:
For dimly on my thoughtful spirit burst
All I had been, and all my child might be!

The former we must present entire:—

Oft o'er my brain does that strange fancy roll
Which makes the present (while the flash doth last)
Seem a mere semblance of some unknown past,
Mixed with such feelings, as perplex the soul
Self-questioned in her sleep; and some have said.
We lived, eve yet this robe of flesh we wore.

O my sweet baby! when I reach my door,
If heavy looks should tell me thou art dead
(As sometimes, through excess of hope, I fear)
I think that I should struggle to believe
Thou wert a spirit to this nether sphere
Sentenced for some more venial crime to grieve;
Didst scream, then spring to meet heaven's quick reprieve,
While we wept idly o'er thy little bier!

Many of our bard's descriptive passages are exceedingly fine; parts, in particular, of the Destiny of Nations — The Picture, or the Lover's Resolution — Frost at Midnight — A Day Dream, &c. There is in almost every line he writes so much of genuine home feeling, that we enter fully into all the poet's joys and sorrows, loves, hopes, and fears. There is, too, such a joyous freshness of the heart in his verse, that, to read it, makes our pulse beat quicker and fuller, with all the "riant" hilarity and buoyant spiritedness of early youth:—

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, woful 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 conceit—
It cannot be, that Thou art gone!
Thy vesper bell bath not yet toll'd—
And thou wert aye a masker bold!

What strange disguise hast thou put on,
To make believe that thou art gone?
I see these locks in silvery slips,
This drooping gait, this altered size:
But SPRINGTIDE 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.

What a lively and vigorous image arrests our attention in the last of the following lines:—

—in the Dell
Of Peace and mild Equality to dwell,
Where Toil shall call the charmer Health his bride,
And Laughter tickle Plenty's ribless side!

Never was an epithet more happily applied than that of "ribless" to the side of plenty!

Yet, amidst all his kindly feelings, and gentle overflowings of the heart, none can be, when occasion demands, more keenly, more bitterly satirical than Coleridge; instance his "Fire, Famine, and Slaughter," and "The Devil's Thoughts." However, of the first three stanzas of the latter, and also of the ninth, Southey was the author; and, respecting the former, it is no more than justice to Mr. Coleridge that we should quote his apology. "I do not attempt to justify my past self, young as I then was; but as little as I would now write a similar poem, so far was I even then from imagining, that the lines would be taken as more or less than a sport of fancy. At all events, if I know my own heart, there was never a moment in my existence in which I should have been more ready, had Mr. Pitt's person been in hazard, to interpose my own body, and defend his life at the risk of my own." We give the writer full credit for the truth of his assertion.

Into the consideration of Coleridge's dramatic powers — the examination of his tragedy of Remorse; Zapolya, a Christmas Tale; and his noble translation of Schiller's Wallenstein, which, indeed, he has made completely his own — it is impossible for us now to enter: they must, perforce, constitute the material of another paper. In the concluding paragraph of his preface, the bard has pronounced the best eulogy upon his own character — has beautifully developed the good, the generous, the benevolent feelings of his heart-feelings which pervade almost every page of his works: — "I expect neither profit or general fame by my writings; but I consider myself as having been amply repaid without either. Poetry has been to me its own exceeding great reward: it has soothed my afflictions; it has multiplied and refined my enjoyments; it has endeared solitude; and it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me." Here, for the present, we close.