1823 ENGLISH POETRY 1579-1830: SPENSER AND THE TRADITION

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Anonymous, "Portraitures of Modern Poets: S. T. Coleridge Esq." Ladies' Monthly Museum S3 17 (April-May 1823) 203-07, 256-59.



The general characteristics of this author are, obscurity and incompleteness; nothing leaves his hand finished, and the use of the pruning-knife appears to be quite unknown to him. He has written, comparatively speaking, very little; for though he has been a quarter of a century before the public, he has presented it with only three volumes of poetry, from which one might be selected that would reflect honor upon any name. Mr. C. has been written up; but it is not the puff of Lord Byron that can sanctify the quantity of chaff that envelopes the few flowers in "Christabel;" nonsense will be nonsense, call it what you please. This writer seems emulous of reviving the exploded school of Cowley, and fetters his poetical imagination by crude research in the mysteries of nature and man, without improving his verse or edifying his readers. His "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," is an original and remarkable production, shewing the author to be a being of fancy, imagination, and talent, but little judgment; it is disfigured by absurdities and interlarded with vulgarisms; and though a poem that few writers would be zealous of having written, it is one which few indeed would be capable of writing. What picture could fancy draw more terrific than the following—

'Twas night, calm night, the moon was high;
The dead men stood together.
All stood together on the deck,
For a charnel dungeon fitter:
All fixed on me their stoney eyes,
That in the noon did glitter.
The pang, the curse with which they died,
Had never passed away;
I could not draw my eyes from theirs,
Nor turn them up to pray.

"The Foster-Mother's Tale," is, perhaps, the best thing, as a whole, our author ever composed; it has simplicity and brevity to recommend it, and it opens a wild field to conjecture, a great point in fiction, and one that wins more upon the hearts of young readers than any other qualification. Mr. C. has unfortunately, in some of his other productions, mistaken obscurity for it.

In describing vulgar manners and persons, Mr. C. unfortunately descends too much, and clothes his poem from their vocabularies, as in his tale of "Recantation." This gentleman is the author of a small poem, entitled "The Devil's Thoughts," which we have never seen, but doubt not they are highly instructive and correct, for Mr. C. seems well acquainted, at least, with his satanic majesty's qualifications, for in his "Ancient Mariner," he tells us, "the devil knows how to row" — and in "Christabel," that he amuses himself in bell-ringing; — these are among the many other absurdities in his works, that in another would probably be designated by a harsher term.

The fragment of "The Three Graves," we regard as a beautiful specimen of the ballad style: why has not Mr. C. thought proper to complete the tale, and not oblige us to read prefatory prose 'ere we can understand the verse? The simplicity with which the wife speaks of her unhappiness, through the cruelty of her mother, is exquisitely pathetic—

My sister may not visit us,
My mother says her nay:
Oh! Edward, you are all to me:
I wish, for your sake, I could be
More lifesome and more gay.

But the moral had been much improved by subjecting the mother also to some dreadful calamity. Crabbe would not have omitted this.

The only amusement to be derived from the "Ode to the Rain," is in the quaintness of his description of the cause of it: these are his words — "Composed before day-light, on the morning appointed for the departure of a very worthy, but not very pleasant visitor; 'whom it was feared the rain might detain.'" To give some idea of this author's love of fragment writing, we copy these lines which were intended to have formed part of a long poem—

And first a landscape rose,
More wild, and waste, and desolate, than where
The white bear, drifting on a field of ice,
Howls to her sundered cubs with piteous rage
And savage agony.

The "singularly wild and beautiful poem" of "Christabel," like Wordsworth's "Idiot-boy," commences with the owls, and after an ejaculatory stanza proceeds to describe — "A toothless mastiff bitch," who was undoubtedly a most excellent watch-dog, as she was in the habits of giving at midnight "Sixteen short howls, not over loud," which is, (mark her precision,) "Four for the quarters, and twelve for the hour." It then describes the midnight ramble of "the lovely lady Christabel," who hears sundry moans in the wood, "a furlong from the castle-gate," and

There she sees a damsel bright,
Drest in a silken robe of white;
Her neck, her feet, her arms, were bare,
And the jewels disordered in her hair,
I guess 'twas "frightful" there to see
A lady so "richly clad" as she
(N.B. Without shoes or stockings; but let that pass.)
Beautiful exceedingly.

This lady tells a direful tale, and Christabel invites her home, and as they crossed the court, "the mastiff old, an angry moan did make," upon which Mr. C. puts the following ingenious query, which be repeats four lines afterwards — "And what can all the mastiff-bitch?" — certainly not the tooth-ache, for teeth she had none; but here the mystery thickens. Geraldine, the stranger lady, is seized in the bed-chamber with a kind of mystical fit, at the mention of Christabel's mother, and at length she desires Christabel to unrobe herself, as she, Geraldine, must pray ere she goes to bed; why the heroine does not pray too, we are not told. Shortly afterwards the lady unbound

The cincture from beneath her breast,
Her silken robe and inner vest,
Dropp'd to her feet, and full in view
Behold! her bosom and half her side—
A sight to dream of, not to tell,
And she is to sleep by Christabel.

No clue is given to the unfortunate reader as to the formation of this lady, farther than that it is "the mark of her shame and the seal of her sorrow." She twines Christabel to her bosom, which gives her a spell over her utterance, that the heroine can never reveal what she has seen. In the morning she introduces the stranger to Sir Leoline, (her father) who discovers her to he the daughter of the friend of his early years: here the beautiful passage follows which has been so often quoted, commencing with "Alas! they had been friends in youth." All Sir Leoline's affection for his friend revives for his daughter, and he orders "Bard Bracey," to go to the domain of Lord Roland, and apprize him of his daughter's safety; the bard wishes to delay the journey on account of a prophetic dream, which he thus recounts,

In my sleep I saw that dove,
That gentle bird, whom thou dost love,
And call'st by thine own daughter's name,...
Flutt'ring, and uttering fearful moan,
When, lo! I saw a bright green snake
Coil'd around its wings and neck,
And with the dove it heaves and stirs,
Swelling its neck as she swelled hers!

Immediately after this recital, Geraldine "looks askance at Christabel."

A snake's small eye, blinks dull and sly,
And the lady's eyes they shrunk in her head,
"Each shrunk up to a serpent's eye,"
And with somewhat of malice, but more of dread,
At Christabel she look'd askance!
One moment, and the sight was fled.

Christabel, though spellbound, intreats her father to send Geraldine away; he grows enraged at her inhospitality, and

Turning from his own sweet maid,
The aged knight, Sir Leoline,
Led forth the Lady Geraldine!

This is the sum of all that is yet published of "Christabel;" there is indeed a conclusion to the second part given, containing about twenty lines; but if Mr. C. can discover any meaning or connexion in them, we congratulate him upon the quickness of his apprehension, and can only lament the obtusity of our own perceptions.

With "Kubla Khan" we are in the same predicament, — there are pleasing lines that convey certain abstract ideas o our imaginations; but what it means, taken as a whole, we cannot even conjecture. It is a literary curiosity, as Mr. C. actually composed these lines in his sleep; but though that circumstance may render them an object of regard to his friends, it forms no excuse for his having given them to the public — he did not publish them in his sleep too.

Another fragment, entitled "The Pains of Sleep," commences with the following piece of information from the author himself, therefore we can have no doubt of its authenticity—

'Ere on my bed my limbs I lay,
It hath not been my use to pray.

How would Lord Byron have been lashed for admitting as much! This piece contains some good poetry, bet it is mystical and conclusive....

It is with much pleasure that we turn to the tragedy of "Remorse," certainly our author's finest performance. This tragedy, written in 1797, was not produced till 1813, and in his preface he has stated the reasons, which are not very honorable to the feelings of a certain individual. The first scene, which developes foregone circumstances, is tedious; the second, perhaps more so, for Mr. C. gives most of his characters orations, instead of speeches; but the entrance of Alhadra is marked with much spirit; she is by far the best drawn character in the piece, and contains not a little originality; she is a tigress in her rage, and as ardent in her love; her description of her own passive, and her husband's active, courage is excellently given; and perhaps this speech is as fine a touch of enduring affection as any modern dramatist can boast.—

VALDEZ.
Return with us and take refreshment.

ALHADRA.
Not till my husband's free! I may not do it.

Immediately afterwards, her nature comes over her heart, and she exclaims—

These fell inquisitors! these sons of blood!
As I came on, his face so maddened me,
That ever and anon I clutch'd my dagger,
And half unsheathed it.
And as he walk'd along the narrow path,
Close by the mountain's edge, my soul grew eager:
'Twas with hard toil; I made myself remember,
That his familiars held my babes and husband.
To have leapt upon him with a tiger's plunge,
And hurled him down the rugged precipice,
"Oh! it had been most meet!"

Her description of her sufferings in the inquisition are energetically beautiful, and awfully sublime. The other characters are not so happily drawn; Isidore, for instance, is an unnatural character: he who could become a hired assassin under any circumstance, would certainly not hesitate to "play the Sorcerer," to get his patron wedded to the object of his wishes. Alvar is also too good; we lose the dignity of manhood in his extravagant forgiveness to a brother who has wronged him, and her he loved (a much greater injury) so deeply. Indeed Ordonio and Alvar are mere prototypes of Osmond and Reginald in The Castle Spectre; this is perhaps not the only hint Mr. C. had from Lewis. — Ordonio's self-expositions are by far too frequent, and unless we are to suppose Valdez superannuated and Teresa an idiot, we are at a loss to conceive how he escapes detection. — Some of his speeches, where he endeavours to reason away his crime, are well written—

ORDONIO.
Say, "I had laid a body in the sun,"
Well! in a month there swarm forth from the corse,
A thousand, nay, ten thousand sentient beings,
In place of that one man. Say, I had kill'd him!
Yet who shall tell me, that each one and all
Of these ten thousand lives is not as happy,
As that one life, which being pushed aside
Made room for these unnumber'd.

But his scenes are too much interlarded with abstruse reflections and metaphysical deductions, which ill accord with the state of his heart or mind; the consequence of which is, that a considerable portion of the drama is spoken aside, — a very great defect, especially in representation.

The cavern scene between Ordonio and Isidore, though partaking much of mystery, is admirably written, and our author has shewn his judgment in letting the chasm remain out of sight. Scenic display could not equal our conception, nor would the exhibition of Ordonio flinging Isidore down be more effective than the struggling that is heard without, and Ordonio's subsequent speech—

"I have hurld'd him down the chasm!"
Treason for treason.

We forbear much quotation from a work so well known, but Alhadra's description of her husband's death is too beautiful for omission.—

ALHADRA.
This night I went forth from my house, and left
His children all asleep, and he was living;
And I returned and found them all asleep,
But he had perished....

Sleep on, poor babes! not one of you doth know
That he is fatherless — a desolate orphan!
Why should we wake them? Can an infant's arm
Revenge his murder?...

This night your chieftain arm'd himself,
And hurried from me. But I followed him
At distance till I saw him enter — there—

NAOMI.
The cavern?

ALHADRA.
Yes, the mouth of yonder cavern.
After a while, I saw the son of Valdez
Rush by with flaming torch; he likewise entered.
There was another and a longer pause;
And once methought I heard the clash of swords!
And soon the son of Valdez re-appeared:
He "flung his torch towards the morn in sport,
And seem'd as he were mirthful!" I stood listening,
Impatient for the footsteps of my husband!

NAOMI.
Thou called'st him?

ALHADRA.
No, no. I did not dare call Isidore,
Lest I should hear no answer....

Oh! Heav'n! I heard a groan, and followed it,
And yet another groan, which guided me
Into a strange recess — and there was light,
A hideous light; his torch lay on the ground;
Its flame burnt dimly o'er a chasm's brink.
I spake; and whilst I spake, a feeble groan
Came from that chasm! it was his last! his death-groan!
I stood in unimaginable trance
And agony, that cannot be remembered,
Listening with horrid "hope" to "hear a groan,"
But I had heard his last, my husband's death-groan.

The last act, the incidents of which are extremely unnatural, degenerates in dialogue; and nothing but the excellent acting of poor Rae could have made it successful at the theatre, though it will always excite admiration in the closet.

We have thus taken a view of this gentleman's works, from which we collect the author to be a man of singular ideas, considerable genius, much versatility, and great indolence. His curious choice of subjects, his manner of treating them, and his many different kinds of composition, prove the three first; and the circumstance of the greatest number of his pieces being fragments, proves the latter. We know not how to account for the want of connexion between one passage and another in a single page of his poems, but by supposing that they are written "by starts and fits," unless, like poor Wycherley, he forgets at his fifth line the subject of his first.

A curious anecdote is told of Mr. C., and as we have no doubt of the fact, we here give it insertion. — In his youth he is said to have left his friends and enlisted as a common soldier; that whilst quartered at some country town, a gentleman gave a lecture on some subject intimately connected with literature; Coleridge was present, and after the lecture, differed with many in opinion as to its merits, and undertook to deliver a better one the following evening on the same subject, which he actually did to the admiration of a numerous audience, who came prejudiced against the presumption of this oratorical son of Mars. A reconciliation with his friends soon afterwards took place, and Mr. C. set about attaining laurels by another science beside that of military tactics. — Mr. Coleridge has, within a year or two, delivered lectures on poetry, &c. in London.

We trust that this gentleman will yet give a finished production to the world; he has the requisites for forming a great poet, and it is only because he has not well employed them, that his works have not stamped him with that title. Let him avoid the puerilities of Messrs. Wordsworth and Co., and if he must imitate the older writers, select better models than Cowley, Crashaw, or Donne, and he cannot fail of handing his name down to posterity, if not as the brightest luminary, at least as an ornament and an honor to the age in which he lived.