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, it has given me the habit of wishing to discover the good and the beautiful in all that meets and surrounds me." These eloquent and impressive words prefaced a book of poems bearing date "May, 1797," and up to a summer morning in 1834, when, "under the pressure of long and painful disease," he yielded to the universal conqueror, and joined the beatified spirits who praise God without let or hindrance from earth, the comfort and consolation thence derived had brought continual happiness to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Yet was the joy of his heart and mind drawn from a far higher source. He lived and died a Christian, seeking salvation "through faith in Jesus, the Mediator," and earnestly and devoutly teaching "thanksgiving and adoring love," ending his last will and testament with these memorable words — "HIS STAFF AND HIS ROD ALIKE COMFORT ME."
It is a rare privilege to have known such a man. The influence of one so truly good as well as great cannot have been transitory. It is a joy to me now — nearly forty years after his departure. I seem to hear the melodious voice, and look upon the gentle, gracious, and loving countenance of "the old man eloquent," as I write this Memory, a memory of him who,—
in bewitching words, with happy heart,
Didst chaunt the vision of that Ancient Man,
The bright-eyed Mariner, and rueful woes
Didst utter of the Lady Christabel.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born at St. Mary Ottery, on the 21st October, 1772, and was thus a native of my own beautiful county — the county of Devon. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, Vicar of Ottery, and head master of Henry VIII.'s Free Grammar School — "the King's School" — was a man of considerable learning, and also of much eccentricity. Many singular stories are told of him: among others, that he occasionally addressed his peasant congregation in Hebrew.
Coleridge was a solitary child, the youngest of a large family. Of weakly health, "huffed away from the enjoyments of muscular activity; driven from life in motion to life in thought and sensation," he had "the simplicity and docility of a child, but not the child's habits," and early sought solace and companionship in books. In The Friend he informs us he had read a volume of "The Arabian Nights" before his fifth birthday. Through the interest of Judge Buller, one of his father's pupils, he obtained a presentation to Christ's Hospital, and was placed there on the 18th July, 1782. Christ's Hospital — the Bluecoat School — was in 1782 very different from what it is in 1870. The hideous dress is now the only relic of the old management that made "such boys as were friendless, depressed, moping, half-starved, objects of reluctant and degrading charity." There is little doubt that the treatment he received induced a weakness of stomach that was the parent of much after-misery. The head master was the Rev. James Bowyer. Coleridge writes of him: — He was "a sensible, though a severe master," to whom "lute, harp, and lyre, muses and inspirations, Pegasus, Parnassus, and Hippocrene, were abominations." De Quincey considers his great idea was to "flog;" "the man knouted his way through life from bloody youth up to truculent old age." And Gillman relates that to such a pitch did he carry this habit, that once when a lady called upon him on "a visit of intercession," and was told to go away, but lingered at the door, the master exclaimed, "Bring that woman here, and I'll flog her!" Leigh Hunt thus describes the tyrant of the school: — "His eye was close and cruel;" "his hands hung out of the sleeves of his coat as if ready for execution." He states that Coleridge, when he heard of the man's death, said "it was lucky the cherubim who took him to heaven were nothing but faces and wings, or he would infallibly have flogged them by the way."
Among his schoolfellows were Charles Lamb and, later, Leigh Hunt. The friendship with Lamb, then commenced, endured unchangingly through life. In one of the pleasantest of his essays he recalls to memory "the evenings when we used to sit and speculate at our old Salutation Tavern upon pantisocracy and golden days to come on earth." Wordsworth told Judge Coleridge that many of his uncle's sonnets were written from the "Cat and Salutation," where Coleridge had "imprisoned himself for some time;" and Talfourd tells us it was there Lamb and Coleridge used to meet, talking of poets and poetry, or, as Lamb says, "beguiling the cares of life with poetry,
Our lonely path to cheer, as travellers use,
With merry tale, quaint song, or roundelay."
Yet full draughts of knowledge Coleridge certainly took in at Christ's Hospital. Before his fifteenth year he "had translated the eight hymns of Synesius from the Greek into English anacreontics;" he became captain of the school; and in learning soon outstripped all competitors. "From eight to eighteen," he writes, "I was a playless day-dreamer, clumsy, slovenly, heedless of dress, and careless as to personal appearance, treated with severity by an unthinking master, yet ever luxuriating in books, wooing the muse, and wedded to verse."
At the age of eighteen, on the 7th of February, 1790, after much discomfort and misery, he left Christ's Hospital for Jesus College, Cambridge. His fellow-scholars even then anticipated for him the fame which many of them lived to see. "The friendly cloisters and happy groves of quiet, ever-honoured Jesus College" he quitted without a degree, although he obtained honours — poetical honours, that is to say. His reading was too desultory; in mathematics he made no way; there was, consequently, little chance of the University providing him with an income, and he had to take his chance in the world. During his residence at Cambridge occurred that romantic episode with which all readers are familiar. Having come up to London greatly dispirited, on the 3rd of December, 1793, he enlisted in the 15th Light Dragoons, under the name of Silas Tomkin Cumberbatch. The story is told in various ways. Joseph Cottle, who professes to gather the facts from several "scraps" supplied by Coleridge at various times, infers that he enlisted because he was crossed in love. He made, of course, a bad soldier, and a worse rider. He did not long remain in the army. According to Cottle, he was standing sentry when two officers passed who were discussing one of the plays of Euripides. Coleridge, touching his cap, "corrected their Greek." Another account is that one of the officers of the troop discovered some Latin lines which Coleridge had pinned up to the door of a stable. The discovery of his scholarship was made, however; his discharge was soon arranged; and he was restored to the University. Miss Mitford, in her "Recollections," states that the arrangements for his discharge took place at her father's house at Reading, where the 15th was then quartered, and adds that it was much facilitated by one of the servants who "waited at the table" agreeing to enlist in his stead.
What motive swayed the judgment, or what stormy "impulse drove the passionate despair of Coleridge into quitting Jesus College, Cambridge, was never clearly or certainly made known to the very nearest of his friends." Dr Quincey, who writes this, adds that he enlisted "in a frenzy of unhappy feeling at the rejection he met with from the lady of his choice." In 1836 I published in the New Monthly Magazine an article entitled "A letter from Wales by the late S. T. Coleridge." It was addressed to Mr. Marten, a clergyman in Dorsetshire. Coleridge being at Wrexham, standing at the window of the inn, there passed by, to his utter astonishment, a young lady, "Mary Evans, quam afflictum et perdite amabam — yea, even to anguish." "I sickened," he adds, "and well-nigh fainted, but instantly retired. God bless her! Her image is in the sanctuary of my bosom, and never can it be torn thence but with the strings that grapple my heart to life." May not this incident, which seems to have been unknown to his biographers, supply a key to the motive of his enlistment, as surmised by both Cottle and De Quincey?
After his return to Cambridge he formed, with Southey, the scheme of emigrating to America. Southey, in a letter to Montgomery long afterwards, thus briefly explains it: — "We planned an Utopia of our own, to be founded in the wilds of America, upon the basis of common property, each labouring for all — a PANTISOCRACY — a republic of reason and virtue." And Joseph Cottle writes: — "In 1794 Robert Lovell, a clever young Quaker, who had married a Miss Fricker, informed me that a few friends of his from Oxford and Cambridge, with himself, were about to sail to America, and on the banks of the Susquehana to form a 'social colony,' in which there was to be a community of property, and where all that was selfish was to be proscribed." Two of the "patriots" were introduced to the more prudent bookseller: one of them was Coleridge, the other Southey. It was speedily ascertained that their combined funds, instead of sufficing to "freight a ship," would not have purchased changes of clothing; and very soon the Pantisocratic trio were necessitated to borrow a little money from the bookseller to pay their lodgings, which were then at 48, College Street, Bristol (the house is still standing, and remains in nearly its original condition). The scheme was, of course, abandoned, and Coleridge and Southey married the two sisters of Mr. Lovell's wife, resolved to settle down, for the present at least, at Bristol, with the intention of devoting themselves to literature.
The shades of Chatterton, Southey, Coleridge, Wordsworth, Lamb, Davy, Cottle, Lloyd, and of many others who are "famous for all time," consecrate the streets of Bristol. A dark cloud has for ever settled over the proud church of the Canynges, although a monument recalls the memory of the "marvellous boy" whose birthplace is but a stone's throw off — whose grave is past finding out among the accumulated rubbish of a graveyard in London. In Bristol great Southey was born, and there (in the city jail) Savage died, his grave, in one of the churchyards, yet unmarked by a memorial stone. Here immortal Wordsworth first saw himself in print; here Humphry Davy had a vision of a lamp of greater worth than that of the fabled Aladdin; here dwelt the profound essayist, John Foster; here Robert Hall glorified a Nonconformist pulpit; here Hannah More taught to the young imperishable lessons of virtue, order, piety, and truth; here the sisters, Jane and Anna Maria Porter, dwelt in early youth and in venerated age; and here the artists Lawrence, Bird, Danby, Pyne, and Muller earned their first loaves of dry bread. But Bristol was never the nourishing mother of genius; the birds from her nest, as soon as full-fledged, went forth — thenceforward uncared for; they obtained no affection, and manifested no attachment. Here and there a few lines of tributary verse, and a gracious memory, bear misty records of friendships formed and services accorded in the great city of commercial prosperities; but Bristol has assuredly not honoured, neither has she been honoured by, the worthies who in a sense belong to her, and of whom all the rest of the world is rightly and justly proud.
While at college Coleridge imbibed Socinian opinions, and his mind became "terribly unsettled." In his Monody on the Death of Chatterton ("sweet harper of time-shrouded minstrelsy") he thus indicated his sad and perilous forebodings:—
I dare no longer on the sad theme muse,
Lest kindred woes persuade a kindred doom.
He tells us that before his fifteenth year he had bewildered himself in metaphysics and theological controversy, "and found no end, in wandering mazes lost." One of the experiments as to his future was to become a preacher. He was looked upon by the Bristolians as the rising star of Unitarianism, and he did actually, on a few occasions, preach. He preached indeed, but in so odd a dress and so out of the usual routine, that it was quite clear, as a minister, "he would not do." Yet Hazlitt thus describes one of the sermons of the "half-inspired speaker:" — "I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres. Poetry and philosophy had met together; truth and genius had embraced under the eye, and with the sanction, of Religion."
It was not long, however, before he struggled through the slough of Socinianism, and was freed from the trammels of infidelity. Cottle records how "he professed the deepest conviction of the truths of Revelation, of the fall of man, of the divinity of Christ, and redemption alone through His blood," and had heard him say, in argument with a Socinian minister, "Sir, you give, up so much, that the little you retain of Christianity is not worth keeping." He is also represented as saying of Socinians on another occasion, that "if they were to offer to construe the will of their neighbour as they did that of their Maker, they would be scouted out of society;" and he eagerly protested against the theory that there was "no spiritual world, and no spiritual life in a spiritual world." He had "skirted the howling deserts of infidelity," but he had found a haven — one that sheltered him in pain, in trouble, even in the agonies of self-reproach. He became a thorough Christian, and ever after, in all his speakings and writings, was the advocate of the Redeemer, proclaiming in a memorable letter to his godson, Adam Steinmetz Kinnaird, and on many other opportunities, that "the greatest of all blessings, and the most ennobling of all privileges, was to be indeed a Christian." This passage is from his last will and testament (dated September 17, 1829). A few of the small things of earth he had to leave he bequeathed to Ann Gillman, "the wife of my dear friend, my love for whom, and my sense of unremitting goodness and never-wearied kindness to me, I hope, and humbly trust, will follow me as a part of my abiding being in that state into which I hope to rise, through the merits and mediation, and by the efficacious power, of the Son of God incarnate, in the blessed Jesus, whom I believe in my heart, and confess with my month, to have been from everlasting the way and the truth, and to have become man, that for fallen and sinful men He might be the resurrection and the life."
In 1796 he started a publication which he called the Watchman, the motto of which was, "That all might know the truth, and that the truth might make us free." The first number was issued on the 5th of February, 1796, to be published every eighth day, at the price of fourpence. It soon died, involving its editor in a heavy debt, which, happily, a friend discharged. In the "Biographia Literaria" there is a lively account of his travels in search of subscribers, mingled with some painful reminiscences of "those days of shame and regret," the degrading anxieties of his canvass. He was reminded by one to whom he applied, that twelve shillings a year was a large sum to be bestowed on one person, when there were so many objects of charity; a noble lord, whose name had been given him as a subscriber, reproved him for impudence in directing his pamphlets to him; a rich tallow-chandler was "as great a one as any man in Brummagem for liberty and them sort of things," but begged to be excused; while an opulent cotton-dealer in Manchester was "overrun with these articles," and another had no time for reading, and no money to spare." At the ninth number he "dropped the work," and had the satisfaction of seeing his servant light his fires with the surplus stock, recording the event in this expressive line — "O Watchman, thou hast watched in vain!"
But, in truth, he soon disgusted all his Jacobin supporters by attacking "modern patriotism," and raising a warning voice against it. Like "Balaam, the son of Beor," he blessed where he was employed to curse. Instead of advocating infidelity and the freedom that France was then brewing in her infernal caldron, French morals, and French philosophy, he "avowed his conviction that national education, and a concurring spread of the Gospel, were the indispensable condition of any true political amelioration." Loyalty is now the easiest of all our duties — thank God! It was not so when Coleridge, Southey, and Wordsworth were Republicans. While residing at Stowey, and having Wordsworth for his constant companion, Coleridge and his friend were suspected of being Jacobins; they were actually placed under surveillance, and a spy was ordered to watch their movements. They were guilty of talking to each other "real Hebrew Greek," and of wandering about the hills with papers in their hands; but nothing more formidable being urged, they remained at large.
The help of Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood — worthy sons of a great father, honoured be the name! — by settling on Coleridge an annuity of £150, placed him at comparative ease. "Thenceforward," he writes, "instead of troubling others with my own crude notions, I was better employed in attempting to store my own head with the wisdom of others." By that help "I was enabled to finish my education in Germany." In September, 1798, he sailed with Wordsworth and his sister from Great Yarmouth to Hamburg. He was but fourteen months absent, and returned to London in November, 1799. The fruits of his journey were seen in his translation of "Wallenstein," which he wrote at a lodging in Buckingham Street, Strand. His travels in Germany, entitled "Fragments of a Journey over the Brocken," &c., he gave to me in 1828, for publication in the Amulet (one of the then popular "Annuals," of which I was editor from the year 1825 to the year 1836); they were subsequently reprinted by Mr. Gillman, in his Life of Coleridge. They contained the well-known poem — "I stood on Brocken's sov'ran height." He was soon afterwards engaged in the literary department of the Morning Post. Subsequently he visited Malta, Rome, Naples, and other parts of Italy, from which, however, he made a rapid exit, an order for his arrest having been sent, it is said, by Buonaparte, in consequence of his writings in the Morning Post.
The Friend, another literary venture, was published weekly; it reached its twenty-seventh number, and, like the Watchman, ceased from want of support. It was unfortunately printed at Penrith, and Coleridge was actually induced to set up a printer there, to buy and lay in a stock of type, paper, &c. The result was assured; the printer failed, and Coleridge had to sustain a severe pecuniary loss.
The circumstances that kept Coleridge apart from his wife during the greater portion of his life form one of those hidden mysteries into which it is not our business to inquire. Coleridge was married to Miss Sara Fricker on the 4th of October, 1795, at the church of St. Mary Redcliff Bristol. There is abundant testimony to the amiable qualities and pure character of Mrs. Coleridge. De Quincey, perhaps, is the best authority on the subject: — "She was in all circumstances a virtuous wife and a conscientious mother." Moreover, she was by no means common-place: the affection borne for her by her sister's husband, Southey, and her long and close companionship with the high-souled Laureate, would suffice as evidence on that head. De Quincey records that, wishing her daughter to learn Italian, and in her retirement at Keswick finding it impossible to procure the aid of a master, she resolutely set herself to the task of acquiring the language, that she might teach it to her child; and Cottle prints a poem written by her of more than ordinary merit. I received the following note concerning Mrs. Coleridge from one who knew her well and loved her dearly: — "She was a woman of rare qualities, very clever and accomplished, witty, and possessed of taste and judgment in no common measure; extremely industrious, labouring for the mental and bodily needs of her children through a long life. Frugality in her reached to a great virtue. She was of transparent truthfulness, in thought, word, and deed. Her unusually clear statements were very striking both in writing and speaking. She probably withheld her 'candid admiration of her husband's intellectual powers,' which she undoubtedly was quite capable of appreciating, for she was impatient of what she conceived to be his impractical habits in matters of daily life, and that by which it must be clothed and fed. I have heard her speak sadly on that point; and I have often heard her speak most emphatically of his purity, of his uncommon gifts, and of his unlikeness to ordinary men. They took a pride in each other to the last. The mystery of their long separation can better be solved by the very common-place facts of difficulties in matters of L. S. D. than in any of the guesses that meet one on every side. Had Samuel Taylor Coleridge been a rich — or even moderately well-off — man, he and his wife would have undoubtedly ended their days under the same roof. An unromantic explanation, but nevertheless the true one. They now rest side by side in Highgate Churchyard."
The three children of that marriage have all been, or are, distinguished in the world of letters: The eldest was Hartley Coleridge, who died young, but not until he had given to the world many poems that place his name among the poets of the century, giving him rank, indeed, beside his great father. He was tenderly beloved in life by the Laureate, Robert Southey, who alludes to him in "The Doctor," as his "wife's nephew;" and by William Wordssvorth, who had depicted him, when a child, as one "whose genius from afar was brought;" and who, when his mortal remains were to be laid in Grasmere Churchyard, selected the place for his burial close to his own allotted resting-place, saying, "Hartley, I know, would like to lie near me." Sara, the only daughter, married her cousin, H. N. Coleridge, and edited some of her great father's works, inheriting, indeed, much of his genius. Ample proof of this is given in her notes to the "Biographia Literaria," and the Introductory Essay to the "Aids to Reflection." Those who knew her describe her as lovely in person and in mind. Derwent Coleridge, the youngest of his children, is happily still with us, in healthy vigour. He has written a memoir, and edited the works, of his friend Mackworth Praed. He has long been recognised as a ripe scholar, and was formerly the Principal of St. Mark's College, Fulham he is now the rector of Hanwell. His name is associated with that of his brother as his biographer and editor of his writings; with that of his father as the latest editor of his principal works. He has also published works on his own account, which evince his merit as a divine and critic, and, above all, as an educationist. Thus the name of Coleridge has been continued in honour and in usefulness, and no doubt it will he so to another generation; for not long ago, a grandson, Herbert Coleridge, achieved eminence, and was called away; and there are others who are bearing it with distinction. Genius is sometimes, though not often, hereditary.
It is unnecessary to name the Right Hon. Sir John Taylor Coleridge, or his distinguished son, the present Solicitor-General, Sir John Duke Coleridge, who represents in Parliament the city of Exeter, and who has high renown as one of the soundest lawyers and most eloquent of the men of the House of Commons.
The cottage at Clevedon, near Bristol, in which the young couple went to reside, heedless of all the requirements of life, and with literally nothing "to begin life" upon, is still standing, and is one of the "lions" of the place. The village was then essentially rural; it is now a fashionable watering-place. The cottage, which the poet thus describes—
Low was our pretty cot — our tallest rose
Peeped at the chamber window;
. . . .In the open air
Our myrtles blossomed, and across the porch
Thick jasmines twined—
is now common-place enough. "The white-flowered jasmine" and the "broad-leaved myrtle" ("meet emblems they of innocence and love") no longer blossom there; but the place has a memory; for there, out of "thick-coming fancies," were planned and penned some of the sweetest and grandest poems in our language — poems that have given joy to millions, and will continue to delight as long as that language is spoken or read. It is now called "Coleridge Cottage," and is depicted in the accompanying woodcut. The Bristolians love the place for its fresh sea-breezes and airs redolent of health that come from heath-covered downs. Will no generous hand restore as well as preserve it, that thither the young and hopeful and trustful may make pilgrimage, that there the aged may think calmly over a troubled past, "And tranquil muse upon tranquillity?"
Subsequently he removed to a cottage at Allfoxden. The rent of the cottage was but seven pounds a year. William Howitt describes it as a poor place; but the nightingales sing there yet, and traces of past pleasantness may be noted; the orchard trees, and the "lime-tree bower," in which the poet thought and wrote, flourish there still.
In 1816 the wandering and unsettled ways of the poet were calmed and harmonised in the home of the Gillmans at Highgate, where the remainder of his days — nearly twenty years — were passed in entire quiet and comparative happiness. Mr. Gillman was a surgeon, and it is understood that Coleridge went to reside with him chiefly to be under his surveillance, to break himself of the fearful habit he had contracted of eating opium; a habit that grievously impaired his mind, engendered terrible self-reproach, and embittered the best years of his life. He was the guest and the beloved friend, as well as the patient, of Mr. Gillman, whose devoted attachment, with that of his estimable wife, supplied the calm contentment and seraphic peace — such as might have been the dream of the poet and the hope of the man. Honoured be the name, and reverenced the memory, of this "general practitioner," this true friend! It is recorded of Fulke Greville, the counsellor of kings, that he ordered it to be placed on his monument, as his proudest boast, that he was "The friend of Sir Philip Sidney." It is a loftier title to the gratitude of posterity, that which James Gillman claims when his tombstone records the fact that he was "The friend of S. T. Coleridge," carving also on the stone two of his dear friend's lines—
Mercy for praise, to be forgiven for fame,
He asked, and hoped through Christ — do thou the same.
Gillman died on the 1st of June, 1837, having-arranged to publish a Life of Coleridge, of which he produced but the first volume.
Coleridge's habit of taking opium was no secret. In 1816 it had already reached a fearful pitch. It had produced "during many years an accumulation of bodily suffering that wasted the frame, poisoned the sources of enjoyment, and entailed an intolerable mental load that scarcely knew cessation;" the poet himself called it "the accursed drug." In 1814 Cottle wrote him a strong protest against this terrible and ruinous habit, entreating him to renounce it. Coleridge said in reply, "You have poured oil into the raw and festering wound of an old friend, Cottle, but it is oil of vitriol." He accounts for the "accursed habit" by stating that he had taken it first to obtain relief from intense bodily suffering, and he seriously contemplated entering a private insane asylum as the surest means of its removal. His remorse was terrible and perpetual; he was "rolling rudderless," "the wreck of what he once was," "helpless and hopeless." He revealed this "dominion" to De Quincey " with a deep expression of horror at the hideous bondage." It was this "conspiracy of himself against himself" that poisoned his life. He describes it with frantic pathos as "the scourge, the curse, the one almighty blight, that had desolated his life;" the thief,
From my own nature all the natural man.
The habit was, it would seem, commenced in 1802 and if Mr. Cottle is to be credited, in 1814 he had been long accustomed to take "from two quarts of laudanum in a week to a pint a day." He did, it is said, ultimately conquer it: "there is more joy in heaven over one that repenteth, than over the ninety and nine who need no repentance."
It was during his residence with the Gillmans that I knew Coleridge. He had arranged to write for the Amulet, and circumstances warranted my often seeing him — a privilege of which I gladly availed myself. In this home at Highgate, where all even of his whims were studied with affectionate and attentive care, he preferred the quiet of home influences to the excitements of society; and although I more than once met there his friend, Charles Lamb, and other noteworthy men of whom I shall have to say something, I usually fond him, to my delight, alone. There he cultivated flowers, fed his pensioners, the birds, and wooed the little children who gamboled on the heath where he took his walks daily. I have seen him often — as Thomas Carlyle (honoured and loved among his many friends) saw him often — "on the brow of Highgate Hill, looking down on London and its smoke-tumult like a sage escaped from the inanity of life's battle, attracting towards him the thoughts of innumerable brave hearts still engaged there."
It is a beautiful view, such as can be rarely seen out of England, that which the poet had from the window of his bed-chamber. Underneath, a valley, rich in "patrician trees,'' divides the hill of Highgate from that of Hampstead. The tower of the old church at Hampstead rises above a thick wood — a dense forest it seems — although here and there a graceful villa stands out from among the dark green drapery that enfolds it. It is easy to imagine the poet often contrasting this home-scene with that of "Brocken's sov'ran height," where no "finer influence of friend or child" had greeted him, and exclaiming—
O thou queen!
Thou delegated Deity of earth,
O dear, dear England!
And what a wonderful change there is in the scene when the pilgrim to the shrine at Highgate leaves the garden, and walks a few steps beyond the elm avenue that still fronts the house! Here he looks over London, "the mighty heart" of a great free country:—
Earth hath not anything to show more fair;
Dull would he be of soul, who could pass by
A sight so touching in its majesty.
Forty years have brought houses all about the place, and shut in the prospect yet from any ascent you may see regal Windsor on one side, and Gravesend on the other — twenty miles of view, look which way you will. But when the poet dwelt there, all London was within ken a few yards from his door. The house has undergone some changes; still the garden is much as it was when I used to find the poet feeding his birds there. It has the same wall — moss-covered now — that overhangs the dell; a shady tree-walk shelters it from sun and rain; it was the poet's walk at mid-day. A venerable climber — the glycenas — was no doubt planted by the poet's hand; it was new to England when he was old, and what more likely than that his friends would have bidden him plant it where it has since flourished forty years or more? Many who visit it will say, in the words of Charles Lamb, his "fifty years old friend, without a dissension," — "What was his house is consecrated to me a chapel."
I was fortunate in sharing some of the regard of Mr. and Mrs. Gillman. After the poet's death, they gave me his inkstand (a plain inkstand of wood), which is before me as I write, and a myrtle on which his eyes were fixed as he died: it is now an aged and gnarled tree, and was long honoured in our conservatory. As we have now no conservatory, a friend more fortunate has the charge of this treasure.
One of the very few letters of Coleridge I have preserved I transcribe, as it illustrates his goodness of heart and willingness to put himself to inconvenience for others:—
"DEAR SIR," it runs, — "I received some five days ago a letter depicting the distress and urgent want of a widow and a sister, with whom, during the husband's lifetime, I was for two or three years a house-mate, and yesterday the poor lady came up herself, almost clamorously soliciting me, not indeed to assist her from my own purse — for she was previously assured that there was nothing therein — but to exert myself to collect the sum £20, which would save her from God knows what. On this hopeless task — for perhaps never man whose name had been so often in print for praise or reprobation had so low intimates as myself — I recollected that before I left Highgate for the sea-side, you had been so kind as to intimate that you considered some trifle due to me. Whatever it be, it will go some way to eke out the sum, which I have with a sick heart been all this day trotting about to make up, guinea by guinea. You will do me a real service (for my health perceptibly sinks under this unaccustomed flurry of my spirits) if you could make it convenient to enclose to me, however small the sum may be, if it amount to a bank note of any denomination, directed 'Grove, Highgate,' where I am, and expect to be any time for the next eight months. In the meantime, believe me,
S. T. C0LERIDGE.
4th December, 1828."
I find also, at the back of one of his manuscripts, the following poem, which I believe to be unpublished. I cannot discover it in any edition of his works.
LOVE'S BURIAL PLACE.
Lady. — If Love be dead—
Poet. — And I aver it.
Lady. — Tell me, Bard, where Love lies buried.
Poet. — Love lies buried where 'twas born.
O gentle dame, think it no scorn,
If in my fancy I presume.
To call the bosom poor Love's tomb,
And on that tomb to read the line—
Here lies a Love that once seemed mine,
But caught a chill, as I divine,
And died at length of a decline!
I have engraved a copy of his autograph lines, as he wrote them in Mrs. Hall's Album; they will be found too, as a note, in the "Biographia Literaria:"—
ON THE PORTRAIT OF THE BUTTERFLY, ON THE 2ND LEAF OF THIS ALBUM.
The Butterfly the ancient Grecians made
The soul's fair emblem, and its only name;
But of the soul escaped the slavish trade
Of earthly life! For in this mortal frame
Ours is the reptile's lot, much toil, much blame,
Manifold motions making little speed,
And to deform and kill the things whereon we feed!
S. T. COLERIDGE.
30th April, 1830.
All who had the honour of the poet's friendship or acquaintance speak of the marvellous gift which gave to this illustrious man almost a character of inspiration. Montgomery describes the poetry of Coleridge as like electricity, "flashing at rapid intervals with the utmost intensity of effect," and contrasts it with that of Wordsworth, like galvanism, "not less powerful, but rather continuous than sudden in its wonderful influences." Wilson, in the "Noctes," writes thus: "Wind him up, and away he goes, discoursing most eloquent music, without a discord, full, ample, inexhaustible, serious, and divine;" and in another place, "He becomes inspired by his own silver voice, and pours out wisdom like a sea." Wordsworth speaks of him "as quite an epicure in sound." The liveliest and truest image he could give of Coleridge's talk was that of "a majestic river, the sound or sight of whose course you caught at intervals, which was sometimes concealed by forests, sometimes lost in sand, then came flashing out, broad and distinct, then again took a turn which your eye could not follow, yet you knew and felt that it was the same river." The painter Haydon makes note of his "lazy luxury of poetical outpouring;" and Rogers ("Table Talk") is reported to have said, "One morning, breakfasting with me, he talked for three hours without intermission, so admirably, that I wished every word he uttered had been written down;" but he does not quote a single sentence of all the poet said. And a writer in the Quarterly Review expresses his belief that nothing is too high for the grasp of his conversation, nothing too low; it glanced from earth to heaven, from heaven to earth, with a speed and a splendour, an ease and a power, that almost seemed inspired." De Quincey said that he had "the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and the most comprehensive, that has yet existed amongst men." Of Coleridge, Shelley writes:—
All things he seemed to understand,
Of old or new, at sea or land,
Save his own soul, which was a mist.
The wonderful eloquence of his conversation can be comprehended only by those who have heard him speak — "linked sweetness long drawn out;" it was sparkling at times, and at times profound; but the melody of his voice, the impressive solemnity of his manner, the radiant glories of his intellectual countenance, bore off, as it were, the thoughts of the listener from his discourse, who rarely carried away any of the gems that fell from the poet's lips.
I have listened to him more than once for above an hour, of course without putting in a single word; I would as soon have attempted a song while a nightingale was singing. There was rarely much change of countenance; his face, when I knew him, was overladen with flesh, and its expression impaired; yet to me it was so tender, and gentle, and gracious, and loving, that I could have knelt at the old man's feet almost in adoration. My own hair is white now; yet I have much the same feeling as I had then, whenever the form of the venerable man rises in memory before me. Yet I cannot recall — and I believe could not recall at the time, so as to preserve as a cherished thing in my remembrance — a single sentence of the many sentences I heard him utter. In his "Table Talk" there is a world of wisdom, but that is only a collection of scraps, chancegathered. If any left his presence unsatisfied, it resulted rather from the superabundance than the paucity of the feast. And probably there has never been an author who was less of an egotist: it was never of himself he talked; he was always under the influence of that divine precept, "It is more blessed to give than to receive."
I can recall many evening rambles with him over the high lands that look down on London; but the memory I cherish most is linked with a crowded street, where the clumsy and the coarse jostled the old man eloquent, as if he had been earthy, of the earth. It was in the Strand: he pointed out to me the window of a room in the office of the Morning Post where he had consumed much midnight oil; and then for half an hour he talked of the sorrowful joy he had often felt when, leaving the office as day was dawning, he heard the song of a caged lark that sung his orisons from the lattice of an artisan who was rising to begin his labour as the poet was pacing homewards to rest after his work all night. Thirty years had passed, but that unforgotten melody — that dear bird's song — gave him then as much true pleasure as when, to his wearied head and heart, it was the matin hymn of nature.
I remember once meeting him in Paternoster Row; he was inquiring his way to Bread Street, Cheapside, and, of course, I endeavoured to explain to him that if he walked on for about two hundred yards, and took the fourth turning to the right, it would be the street he wanted. I noted his expression, so vague and unenlightened, that I could not help expressing my surprise as I looked earnestly at his forehead, and saw the organ of "locality" unusually prominent above the eyebrows. He took my meaning, laughed, and said, "I see what you are looking at why, at school my head was beaten into a mass of bumps, because I could not point out Paris in a map of France." It has been said that Spurzheim pronounced him to be a mathematician, and affirmed that he could not be a poet. Such opinion the great phrenologist could not have expressed, for undoubtedly he had a large organ of ideality, although at first it was not perceptible, in consequence of the great breadth and height of his profound forehead.
Whenever it was my privilege to be admitted to the evening meetings at Highgate, I met some of the men who were then famous, and have since become parts of the literature of England, among whom sat Coleridge talking, and looking "all sweet and simple and divine things, the very personification of meekness and humility," though fully aware that he was the centre of an intellectual circle. Indeed, to his utter unselfishness witness is tendered by all who have ever written concerning him: he seemed striving to think how much he could give to, and never what he might get from, those with whom he came in contact. Even his engrossing conversation is evidence of this; and there is abundant proof that he ever sought to make the best of the works of others, though very rarely referring to his own.
I attended one of his lectures at the Royal Institution, and I strive to recall him as he stood before his audience there. There was but little animation; his theme did not seem to stir him into life; the ordinary repose of his countenance was rarely broken up; he used little or no action; and his voice, though mellifluous, was monotonous. He lacked, indeed, that earnestness without which no man is truly eloquent.
At the time I speak of he was growing corpulent and heavy; being seldom free from pain, he moved apparently with difficulty, yet liked to walk, with
shuffling gait, up and down and about the room as he talked, pausing now and then as if oppressed by suffering.
I need not say that I was a silent listener during the evenings to which I refer, when there were present some of those who "teach us from their urns;" but I was free to gaze on the venerable man — one of the humblest, and one of the most fervid, perhaps, of the worshippers by whom he was surrounded, and to treasure in memory the poet's gracious and loving looks — the "thick waving silver hair" — the still, clear blue eye; and on such occasions I used to leave him as if I were in a waking dream, trying to recall, here and there, a sentence of the many weighty and mellifluous sentences I had heard — seldom with success — and feeling at the moment as if I had been surfeited with honey.
May I not now lament that I did not foresee a time when I might be called upon to write concerning this good and great and most lovable man? How much I might have enriched these pages — now but weak records of the impressions I received!
Many famous men have described the personal appearance of the poet. The best portrait of him is, I think, from the pen of Wordsworth:—
A noticeable man, with large, grey eyes,
And a pale face, that seemed, undoubtedly,
As if a blooming face it ought to be;
Heavy his low-hung lip did oft appear,
Depress'd by weight of moving phantasy;
Profound his forehead was, though not severe.
Wordsworth also speaks of him as "the brooding poet with the heavenly eyes," and as "often too much in love with his own dejection." That the one loved the other dearly is certain: they were more than mere words those that Wordsworth addressed to Coleridge: — "O friend! O poet! brother of my soul!"
But the earliest word-portrait we have of him was drawn by Wordsworth's sister in 1797 — "At first I thought him very plain; that is, for about three minutes. He is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, longish, loose-growing, half curling, rough black hair. His eye is large and full, and not dark, but grey, such an eye as would receive from a heavy soul the dullest expression; but it speaks every emotion of his animated mind. He has fine dark eyebrows, and an overhanging forehead." This is De Quincey's sketch of him in 1807: — "In height he seemed about five feet eight inches; in reality he was an inch and a half taller. His person was broad and full, and tended even to corpulence; his complexion was fair, though not what painters technically call fair, because it was associated with black hair; his eyes were soft and large in their expression, and it was by a peculiar appearance of haze or dimness which mixed with their light." "A lady of Bristol," writes De Quincey, "assured me she had not seen a young man so engaging in his exterior as Coleridge when young, in 1796. He had then a blooming and healthy complexion, beautiful and luxuriant hair falling in natural curls over his shoulders." Lockhart says, "Coleridge has a grand head; nothing can surpass the depth of meaning in his eyes, and the unutterable dreamy luxury of his lips." Hazlitt describes him in early manhood as "with a complexion clear, and even light, a forehead broad and high, as if built of ivory, with large projecting eyebrows, and his eyes rolling beneath them like a sea with darkened lustre. His mouth was rather open, his chin good-humoured and round, and his nose small. His hair, black and glossy as the raven's wing, fell in smooth masses over his forehead — long, liberal hair, peculiar to enthusiasts." "A certain tender bloom his face o'erepread." Sir Humphry Davy, writing of him in 1808, says, "His mind is a wilderness, in which the cedar and the oak, which might aspire to the skies, are stunted in their growth by underwood, thorns, briers, and parasitical plants with the most exalted genius, enlarged views, sensitive heart, and enlightened mind, he will be the victim of want of order, precision, and regularity." And Leigh Hunt speaks of his open, indolent, good-natured mouth, and of his forehead as prodigious — a great piece of placid marble." Wordsworth again—
Noisy he was, and gamesome as a boy,
Tossing his limbs about him in delight.
In the autumn of 1833, Emerson, on his second visit to England, called on Coleridge. He found him, "to appearance, a short, thick old man, with bright blue eyes and fine clear complexion." The poet, however, did not impress the American favourably, and the hour's talk was of "no use, beyond the gratification of curiosity." They did not assimilate: it was not given to the hard and cold thinker to comprehend the nature of "the brooding poet with the heavenly eyes;" and assuredly Coleridge could have had but small sympathy with his unsought-for, and perhaps unwelcome, guest. A more minute, and certainly a more true picture is that which Carlyle formed of him, in words, some years later, and probably not long before his removal from earth: — "Brow and head were round, and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute. The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspiration; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise, might be called flabby and irresolute, expressive of weakness under possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees bent, and stooping attitude: in walking he rather shuffled than decisively stepped; and a lady once remarked, he never could fix which side of the garden-walk would suit him best, but continually shifted in corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both. A heavy-laden, high-aspiring, and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and sing-song; he spoke as if preaching — you would have said preaching earnestly, and also hopelessly, the weightiest things." About the same period a writer in the Quarterly Review thus pictures him: — "His clerical-looking dress, the thick waving silver hair, the youthful-coloured cheek, the indefinable mouth and lips, the quick, yet steady and penetrating greenish-grey eye, the slow and continuous enunciation, and the everlasting music of his tones." Procter, writing of him, says: — "In his mature age he had a full round face, a fine broad forehead, rather thick lips, and strange, dreamy eyes." In Lamb's words, "his white hair shrouded a capacious brain."
There are several portraits of him. The best is that which was painted by his friend Alston, the American artist, at Rome, in 1806. Wordsworth speaks of it as "the only likeness of the great original that ever gave me the least pleasure. The woodcut at the head of this notice is engraved from the portrait by Northcote: it strongly recalls him to my remembrance.
Although in youth and earlier manhood Coleridge had perpetually been — "Chasing chancestarting friendships," not long before his death he is described as "thankful for the deep, calm peace of mind he then enjoyed — a peace such as he had never before experienced, nor scarcely hoped for." All things were then looked at by him through an atmosphere by which all were reconciled and harmonised.
It is true that he failed to perform all he purposed to do: of what high soul can it be said otherwise? But his friend, Justice Talfourd, who, while testifying to the benignity of his nature, describes his life as "one splendid and sad prospectus," does the poet and philosopher scant justice. What he might have done was, perhaps, hardly known to himself, and could but he guessed at by others. Whatever the "promise" may have been, the "performance" was prodigious. To quote the words of his nephew, H. N. Coleridge, "he did, in his vocation, the day's work of a giant." The American edition of his works, which is not quite complete, extends to seven closely-printed volumes, each of more than seven hundred pages! If he had done nothing but "talk," his life would not have been spent idly or in vain, as the "Table-Talk" may testify; but as a writer, who of the generation has done more? If, as Hazlitt writes, in the later years of his life, "he may be said to have lived on the sound of his own voice;" and if, according to Wordsworth, "his mental power was frozen at its marvellous source;" yet what a world of wealth he has bequeathed to us, although the whole produce of his pen, in poetry, is compressed within one single small volume! All must lament that this illustrious man whom De Quincey describes as "the largest and most spacious intellect, the subtlest and the most comprehensive, that has yet existed among men," should have given way to the evil habit which made life miserable to him. But while lamenting what we have thereby lost, we may be consoled by the excellence of what has been preserved.
A few months ago I again drove to Highgate, and visited the house in which the poet passed so many happy years of calm contentment and seraphic peace; again repeated these lines, which, next to his higher faith, expressed the faith by which his life was ruled and guided:—
He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small,
For the dear God who loveth us,
He made and loveth all!
His mortal remains lie in a vault in the graveyard of the old church at Highgate. He was a "stranger" in the parish where he died, notwithstanding his long residence there, and was, therefore, interred alone. Not long afterwards, however, the vault was built to receive the body of his wife. There the two rest together. It is enclosed by a thick iron grating, the interior lined with white marble, containing the letters marked in the woodcut. When I visited the tomb in 1864, one of the marble slabs had accidentally given way, and the coffin was partially exposed. I laid my hand upon it in solemn reverence, and gratefully recalled to memory him who, in his own emphatic words, had "Here found life in death."
The tablet that contains the epitaph is on one of the side-walls of the new
church. It was consecrated two years before the poet's departure; and although it shut out his view of mighty London, it was pleasant to know that in his later days he had often looked on that temple of God. The tablet that records the death of Mr. Gillman (and also that of his wife, who survived him many years) is of the same size and form as that of the friend they loved so dearly.
I would omit only the word "perchance" when I quote these lines from the poet, and to the poet apply them — to him who works untrammelled in another sphere, beloved by the Master he served in this:—
Meek at the throne of mercy and of God,
Perchance thou raisest high th' enraptured hymn,
Amid the blaze of seraphim!