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SAMUELTAYLoR Col.ERIDGE, a profound thinker and rich imaginative poet, enjoyed a high reputation during the latter years of his life for his colloquial eloquence and metaphysical and critical powers, of which only a few fragmentary specimens remain. His poetry also indicated more than it achieved. Visions of grace, tenderness, and majesty seem ever to have haunted him. Some of these he embodied in exquisite verse; but he wanted concentration and steadiness of purpose to avail himself sufficiently of his intellectual riches. A happier destiny was also perhaps wahting; for much of Coleridge's life was spent in poverty and dependence, amidst disappointment and ill-health, and in the irregularity caused by an unfortunate and excessive use of opium, which tyrannised over him for many years with unrelenting severity. Amidst daily drudgery for the periodical press, and in nightly dreams distempered and feverish, he wasted, to use his own expression, “the prime and manhood of his intellect.” The poet was a native of Devonshire, being born on the 20th of October 1772 at Ottery St Mary, of which parish his father was vicar. He received the principal part of his education at Christ's Hospital,
where he had Charles Lamb for a school-fellow. He describes himself as being, from eight to fourteen, “a playless day-dreamer, a helluo librorum;’ and in this instance, ‘the child was father of the man, for such was Coleridge to the end of his life. A stranger whom he had accidentally met one day on the streets of London, and who was struck with his conversation, made him free of a circulating library, and he read through the catalogue, folios and ail. At fourteen, he had, like Gibbon, a stock of erudition that might have puzzled a doctor, and a degree of ignorance of which a school-boy would have been ashamed. He had no ambition; his father was dead, and he actually thought of apprenticing himself to a shoemaker who lived near the school. The head-master, Bowyer, interfered, and prevented this additional honour to the craft of St Crispin, already made illustrious by Gifford and Bloomfield. Coleridge became deputy-Grecian, or head-scholar, and obtained an exhibition or presentation from Christ's Hospital to Jesus' College, Cambridge, where he remained from 1791 to 1793. In his first year at college he gained the Brown goldmedal for the Greek ode; next year he stood for the Craven scholarship, but lost it; and in 1793 he was again unsuccessful in a competition for the Greek ode on astronomy. By this time he had incurred some debts, not amounting to £100; but this so weighed on his mind and spirits, that he suddenly left college, and went to London. He had also become obnoxious to his superiors from his attachment to the principles of the French Revolution.
When France in wrath her giant-limbs upreared,
In London, Coleridge soon felt himself forlorn and destitute, and he enlisted as a soldier in the 15th, Elliot's Light Dragoons. “On his arrival at the quarters of the regiment, says his friend and biographer, Mr Gillman, “the general of the district inspected the recruits, and looking hard at Coleridge, with a military air, inquired: “What's your name, sir?” “Comberbach.” (The name he had assumed.) “What do you come here for, sir?” as if doubting whether he had any business there. “Sir” said Coleridge, “for what most other persons come—to be made a soldier.” “Do you think,” said the general, “you can run a Frenchman through the body?” “I do not know,” replied Coleridge, “as I never tried; but I'll let a Frenchman run me through the body before I'll run away.” “That will do,” said the general, and Coleridge was turned into the ranks. The poet made a poor dragoon, and never advanced beyond the awkward squad. He wrote letters, however, for all his comrad: and they attended to his horse and accoutrements: After four months’ service-December 1793 to April 1794—the history and circumstances of Coleridge became known. According to one account, he had written under his saddle on the stable-wall Eleu! quam infortunii miserrimum est fuisse felicem, which led to inquiry on the part of the captain of his troop, who had more regard for the classics than Ensign Northerton in Tom Jones. Another account attributes the termination of his military career to a chance recognition on the street. His family
from Somersetshire, Robert Allen, then at Corpus Christi College, and Edmund Seaward, of a Herefordshire family, also a fellow-collegian, Coleridge planned and proposed to carry out a scheme of emigration to America. They were to found in the New World a Pantisocracy, or state of society in which each was to have his portion of work, and their wives—all were to be married—were to cook and perform domestic offices, the poets cultivating literature in their hours of leisure, with neither king nor priest to mar their felicity. “From building castles in the air, as Southey has said, ‘to framing commonwealths was an easy transition.’ For some months this delusion lasted; but funds were wanting, and could not be readily raised. Southey and Coleridge gave a course of public lectures, and wrote a tragedy on the Fall of RobesPierre, and the former soon afterwards proceeding With his uncle to Spain and Portugal, the Panisocratic scheme was abandoned. Coleridge and
"' married two sisters-Lovell, who died in
being apprised of his situation, his discharge was obtained on the 10th of April 1794." He seems then to have set about publishing his Juvenile Poems by subscription, and while at Oxford in June of the same year, he met with Southey, and an intimacy immediately sprung up between them. Coleridge was then an ardent republican and a Socinian—full of high hopes and anticipations, “the golden exhalations of the dawn. In conjunction with his new friend Southey, with Robert Lovell, the son of a wealthy Quaker, George Burnett, a fellow-collegian
Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
the following year, had previously been married to a third sister—ladies of the name of Fricker, amiable, but wholly without fortune. Coleridge, still ardent, wrote two political pamphlets, concluding ‘that truth should be spoken at all times, but more especially at those times when to speak truth is dangerous. He established also a periodical in prose and verse, entitled The Watchman, with the motto, ‘That all might know the truth, and that the truth might make us free.” He watched in vain. Coleridge's incurable want of order and punctuality, and his philosophical theories, tired out and disgusted his readers, and the work was discontinued after the ninth number. Of the unsaleable nature of this publication, he relates an amusing illustration. Happening one day to rise at an earlier hour than usual, he observed his servant-girl putting an extravagant quantity of paper into the grate, in order to light the fire, and he mildly checked her for her wastefulness. “La, sir, replied Nanny, ‘why, it is only Watchmen.’ He went to reside in a cottage at Nether Stowey, at the foot of the Quantock Hills—a rural retreat which he has commemorated in his poetry:
* Miss Mitford states that the arrangement for Coleridge's discharge was made at her father's house at Reading. Captain Ogle-in whose troop the poet served-related at table one day the story of the learned recruit, when it was resolved to make exertions for his discharge. There would have been some difficulty in the case, had not one of the servants waiting at table been induced to enlist in his place. The poet, Miss Mitford says, never forgot her father's zeal in the cause.
And now, beloved Stowey! I behold
At Stowey, Coleridge wrote some of his most beautiful poetry—his Ode on the Departing Year; Fears in Solitude; France, an Ode; Frost at Midnight; the first part of Christabel; the Ancient Mariner; and his tragedy of Remorse. The luxuriant fulness and individuality of his poetry shew that he was then happy, no less than eager, in his studies. The two or three years spent at Stowey seem to have been at once the most felicitous and the most illustrious of Coleridge's literary life. He had established his name for ever, though it was long in struggling to distinction. During his residence at Stowey, Coleridge officiated as Unitarian preacher at Taunton, and afterwards at Shrewsbury." In 1798, the ‘generous and munificent patronage’ of Messrs Josiah and Thomas Wedgewood, Staffordshire, enabled the poet to proceed to Germany to complete his education, and he resided there fourteen months. At Ratzeburg and Göttingen he acquired a well-grounded knowledge of the German language and literature, and was confirmed in his bias towards philosophical and metaphysical studies. On his return in 1800, he found Southey established at Keswick, and Wordsworth at Grasmere. He went to live with the former, and there his opinions
* Mr Hazlitt has described his walking ten miles in a winter day to hear Coleridge preach. “When I got there, he says, "the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done, Mr Coleridge rose and gave out his text: “He departed again into a mountain himself alone.” As he gave out this text, his voice rose like a stream of rich distilled perfumes; and when he came to the last two words, which he pronounced loud, deep, and distinct, it seemed to me, who was then young, as if the sounds had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The idea of St John came into my mind, of one crying in the wilderness, who had his loins girt about, and whose food was locusts and wild-honey. The preacher then launched into his subject like an eagle dallying with the wind. The sermon was upon peace and war—upon church and state-not their alliance, but their separation-on the spirit of the world and the spirit of Christianity, not as the same, but as opposed to one another. He talked of those who had inscribed the cross of Christ on banners dripping with human gore! He made a poetical and pastoral excursionand to shew the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd-boy driving his team afield, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his flock, as though he should never be old, and the same poor country lad, crimped, kidnapped, brought into town, made drunk at an alehouse, turned into a wretched drummer-boy, with his hair sticking on end with powder and pomatum, a long cue at his back, and tricked out in the finery of the profession of blood:
“Such were the notes our once loved poet sung:"
and, for myself, I could not have been more delighted if I had heard the music of the spheres.’
underwent a total change. The Jacobin became a royalist, and the Unitarian a warm and devoted believer in the Trinity. In the same year he published his translation of Schiller's Wallenstein, into which he had thrown some of the finest graces of his own fancy. The following passage may be considered a revelation of Coleridge's poetical faith and belief, conveyed in language picturesque and musical:
Oh! never rudely will I blame his faith
The lines which we have printed in Italics are an expansion of two of Schiller's, which Mr Hayward— another German poetical translator—thus literally renders:
The old fable-existences are no more; The fascinating race has emigrated (wandered out or away).
As a means of subsistence, Coleridge reluctantly consented to undertake the literary and political department of the Morning Post, in which he supported the measures of government. In 1804, we find him in Malta, secretary to the governor, Sir Alexander Ball. He held this office only nine months, and, after a tour in Italy, returned to England to resume his precarious labours as an author and lecturer. The desultory irregular habits of the poet, caused partly by his addiction to opium, and the dreamy indolence and procrastination which marked him throughout life, seem to have frustrated every chance and opportunity of selfadvancement. Living again at Grasmere, he issued a second periodical, The Friend, which extended to twenty-seven numbers. The essays were sometimes acute and eloquent, but as often rhapsodical, imperfect, and full of German mysticism. In 1816, chiefly at the recommendation of Lord Byron, the ‘wild and wondrous tale of Christabel was published. The first part, as we have mentioned, was written at Stowey as far back as 1797, and a second had been added on his return from Germany in 1800. The poem was still unfinished; but it would have been almost as difficult to complete the Faëry Queen, as to continue in the same spirit that witching strain of supernatural fancy and melodious verse. Another drama, £,
founded on the Winter's Tale—was publis: by Coleridge in 1818, and, with the exception of some minor poems, completes his poetical works. He wrote several characteristic prose disquisitionsThe Statesman's Manual, or the Bible the Best Guide to Political Skill and Foresight; A. Lay Sermon (1816); A Second Lay Sermon, addressed to the Higher and Middle Classes on the existing Distresses and Discontents (1817); Biographia Literaria, two volumes, 1817; Aids to Reflection (1825); On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830); &c. He meditated a great theological and philosophical work, his magnum opus, on ‘Christianity as the only revelation of permanent and universal validity,' which was to “reduce all knowledge into harmony” —to ‘unite the insulated fragments of truth, and therewith to frame a perfect mirror. He planned also an epic poem on the destruction of Jerusalem, which he considered the only subject now remaining for an epic poem; a subject which, like Milton's Fall of Man, should interest all Christendom, as the Homeric War of Troy interested all Greece. ‘Here, said he, “there would be the completion of the prophecies; the termination of the first revealed national religion under the violent assault of paganism, itself the immediate forerunner and condition of the spread of a revealed mundane religion; and then you would have the character of the Roman and the Jew; and the awfulness, the completeness, the justice. I schemed it at twentyfive, but, alas! venturum expectat. This ambition to execute some great work, and his constitutional infirmity of purpose, which made him defer or recoil from such an effort, he has portrayed with great beauty and pathos in an address to Wordsworth, composed after the latter had recited to him a poem ‘on the growth of an individual mind:”
Ah! as I listened with a heart forlorn,
These were prophetic breathings, and should be a warning to young and ardent genius. In such magnificent alternations of hope and despair, and in discoursing on poetry and philosophy-sometimes committing a golden thought to the blank leaf of a book or to a private letter, but generally content with oral communication—the poet's time glided past. He had found an asylum in the house of a private friend, Mr James Gillman, surgeon, Highgate, where he resided for the last nineteen years of his life. Here he was visited by numerous friends and admirers, who were happy to listen to his inspired monologues, which he poured forth with exhaustless fecundity. “We believe, says one of these rapt and enthusiastic listeners, ‘it has not been the lot of any other literary man in England, since Dr Johnson, to command the devoted admiration and steady zeal of so many and such widely differing disciples—some of them having become, and others being likely to become, fresh and independent sources of light and moral action in th:elves upon the principles of their common
master. One half of these affectionate disciples have learned their lessons of philosophy from the teacher's mouth. He has been to them as an old oracle of the academy or Lyceum. The fulness, the inwardness, the ultimate scope of his doctrines, has never yet been published in print, and, if disclosed, it has been from time to time in the higher moments
Mr Gillman's House, Highgate, the last residence of Coleridge,
of conversation, when occasion, and mood, and person, begot an exalted crisis. More than once has Mr Coleridge said that, with pen in hand, he felt a thousand checks and difficulties in the expression of his meaning; but that-authorship aside—he never found the smallest hitch or impediment in the fullest utterance of his most subtle fancies by word of mouth. His abstrusest thoughts became rhythmical and clear when chanted to their own music.” Mr Coleridge died at Highgate on the 25th of July 1834. In the preceding winter he had written the following epitaph, striking from its simplicity and humility, for himself:
Stop, Christian passer-by! Stop, child of God!
* Quarterly Review, vol. lii. p. 5. With one so impulsive as Coleridge, and liable to fits of depression and to ill-health, these appearances must have been very unequal. We have known three men of genius, all poets, who frequently listened to him, and yet described him as generally obscure, pedantic, and tedious. In his happiest moods he must, however, have been great and overwhelming. His voice and countenance were harmonious and beautiful.
Immediately on the death of Coleridge, several compilations were made of his table-talk, correspondence, and literary remains. His fame had been gradually extending, and public curiosity was excited with respect to the genius and opinions of a man who combined such various and dissimilar powers, and who was supposed capable of any task, however gigantic. Some of these Titanic fragments are valuable-particularly his Shakspearean criticism. They attest his profound thought and curious erudition, and display his fine critical taste and discernment. In penetrating into and embracing the whole meaning of a favourite author—unfolding the nice shades and distinctions of thought, character, feeling, or melody-darting on it the light of his own creative mind and suggestive fancy—and perhaps linking the whole to some glorious original conception or image, Coleridge stands unrivalled. He does not appear as a critic, but as an eloquent and gifted expounder of kindred excellence and genius. He seems like one who has the key to every hidden chamber of profound and subtle thought and every ethereal conception. We cannot think, however, that he could ever have built up a regular system of ethics or criticism. He wanted the art to combine and arrange his materials. He was too languid and irresolute. He had never attained the art of writing with clearness and precision; for he is often unintelligible, turgid, and verbose, as if he struggled in vain after perspicacity and method. His intellect could not subordinate the ‘shaping spirit’ of his imagination. The poetical works of Coleridge have been collected and published in three volumes. They are various in style and manner, embracing ode, tragedy, and epigram, love poems, and strains of patriotism and superstition—a wild witchery of imagination, and, at other times, severe and stately thought and intellectual retrospection. His language is often rich and musical, highly figurative and ornate. Many of his minor poems are characterised by tenderness and beauty, but others are disfigured by passages of turgid sentimentalism and puerile affectation. The most original and striking of his productions is his well-known tale of The Ancient Mariner. According to De Quincey, the germ of this story is contained in a passage of Shelvocke, one of the classical circumnavigators of the earth, who states that his second captain, being a melancholy man, was possessed by a fancy that some long season of foul weather was owing to an albatross which had steadily pursued the ship, upon which he shot the bird, but without mending their condition. Coleridge makes the ancient mariner relate the circumstances attending his act of inhumanity to one of three wedding-guests whom he meets and detains on his way to the marriage-feast. “He holds him with his glittering eye, and invests his narration with a deep preternatural character and interest, and with touches of exquisite tenderness and energetic description. The versification is irregular, in the style of the old ballads, and most of the action of the piece is unnatural; yet the poem is full of vivid and original imagination. ‘There is nothing else like it, says one of his critics; “it is a poem by itself; between it and other compositions, in pari materia, there is a chasm which you cannot overpass. The sensitive reader feels himself insulated, and a sea of wonder and mystery flows round him as round the spell-stricken ship itself. Coleridge further illustrates his theory of the connection between the material and the spiritual world in his unfinished poem of Christabel, a romantic supernatural tale, filled with wild imagery and the most remarkable
modulation of verse. The versification is founded on what the poet calls a new principle—though it was evidently practised by Chaucer and Shakspeare -namely, that of counting in each line the number of accentuated words, not the number of syllables. ‘Though the latter, he says, “may vary from seven to twelve, yet in each line the accents will be found to be only four. This irregular harmony delighted both Scott and Byron, by whom it was imitated. We add a brief specimen:
The night is chill; the forest bare;
Hush, beating heart of Christabel ! Jesu Maria shield her well ! She foldeth her arms beneath her cloak, And stole to the other side of the oak. What sees she there? There she sees a damsel bright, Dressed in a silken robe of white, That shadowy in the moonlight shone: The neck that made that white robe wan, Her stately neck and arms were bare; . Her blue-veined feet unsandalled were; And wildly glittered here and there The gems entangled in her hair. I guess’twas frightful there to see A lady so richly clad as she— Beautiful exceedingly |
A finer passage is that describing broken friend-
Each spake words of high disdain
This metrical harmony of Coleridge exercises a sort of fascination even when it is found united to incoherent images and absurd conceptions. Thus, in Khubla Khan, a fragment written from recollections of a dream, we have the following melodious rhapsody:
The shadow of the dome of pleasure