Page images
PDF

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 shews that he was then happy, no less than eager, in his studies. Wordsworth thus describes his appearance:

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
Depressed by weight of musing Phantasy;

Profound his forehead was, but not severe. 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, the poet officiated as Unitarian preacher at Taunton, and afterwards at Shrewsbury.* In 1798, the 'generous and munificent patronage’ of Messrs. Josiah and Thomas Wedgwood, 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 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 con

Hazlitt walked 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.'1 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, wbich 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 excursion--and to shew the fatal effects of war, drew a striking contrast between the simple shepherd-boy driving his team a field, or sitting under the hawthorn, piping to his ftock, 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.

sidered a revelation of Coleridge's poetical faith and belief, conveyed in language picturesque and musical :

Oh! never rudely will I blame his faith
In the might of stars and angels ! 'Tis not merely
The human being's pride that peoples space
With life and mystical predominance ;
Since likewise for the stricken heart of love
This visible nature, and this common world,
Is all too narrow: yea, a deeper import
Lurks in the legend told my infant years,
Than lies upon that truth we live to learn.
For fable is Love's world, his house, his birthplace;
Delightedly dwells he 'mong fays, and talismans,
And spirits; and delightedly believes
Diviníties; being himself divine.
The intelligible forms of ancient poets,
The fair humanities of old religion,
The power, the beauty, and the majesty,
That had their haunts in dale, or piny mountain,
Or forest, by slow stream, or pebbly spring,
Or chasms and watery depths; ali these have vanished.
They live no longer in the faith of reason!
But still the heart doth need a language; still
Doth the old instinct bring back the old names ;
And to yon starry world they now are gone.
Spirits or gods, that used to share this earth
With man as with their friend; and to the lover,
Yonder they move, from yonder visible sky
Shoot influence down; and even at this day
'Tis Jupiter who brings whate'er is great,

And Venus who brings everything that's fair. 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).

stream, or pebblpiny mountain,

chasms and

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 self-advancement. 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, chiefiy 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 “Zapoyla'-founded on the Winter's Tale'-—was published by Coleridge in 1818, and, with the exception of some minor poems, completes his poetical works. He wrote several characteristic prose disquisitions— The 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 twenty-five, 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.
The pulses of my being beat anew :
And even as life returns upon the drowned,
Life's joy rekindling roused a throng of pains-
Keen pangs of love, awakening as a babe
Turbulent, with an outcry in the heart;
And fears self-willed, that shunned the eye of hope;
And hope that scarce would know itself from fear;
Sense of past youth, and manhood come in vain;
And genins given, and knowledge won in vain;
And all which I had called in woodwalks wild,
And all which patient toil had reared, and all
Commune with thee had opened out-but flowers
Strewed on my corse, and borne upon my bier,

In the same coffin, for the self-same grave! 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 themselves 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 ora cle 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 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 rythmical 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!
And read with gentle breast. Beneath this sod
A poet lies, or that which once seemed he
Oh! lift a thought in prayer for S. T. C.!
That he, who many a year, with toil of breath,
Found death in life, may here find life in death'!
Mercy for praise-to be forgiven for fame,

He asked and hoped through Christ-do thou the same. It is characteristic of this remarkable man that on the last evening of his life (as related by his daughter) ‘he repeated a certain part of his religious philosophy, which he was specially anxious to have accurately recorded.' Immediately on the death of Coleridge, several

* 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. Carlyle,in his Life of Sterling, ridicules Coleridge's monologues as generally tedious, hazy and unintelligible. 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. His voice and countenance were harmonious and beautiful.

obssonius, all poe generally tehual. been great."re: pedantic, anwho frequentis

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 origi. nal 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 wedding-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

« PreviousContinue »