Page images
PDF
EPUB

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 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 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 philosophỹ, 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-healththese 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.

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, ór 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 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 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 over-pass. 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; She foldeth her arms beneath her cloak, Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?

And stole to the other side of the oak. There is not wind enough in the air

What sees she there? To move away the ringlet curl

There she sees a damsel bright, From the lovely lady's cheek;

Dressed in a silken robe of white, There is not wind enough to twirl That sbadowy in the moonlight shone: The one red leaf, the last of its clan, The neck that made that white robe wan, That dances as often as dance it can, Her stately neck and arms were bare : Hanging so light, and hanging so high, Her blue-veined feet unsand alled were; On the topmost twig that looks up at the And wildly glittered here and there sky.

The gems entangled in her hair,

I guess 'twas frightful there to see
Hush, beating heart of Christabel ! A lady so richly clad as she
Jesu Maria shield her well!

Beautiful exceedingly !
A finer passage is that describing broken friendships;

Alas! they had been friends in youth ;
But whispering tongues can poison truth ;
And constancy lives in realms above;

And life is thorny; and youth is vain :
And to be wroth with one we love,

Doth work like madness in the brain,
And thus it chanced, as I divine.
With Roland and Sir Leoline.
Each spake words of high disdain'

And insult to his heart's best brother:
They parted-ne'er to meet again!

But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining:
They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder

A dreary sea now flows between.
But neither heat, nor frost, nor thunder,

Shall wholly do away, I ween,

The marks of that which once hath been. 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 Her symphony and song, Floated midway on the waves,

To such deep delight 'twould win me, Where was heard the mingled measure That with music loud and long, From the fountain and the caves.

I would build that dome in air, It was a miracle of rare device,

That sunny dome, those caves of ice! A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice! And all who heard should see them there, A damsel with a dulcimer

And all should cry, Beware! Beware! In a vision once I saw:

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
It was an Abyssinian maid,

Weave a circle round him thrice,
And on her dulcimer she played, And close your eyes with holy dread,
Singing of Mount Abora.

For he on honey-dew hath fed,
Could I revive within me

And drunk the milk of paradise. The odes of Coleridge are highly passionate and elevated in conception. That on France was considered by Shelley to be the finest English ode of modern times. The hymn on Chamouni is equally lofty and brilliant. His 'Genevieve' is a pure and exquisite lovepoem, without that gorgeous diffuseness which characterises the odes, yet more chastely and carefully finished, and abounding in the delicate and subtle traits of his imagination. Coleridge was deficient in the rapid energy and strong passion necessary for the drama. The poetical beauty of certain passages would not, on the stage, atone for. the paucity of action and want of interest in his two plays, though, as works of genius, they vastly excel those of a more recent date which prove highly successful in representation. The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

The ship was cheered, the harbour It is an ancient mariner,

cleared, And he stoppeth one of three;

Merrily did we drop ‘By thy long gray beard and glittering Below the kirk, below the hill,

Below the light-house top. eye, Now wherefore stopp’st thou me?

The sun came up upon the left, • The bridegroom's doors are opened wide, Out of the sea came he; And I am next of kin;

And he shone bright, and on the right The guests are met, the feast is set; Went down into the sea. Mayst hear the merry din.'

“Higher and higher every day, He holds him with his skinny hand ; Till over the mast at noon! • There was a ship,' quoth he.

The wedding-guest here beat his breast,
Hold off ; unhand me, gray-beard loon;' For he heard the loud bassoon.
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

The bride hath paced into the hall,
He holds him with his glittering eye- Red as a rose is she;
The wedding-guest stood still,

Nodding their heads before her goes
And listens like a three-years' child ; The merry minstrelsy.
The mariner hath his will.

The wedding-guest he beat his breast,
The wedding-guest sat on a stone, Yet he cannot choose but hear ;
He cannot choose but hear;

And thus spake on that ancient man,
And thus spake on that ancient man, The bright-eyed mariner:
The bright-eyed mariner :

PART I.

« PreviousContinue »