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SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE:
SKETCH OF HIS LIFE.
This “wonderful man" was the youngest of ten children, and was born Oct. 21, 1772, nearly two and a half years later than Wordsworth. The place of his birth was in the parish of Ottery St. Mary's, Devonshire. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, was the vicar of that parish, and was living in the vicarage. He is said to have been very studious, absorbed in books, unknowing and regardless of the world and its ways, of simple character and primitive manners, and commonly known as “the absent man.” Notwithstanding his oddities, he was a good faithful Christian pastor, much beloved and respected by his flock. Though Samuel was only seven years old when his father died, he remembered him to the last with deep reverence and love: “O, that I might 80 pass away if, like him, I were an Israelite without guile! The image of my, father – my revered, kind, learned, simple-hearted father - is a religion to me.'
During his childhood, Coleridge never shared in the plays and games of his brothers, but sought refuge by his mother's side, to read his little books and listen to the talk of his elders. He had the simplicity and docility of a child, but never thought or spoke as a child. At the age of nine, he was removed to Christ's Hospital, London, a large charity school, intended, says Charles Lamb, who was there at the same time, “to keep those who yet hold up their heads in the world from sinking.”. Of this removal, Coleridge wrote long afterwards, “O, what a change, from home to this city school; depressed, moping, friendless, a poor orphan, half-starved !”. It seems that for boys of his grade, what was then called “the lower school,” the supply of food was at that time cruelly insufficient; and as he had no friends within reach, to make up the deficiency, his sufferings were sometimes very great. On holidays in Summer, the boys were very fond of going on bathing excursions to a stream called New River; and on one of those excursions Coleridge swam the river in his clothes, and let them dry on his back: this planted in him the seeds of those rheumatic pains which did so much to frustrate the large promise of his youth.
Coleridge, however, did not spend his time in idleness. Even then he was a great devourer of books; and this appetite was fed by a strange incident. One day, as he walked down the Strand, going with his arms as in the act of swimming, he touched the pocket of a passer-by. What, so young and so wicked !” exclaimed the stranger, at the same time seizing him for a pickpocket. “I am not a pickpocket,” said he ; “I only thought I was Leander swimming the Hellespont. The man was so struck with the reply, that, instead of handing him over to the police, he subscribed to a library, that Coleridge might thence have his full of books. In a short time he read right through the catalogue, and exhausted the library. Another circumstance put him upon devouring Greek, Latin, and English books on medicine; and he is said to have got by heart a whole Latin medical dictionary. This carried him on into a deep course of metaphysics; which set him for a time to sporting infidel. Dr. Bowyer, the Head-master, who was noted as a severe disciplinarian, on hearing of this, sent for Coleridge. “So, sirrah! you are an infidel, are you? Then I'll flog your infidelity out of you." Thereupon he gave him the severest, and as Coleridge used to say, the only just flogging he ever received.
Dr. Bowyer's instructions were always remembered by Coleridge with grateful affection. In his Biographia Literaria, he speaks of the Head-master as one who taught him to prefer Demosthenes to Cicero, Homer and Theocritus to Virgil, and Virgil to Ovid ; who accustomed his pupils to compare Lucretius, Terence, and the purer poems of Catulus, not only with “ the Roman poets of the silver, but even with those of the Augustan era, and, on grounds of plain sense and universal logic, to see the superiority of the former in the truth and nativeness both of their thoughts and diction.” In his sixteenth year, Coleridge's poetical genius began to put forth, and this in such a shape as seemed to mark him out for a life of poetry. While he was in the upper school, metaphysics and controversial theology struggled for some time for the mastery; but at last, owing to certain happy influences, poetry carried the day, and for some years was paramount. I must dismiss his life at Christ's Hospital with the following passage from Charles Lamb:
“Come back to my memory, like as thou wert in the day-spring of my fancies, with hope like a fiery column before thee, -- the dark pillar not yet turned,
- Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Logician, Metaphysician, Bard! How have I seen the casual passer through the cloisters stand still, (while he weighed the disproportion between the speech and the garb of the young Mirandula,) to hear thee unfold, in thy deep and sweet intonations, the mysteries of Jamblichus and Plotinus; for even then thou waxedst not pale at such philosophic draughts; or reciting Homer in his Greek, or Pindar; while the walls of the old Grey-Friars re-echoed the accents of the inspired charity boy!”
Coleridge entered Jesus College, Cambridge, in February, 1791, just a month after Wordsworth had left the University. And in his case, as in that of Wordsworth, it soon appeared that Cambridge was not the place for him, or he was not for the place. He never made much headway there. As the French Revolution was then in full career, he plunged into politics, and was carried away with the prevailing frenzy. “In the general conflagration,” says he, “my feelings and imagination did not remain unkindled. I should have been ashamed rather than proud of myself, if they had.” At length, the pressure of some college debts, incurred through his own inexperience, drove him to despondency. He went to London, and there seeing an advertisement for recruits to the 15th regiment of Light Dragoons, he enlisted as a private under the name of Comberbach, and went to drilling in military horsemanship. For the grooming of his horse, and other like offices, he was indebted to his comrades, with whom he was a great favourite. He repaid them by writing all their letters to their wives and sweethearts. In the stable, he had written under his saddle, the words, “Eheu, quam infortuni miserrimum est fuisse felicem !” This was seen by a captain who had Latin enough to translate it, and heart enough to feel it. About the same time he was seen by an old Cambridge acquaintance, who informed his friends : so, after serving some four months, lie was bought off, and returned to college; where he stayed but a short time, and finally left in June, 1794, without taking a degree.
Soon after, he fell in with Souther, and struck up a warm friendship with him; and the two went to live at Bristol. Though their characters were vastly different, their tastes and opinions were in full accord. Both were then enthusiastically democratic in politics and Unitarian in religion; and Southey at once responded to the day-dream of Pantisocracy which Coleridge opened to him. This was a plan for founding a community in America, where a band of brothers were to have all things in common, and selfishness was to be unknown. The land was to be tilled by the common toil of the men ; their wives, for all were to be married, were to do all the household work; and abundant leisure was to remain for literature and social intercourse. The banks of the Susquehanna were to be the place of this earthly paradise; chosen, it is said, more for the melody of the name than for any known advantages. But they could not dream money into their pockets, and without money the scheme yould not go.
Early in 1795 it was given up; and in the Fall of that year the two young men were married, Coleridge to Sarah Fricker, and Southey to her sister Edith.
The next few years were mainly spent by Coleridge in various attempts to solve the rather tough problem of bread and butter. First he tried lecturing to the Bristol people on the political subjects of the day and on religious questions. Then he tried the publication of a weekly miscellany. Neither of these brought in the expected returns. The third enterprise was the publication of his Juvenile Poems, in 1796, for the copyright of which he received thirty gui
His next undertaking seemed at first to promise something better. He ordained himself to the ministry, and engaged to preach from time to time in the Unitarian chapels in the neighbourhood of Bristol. In this office hic continued for some time, taking his texts from the Bible, but his real subjects from the political events of the time. At Birmingham he was heard by Hazlitt, who thus recorded the matter :
“It was in January, 1798, that I rose one morning before daylight, to walk ten miles in the mud to hear this celebrated person preach. Never, the longest day I have to live, shall I have such another walk as that cold, raw, comfortless one.
When I got there the organ was playing the 100th Psalm, and when it was done Mr. Coleridge arose 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 sound had echoed from the bottom of the human heart, and as if that prayer might have floated in solemn silence through the universe. The preacher then launched into his subject, like an eagle dallying with the wind. For myself, 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 sanction of religion. This was even beyond my hopes.”
Of the first meeting and life-long friendship of Coleridge and Wordsworth, some account is given in the Sketch of Wordsworth's Life. Wordsworth with his sister was then living at Racedown in Dorsetshire, and in 1797 Coleridge removed with his family from Bristol, and took up his abode at Nether Stowey, under the Quantock hills. Thus the two poets were settled within easy reach of each other; and, mainly for the sake of being still nearer to Coleridge, Wordsworth soon after renoved to Alfoxden.
I must here quote Miss Wordsworth's description of Coleridge, written to a friend who had left Racedown some time before : “You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a wonderful man. His conversation teems with soul, mind, and spirit. Then he is so benevolent, so good-tempered, and cheerful, and, like William, interests himself so much about every little trifle. At first I thought him very plain, that is, for about three minutes : he is pale, thin, has a wide mouth, thick lips, and not very good teeth, longish, loose-growing, halfcurling, rough, black hair. But, if you hear him speak for five minutes, yon think no more of them. His eye is large and full, not very 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 : it has more of the poet's eye in a fine frenzy rolling? than I ever witnessed. He has fine dark eyebrows, and an overhanging forehead.”
While living at Nether Stowey, Coleridge shot up at once into poetic manhood. The Ancient Mariner, the first part of Christabel, and several of his best smaller poems were written there. In 1798, the Wedgwoods settled on him £150 a year for life; which enabled him to undertake a tour on the Continent, as he had for some time desired to do. Before this, however, we have one item which is sadly significant in reference to his subsequent life. He was troubled with violent neuralgic pains, which threatened to overpower him. “But I took,” says he, “ between sixty and seventy drops of laudanum, and
sopped the Cerberus.” That remedy was soon to become worse than the disease.
In the fall of 1798, Coleridge and the Wordsworths made a trip to Germany, landing at Hamburg. After an interview with the aged Klopstock, the two poets separated, and Coleridge passed on to Gottingen, to attend lectures, and consort with German students and professors. Of his sojourn in Germany, he writes, “I made the best use of my time and means, and there is no period of my life to which I look back with such unmingled satisfaction.” He was there in the school of Kant and his disciples, who were then leading the phi osophic thought of Germany into new regions. Coleridge drank deep of this stream, and thereby qualified himself, perhaps, for the office of a great teacher to his nation; but it may well be doubted whether, on the whole, he gained much, either for himself or others, by swamping his fine poetic genius in ideal or transcendental metaphysics. Be this as it may, there was at least one good result from his knowledge of German thus acquired. He returned to England in November, 1799, and his next work was to translate Schiller's Wallenstein, accomplishing in three weeks what many competent judges regard as the best translation ever made of any poem into English.
This done, Coleridge joined Wordsworth in a tour among the lakes of Cumberland and Westmoreland ; - his first sight of English mountains. About this time he became a contributor to the Morning Post, and so continued till the close of 1802. He was then in sympathy with Fox and the Whigs, not having yet grown to recognise what he afterwards acknowledged to be the “ transcendent greatness of Burke. But the progress of things in France, especially as the military despotism of Napoleon towered up in such gigantic proportions, was rapidly curing him of that delusion, and was working such changes in his mind, that in effect he soon passed over to the side of the Government. Already his belief in the Unitarian theology had been shaken ; and now a closer study of Scripture, together with his hard discipline of suffering, was not long in bringing him back to the creed in which he had been reared; and he became staunch in his adhesion to the faith and worship of the Established Church.
In 1801, Coleridge transferred his family to Keswick, in the Lake country, where they lived much, if not most, of the time for many years, along with the Southeys. At this time the poetic season of his genius was already passing into “the sere, the yellow leaf,” though he was but thirty years old ; the Ode to Dejection and a few smaller pieces being all the poetry that came from him. In the Spring of 1804, he went to Malta for his health, where he soon became known to the Governor, Sir Alexander Ball, and for some time served as his secretary. He there conceived a great admiration of Sir Alexander, whose character he afterwards painted in glowing colours in The Friend. But he did not find at Malta what he went in quest of, and in the Fall of 1805 he returned to England.
It is not easy to keep track of him through the next ten years. Sometimes he was with his family at Keswick; sometimes at Grasmere with Wordsworth ; sometimes in London, writing for the Courier, or lecturing at the Royal Institution. Meanwhile his only work of real importance was The Friend, a series of weekly essays intended as a help to the formation of opinions in morals, politics, and art, grounded on true and permanent principles. The work was continued from June, 1809, to March, 1810, when it was given up because it did not pay the cost of publishing. It was afterwards recast and much enlarged, and published as a book in 1818; and a most instructive book it is too.
Coleridge's first use of laudanum has already been mentioned. At Malta, opium-taking became a confirmed habit, and for ten years quite overmastered him. He himself
, with the utmost frankness, pleads guilty to the evil habit. “After my death,” says he, “I earnestly entreat that a full and unqualified narrative of my wretchedness, and of its guilty cause, may be made public, that at least some little good may be effected by the direful example.” He struggled hard against the tyrant habit, but without success. At last he put himself under the care of Dr. Gilman, who lived in a retired house at Highgate, and boarded in his family. Here he lived for the remaining eighteen years of his life, and with the good doctor's help gained the mastery over himself.
During this period, the poor, dear, great man laboured with all his might to make up for lost time; and, wreck as he was, he was one of the best and wisest of England's teachers. His Two Lay Sermons, his Biographia Literaria, his recast of The Friend, his Aids to Reflection, and his Church and State, all of them the fruits of this period, were published during his life. A small volume on the inspiration of Scripture,
and entitled Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit, was published after his death. The last three of these works have placed him in the highest rank of modern religious philosophers, and through them he has probably done more than any other one man to shape the religious thought of his countrymen. His Literary Remains, also published since his death, is now perhaps our best English text-book of criticism. His circle of thought was indeed prodigious. And perhaps his great mind had its most effective organ when he sat the centre of a social gathering, and overflowed in living talk. To his retirement at Highgate flocked, as on a pilgrimage, most of what was then brilliant in intellect or ardent in youthful genius, to hang upon his spoken words; and in those marvellous conversations the “old man eloquent” poured forth treasures of wisdom which became seed-points of intellectual life in many of the best minds of his time.
In the Summer of 1833 Coleridge was for the last time in public, at the meeting of the British Association in Cambridge. He died at the house of Dr. Gilman on the 25th of July, 1834,
Here is a brief passage from his nephew, Henry Nelson Coleridge, which it would hardly be right to leave unquoted : “Coleridge, - blessings on his gentle memory!- Coleridge was a frail mortal. He had indeed his peculiar weaknesses as well as his unique powers; sensibilities that an averted look would rack, a heart which would beat calmly in the tremblings of an earthquake. He shrank from mere uneasiness like a child, and bore the preparatory agonies of his death-attack like a martyr. He suffered an almost life-long pun. ishment for his errors, whilst the world at large has the unwithering fruits of his labours, his genius, and his sufferings.”
Little room can here be spared for criticism of Coleridge's poetry. - He has large variety both of matter and of style ; he abounds in tenderness, delicacy, pathos ; has many passages of condensed and close-twisted vigour; some, of anstere, soul-lifting grandeur and sublimity; and not seldom searches the mind with happy aphoristic sayings, such as are apt to twine themselves inextricably into the reader's memory. His beauty, like that of Wordsworth, always lies first and chiefly in the thought; beauty of language coming in as the connate incarnation of beautiful thought. Sir Walter Scott, with, I believe, Christabel in his mind, pronounced him “the most imaginative poet of the age.”. This may well be doubted; but even a doubt on that point infers imagination enough in him to furnish out a whole regiment of ordinary poets. Though at all times wonderfully subtile and sinewy of discourse, still I am not aware that, in the poems written in the manhood of his genius, he ever lapses from good-sense, which is indeed the chief corner-stone of all high poetry. Therewithal, next after Wordsworth, he was the most original poet of his time: and it may well be questioned whether, in powers of versification, he was not even superior to his great friend. He was indeed a consummate master of rhythmical modulation. And how exquisitely, too, his diction everywhere feels the swiftest and the finest variations of his mental pulse! The “piercing sweetness of his lingual melody is well-nigh unequalled ; and that melody has all the limberness and subtility of his most subtile and limber discourse.