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Memoir of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.
THERE is no writer of his time who has been more the theme of panegyric by his friends, and of censure by his enemies, than Coleridge. It has been the custom of the former to injure him by extravagant praise, and of the latter to pour upon his head much unmerited abuse. Coleridge has left undone so much which his talents and genius would have enabled him to effect, and has done on the whole so little, that he has given his foes apparent foundation for some of their vituperation. His natural character, however, is indolent; he is far more ambitious of excelling in conversation, and of pouring out his wild philosophical theories—of discoursing about
Fix'd fate, free-will, fore-knowledge absolute
the mysteries of Kant, and the dreams of metaphysical vanity, than in building the lofty rhyme." His poems, however, which have been recently collected, form several volumes;and the beauty of some of his pieces so amply redeems the extravagance of others, that there can be but one regret respecting him, namely, that he should have preferred the short-lived perishing applause bestowed upon his conversation, to the lasting renown attending successful poetical efforts. Not but that Coleridge may lay claim to the praise due to a successful worship of the muses; for as long as the English language endures, his Geneviève» and « Ancient Mariner» will be read but he has been content to do far less than his abilities clearly demonstrate him able to effect.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born at Ottery Saint Mary, a town of Devonshire, in 1773. His father, the Rev. John Coleridge, was vicar there, having been previously a schoolmaster at South Molton. He is said to have been a person of considerable learning, and to have published several essays in fugitive publications. He assisted Dr Kennicot in collating his manuscripts for a Hebrew bible, and, among other things, wrote a dissertation on the « Aoyos." He was also the author of an excellent Latin grammar. He died in 1782, at the age of sixty-two, much regretted, leaving a considerable family, three of which, if
so many, are all who now survive; and of these the poet is the youngest.
Coleridge was educated at Christ's Hospitalschool, London. The smallness of his father's living and large family rendered the strictest economy necessary. At this excellent seminary he was soon discovered to be a boy of talent, eccentric but acute. According to his own statement the master, the Rev. J. Bowyer, was a severe disciplinarian after the inane practice of English grammar-school modes, but was fond of encouraging genius, even in the lads he flagellated most unmercifully. He taught with assiduity, and directed the taste of youth to the beauties of the better classical authors, and to comparisons of one with another. He habituated me," says Coleridge, to compare Lucretius, Terence, and above all the chaste poems of Catullus, not only with the Roman poets of the so called silver and brazen ages, but with even those of the Augustan era; and, on grounds of plain sense and universal logic, to see and assert the superiority of the former, in the truth and nativeness both of their thoughts and diction. At the same time that we were studying the Greek tragic poets, he made us read Shakspeare and Milton as lessons; and they were the lessons too which required most time and trouble to bring up, so as to escape his censure: I learned from him that poetry, even that of the loftiest, and seemingly that of the wildest odes, had a logic of its own, as severe as that of science, and more difficult; because more subtle and complex, and dependent on more and more fugitive causes. In our English compositions (at least for the last three years of our school education) he showed no mercy to phrase, image, or metaphor, unsupported by a sound sense, or where the same sense might have been conveyed with equal force and dignity in plainer words. Lute, harp, and lyre, muse, muses, and inspirations-Pegasus, Parnassus and Hippocrene, were all an abomination to him. In fancy, I can almost hear him now exclaiming-« Harp! harp! lyre! pen and ink, boy, you mean! muse, boy muse! your nurse's daughter, you mean! Pierian spring! O ay! the cloister pump, I suppose. » In his « Literary Life,» Coleridge has gone into the con
duct of his master at great length; and, compared
Ode to Chatterton. 6
he finished by enlisting in the 15th dragoons, under the name of Clumberbacht. Here he continued some time, the wonder of his comrades, and a subject of mystery and curiosity to his officers. While engaged in watching a sick comrade, which he did night and day, he is said to have got involved in a dispute with the regimental surgeon; but the disciple of Esculapius had no chance with the follower of the muses; he was astounded and put to flight by the profound erudition and astonishing eloquence of his antagonist. His friends at length found him out, and procured his discharge.
In 1794 Coleridge published a small volume of
It was owing to a present made to Coleridge of Bowles' sonnets by a school-fellow (the late Dr Middleton) while a boy of 17, that he was drawn away from theological controversy and wild metaphy-poems which were much praised by the critics of sics to the charms of poetry. He transcribed these sonnets no less than forty times in eighteen months, in order to make presents of them to his friends; and about the same period he wrote his Nothing else," he says, pleased me; history and particular facts lost all interest in my mind." Poetry had become insipid; all his ideas were directed to his favourite theological subjects and mysticisms, until Bowles' sonnets, and an acquaintance with a very agreeable family, recalled him to more pleasant paths, combined with perhaps far more of rational pursuits.
the time, though it appears they abounded in obscurities and epithets too common with young writers. He also published, in the same year, while residing at Bristol, The Fall of Robespierre, an Historic Drama,» which displayed considerable talent. It was written in conjunction with Southey; and what is remarkable in this composition is, that they began it at 7 o'clock one evening, finished it the next day by 12 o'clock noon, and the day after it was printed and published. The language is vigorous, and the speeches are well put together and correctly versified. - Coleridge also, in the winter of that When eighteen years of age, Coleridge remov-year, delivered a course of lectures on the French ed to Jesus College, Cambridge. It does not ap- revolution, at Bristol. pear that he obtained or even struggled for On leaving the University, Coleridge was full academic honours. From excess of animal spi- of enthusiasm in the cause of freedom, and rits, he was rather a noisy youth, whose general occupied with the idea of the regeneration of conduct was better than that of many of his mankind. He found ardent coadjutors in the fellow-collegians, and as good as most his fol- same enthusiastic undertaking in Robert Lovell lies were more remarkable only as being those of and Robert Southey, the present courtly laureate. a more remarkable personage; and if he could This youthful triumvirate proposed schemes be accused of a vice, it must be sought for in the for regenerating the world, even before their little attention he was inclined to pay to the dic-educations were completed; and dreamed of haptates of sobriety. It is known that he assisted a py lives in aboriginal forests, republics on the friend in composing an essay on English poetry Mississippi, and a newly-dreamed philanthropy. while at that University; that he was not un-In order to carry their ideas into effect they bemindful of the muses himself while there; and that he regretted the loss of the leisure and quiet he had found within its precincts.
In the month of November, 1793, while labouring under a paroxysm of despair, brought on by the combined effects of pecuniary difficulties and love of a young lady, sister of a school-fellow, he set off for London with a party of collegians, and passed a short time there in joyous conviviality. On his return to Cambridge, he remained but a few days, and then abandoned it for ever. He again directed his steps towards the metropolis, and there, after indulging somewhat freely in the pleasures of the bottle, and wandering about the various streets and squares in a state of mind nearly approaching to phrenzy,
gan operations at Bristol, and were received with considerable applause by several inhabitants of that commercial city, which, however remarkable for traffic, has been frequently styled the Boeotia of the west of England. Here, in 1795, Coleridge published two pamphlets, one called « Consciones ad Populum, or addresses to the people; » the other, «A protest against certain bills (then pending) for suppressing seditious meetings.»
The charm of the political regeneration of nations, though thus warped for a moment, was not broken. Coleridge, Lovell and Southey, finding the old world would not be reformed after their mode, determined to try and found a new one, in which all was to be liberty and happiness. The deep woods of America were to be the site of
Sheridan's not having acted with any great regard to truth or feeling. During his residence here Coleridge was in the habit of preaching every Sunday at the Unitarian Chapel in Taunton, and was greatly respected by the better class of his neighbours. He enjoyed the friendship of Wordsworth, who lived at Allfoxden, about two miles from Stowey, and was occasionally visited by Charles Lamb, John Thelwall, and other congenial spirits. «The Brook,» a poem that he planned about this period, was never completed.
this new golden region. There all the evils of and wrote there in the spring, at the desire of European society were to be remedied, property | Sheridan, a tragedy which was, in 1813, brought was to be in common, and every man a legislator. | out under the title of « Remorse:» the name it oriThe name of Pantisocracy » was bestowed upon ginally bore was Osorio. There were some circumthe favoured scheme, while yet it existed only instances in this business that led to a suspicion of imagination. Unborn ages of human happiness presented themselves before the triad of philosophical founders of Utopian empires, while they were dreaming of human perfectibility:-a harmless dream at least, and an aspiration after better things than life's realities, which is the best that can be said for it. In the midst of these plans of vast import, the three philosophers fell in love with three sisters of Bristol, named Fricker (one of them, afterwards Mrs Lovell, an actress of the Bristol theatre, another a mantuamaker, and the third kept a day-school), and all their visions of immortal freedom faded into thin air. They married, and occupied themselves with the increase of the corrupt race of the old world, instead of peopling the new. Thus, unhappily for America and mankind, failed the scheme of the Pantisocracy, on which at one time so much of human happiness and political regeneration was by its founders believed to depend. None have revived the phantasy since; but Coleridge has lived to sober down his early extravagant views of political freedom into something like a disavowal of having held them; but he has never changed into a foe of the generous principles of human freedom, which he ever espoused; while Southey has become the enemy of political and religious freedom, the supporter and advocate of arbitrary measures in church and state, and the vituperator of all who support the recorded principles of his early years.
About this time, and with the same object, namely, to spread the principles of true liberty, Coleridge began a weekly paper called «The Watchman, which only reached its ninth number, though the editor set out on his travels to procure subscribers among the friends of the doctrines he espoused, and visited Birmingham, Manchester, Derby, Nottingham, and Sheffield, for the purpose. The failure of this paper was a severe mortification to the projector. No ground was gained on the score of liberty, though about the same time his self-love was flattered by the success of a volume of poems, which he republished, with some communications from his friends Lamb and Lloyd.
Coleridge married Miss Sarah Fricker in the autumn of 1795, and in the following year his eldest son, Hartley, was born. Two more sons, Berkley and Derwent, were the fruits of this union. In 1797, he resided at Nether Stowey, a village near Bridgewater, in Somersetshire,
Coleridge had married before he possessed the means of supporting a family, and he depended principally for subsistence, at Stowey, upon his literary labours, the remuneration for which could be but scanty. At length, in 1798, the kind patronage of the late Thomas Wedgwood, Esq., who granted him a pension of 100l. a-year, enabled him to plan a visit to Germany; to which country he proceeded with Wordsworth, and studied the language at Ratzeburg, and then went to Gottingen. He there attended the lectures of Blumenbach on natural history and physiology, and the lectures of Eichhorn on the New Testament; and from professor Tychven he learned the Gothic grammar. He read the Minnesinger and the verses of Hans Sachs, the Nuremberg cobbler, but his time was principally devoted to literature and philosophy. At the end of his « Biographia Literaria » Coleridge has published some letters, which relate to his sojourn in Germany. He sailed, September 16th 1798, and on the 19th landed at Hamburgh. It was on the 20th of the same month that he says he was introduced to the brother of the great poet Klopstock, to professor Ebeling, and ultimately to the poet himself. He had an impression of awe on his spirits when he set out to visit the German Milton, whose humble house stood about a quarter of a mile from the city gate. He was much disappointed in the countenance of Klopstock, which was inexpressive, and without peculiarity in any of the features. Klopstock was lively and courteous; talked of Milton and Glover, and preferred the verse of the latter to the former,―a very curious mistake, but natural enough in a foreigner. He spoke with indignation of the English translations of his Messiah. He said his first ode was fifty years older than his last, and hoped Coleridge would revenge him on Englishmen by translating the Messiah.
On his return from Germany, Coleridge went to
reside at Keswick, in Cumberland. He had made | whom it rallies, and feels it impossible to trust
a great addition to his stock of knowledge, and he seems to have spared no pains to store up what was either useful or speculative. He had become master of most of the early German writers, or rather of the state of early German literature. He dived deeply into the mystical stream of Teutonic philosophy. There the predilections of his earlier years no doubt came upon him in aid of his researches into a labyrinth which no human clue will ever unravel; or which, were one found capable of so doing, would reveal a mighty nothing. Long, he says, while meditating in England, had his heart been with Paul and John, and his head with Spinoza. He then became convinced of the doctrine of St Paul, and from an antitrinitarian became a believer in the Trinity, and in Christianity as commonly received; or, to use his own word, found a « re-conversion." Yet, for all his arguments on the subject, he had better have retained his early creed, and saved the time wasted in travelling back to exactly the same point where he set out, for he finds that faith necessary at last which he had been taught in his church, was necessary at his first outset in life. His arguments, pro and con, not being of use to any of the community, and the exclusive property of their owner, he had only to look back upon his laborious trifling, as Grotius did upon his own toils, when death was upon him. Metaphysics are most unprofitable things; as political economists say, their labours are of the most « unproductive class in the community of thinkers.
the changeable leader, or applaud the addresses
The next step of our poet in a life which seems to have had no settled object, but to have been steered compassless along, was to undertake the political and literary departments of the Morning Post newspaper, and in the duties of this situation he was engaged in the spring of 1802. No man was less fitted for a popular writer; and, in common with his early connections, Coleridge seems to have had no fixed political principles that the public could understand, though he perhaps was able to reconcile in his own bosom all that others might imagine contradictory, and no doubt he did so conscientiously. His style and manner of writing, the learning and depth of his disquisitions for ever came into play, and rendered him unintelligible, or, what is equally fatal, unreadable to the mass. It was singular too, that he disclosed in his biography so strongly his unsettled political principles, which showed that he had not studied politics as he had studied poetry, Kant, and the- His translation of Schiller's Wallenstein may be ology. The public of each party looks upon a denominated a free one, and is finely executed. political writer as a sort of champion around It is impossible to give in the English language a