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158 COLERIDGE. [ciiai-,

painful; for the relation of others to him, of wondrous fidelity and
of frightful ingratitude, alone sufficiently distinguish him. Thus
Lear becomes the open and ample playroom of nature's passions."

Oi' lastly, in illustration of raj^ second point, let us take
this note on the remark of tlie knight tiiat "since my
young lady's going into France the fool hath much pined
away :"

*' The fool is no comic buffoon to make the groundlings laugh —
no forced condescension of Shakspeare's genius to the taste of his
audience. Accordingly the poet prepares us for the introduction,
which he never does with any of his common clowns and fools, by
bringing him into living connection with the pathos of the play. He
is as wonderful a creation as Caliban — his wild babblings and in-
spired idiocy articulate and gauge the horroi-s of the scene."

The subject is a tempting one to linger over, did not
imperative exigencies of space compel me to pass on from
it. There is much — very much — more critical matter in
the Literary Remains of which it is hard to forbear quo-
tation ; and I may mention in particular the profoundly
suggestive remarks on the nature of the humorous, with
their accompanying analysis of the genius and artistic
method of Sterne. But it is, as has been said, in Shake-
spearian criticism that Coleridge's unique mastery of all
the tools of the critic is most conspicuous, and it is in the
brilliant, if unmethodised, pages which I have been dis-
cussing that we may most readily find consolation for the
too early silencing of his muse. For these consummate
criticisms are essentially and above all the criticisms of a
poet. They are such as conld not have been achieved by
any man not originally endowed with that divine gift
which was fated in this instance to expend itself within
so few years. Nothing, indeed, could more strikingly


illustrate tlic commanding advantage possessed by a poet
interpreting a poet than is to be found in Coleridge's
occasional sarcastic comments on the banalites of our na-
tional poet's most prosaic commentator, Warburton — the
" thought-swarming but idealess Warburton," as he once
felicitously styles him. The one man seems to read his
author's text under the clear, diffused, unwavering radi-
ance emitted from his own poetic imagination ; while the
criticism of the other resembles a perpetual scratching of
damp matches, which flash a momentary light into one
corner of the dark passage, and then go out.




For the years which now remained to Coleridge, some six-
teen in number, dating from his last appearance as a pub-
lic lecturer, his life would seem to have been attended with
something, at least, of that sort of happiness which is en-
joyed by the nation of uneventful annals. There is little
to be told of him in the way of literary performance ; lit-
tle record remains, unfortunately, of the discursively didac-
tic talk in which, during these years, his intellectual activ-
ity found its busiest exercise ; of incident, in the ordinary
sense of the word, there is almost none. An account of
these closing days of his life must resolve itself almost
wholly into a " history of opinion " — an attempt to reani-
mate for ourselves that life of perpetual meditation which
Coleridge lived, and to trace, so far as the scanty evidence
of his utterances enables us to do so, the general tenor of
his daily thoughts. From one point of view, of course,
this task would be extremely difficult, if not impossible;
from another comparatively easy. It is easy, that is to say,
to investigate Coleridge's speculations, so far as their sub-
ject is concerned, whatever difficulties their obscurity and


subtlety may present to the inquirer; for, as a matter of
fact, their subject is remarkably uniform. Attempts to di-
vide tlie literary life of a writer into eras are more often
arbitrary and fanciful than not; but the peculiar circum-
stances of Coleridge's career did in fact effect the division
for themselves. His life until the age of twenty-six may
fairly be described as in its " poetic period." It was dur-
ing these years, and indeed during the last two or three of
them, that he produced all the poetry by which he will be
remembered, while he produced little else of mark or mem-
orability. The twenty years which follow from 1*798 to
1818 may with equal accuracy be styled the "critical pe-
riod." It was during these years that he did his best work
as a journalist, and all his work as a public lecturer on
aesthetics. It was during them that he said his say, and
even his final say, so far as any public modes of expression
were concerned, on politics and on art. From 1818 to his
death his life was devoted entirely to metaphysics and the-
ology, and with such close and constant reference to the
latter subject, to which indeed his metaphysics had through-
out his life been ancillary, that it deserves to give the name
of the " theological period " to these closing years.

Their lack of incident, however, is not entirely as favour-
able a circumstance as that uneventfulness of national an-
nals to which I have compared it ; for, though " no news
may be good news " in the case of a nation's history, it is
by no means as certainly so in the case of a man's biogra-
phy, and, least of all, when the subject is a man whose in-
ward life of thought and feeling so completely overshad-
owed his outward life of action throughout his whole ca-
reer. There is indeed evidence, slight in amount, but con-
clusive in character — plain and painful evidence enough to
show that at least the first four or five years of the period

162 COLERIDGE. [chap.

we have mentioned were not altogether years of resigna-
tion and calm; that they were embittered by recurring
agonies of self-reproach, by

"Sense of past youth, and manhood come in vain,
And genius given, and knowledge won in vain ;"

and by the desolating thought that all which had been
" culled in wood-walks wild," and " all which patient toil

had reared," were to be

— " but flowers

Strewn on the corse, and borne upon the bier,
In the same coffin, for the self-same grave !"

Here and there in the correspondence with Thomas All-
sop we obtain a glimpse into that vast half-darkened arena
in which this captive spirit self-condemned to the lions
was struirfflinQr its last. To one strange and hitherto un-
explained letter I have already referred. It was written
from Ramsgate in the autumn of 1822, evidently under
circumstances of deep depression. But there is a letter
nearly two years earlier in date addressed to the same cor-
respondent which contains by far the fullest account of
Coleridge's then condition of mind, the state of his liter-
ary engagements and his literary projects, his completed
and uncompleted work. As usual with him it is stress of
money matters that prompts him to write, and he prefaces
his request for assistance with the following portentous
catalogue of realised or contemplated schemes. " Contem-
plated," indeed, is too modest a word, according to his own
account, to be applied to any one item in the formidable
list. Of all of them, he has, he tells Allsop, " already the
written materials and contents, requiring only to be put to-
gether from the loose papers and commonplace in memo-
randum books, and needing no other change, whether of


omission, addition, or correction, than the mere act of ar-
ranging, and the opportunity of seeing the whole collec-
tively, bring with them of course." Heads I. and IL of
the list comprise those criticisms on Shakespeare and the
other principal Elizabethan dramatists ; on Dante, Spenser,
Milton, Cervantes, Calderon ; on Chaucer, Ariosto, Donne,
Rabelais, etc., which formed the staple of the course of
lectures delivered in 1818, and which were published after
his death in the first two of the four volumes of Literary
Remains brought out under the editorship of Mr. H. N.
Coleridge. Reserving No. III. for a moment we find No.
IV. to consist of " Letters on the Old and New Testament,
and on the Doctrines and Principles held in common by
the Fathers and Founders of the Reformation, addressed
to a Candidate for Holy Orders, including advice on the
plan and subjects of preaching proper to a minister of
the Established Church." The letters never apparently
saw the light of publicity, at any rate, in the epistolary
form, either during the author's lifetime or after his
death ; and with regard to II. and III., which did obtain
posthumous publication, the following caution should be
borne in mind by the reader. " To the completion," says
Coleridge, "of these four works I have literally nothing
more to do than to transcribe ; but, as I before hinted,
from so many scraps and Sibylline leaves, including
margins of blank pages, that unfortunately I must be my
own scribe, and, not done by myself, they will be all but
lost." As matters turned out he was not his own scribe,
and the difficulty which Mr. Nelson Coleridge experienced
in piecing together the fragmentary materials at his dispos-
al is feelingly described by him in his preface to the first
edition. He added that the contents of these volumes
were drawn from a portion only of the MSS, entrusted to

1G4 COLERIDGE. [chap.

liim, and that the remainder of tlie collection, which, Under
favourable circumstances, he hoped might hereafter see the
light, " was at least of equal value" with what he was then
presenting to the reader. This hope was never realised ;
and it must be remembered, therefore, that the published
I'ccord of Coleridge's achievements as a critic is, as has al-
ready been pointed out, extremely imperfect.' That it is
not even more disappointingly so than it is, may well entitle
his nephew and editor to the gratitude of posterity ; but
where much has been done, there yet remains much to do
ei'e Coleridge's consummate analyses of poetic and dramatic
works can be presented to the reader in other than their
present shape of a series of detached brilliancies. The
pearls are there, but the string is wanting. Whether it
will be ever supplied, or whether it is possible now to
supply it, one cannot say.

The third of Coleridge's virtually completed works —
there is much virtue in a " virtually " — was a " History of
Philosophy considered as a Tendency of the Human Mind
to exhibit the Powers of the Human Reason, to discover
by its own strength the Origin and Laws of Man and the
World, from Pythagoras to Locke and Condillac." This
production, however, considerable as it is, was probably
merely ancillary to what he calls " My Great Work, to
the preparation of which more than twenty years of my
life have been devoted, and on which my hopes of exten-
sive and permanent utility, of fame in the noblest sense of
the word, mainly rest." To this work he goes on to say :

^ How imperfect, a comparison between estimated and actual bulk
will show. No. I. was, according to Coleridge's reckoning, to form
three volumes of 500 pages each. In the Literary Remains it fills
less than half of four volumes of little more than 400 pages caclL


" All my other writings, unless I except my Poems (and these I can
exclude in part only), arc introductory and preparative, while its re-
sult, if the premises be as I with the most tranquil assurance am
convinced they are — incontrovertible, the deductions legitimate, and
the conclusions commensurate, and only commensurate with both
[must be], to effect a revolution in all that has been called Philoso-
phy and Metaphysics in England and France since the era of com-
mencing predominance of the mechanical system at the Restoration
of our Second Charles, and with [in] the present fashionable views
not only of religion, morals, and politics, but even of the modern
physics and physiology."

TLis, it must be allowed, is a suflBciently " large order,"
being apparently indeed nothing less than an undertaking
to demolisli the system of Locke and bis successors, and to
erect German Transcendentalism on the ruins. With any-
thing less than this, however — with any less noble object
or less faith in their attainments — Coleridge could not, he
declares, have stood acquitted of folly and abuse of time,
talent, and learning, on a labour of three-fourths of his
intellectual life. Somewhat more than a volume of this
magnum opus had been dictated by him to his "friend
and enlightened pupil, Mr. Green, so as to exist fit for the
press ;" and more than as much again had been done, but
he had been compelled to break off the weekly meetings
with his pupil from the necessity of writing on subjects of
the passing day. Then comes a reference, the last we meet
with, to the real " great work," as the unphilosophic world
has always considered and will always consider it. On
this subject he says :

" Of my poetic works I would fain finish the Chrisiabel. Alas !
for the proud time when I planned, when I had present to my mind
the materials as well as the scheme of the Hymns entitled Spirit,
Sun, Earth, Air, Water, Fire, and Man ; and the Epic Poem on what
appears to me the only fit subject remaining for an Epic Poem —
Jerusalem besieged and destroyed by Titus."

166 COLERIDGE. [chap.

And then there follows this most pathetic passage, neces-
sary, in spite of its length, to be transcribed entire, both on
account of the value of its biographic details — its informa-
tion on the subject of the useless worldly afFaii-s, etc. — and
because of the singularly penetrating light which it throws
upon the mental and moral nature of the man :

" I have only by fits and starts ever prayed — I have not prevailed
upon myself to pray to God in sincerity and entireness for the forti-
tude that might enable me to resign myself to the abandonment of
all my life's best hopes, to say boldly to myself, 'Gifted with powers
confessedly above mediocrity, aided by an education of which no less
from almost unexampled hardships and sufferings than from mani-
fold and peculiar advantages I have never yet found a parallel, I
have devoted myself to a life of unintermitted reading, thinking,
meditating, and observing ; I have not only sacrificed all worldly pros-
pects of wealth and advancement, but have in my inmost soul stood
aloof from temporary reputation. In consequence of these toils and
this self-dedifai,ion I possess a calm and clear consciousness that in
many and most impoitant departments of truth and beauty I have
outstrode my contemporaries, those at least of highest name, that the
number of my printed works bear witness that I have not been idle,
and the seldom acknowledged but strictly proveahle effects of my
labours appropriated to the welfare of my age in the Morning Post
before the peace of Amiens, in the Courier afterwards, and in the
serious and various subjects of my lectures . . . (add to which the
unlimited freedom of my communications to colloquial life) may
surely be allowed as evidence that I have not been useless to my
generation. But, from circumstances, the main portion of my har-
vest is still on the ground, ripe indeed and only waiting, a few for the
sickle, but a large part only for the sheaving and carting and housing
— but from all this I must turn away and let them rot as they lie,
and be as though they never had been ; for I must go and gather
blackberries and earth-nuts, or pick mushrooms and gild oak-apples
for the palate and fancies of chance customers. I must abrogate the
name of philosopher and poet, and scribble as fast as I can and with
as little thought as I can for Blackwood's Magazine, or as I have been
employed for the last days in writing MS. sermons for Lizy t'lergy>


men who stipulate that the composition must be more than respecta-
ble.' . . . This " [i.e., to say this to myself] " I have not yet had
courage to do. My soul sickens and my heart sinks, and thus oscil-
lating between both " [forms of activit}' — the production of perma-
nent and of ephemeral work] " I do neither — neither as it ought to
be done to any profitable end."

And his proposal for extricating himself from this dis-
tressing position is that " those who think respectfully and
hope highly of my power and attainments should guaran-
tee me a yearly sum for three or four years, adequate to my
actual support, with such comforts and decencies of ap-
pearance as my health and habit have made necessaries,
so that my mind may be unanxious as far as the present
time is concerned." Thus provided for he would under-
take to devote two-thirds of his time to some one work
of those above mentioned — that is to say, of the first four
— and confine it e.xclusively to it till finished, while the
remaining third of his time he would go on maturing and
completing his "great work," and "(for, if but easy in
my mind, I have no doubt either of the reawakening
power or of the kindling inclination) my Christahel, and
what else the happier hour may inspire." Mr. Green, he
goes on to say, had promised to contribute £30 to £40
yearly, another pupil, " the son of one of my dearest old
friends, £50," and £10 or £20 could, he thought, he re-
lied on from another. The whole amount of the required
annuity would be about £200, to be repaid, of course,
should disposal or sale of his works produce, or as far as
they should produce, the means. But " am I entitled,"
he asks uneasilj', " have I a right to do this ? Can I do it
without moral degradation ? And lastly, can it be done
without loss of character in the eyes of my acquaintances
and of my friends' acquaintances?"

168 COLERIDGE. [chap.

I cannot take upon myself to answer these painful ques-
tions. The reply to be given to theui must depend upon
the judgment which each individual student of this re-
markable but unhappy career may pass upon it as a whole ;
and, while it would be too much to expect that that judg-
ment should be entirely favourable, one may at least be-
lieve that a fair allowance for those inveterate weaknesses
of physical constitution which so largely aggravated, if
they did not wholly generate, the fatal infirmities of Cole-
ridge's moral nature, must materially mitigate the harsh-
ness of its terms.

The story of Coleridge's closing years is soon told. It
is mainly a record of days spent in meditation and dis-
course, in which character it will be treated of more fully
in a subsequent chapter. His literary productions during
the last fourteen years of his life were few in number, and
but one of them of any great importance. In 1821 he
had offered himself as an occasional contributor to Black-
ivood^s Magazine, but a series of papers promised by him
to that periodical were uncompleted, and his only two
contributions, in October, 1821, and January, 1822, are of
no particular note. In May, 1825, he read a paper on the
Prometheus of ^schylus before the Royal Society of Liter-
ature; but "the series of disquisitions respecting the Egyp-
tian in connection with the sacerdotal theology and in con-
trast with the mysteries of ancient Greece," to which this
essay had been announced as preparatory, never made their
appearance. In the same year, however, he published one
of the best known of his prose works, his Aids to Reflection.

Of the success of this latest of Coleridge's more impor-
tant contributions to literature there can be no doubt.
New editions of it seem to have been demanded at regular
'•itervals for some twenty years after its first production.


and it appears to have had during the same period a rela-
tively equal reissue in the United States. The Rev. Dr.
James Marsh, an American divine of some ability and
reputation, composed a preliminary essay (now prefixed to
the fifth English edition), in which he elaborately set forth
the peculiar merits of tlic work, and undertook to initiate
the reader in the fittest and most profitable method of
making use of it. In these remarks the reverend essayist
insists more strongly on the spiritually edifying quality of
the Aids than on their literary merits, and, for my own
part, I must certainly consider him right in doing so. As
a religious manual it is easy to understand how this vol-
ume of Coleridge's should have obtained many and earnest
readers. What religious manual, which shows traces of
spiritual insight, or even merely of pious yearnings after
higher and holier than earthly things, has ever failed to
win such readers among the weary and heavy-laden of the
world ? And that Coleridge, a writer of the most pene-
trating glance into divine mysteries, and writing always
from a soul all tremulous, as it were, with religious sensi-
bility, should have obtained such readers in abundance is
not surprising. But to a critic and literary biographer I
cannot think that his success in this respect has much to
say. For my own part, at any rate, I find considerable
difficulty in tracing it to any distinctively literary origin.
There seems to me to be less charm of thought, less beau-
ty of style, less even of Coleridge's seldom-failing force
of effective statement, in the Aids to Rejlectioji than in
almost any of his writings. Even the volume of some
dozen short chapters on the Constitution of the Church
and State, published in 1830, as an "aid towards a right
judgment in the late Catholic Relief Bill," appears to mo
to yield a more characteristic flavour of the author's style,


and to exhibit far more of his distinction of literary work-
manship, than the earlier and more celebrated work.

Among the acquaintances made by Coleridge after his
retirement to Mr. Gillman's was one destined to be of
some importance to the history of his philosophical work.
It was that of a gentleman whose name has already been
mentioned in this chapter, Mr. Joseph Henry Green, after-
wards a distinguished surgeon and Fellow of the Royal
Society, who in his early years had developed a strong
taste for metaphysical speculation, going even so far as
to devote one of his hard-earned periods of professional
holiday to a visit to Germany for the sake of studying
philosophy in that home of abstract thought. To him
Coleridge was introduced by his old Roman acquaintance,
Ludwig Tieck, on one of the latter's visits to England, and
he became, as the extract above quoted from Coleridge's
correspondence shows, his enthusiastic disciple and inde-
fatigable fellow-worker. In the pursuit of their common
studies, and in those weekly reunions of admiring friends
which Coleridge, while his health permitted it, was in the
habit of holding, we may believe that a considerable por-
tion of these closing years of his life was passed under
happier conditions than he had been long accustomed to.
It is pleasant to read of him among his birds and flowers,
and sorrounded by the ever-watchful tendance of the af-
fectionate Gillmans, tranquil in mind at any rate, if not
at ease from his bodily ailments, and enjoying, as far as
enjoyment was possible to him, the peaceful close of a
stormy and unsettled day. For the years 1825-30, more-
over, his pecuniary circumstances were improved to the ex-
tent of £105 per annum, obtained for him at the instance
of the Royal Society of Literature, and held by him till
the death of George IV.


Two incidents of his later years are, however, worthy
of more special mention — a tour up the Rhine, which
he took in 1828, in company with Wordsworth and his
daughter, and, some years earlier, a meeting with John
Keats. " A loose, slack, not well dressed youth," it is
recorded in the Tahle Talk, published after his death by

his nephew, "met Mr. " [it was Mr. Green, of whom

more hereafter] " and myself in a lane near Highgate.
Green knew him and spoke. It was Keats. He was in-
troduced to me, and stayed a miiuite ov so. After he
had left us a little way, he came back and said, ' Let me
carry away the memory, Coleridge, of having pressed your
hand.' 'There is death in that hand,' I said to Green,
when Keats was gone ; yet this was, I believe, before the
consumption showed itself distinctly."

His own health, however, had been steadily declining in
these latter years, and the German tour with the Words-

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Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 13 of 16)