H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Coleridge online

. (page 15 of 16)
Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 15 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


The critic who would endeavour to appreciate the posi-
tion which Coleridge fills in the history of literature and
thought for the first half of the nineteenth century must, if
he possesses ordinary candour and courage, begin, I think,
with a confession. He must confess an inability to com-
prehend the precise manner in which that position was at-
tained, and the precise grounds on Avhich it was recognized.
For vast as were Coleridge's powers of thought and expres-
sion, and splendid, if incomplete, as is the record which
they have left behind them in his works, they Avcre never
directed to purposes of instruction or persuasion in any-
thing like that systematic and concentrated manner which
is necessary to him who would found a school. Cole-
ridge's writings on philosophical and theological subjects
were essentially discursive, fragmentary, incomplete. Even
when he professes an intention of exhausting his subject and
affects a logical arrangement, it is not long before he forgets
the design and departs from the order. His disquisitions
are in no sense connected treatises on the subjects to which
they relate. Brilliant aper^us, gnomic sayings, fl-ights of
fervid eloquence, infinitely suggestive reflections — of these

186 COLERIDGE. [chap.

there is enough and to spare ; but these, though an ample
equipment for the critic, are not sufficient for the construc-
tive philosopher. Nothing, it must be frankly said, in
Coleridge's philosophical and theological writings — noth-
ing, that is to say, -which appeals in them to the mere in-
telligence — suffices to explain, at least to the appreciation
of posterity, the fact that he was surrounded during these
closing years of his life by an eager crowd of real or sup-
posed disciples, including two, at any rate, of the most
remarkable personalities of the time. And if nothing in
Coleridge's writings serves to account for it, so neither
does anything traceable or tangible in the mere matter of
his conversations. This last point, however, is one which
must be for the present reserved. I wish for the moment
to confine myself to the fact of Coleridge's position during
his later life at Highgate. To this we have, as we all
know, an extremely eminent witness, and one from whose
evidence most people, one may suppose, are by this time
able to make their own deductions in all matters relating
to the persons with whom he was brought into contact.
Carlyle on Charles Lamb, few as the sour sentences are,
must always warn us to be careful how we follow Carlyle
"on" anybody Avhomsoever. But there is no evidence of
any ill feeling on Carlyle's part towards Coleridge — noth-
ing but a humorous, kindly-contemptuous compassion for
his weaknesses and eccentricities ; and the famous descrip-
tion in the Life of Sterling may be taken therefore as a
fairly accurate account of the man and the circumstances
to which it refers :

" Coleritlgc sat on the brow of Higbgate Hill in those years look-
ing down on London and its smoke tumult like a sage escaped from
the inanity of life's battle, attracting towards him the thoughts of
innumerable brave souls still engaged there. Ilis express contribu-


tious to poetry, philosophy, or any specific province of human litera-
ture or enlightenment hud been small and sadly intermittent ; but he
had, especially among young inquiring men, a higher than literary, a
kind of prophetic or magician character. He was thought to hold —
he alone in England — the key of German and other Transcendental-
isms ; knew the sublime secret of believing by the ' reason ' what the
'understanding' had been obliged to fling out as incredible; and
could still, after Ilume and Voltaire had done their best and worst
with him, profess himself an orthodox Christian, and say and point
to the Church of England, with its singular old rubrics and surplices
at Allhallowtide, Esto perpdua. A sublime man ; who alone in those
dark days had saved his crown of spiritual manhood, escaping from
the black materialisms and revolutionary deluges with ' God, Free-
dom, Immortality,' still his ; a king of men. The practical intellects
of the world did not much heed him, or carelessly reckoned him a
metaphysical dreamer; but to the rising spirits of the young genera-
tion he had tliis dusky sublime character, and sat there as a kind of
Magus, girt in mystery and enigma ; his Dodona oak-grove (Mr. Gill-
man's house at Highgate) whispering strange things, uncertain wheth-
er oracles or jargon."

Tho above quotation wonkl suffice for rny immediate
purpose, but it is impos.-^lble to deny oneself or one's read-
ers the pleasure of a n-frcslied recollection of the nolle
landscape-scene and tlic masterly portrait tliat follow :

" The Gillmans did not encourage much company or excitation of
any sort round their sage; nevertheless, access to him, if a youth did
reverently wish it, was not diflBcult. He would stroll about the pleas-
ant garden with you, sit in the pleasant rooms of the place — perhaps
take you to his own peculiar room, high up, with a rearward view,
which was the chief view of all. A really charming outlook in line
weather. Close at hand wide sweeps of flowing leafy gardens, their
few houses mostly hidden, the very chimney-pots veiled under blos-
soming umbrage, flowed gloriously down hill ; gloriously issuing in
wide-tufted undulating plain country, rich in all charms of Celd and
town. Waving blooming country of the brightest green, dotted
all over with handsome villas, handsome groves crossed by roads
and human traflic, here inauili'ilc, or heard onlv as a musical hum ;

188 COLERIDGE. [chap.

and beliind all swam, under olive-tinted haze, the illimitable limitary
ocean of London, with its domes and steeples defiuite in the sun, big
Paul's and the many memories attached to it hanging high over all.
Nowhere of its kind could you see a grander prospect on a bright
summer da}', with the set of the air going southward — southward,
and so draping with the city smoke not you but the city."

Then comes tlie invariable final touch, the one dash of
blaclc — or green, shall we call it — without which the mas-
ter left no picture that liad a human figure in the fore-
ground :

" Here for hours would Coleridge talk concerning all conceivable
or inconceivable things; and liked nothing better than to have an
intelligent, or, failing that, even a silent and patient human listener.
lie distinguished himself to all that ever heard him as at least the
most surprising talker extant in this world — and to some small mi-
nority, by no means to all, as the most excellent."

Then follows the well-known, wonderfully vivid, cynical-
ly pathetic sketch of the man :

" The good man — he was now getting old, towards sixty perhaps,
and gave you the idea of a life that had been full of sufferings ; a
life heav3'-ladeu, half-vanquished, still swimming painfully in seas of
manifold physical and other bewilderment. Brow and head were
round and of massive weight, but the face was flabby and irresolute.
The deep eyes, of a light hazel, were as full of sorrow as of inspira-
tion ; confused pain looked mildly from them, as in a kind of mild
astonishment. The whole figure and air, good and amiable otherwise,
might be called flabby and irresolute ; expressive of weakness under
possibility of strength. He hung loosely on his limbs, with knees
bent, and stooping attitude; in walking he rather shuffled than de-
cisively stepl ; and a lady once remarked he never could fix which
side of the garden-walk would suit him best, but continually shifted,
corkscrew fashion, and kept trying both ; a heavy-laden, high-aspir-
ing, and surely much-suffering man. His voice, naturally soft and
good, had contracted itself into a plaintive snuffle and sing-song ; he
spoke as if preaching — you could have said preaching eai'nestly and
almost hopelessly the weightiest things. I still recollect his ' object '


and ' subject,' terms of continual recurrence in the Kautean prov-
ince ; and liow he sang and snuffled them into ' om-m-ject ' and
'sum-m-mject,' with a Ivind of solemn shake or quaver as he rolled
along.' No talk in his century or in any other could be more sur-

Such, as he appeared to this half- contemptuous, half-
compassionate, but ever acute observer, was Coleridge at
this the zenith of his influence over the nascent thought
of his day. Such to Carlyle seemed the manner of the
deliverance of the oracles ; in his view of their matter, as
we all know from an equally well-remembered passage, his
tolerance disappears, and his account here, with all its
racy humour, is almost wholly impatient. Talk, " suffering
no interruption, however reverent, hastily putting aside
all foreign additions, annotation, or most ingenuous de-
sires for elucidation, as well-meant superfluities which
would never do ;" talk " not flowing any whither, like a
river, but spreading everywhither in inextricable currents
and regurgitations like a lake or sea;" a "confused unin-
telligible flood of utterance, threatening "to submerge all
known landmarks of thought and drown the world with
you" — this, it must be admitted, is not an easily recog-
nisable description of the Word of Life. Nor, certainly,
does Carlyle's own personal experience of its preaching
and effects — he having licard the preacher talk "with

' No one who recollects the equally singular manner in which an-
other most distinguished metaphysician — the late Dean Mansel — was
wont to quaver forth his admirably turned and often highly eloquent
phrases of philosophical exposition, can fail to be reminded of him
by the above description. No two temperaments or histories, how-
ever, could be more dissimilar. The two philosophei'S resembled each
other in nothing save the "om-mject" and "sum-mject" of their

190 COLERIDGE. [chap.

eager musical energy two stricken hours, Li» face radiant
and moist, and communicate no meaning wliatsoever to
any individual of liis hearers" — certain of whom, the nar-
rator for one, " still kept eagerly listening in hope, while
the most had long before given up and formed (if the
room was large enough) humming groups of their own."
"lie began anywhere," continues this irresistibly comic
sketch; "you put some question to him, made some sug-
gestive observation ; instead of answering this, or decid-
edly setting out towards an answer of it, he Avould ac-
cumulate formidable apparatus, logical swim-bladders, tran-
scendental life-preservers, and other precautionary and
vehiculatory gear for setting out; perhaps did at last get
under way — but was swiftly solicited, turned aside by the
flame of some radiant new game on this hand or on that
into new courses, and ever into new ; and before long
into all the universe, where it was uncertain what game
you would catch, or whether any." lie had, indeed, ac-
cording to the dissatisfied listener, " not the least talent
for explaining this or anything to them ; and you swam
and fluttered on the mistiest, wide, unintelligible deluge
of things for most part in a rather profitless uncomfort-
able manner." And the few vivid phrases of eulogy which
follow seem only to deepen by contrast the prevailing hue
of the picture. The " glorious islets " Avhicli were some-
times seen to " rise out of the haze," the " balmy sunny
islets of the blest and the intelligible, at whose emergence
the secondary humming group would all cease humming
and hang breathless upon the eloquent words, till once
your islet got wrapped in the mist again, and they would
recommence humming " — these, it seems to be suggested,
but rarely revealed themselves ; but " eloquent, artisticaHy
expressive words you always had ; piercing radiance* of


a most subtle insight came at intervals; tones of noble
pious sympathy, recognisable as pious though strangely
coloured, were never wanting long; but, in general, you
could not call this aimless cloud-capt, cloud-bound, law-
lessly meandering discourse, by the name of excellent talk,
but only of surprising. . . . The moaning sing-song of
that theosophico-mctaphysical monotony left in you at last
a very dreary feeling."

It is tolerably clear, I think, that some considerable dis-
count must be allowed upon the sum of disparagement in
this famous criticism. We have learnt, indeed, to be more
on the look-out for the disturbing influences of tempera-
ment in the judginciits of this atrabilious observer than
was the case when ihe Life of Sierlbig was written, and
it is difficult to doubt that the unfavourable strokes in
the above-quoted description have been unduly multiplied
and deepened, partly in the mere waywardness of a sar-
castic humour, and partly perhaps from a less excusable
cause. It is always dangerous to accept one remarkable
talker's view of the characteristics of another ; and if this
is true of men who merely compete with each other in
the ordinary give-and-take of the dinner-table epigramma-
tist and raconteur, the caution is doubly necessary in the
case of two rival prophets — tv.'o competing oracles. There
are those among us who hold that the conversation of the
Chelsea sage, in his later years, resembled his own de-
scription of the Highgate philosopher's, in this, at any
rate, that it was mightily intolerant of interruption ; and
one is apt to suspect that at no time of his life did Car-
lyle " understand duologue " much better than Coleridge.
It is probable enough, therefore, that the young lay-preach-
er did not quite relish being silenced by the elder, and
that his account of the sermons was coloured by the rec-

l'J2 COLERIDGE. [chap.

ollection that bis own remained undelivered. There is an
abundance of evidence that the "glorious islets" emerged
far more often from the transcendental haze than Carlyle
would have us suppose. Hazlitt, a bitter assailant of
Coleridge's, and whose caustic remark that " his talk was
excellent if you let him start from no premisses and come
to no conclusion," is cited with approval by Carlyle, has
elsewhere spoken of Coleridge as the ouly person from
whom he ever learned anything, has said of him that
though he talked on forever you wished him to talk on
forever, that " his thoughts did not seem to come with
labour and effort, but as if borne on the gusts of genius,
and as if the wings of his imagination lifted him from his
feet." And besides this testimony to the eloquence Avhich
Carlyle only but inadequately recognises, one should set
for what it is worth De Quincey's evidence to that conse-
quence of thought which Carlyle denies altogether. To
Do Quincey the complaint that Coleridge wandered in
his talk appeared unjust. According to him the great dis-
courser only " seemed to wander," and he seemed to wan-
der the most " when in fact his resistance to the wander-
ing instinct was greatest, viz., when the compass and huge
circuit by which his illustrations moved travelled farthest
into remote regions before they began to revolve. Long
before this coming round commenced, most people had
lost him, and, naturally enough, supposed that he had lost
himself. They contiuued to admire the separate beauty
of the thoughts, but did not see their relations to the
dominant theme." De Quincey, however, declares posi-
tively in the faith of his " long and intimate knowledge
of Coleridge's mind, that logic the most severe was as in-
alienable from his modes of thinking as grammar from
his language."


Nor should wo omit tlio testimony of anotlier, a more
partial, perhaps, but even better informed judge. The
Table Talk, edited by Mr. Nelson Coleridge, shows how
pregnant, how pithy, how full of subtle observation, and
often also of playful humour, could be the talk of the
great discourser in its lighter and more colloquial forms.
The book indeed is, to the thinking of one, at any rate,
of its frequent readers, among the most delightful in the
world. But thus speaks its editor of his uncle's conversa-
tion in his more serious moods :

"To pass an entire day with Coleridge was a marvellous change
indeed [from the talk of daily life]. It was a Sabbath past expres-
sion, deep and tranquil and serene. You came to a man who had
travelled in many countries and in critical times ; who had seen and
felt the world in most of its ranks and in many of its vicissitudes
and weaknesses ; one to v/hom all literature and art were absolutely
subject; and to whom, with a reasonable allowance as to technical
details, all science was, in a most extraordinary degree, familiar.
Throughout a long-drawn summer's day would this man talk to you
in low, equable, but clear and musical tones concerning things hu-
man and divine ; marshalling all history, harmonising all experiment,
probing the depths of your consciousness, and revealing visions of
glory and terror to the imagination ; but pouring withal such floods
of light upon the mind that you might for a season, like Paul, become
blind in the very act of conversion. And this he would do without
so much as one allusion to himself, without a word of reflection upon
others, save when any given art foil naturally in the way of his dis-
course ; without one anecdote that was not proof and illustration of
a previous position ; gratifying no passion, indulging no caprice, but,
with a calm mastery over your soul, leading you onward and onward
forever through a thousand windings, yet with no pause, to some
magnificent point in which, as in a focus, all the parti-coloured rays
of his discourse should converge in light. In all these he was, in
truth, your teacher and guide ; but in a little while you might forget
that he was other tlian a fellow-student and the companion of your
wa}' — so playful was his manner, so simple his language, so affection-
ate the glance of his eye ! "

194 COLERIDGE. [chap.

Impressive, 1 owcver, as these displays may have been, it
is impossible to suppose that their direct didactic value
as discourses was at all considerable. Such as it was, more-
over, it was confined in all probability to an extremely
select circle of followers. A few mystics of the type of
Maurice, a few eager seekers after truth like Sterling, may
have gathered, or fancied they gathered, distinct dogmatic
instruction from the Ilighgate oracles ; and no doubt, to
the extent of bis influence over tbe former of these disci-
ples, wo may justly credit Coleridge's discourses witb hav-
ing exercised a real if only a transitory directive effect upon
nineteenth-century thought. But the terms in which his
influence is sometimes spoken of appear, as far as one can
judge of the matter at this distance of time, to be greatly
exaggerated. To speak of it in the same way as we are —
or were — accustomed to speak of the influence of Carlyle,
is to subject it to an altogether inappropriate comparison.
It is not merely that Coleridge founded no recognisable
school, for neither did Carlyle. It is that the former can
show absolutely nothing at all resembling that sort of
power which enabled the latter to lay hold upon all the
youthful minds of his time — minds of the most disparate
orders and associated with the utmost diversities of tem-
perament, and detain them in a captivity which, brief as it
may have been in some cases, has in no case failed to leave
its marks behind it. Over a few spirits already prepared
to receive them Coleridge's teachings no doubt exerted
power, but he led no soul captive against its will. There
are few middle-aged men of active intelligence at the pres-
ent day who can avoid a confession of having " taken "
Carlylism in their youth ; but no mental constitutions not
predisposed to it could ever have caught Coleridgism at
all. There is indeed no moral theory of life, there are no


maxims of conduct, such as youth above all things craves
for, in Coleridge's teaching. Apart from the intrinsic dif-
ficulties of the task to which he invites his disciples, it
labom's under a primary and essential disadvantage of post-
poning moral to intellectual liberation. Contrive somehow
or other to attain to just ideas as to the capacities and lim-
itations of human consciousness, considered especially in
relation to its two important and eternally distinct func-
tions, the Reason and the Understanding, and peace of
mind shall in due time be added unto you. That is in
effect Coleridge's answer to the inquirer who consults him ;
and if the distinction between the Reason and the Under-
standing w'cre as obvious as it is obscure to the average
unmetaphysical mind, and of a value as assured for the
purpose to which Coleridge applies it as it is uncertain, the
answer would nevertheless send many a would-be disciple
sorrowful away. Ills natural impulse is to urge the oracle to
tell him whether there be not some one moral attitude which
he can wisely and worthily adopt towards the universe,
whatever theory he may form of his mental relations to it,
or without forming any such theory at all. And it was
because Carlyle supplied, or was believed to supply an
answer, such as it was, to this universal question, that his
train of followers, voluntary and involuntary, permanent
and temporary, has been so large.

It appears to me, therefore, on as careful an examination
of the point as the data admit of, that Coleridge's position
in these latter days of his life has been somewhat mytli-
ically exalted by the generation which succeeded him.
There are, I think, distinct traces of a Coleridgiau legend
which has only slowly died out. The actual truth I believe
to be that Coleridge's position from 1818 or 1820 till his
death, though one of the greatest eminence, was in no sense

196 COLERIDGE. [chap.

one of tlie liiglicst, oi* even of any considerable influence.
Fame and lionour, in the fullest measure, were no doubt
his : in that matter, indeed, he was only receiving payment
of long-delayed arrears. The poetic school with which he
was, though not with entire accuracy, associated, had out-
lived its period of contempt and obloquy. In spite of the
two quarterlies, the Tory review hostile, its Whig rival coldly
silent, the public had recognised the high imaginative merit
of Christahel ; and who knows but that if the first edition
of the Lyrical Ballads had appeared at this date instead
of twenty years before, it would have obtained a certain
number of readers even among landsmen ? * But over and
above the published works of the poet there were those
extraordinary personal characteristics to which the fame of
his works of course attracted a far larger share than for-
merly of popular attention. A remarkable man has more
attractive power over the mass of mankind than the most
remarkable of books, and it was because the report of
Coleridge among those who knew him was more stimulat-
ing to public curiosity than even the greatest of his poems,
that his celebrity in these latter years attained such propor-
tions. Wordsworth said that though " he had seen man}'
men do wonderful things, Coleridge was the only wonderful
man he had ever met," and it was not the doer of wonder-
ful things but the wonderful man that Englisli society in
those days went out to see. Seeing Avould have been
enough, but for a certain number there was hearing too,
with the report of it for all ; and it is not surprising that
fame of the marvellous discourser should, in mere virtue of

^ Tlic Longmans tolJ C(jloridge that the greater part of the first
edition of the Lyrical Ballads iiad been sold to seafaring men, wlio,
having heard of the Ancient 3farincr, took the volume for a naval


])is oxtraordinary power of improvised speccli, his limitless
and untiring- mastery of articulate words, have risen to a
heig'lit to which writers whose only voice is in their pens
can never hope to attain.

A reputation of that kind, however, must necessarily
perish with its possessor; and Coleridge's posthumous re-
nown has grown, his place in English literature has become
more assured, if it has not been even fixed higher, since
his death than during his lifetime. This is, in part no
doubt, one among the consequences of those very defects
of character which so unfortunately limited his actual
achievements. lie has been credited by faith, as it were,
with those famous " unwritten books " of which he assured

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 15

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 15 of 16)