H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

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a little longer in the ranks than the four months of his
actual service. As it was, however, his military experi-
ences, unlike those of Gibbon, were of no subsequent ad-
vantage to him. He was, as he tells us, an execrable rider,
a negligent groom of his horse, and, generally, a slack and
slovenly trooper; but before drill and discipline had had
time to make a smart soldier of him, he chanced to attract
the attention of his captain by having written a Latin quo-
tation on the white wall of the stables at Reading. This
officer, who it seems was cither able to translate the ejac-
ulation, " Eheu ! quara infortunii miserrimum est fuisse
felicem," * or, at any rate, to recognise the language it was

' It is characteristic of the punctilious inaccuracy of Mr. Cottle
{Recollections, ii. 54) that he should insist that the assumed name was
*' Cumberbatch, not Comberback," though Coleridge has himself fixed
the real name by the jest, " My habits were so little equestrian that
my horse, I doubt not, was of that opinion." This circumstance,
though trifling, does not predispose us to accept unquestioningly Mr.
Cottle's highly particularised account of Coleridge's experience with
his regiment.

* "In omni adversitate fortunae, infelicissimum genus est infor-
tunii fuisse felicem." — Boethivs.


written in, interested himself forthwith on behalf of his
scholarly recruit.* Coleridge's discharge was obtained at
llounslow on April 10, 1794, and he returned to Cam-

The year was destined to be eventful for him in more
ways than one. In June he went to Oxford to pay a visit
to an old schoolfellow, where an accidental introduction to
Robert Southey, then an undergraduate of Balliol, laid the
foundation of a friendship destined largely to influence
their future lives. In the course of the following August
he came to Bristol, where ho was met by Southey, and
by him introduced to Robert Lovell, through whom and
Southey he made the acquaintance of two persons of con-
siderable, if not exactly equal, importance to any young
author — his first publisher and his future wife. Robert
Lovell already knew Mr. Joseph Cottle, brother of Amos
Cottle (Byron's "0! Amos Cottle! Phoebus! what a
name"), and himself a poet of some pretensions; and he
had married Mary Fricker, one of whose sisters, Edith, was
already engaged to Southey ; while another, Sara, was aft-
erwards to become Mrs. Coleridge.

As the marriage turned out on the whole an unhappy
one, the present may be a convenient moment for consid-
ering how far its future character was determined by pre-
viously existing and unalterable conditions, and how far
it may be regarded as the result of subsequent events.
De Quincey, whose acute and in many respects most val-
uable monograph on the poet touches its point of least
trustworthiness in matters of this kind, declares roundly,
and on the alleged authority of Coleridge himself, that

• Miss Mitford, in her BecoUeclions of a Literary Life, interestingly
records the active share taken by her father in procuring the learned
trooper's discharge.

12 COLERIDGE. [chap.

tlie very prlmaiy and essential prerequisite of happiness
was wanting to the union. Coleridge, he says, assured
him that his marriage was " not his own deliberate act,
but was in a manner forced upon his sense of honour by
the scrupulous Southey, who insisted that he had gone too
far in his attentions to Miss Fricker for any honourable re-
treat." On the other hand, he adds, " a neutral spectator
of the parties protested to me that if ever in his life he
had seen a man under deep fascination, and what he would
have called desperately in love, Coleridge, in relation to
Miss F., was that man." One need not, I think, feel much
hesitation in preferring this "neutral spectator's" state-
ment to that of the discontented husband, made several
years after the mutual estrangement of the couple, and
with no great propriety perhaps, to a new acquaintance.
There is abundant evidence in his own poems alone that at
the time of, and for at least two or three years subsequent-
ly to, his marriage Coleridge's feeling towards his wife was
one of profound and indeed of ardent attachment. It is
of course quite possible that the passion of so variable, im-
pulsive, and irresolute a temperament as his may have had
its hot and cold fits, and that during one of the latter
phases Southey may have imagined that his friend needed
some such remonstrance as that referred to. But this is
not nearly enough to support the assertion that Coleridge's
marriage was " in a manner forced upon his sense of hon-
our," and was not his own deliberate act. It was as de-
liberate as any of his other acts during the years 1794 and
I'ZOS, — that is to say, it was as wholly inspired by the en-
thusiasm of the moment, and as utterly ungoverned by
anything in the nature of calculation on the possibilities of
tlic future. He fell in love with Sara Fricker as he fell in
love with the French Revolution and with the scheme of


" Pantisocracy," and it is indeed extremely probable that the
emotions of the lover and the socialist may have subtly acted
and reacted upon each other. The Pantisocratic scheme was
essentially based at its outset upon a union of kindred souls,
for it was clearly necessary of course that each male mem-
ber of the little community to be founded on the banks of
the Susquehanna should take with him a wife. Southey
and Lovell had theirs in the persons of two sisters; they
were his friends and fellow-workers in the scheme ; and
they had a sympathetic sister-in-law disengaged. Fate
therefore seemed to designate her for Coleridge, and with
the personal attraction which she no doubt exerted over him
there may well have mingled a dash of that mysterious pas-
sion for symmetry which prompts a man to " complete the
set." After all, too, it must be remembered that, though
Mrs. Coleridge did not permanently retain her hold upon
her husband's affections, she got considerably the better
of those who shared them with her. Coleridge found out
the objections to Pantisocracy in a very short space of
time, and a decided coolness had sprung up between him
and Madame la Revolution before another two years had

The whole history indeed of this latter liaison is most
remarkable, and no one, it seems to me, can hope to form
an adequate conception of Coleridge's essential instability
of character without bestowing somewhat closer attention
upon this passage in his intellectual development than it
usually receives. It is not uncommon to see the cases of
Wordsworth, Southey, and Coleridge lumped together in-
discriminately, as interequivalent ilkistrations of the way
ill which the young and generous minds of that era were
first fascinated and then repelled by the French Revolu-
tion. As a matter of fact, however, the last of the three

14 COLERIDGE. [chap.

cases differed in certain very important respects from the
two former. Coleridge not only took the " frenzy-fever "
in a more violent form than either Wordsworth or Southey,
and uttered wilder things in his delirium than they, but
the paroxysm was much shorter, the immediate reaction
more violent in its effects, and brought about by slighter
causes in his case than in theirs. This will appear more
clearly when we come to contrast the poems of 1794 and
1795 with those of 1797. For the present it must suffice
to say that while the history of Coleridge's relations to
the French Revolution is intellectually more interesting
than that of Wordsworth's and Southey's, it plainly indi-
cates, even in that early period of the three lives, a mind
far more at the mercy of essentially transitory sentiment
than belonged to either of the others, and far less disposed
than theirs to review the aspirations of the moment by the
steady light of the practical judgment.

This, however, is anticipating matters. We are still in
the summer of 1794, and we left Coleridge at Bristol with
Southey, Lovell, and the Miss Frickcrs. To this year be-
longs that remarkable experiment in playwriting at high
pressure. The Fall of Rohesjnerre. It originated, we learn
from Southey, in "a sportive conversation at poor Lov-
ell's," when each of the three friends agreed to produce
one act of a tragedy, on the subject indicated in the above
title, by the following evening. Coleridge was to write
the first, Southey the second, and Lovell the third. Southey
and Lovell appeared the next day with their acts complete,
Coleridge, characteristically, with only a part of his. Lov-
ell's, however, was found not to be in keeping with the
other two, so Southey supplied the third as well as the
second, by which time Coleridge had completed the first.
The tragedy was afterwards published entire, and is usual-


ly included iu complete editions of Coleridge's poetical
works. It is an extremely immature production, abound-
ing in such coquettings (if nothing more serious) with ba-
thos as

Aloof tliou standest from the tottering pillar,
And like a frighted child behind its mother,
Hidest thy pale face in the skirts of Mercy ;"


" Liberty, condensed awhile, is bursting
To scatter the arch-chemist in the explosion."

Coleridge also contributed to Southey's Joan of Arc cer-
tain lines of which, many years afterwards, he wrote in
this humorously exaggerated but by no means wholly un-
just tone of censure: — "I was really astonished (l) at the
schoolboy, wretched, allegoric machinery ; (2) at the trans-
mogrification of the fanatic Virago into a modern novel-
pawing proselyte of the Age of Reason — a Tom Paine in
petticoats ; (3) at the utter want of all rhythm in the verse,
the monotony and dead phnnb-down of the pauses, and
at the absence of all bone, muscle, and sinew in the single

In September Coleridge returned to Cambridge, to keep
what turned out to be his last term at Jesus. We may
fairly suppose that he had already made up his mind to
bid adieu to the Alma Mater whose bosom he was about
to quit for that of a more venerable and, as he then believed,
a gentler mother on the banks of the Susquehanna ; but it
is not impossible that in any case his departure might have
been expedited by the remonstrances of college authority.
Dr. Pearce, Master of Jesus, and afterwards Dean of Ely,
did all he could, records a friend of a somewhat later date,
"to keep him within bounds; but his repeated efforts to

16 COLERIDGE. [chap. i.

reclaim him were to no purpose, and upon one occasion,
after a long discussion on the visionary and ruinous ten-
dency of his later schemes, Coleridge cut short the argu-
ment by bluntly assuring him, his friend and master, that
he mistook the matter altogether. He was neither Jaco-
bin,* he said, nor Democrat, but a Pantisocrat." And,
leaving the good doctor to digest this new and strange epi-
thet, Coleridge bade farewell to his college and his univer-
sity, and went forth into that world with which he was to
wage so painful and variable a struggle.

* Carrlyon's Early Years and late Rejlections, vol. i. p. 27.




The reflections of the worthy Master of Jesus upon the
strange reply of the wayward young undergraduate would
have been involved in even greater perplexity if he could
have looked forward a few months into the future. For
after a winter spent in London, and enlivened by those
nodes coenceqiie Deum at the " Cat and Salutation," which
Lamb has so charmingly recorded, Coleridge returned with
Southey to Bristol at the beginning of 1795, and there
proceeded to deliver a series of lectures which, whatever
their other merits, would certainly not have assisted Dr.
Pearce to grasp the distinction between a Pantisocrat and
a Jacobin. As a scholar and a man of literary taste he
might possibly have admired the rhetorical force of the
following outburst, but, considering that the " he " here
gibbeted in capitals was no less a personage than the
" heaven-born minister " himself, a plain man might well
have wondered what additional force the vocabulary of
Jacobinism could have infused into the language of Pan-
tisocracy. After summing up the crimes of the Reign of
Terror the lecturer asks : " Who, my brethren, was the
cause of this guilt if not he who supplied the occasion and

18 COLERIDGE. [chap.

the motive ? Heaven hath bestowed on that man a por-
tion of its ubiquity, and given him an actual presence in
the sacraments of hell, wherever administered, in all the
bread of bitterness, in all the cups of blood." And in
general, indeed, the Condones ad Populum, as Coleridge
named these lectures on their subsequent publication, were
rather calculated to bewilder any of the youthful lectur-
er's well-wishers who might be anxious for some means of
discriminating his attitude from that of the Hardys, the
Home Tookes, and the Thelwalls of the day. A little
warmth of language might no doubt be allowed to a young
friend of liberty in discussing legislation which, in the ret-
rospect, has staggered even so staunch a Tory as Sir Ar-
chibald Alison ; but Coleridge's denunciation of the Pitt
and Grenville Acts, in a lecture entitled The Plot Discov-
ered, is occasionally startling, even for that day of fierce
passions, in the fierceness of its language. It is interesting,
however, to note the ever-active play of thought and rea-
soning amid the very storm and stress of political passion.
Coleridge is never for long together a mere declaimer on
popular rights and ministerial tyranny, and even this in-
dignant address contains a passage of extremely just and
thoughtful analysis of the constituent elements of despot-
ism. Throughout the spring and summer of 1795 Cole-
ridge continued his lectures at Bristol, his head still sim-
mering — though less violently, it may be suspected, every
month — with Pantisocracy, and certainly with all his kin-
dred political and religious enthusiasms unabated. A study
of these crude but vigorous addresses reveals to us, as does
the earlier of the early poems, a mind struggling with its
half-formed and ever-changing conceptions of the world,
and, as is usual at such peculiar phases of an intellectual
development, affirming its temporary beliefs with a fervour


mid vehemence directly proportioned to tlie recency of
their birth. Commenting on the Condones ad Pojmlum
many years afterwards, and invoking them as witnesses to
his political consistency as an author, Coleridge remarked
that with the exception of "two or three pages involving
the doctrine of philosophical necessity and TJnitarianism,"
he saw little or nothing in these outbursts of his youthful
zeal to retract, and, with the exception of " some flame-
coloured epithets" applied to persons, as to Mr. Pitt and
others, "or rather to personifications" — for sucli, he says,
they really were to him — as little to regret.

We now, however, arrive at an event important in the
life of every man, and which influenced that of Coleridge
to an extent not the less certainly extraordinary because
difiicult, if not impossible, to define with exactitude. On
the 4th of October, 1795, Coleridge was married at St.
Mary Redcliffe Church, Bristol, to Sarah (or as he pre-
ferred to spell it Sara) Fricker, and withdrew for a time
from the eager intellectual life of a political lecturer to the
contemplative quiet appropriate to the honeymoon of a
poet, spent in a sequestered cottage amid beautiful scenery,
and within sound of the sea. No wonder that among such
surroundings, and with such belongings, the honeymoon
should have extended from one month to three, and indeed
that Coleridge should have waited till his youthful yearn-
ings for a life of action, and perhaps (though that would
have lent itself less gracefully to his poem of farewell to
his Clevedon cottage) his increasing sense of the necessity
of supplementing the ambrosia of love with the bread and
cheese of mortals, compelled him to re-enter the world.
No wonder he should have delayed to do so, for it is as
easy to perceive in his poems that these were days of un-
clouded happiness as it is melancholy to reflect by how

20 COLERIDGE. [chap.

few others like tbem his life was destined to be brightened.
The u^oUan liar}) has no more than the moderate merits,
with its full share of the characteristic faults, of his ear-
lier productions; but one cannot help "reading into it"
the poet's after-life of disappointment and disillu^on — es-
trangement from the " beloved woman " in whose aifection
he was then reposing; decay and disappearance of those
"flitting phantasies" with which he was then so joyously
trifling, and the bitterly ironical scholia which fate was
preparing for such lines as

"And tranquil muse upon tranquillity."

One cannot in fact refrain from mentally comparing the
^olian Harp of 1795 with the Dejection of 1803, and
no one who has thoroughly felt the spirit of both poems
can make that comparison without emotion. The former
piece is not, as has been said, in a literary sense remark-
able. With the exception of the one point of metrical
style, to be touched on presently, it has almost no note of
poetic distinction save such as belongs of right to any
simple record of a mood which itself forms the highest
poetry of the average man's life ; and one well knows
whence came the criticism of that MS. note inscribed by
S. T. C. in a copy of the second edition of his early po-
ems, " This I think the most perfect poem I. ever wrote.
Bad may be the best, perhaps." One feels that the an-
notator might just as well have written, " How perfect was
the happiness which this poem recalls!" for this is really
all that Coleridge's eulogium, with its touching bias from
the hand of memory, amounts to.

It has become time, however, to speak more generally
of Coleridge's early poems. The peaceful winter months
of IVOS-OG were in all likelihood spent in arranging and


revising the products of tliose poetic impulses which had
more or less actively stirred within him from his seven-
teenth year upwards; and in April, 1797, there appeared
at Bristol a volume of sonic fifty pieces entitled Poems on
Various Subjects, by S. T. Coleridge, late of Jesus College,
Cambridge, It was published by his friend Cottle, who,
in a mixture of the generous with the speculative instinct,
had given him thirty guineas for the copyright. Its con-
tents are of a miscellaneous kind, consisting partly of
rhymed irregular odes, partly of a collection of Sonnets
on Eminent Characters, and partly (and principally) of a
blank-verse poem of several hundred lines, then, and in-
deed for years afterwards, regarded by many of the poet's
admirers as his masterpiece — the Religious Musings.^

To the second edition of these poems, which was pub-
lished in the following year, Coleridge, at all times a can-
did critic (to the limited extent to which it is possible even
for the finest judges to be so) of his own works, prefixed
a preface, wherein he remarks that his poems have been
" rightly charged with a profusion of double epithets and
a general turgidness," and adds that he has "pruned the
double epithets with no sparing hand," and used his best
efforts to tame the swell and glitter both of thought and
diction. " The latter fault, however, had," he continues,
" so insinuated itself into ray Religious Musings with such
intricacy of union that sometimes I have omitted to dis-
entangle the weed from fear of snapping the flower."
This is plain-spoken criticism, but I do not think that any
reader who is competent to pronounce judgment on the
point will be inclined to deprecate its severity. Nay, in
order to get done with fault-finding as soon as possible, it

' The volume contained also three sonnets by Charles Lamb, one
of which was destined to have a somewhat curious history.

22 COLERIDGE. [chap.

must perhaps be added that the admitted turgidness of the
poems is often something more than a mere defect of style,
and that the verse is turgid because the feeling which it
expresses is exaggerated. The " youthful bard unknown
to fame" who, in the Songs of the Pixies, is made to
" heave the gentle misery of a sigh," is only doing a nat-
ural thing described in ludicrously and unnaturally stilted
terms; but the young admirer of the Robbers, who in-
forms Schiller that if he were to meet him in the evening
wandering in his loftier mood " beneath some vast old
tempest-swinging wood," he would " gaze upon him a while
in mute awe" and then "weep aloud in a wild ecstasy,"
endangers the reader's gravity not so much by extrava-
gance of diction as by over-effusiveness of sentiment. The
former of these two offences differs from the latter by the
difference between "fustian" and "gush." And there is,
in fact, more frequent exception to be taken to the charac-
ter of the thought in these poems than to that of the style.
The remarkable gift of eloquence, which seems to have
belonged to Coleridge from boyhood, tended naturally to
aggravate that very common fault of young poets whose
faculty of expression has outstripped the growth of their
intellectual and emotional experiences — the fault of wordi-
ness. Page after page of the poems of 1796 is filled with
what one cannot, on the most favourable terms, rank
higher than rhetorical commonplace; stanza after stanza
falls pleasantly upon the ear without suggesting any image
sufficiently striking to arrest the eye of the imagination,
or awakening any thought sufficiently novel to lay hold
upon the mind. The jEolian Harp has been already re-
ferred to as a pleasing poem, and reading it, as we must,
in constant recollection of the circumstances in which it
was written, it unquestionably is so. But in none of the


descriptions either of external objects or of internal feel-
ing whicli are to be found in this and its companion-piece,
the Reflections on having left a Place of Retirement, is
there anything which can fairly be said to elevate them
above the level of graceful verse. It is only in the region
of the fantastic and supernatural that Coleridge's imagina-
tion, as he was destined to show by a far more splendid
example two years afterwards, seems to acquire true poetic
distinction. It is in the Songs of the Pixies that the
young man " heaves the gentle misery of a sigh," and the
sympathetic interest of the reader of to-day is chilled by
the too frequent intrusion of certain abstract ladies, each
preceded by her capital letter and attended by her " ad-
jective-in-waiting ;" but, after all deductions for the con-
ventionalisms of " white-robed Purity," " meek-eyed Pity,"
"graceful Ease," etc., one cannot but feel that the Songs
of the Pixies was the offspring not of a mere abundant
and picturesque vocabulary but of a true poetic fancy. It
is worth far more as an earnest of future achievement than
the very unequal Monody on the Death of Chatterton (for
which indeed we ought to make special allowance, as hav-
ing been commenced in the author's eighteenth year), and
certainly than anything which could be quoted from the
Effusions, as Coleridge, unwilling to challenge comparison
with the divine Bowles, had chosen to describe his sonnets.
It must be honestly said, indeed, that these are, a very few
excepted, among the least satisfactory productions of any
period of his poetic career. Tlie Coleridgian sonnet is not
only imperfect in form and in marked contrast in the fre-
quent bathos of its close to the steady swell and climax of
Wordsworth, but, in by far the majority of instances in
this volume, it is wanting in internal weight. The " single
pebble" of thought which a sonnet should enclose is not
C 2'"

24 COLERIDGE. [chap.

only not neatly wrapped up in its envelope of words, but
it is very often not heavy enough to carry itself and its
covering to the mark. When it is so, its weight, as in the
sonnet to Pitt, is too frequently only another word for an
ephemeral violence of political feeling which, whether dis-
played on one side or the other, cannot be expected to re-
produce its effect in the minds of comparatively passion-
less posterity. Extravagances, too, abound, as when in
Kosciusko Freedom is made to look as if, in a fit of " wil-
fulness and sick despair," she had drained a mystic urn
containing all the tears that had ever found " fit channel

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Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 2 of 16)