H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Coleridge online

. (page 4 of 16)
Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 4 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


poera as

" The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
Hanging so light and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky."

The first to fail him of his sources of inspiration was .
his revolutionary enthusiasm ; and the ode to France —
the Recantation, as it was styled on its first appearance
in the Morning Post — is the recoi'd of a reaction which,
as has been said, was as much speedier in Coleridge's case
than in that of the other ardent young minds which had
come under the spell of the Revolution as his enthusiasm
had been more passionate than theirs. In the winter of
1797-98 the Directory had plunged France into an un-
natural conflict with her sister Republic of Switzerland,
and Coleridge, who could pardon and had pardoned her
fierce animosity against a country which he considered not
so much his own as Pitt's, was unable to forgive her this.
In the Recantation he casts her off forever ; he perceives
at last that true liberty is not to be obtained through po-
litical, but only through spiritual emancipation ; that —

" The sensual and the dark rebel in vain,
Slaves by tlieir own compulsion ! In mad game
They burst their manacles, and wear the name
Of Freedom graven on a heavier chain ;"

and arrives in a noble peroration at the somewhat unsatis-
factory conclusion that the spirit of liberty, " the guide
of homeless winds and playmate of the waves," is to be
found only among the elements, and not in the institu-
tions of man. And in the same quaintly ingenuous spirit



III.] COLERIDGE AND WORDSWORTH. 39

which half touches and half amuses us in his earlier poems
he lets us perceive, a few weeks later, in his Fears in Soli-
tude, that sympathy with a foreign nation threatened by
the invader may gradually develop into an almost filial
regard for one's own similarly situated land. He has been
deemed, he says, an enemy of his country.

" But, dear J?''itain ! my mother Isle,"

once, it may be remembered, "doomed to fall enslaved and
vile," but now —

"Needs must thou prove a name most dear and holy,
To me a son, a brother, and a friend,
A husband and a father ! who revere
All bonds of natural love, and find them all
Within the limits of thy rocky shores."

After all, it has occurred to him, England is not only the
England of Pitt and Grenville, and in that capacity the
fitting prey of the insulted French Republic: she is also
the England of Sara Coleridge, and little Hartley, and of
Mr. Thomas Poole, of Nether Stowcy. And so, to be sure,
she was in 1796 when her downfall was predicted, and in
the spirit rather of the Old Testament than of the New.
But there is something very engaging in the candour with
which the young poet hastens to apprise us of this his
first awakening to the fact.

France may be regarded as the last ode, and Fears in
/Solitude as the last blank-verse poem of any importance,
that owe their origin to Coleridge's early political senti-
ments. Henceforth, and for the too brief period of his
poetic activity, he was to derive his inspiration from othei
sources. The most fruitful and important of these was
unquestionably his intercourse with Wordsworth, from
D 3



40 COLERIDGE. [chap.

whom, although there was doubtless a reciprocation of in-
fluence between thera, his much more receptive nature took
a far deeper impression than it made.' At the time of
their meeting he had already for some three years been
acquainted with Wordsworth's works as a poet, and it
speaks highly for his discrimination that he was able to
discern the great powers of his future friend, even in work
so immature in many respects as the Descr'qjiive Sketches.
It was during the last year of his residence at Cambridge
that he first met with these poems, of which he says in
the Biographia Literaria that " seldom, if ever, was the
emergence of an original poetic genius above the literary
horizon more evidently announced ;" and the effect pro-
duced by this volume was steadily enhanced by further
acquaintance both with the poet and his works. Nothing,
indeed, is so honourably noticeable and even touching in
Coleridge's relation to his friend as the tone of reverence
with which, even in the days of his highest self-confidence
and even almost haughty belief in the greatness of his
own poetic mission, he was accustomed to speak of Words-

' Perhaps the deepest impress of the Wordsworthian influence is
to be found in the little poem Frost at Midnight, with its affecting
apostrophe to the sleeping infant at his side — infant destined to de-
velop as wayward a genius and to lead as restless and irresolute a
life as his father. Its closing lines —

" Therefore all seasons shall be sweet to thee
Whether the summer clothe the general earth
With greenness . . .
. . . whether the eave-drops fall,
Heard only in the trances of the blast,
Or if the secret ministry of frost
Shall hang them up in silent icicles
Quietly shining to the ([uiet moon " —

might have flowed stniiglit from the pen of Wordsworth himself.



III.] COLERIDGE AND WORDSWORTH. 41

worth. A witness, to be more fully cited hereafter, and
whose testimony is especially valuable as that of one who
was by no means blind to Coleridge's early foible of self-
complacency, has testified to this unbounded admiration
of his brother - poet. "When," records this gentleman,
" we have sometimes spoken complimentarily to Coleridge
of himself he has said that he was nothing in comparison
with Wordsworth." And two years before this, at a time
when they had not yet tested each other's power in liter-
ary collaboration, he had written to Cottle to inform him
of his introduction to the author of " near twelve hundred
lines of blank-verse, superior, I dare aver, to anything in
our language which in any way resembles it," and bad
declared with evident sincerity that he felt *' a little man "
by Wordsworth's side.

His own impression upon his new friend was more
distinctively personal in its origin. It was by Coleridge's
total individuality, by the sum of his vast and varied in-
tellectual powers, rather than by the specific poetic ele-
ment contained in them, that Wordsworth, like the rest
of the world, indeed, was in the main attracted ; but it is
clear enough that this attraction was from the first most
powerful. On that point we have not only the weighty
testimony of Dorothy Wordsworth, as conveyed in her
often-quoted description' of her brother's new acquaint-

' "You had a great loss in not seeing Coleridge. He is a won-
derful raan. His conversalion 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 half-curling rough black hair. But if you
hear him speak for five minutes you think no more of them. His
eye is large and full, and not very dark but gray, such an eye as



42 COLERIDGE. [chap.

ance, but the still more conclusive evidence of her brother's
own acts. He gave the best possible proof of the fasci-
nation which had been exercised over him by quitting
Racedown with his sister for Alfoxden near Nether Stowey
within a few weeks of his first introduction to Coleridge,
a change of abode for which, as Miss Wordsworth has
expressly recorded, "our principal inducement was Cole-
ridge's society."

By a curious coincidence the two poets were at this
time simultaneously sickening for what may perhaps be
appropriately called the "poetic measles." They were
each engaged in the composition of a five-act tragedy, and
read scenes to each other, and to each other's admiration,
from their respective dramas. Neither play was fortunate
in its immediate destiny. Wordsworth's tragedy, the Bor-
derers, was greatly commended by London critics and de-
cisively rejected by the management of Covent Garden.
As for Coleridge, the negligent Sheridan did not even con-
descend to acknowledge the receipt of his manuscript;
his play was passed from hand to hand among the Drury
Lane Committee ; but not till many years afterwards did
Osorio find its way under another name to the footlights.

For the next twelvemonth the intercourse between the
two poets was close and constant, and most fruitful in re-
sults of high moment to English literature. It was in their
daily rambles among the Quantock Hills that they excogi-
tated that twofold theory of the essence and functions of
poetry which was to receive such notable illustration in
their joint volume of verse, the Lyrical Ballads ; it was

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 eye-
brows and an overhanging forehead."



in.] "LYRICAL BALLADS." 43

during a walk over the Qnantock Hills that by far the most
famous poem of that series, the Ancient Mariner, was con-
ceived and in part composed. The publication of the Lyr-
ical Ballads in the spring of the year 179S was, indeed, an
event of double significance for English poetry. It marked
an epoch in the creative life of Coleridge, and a no less im-
portant one in the critical life of Wordsworth. In the Bio-
(jraphia Literaria the origination of the plan of the work
is thus described:

" During the first year that Mr. Wordsworth and I were neigh-
bours our conversation turned frequently on the two cardinal points
of poetry, the power of exciting the sympathy of the reader by a
faithful adherence to the truth of natui'C, and the power of giving
the interest of novelty by the modifying colours of the imagination.
The sudden charm which accidents of light and shade, which moon-
light or sunset diffused over a known and familiar landscape, appeared
to represent the practicability of combining both. These are the
poetry of nature. The thought suggested itself (to which of us I do
not recollect) that a series of poems might be composed of two soils.
In the one the incidents and agents were to be, in part at least, su-
pernatural ; and the interest aimed at was to consist in the interest-
ing of the affections by the dramatic truth of such emotions as would
naturally accompany such situations, supposing them real. . . . For
the second class, subjects were to be chosen from ordinary life ; the
characters and incidents were to be such as will be found in every
village and its vicinity where there is a meditative and feeling mind
to seek after them, or to notice them when they present themselves.
In this idea originated the plan of the Lyrical Ballads, in which it
\vas agreed that my endeavours should be directed to persons and
characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer
from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth
sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing
suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith.
Mr. Wordsworth, on the other hand, was to propose to himself, as
his object, to give the charm of novelty to things of everyday, and
to excite a feeling analogous to the supernatural by awakening the



44 COLERIDGE. • [chap.

mind's attention from the lethargy of custom and directing it to the
loveliness and the wonders of the world before us ; an inexhaustible
treasure, but for which, in consequence of the film of familiarity and
selfish solicitude, we have eyes which see not, ears that hear not, and
hearts which neither feel nor understand."

We may measure the extent to which the poetic teach-
ing and practice of Wordsworth have influenced subse-
quent taste and criticism by noting how completely the
latter of these two functions of poetry has overshadowed
the former. To lend the charm of imagination to the real
will appear to many people to be not one function of poe-
try merely but its very essence. To them it is poetry, and
tlie only thing worthy of the name ; while the correlative
function of lending the force of reality to the imaginary
will appear at best but a superior kind of metrical romanc-
ing, or clever telling of fairy tales. Nor of course can there,
from the point of view of the highest conception of the
poet's office, be any comparison between the two. In so
far as we regard poetry as contributing not merely to the
pleasure of the mind but to its health and strength — in so
far as we regard it in its capacity not only to delight but
to sustain, console, and tranquillise the human spirit — there
is, of course, as much difference between the idealistic and
the realistic forms of poetry as there is between a narcotic
potion and a healing drug. The one, at best, can only en-
able a man to forget his burdens ; the other fortifies him
to endure them. It is perhaps no more than was naturally
to be expected of our brooding and melancholy age, that
poetry (when it is not a mere voluptuous record of the sub-
jective impressions of sense) should have become almost
limited in its very meaning to the exposition of the imag-
inative or spiritual aspect of the world of realities ; but so
it is now, and so in Coleridge's time it clearly was not.



m.] "LYRICAL BALLADS." 45

Coleridge, in the passage above quoted, shows no signs of
regarding one of the two functions which he attributes to
poetry as any more accidental or occasional than the other;
and the fact that the realistic portion of the Lyrical Bal-
lads so far exceeded in amount its supernatural element,
he attributes not to any inherent supremacy in the claims
of the former to attention but simply to the greater indus-
try which Wordsworth had displayed in his special de-
partment of the volume. For his own part, he says, " I
wrote the Ancient Mariner, and was preparing, among
other poems, the Dark Ladie and the Christabel, in which
I should liave more nearly realised my ideal than I had
done in my first attempt. But Mr. Wordsworth's indus-
try had proved so much more successful, and the number
of the poems so much greater, that my compositions, in-
stead of forming a balance, appeared rather an interpo-
lation of heterogeneous matter." There was certainly a
considerable disparity between the amount of their respec-
tive contributions to the volume, which, in fact, contained
nineteen pieces by Wordsworth and only four by Cole-
ridge. Practically, indeed, we may reduce this four to one ;
for, of the three others, the two scenes from Osorio are
without special distinction, and the Ni(jhtingale, though a
graceful poem, and containing an admirably- studied de-
scription of the bird's note, is too slight and short to claim
any importance in the series. But the one long poem which
Coleridge contributed to the collection is alone sufficient
to associate it forever with his name. JJnum sed leonem.
To any one who should have taunted him with the compar-
ative infertility of his Muse he might well have returned
the haughty answer of the lioness in the fable, when he
could point in justification of it to i]x(i Rime of the Ancient
Mariner.



46 COLERIDGE. [ciup.

There is, I may assume, no need at the present day to
discuss the true place in English literature of this unique
product of the human imagination. One is bound, how-
ever, to attempt to correlate and adjust it to the rest of the
poet's work, and this, it must be admitted, is a most diffi-
cult piece of business. Never was there a poem so irritating
to a critic of the " pigeon-holing " variety. It simply defies
him ; and yet the instinct which he obeys is so excusable,
because in fact so universal, that one feels guilty of some-
thing like disloyalty to the very principles of order in smil-
ing at his disappointment. Complete and symmetrical clas-
sification is so fascinating an amusement ; it would simplify
so many subjects of study if men and things would only
consent to rank themselves under different categories and
remain there ; it would, in particular, be so inexpressibly
convenient to be able to lay your hand upon your poet
whenever you wanted him by merely turning to a shelf
labelled "Realistic" or "Imaginative" (nay, perhaps, to
the still greater saving of labour — Objective or Subjec-
tive), that we cannot be surprised at the strength of the
aforesaid instinct in many a critical mind. Nor should it
be hard to realise its revolt against those single exceptions
which bring its generalisations to nought. When the
pigeon-hole will admit every "document" but one, the
case is hard indeed ; and it is not too much to say that
the Ancient Mariner is the one document which the pigeon-
hole in this instance declines to admit. If Coleridge had
only refrained from writing this remarkable poem, or if,
having done so, he had written more poems like it, the
critic might have ticketed him with a quiet mind, and
gone on his way complacent. As it is, however, the poet
has contrived, in virtue of this performance, not only to
defeat classification but to defy it. For the weird ballad



HI.] THE "ANCIENT MARINER." 47

abounds in those very qualities in which Coleridge's poetry
with all its merits is most conspicuously deficient, while on
the other hand it is w^holly free from the faults with which
he is most frequently and justly chargeable. One would
not have said in the first place that the author of Religious
Musings, still less of the Monody on the Death of Chatter-
ton, was by any means the man to have compassed tri-
umphantly at the very first attempt the terseness, vigour,
and naivete of the true ballad- manner. To attain this,
Coleridge, the student of his early verse must feel, would
have rather more to retrench and much more to restrain
than might be the case with many other youthful poets.
The exuberance of immaturity, the want of measure, the
" not knowing where to stop," are certainly even more
conspicuous in the poems of 1V96 than they are in most
productions of the same stage of poetic development; and
these qualities, it is needless to say, require very stern chast-
ening from him who would succeed in the style which Cole-
ridge attempted for the first time in the Ancient Mariner.

The circumstances of this iminortal ballad's birth have
been related with such fulness of detail by Wordsworth,
and Coleridge's own references to them are so completely
reconcilable with that account, that it must have required
all De Quincey's consummate ingenuity as a mischief-
maker to detect any discrepancy between the two.

In the autumn of 1V97, records Wordsworth in the MS.
notes which he left behind him, " Mr. Coleridge, my sister,
and myself started from Alfoxden pretty late in the after-
noon with a view to visit Linton and the Valley of Stones
near to it; and as our united funds were very small, we
agreed to defray the expense of the tour by writing a
poem to be sent to the New Monthly Magazine. Accord-
ingly we set off, and proceeded along the Quantock Hills
3*



48 COLERIDGE. [chap.

towards Watchet; and in the course of this walk was
planned the poem of the Ancient Mariner, founded on a
dream, as Mr. Coleridge said, of his friend Mr. Cruikshanlc.
Much the greatest part of the story was Mr. Coleridge's in-
vention, but certain parts I suggested ; for example, some
crime was to be committed which should bring upon the
Old Navigator, as Coleridge afterwards delighted to call him,
the spectral persecution, as a consequence of that crime
and his own wanderings. I had been reading in Shel-
vocke's Voyages, a day or two before, that while doubling-
Cape Horn they frequently saw albatrosses in that latitude,
the largest sort of sea -fowl, some extending their wings
twelve or thirteen feet. 'Suppose,' said I, 'you represent
him as having killed one of these birds on entering the
South Sea, and that the tutelary spirits of these regions
take upon them to avenge the crime,' The incident was
thought fit for the purpose, and adopted accordingly. I
also suggested the navigation of the ship by the dead men,
but do not recollect that I had anything more to do with
the scheme of the poem. The gloss with which it was
subsequently accompanied was not thought of by either of
us at the time, at least not a hint of it was given to me,
and I have no doubt it was a gratuitous afterthought.
We began the composition together on that to me memo-
rable evening. I furnished two or three lines at the begin-
ning of the poem, in particular —

'And listened like a three years' child :
The Mariner had his will.'

These trifling contributions, all but one, which Mr. C. has
with unnecessary scrupulosity recorded,* slipped out of bis

' The lines —

" And it is long, and lank, and brown,
As is the ribbed sea-sand."



m.] THE "ANCIENT MARINER." 49

mind, as well tliey might. As we endeavoured to proceed
conjointly (I speak of tlie same evening) our respective
.manners proved so widely different that it would have been
quite presumptuous in me to do anything but separate
from an undertaking upon which I could only have been
a clog. . . . The Ancient Mariner grew and grew till it be-
came too important for our first object, which was limited
to our expectation of five pounds ; and we began to think
of a volume which was to consist, as Mr. Coleridge has
told the world, of poems chiefly on supernatural subjects."
Except that the volume ultimately determined on was to
consist only " partly " and not " chiefly " of poems on su-
pernatural subjects (in the result, as has been seen, it con-
sisted " chiefly " of poems upon natural subjects), there is
nothing in this account which cannot be easily reconciled
with the probable facts upon which De Quincey bases his
hinted charge against Coleridge in his Lake Poets. It was
not Coleridge who had been reading Shelvocke's Voyages,
but Wordsworth, and it is quite conceivable, therefore, that
the source from which his friend had derived the idea of
the killing of the albatross may (if indeed he was informed
of it at the time) have escaped his memory twelve years
afterwards, when the conversation with De Quincey took
place. Hence, in " disowning his obligations to Shel-
vocke," he may not by any means have intended to sug-
gest that the albatross incident was his own thought.
Moreover, De Quincey himself supplies another explana-
tion of the matter, which we know, from the above-quoted
notes of Wordsworth's, to be founded upon fact. " It is
possible," he adds, " from something which Coleridge said
on another occasion, that before meeting a fable in which
to embody his ideas he had meditated a poem on delirium,
confounding its own dream-scenery with external things,



60 COLERIDGE. [chap.

and connected with the imagery of high ladtudes," Noth-
ing, in fact, would be more natural than that Coleridge,
whose idea of the haunted seafarer was primarily suggested
by his friend's dream, and had no doubt been greatly elab-
orated in his own imaginatJon before being communicated
to Wordsworth at all, should have been unable, after a con-
siderable lapse of time, to distinguish between incidents of
his own imagining and those suggested to him by others.
And, in any case, the " unnecessary scrupulosity," rightly
attributed to him by Wordsworth with respect to this very
poem, is quite incompatible with any intentional denial of
obligations.

Such, then, was the singular and even prosaic origin of
the Ancient Mariner — a poem written to defray the ex-
penses of a tour; surely the most sublime of " pot-boilers"
to be found in all literature. It is difficult, from amid the
astonishing combination of the elements of power, to select
that which is the most admirable ; but, considering both
the character of the story and of its particular vehicle,
perhaps the greatest achievement of the poem is the sim-
ple realistic force of its narrative. To achieve this was
of course Coleridge's main object : he had undertaken to
"transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a
semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows
of imaginations that willing suspension of disbelief for the
moment which constitutes poetic faith." But it is easier
to undertake this than to perform it, and much easier to
perform it in prose than in verse — with the assistance of
the everyday and the commonplace than without it. Bal-
zac's Peau de Chagrin is no doubt a great feat of the
realistic-supernatural ; but no one can help feeling how
much the author is aided by his " broker's clerk " style
of description, and by the familiar Parisian scenes among



III.] THE "ANCIENT MARINER." 51


1 2 4 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 4 of 16)