H. D. (Henry Duff) Traill.

Coleridge online

. (page 5 of 16)
Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 5 of 16)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


which he makes his hero move. It is easier to compass
verisimilitude in the Palais-Royal than on the South Pa-
cific, to say nothing of the thousand assisting touches, out
of place in rhyme and metre, which can be thrown into a
prose narrative. The Ancient Mariner, however, in spite of
all these drawbacks, is as real to the reader as is the hero
of the Peau de Chagrin ; we are as convinced of the curse
upon one of the doomed wretches as upon the other; and
the strange phantasmagoric haze which is thrown around
the ship and the lonely voyager leaves their outlines as clear
as if we saw them through the sunshine of the streets of
Paris. Coleridge triumphs over his difficulties by sheer
vividness of imagery and terse vigour of descriptive phrase
— two qualities for which his previous poems did not
prove him to possess by any means so complete a mastery.
For among all the beauties of his earlier landscapes we
can hardly reckon that of intense and convincing truth.
He seems seldom before to have written, as Wordsworth
nearly always seemed to write, " with his eye on the ob-
ject ;" and certainly he never before displayed any remark-
able power of completing his word -picture with a few
touches. In the Ancient Mariner his eye seems never to
wander from his object, and again and again the scene
starts out upon the canvas in two or three strokes of the
brush. The skeleton ship, with the dicing demons on its
deck ; the setting sun peering " through its ribs, as if
through a dungeon -grate;" the water -snakes under the
moonbeams, with the " elfish light " falling oflE them " in
hoary flakes" when they reared ; the dead crew, who work
the ship and "raise their limbs like lifeless tools" — every-
thing seems to have been actually seen, and we believe it
all as the story of a truthful eye-witness. The details of
the voyage, too, are all chronicled with such order and



52 COLERIDGE. [chap.

regularity, there is such a diary-Uke air about the whole
thing, that we accept it almost as if it were a series of
extracts from the ship's "log." Then again the execution
— a great thing to be said of so long a poem — is marvel-
lously equal throughout; the story never drags or flags
for a moment, its felicities of diction are perpetual, and
it is scarcely marred by a single weak line. What could
have been better said of the instantaneous descent of the
tropical night than —

" The Sun's rim dips ; tlie stars rush out :
At one stride comes the daric ;"

what more weirdly imagined of the " cracks and growls "
of the rending iceberg than that they sounded " like noises
in a swound ?" Aud how beautifully steals in the passage
that follows upon the cessation of the spirit's song —

"It ceased; yet still the sails made on
A pleasant noise till noon,
A noise like to a hidden brook
In the leafy month of June,
That to the sleeping woods all night
Singeth a quiet tune."

Then, as the ballad draws to its close, after the ship has
drifted over the harbour-bar —

" And I with sobs did pray —
let me be awake, my God ;
Or let me sleep alway,"

with what consummate art are we left to imagine the phys-
ical traces which the mariner's long agony had left be-
hind it by a method far more terrible than any direct de-
scription — the effect, namely, which the sight of him pro-
duces upon others —



ex.] "CHRISTABEL." 63

" I moved my lips — the Pilot shrieked
And fell down in a fit ;
The holy Hermit raised his eyes,
And prayed where he did sit.

" I took the oars : the Pilot's boy,
Who now doth crazy go,
Laughed loud and long, and all the while
His eyes went to and fro.
' Ha ! ha !' quoth he, ' full plain I see
The Devil knows how to row.' "

Perfect consistency of plan, in short, and complete equal-
ity of execution, brevity, self-restraint, and an unerring
sense of artistic propriety — these are the chief notes of
the Ancient Mariner, as they are not, in my humble judg-
ment, the chief notes of any poem of Coleridge's before
or since. And hence it is that this masterpiece of bal-
lad minstrelsy is, as has been said, so confounding to the
" pigeon-holing " mind.

The next most famous poem of this or indeed of any
period of Coleridge's life is the fragment of Christabel,
which, however, in spite of the poet's own opinion on that
point, it is difiicult to regard as " a more effective realiza-
tion " of the " natural-supernatural " idea. Beautiful as it
IS, it possesses none of that human interest with which,
according to this idea, the narrator of the poetic story
must undertake to invest it. Nor can the unfinished con-
dition in which it was left be fairly held to account for
this, for the characters themselves — the lady Christabel, the
witch Geraldine, and even the baron Sir Leoline himself —
are somewhat shadowy creations, with too little hold upon
life and reality, and too much resemblance to the flitting
figures of a dream. Powerful in their way as are the
lines descriptive of the spell thrown over Christabel by



64 COLERIDGE. Icbat.

her uncanny guest — lines at the recitation of which Shel-
ley is said to have fainted — we cannot say that they strike
a reader with such a sense of horror as should be excited
by the contemplation of a real flesh -and -blood maiden
subdued by " the shrunken serpent eyes " of a sorceress,
and constrained "passively to imitate" their "look of dull
and treacherous hate," Judging it, however, by any other
standard than that of the poet's own erecting, one must
certainly admit the claim of Christabel to rank very high
as a work of pure creative art. It is so thoroughly suf-
fused and permeated with the glow of mystical romance,
the whole atmosphere of the poem is so exquisitely ap-
propriate to the subject, and so marvellously preserved
throughout, that our lack of belief in the reality of the
scenes presented to us detracts but little from the pleasure
afforded by the artistic excellence of its presentment. It
abounds, too, in isolated pictures of surpassing vividness
and grace — word-pictures which live in the " memory of
the eye" with all the wholeness and tenacity of an actual
painting. Geraldine appearing to Christabel beneath the
oak, and the two women stepping lightly across the hall
" that echoes still, pass as lightly as you will," are pictures
of this kind; and nowhere out of Keats's Eve of St. Agnes
is there any " interior " to match that of Christabers
chamber, done as it is in little more than half a dozen
lines. These beauties, it is true, are fragmentary, like the
poem itself, but there is no reason to believe that the poem
itself would have gained anything in its entirety — that is
to say, as a poetic narrative — by completion. Its main
idea — that the purity of a pure maiden is a charm more
powerful for the protection of those dear to her than the
spells of the evil one for their destruction — had been al-
ready sufficiently indicated, and the mode in which Cole-



III.] " CHRISTABEL." 85

ridge, it seems, intended to have worked would hardly
have added anything to its effect.' And although he
clung till very late in life to the belief that he could have
finished it in after-days with no change of poetic manner
— " If easy in my mind," he says in a letter to be quoted
hereafter, " I have no doubt either of the reawakening
power or of the kindling inclination" — there are few
students of his later poems who will share his confidence.

' Mr. Gillman (in his Z(/>, p. 801) gives the following somewhat
bald outline of wliat were to form the two concluding cantos, no
doubt on the authority of Coleridge himself. The second canto ends,
it may be remembered, with the despatch of Bracy the bard to the
castle of Sir Roland: "Over the mountains the Bard, as directed
by Sir Leoline, hastes with his disciple ; but, in consequence of one
of those inundations supposed to be common to the countr)', the
spot only where the castle once stood is discovered, the edifice itself
being washed awaj'. He determines to return. Geraldine, being
acquainted with all that is passing, like the weird sisters in Macbeth,
vanishes. Reappearing, however, she awaits the return of the Bard,
exciting in the meantime by her wily arts all tlie anger she could
rouse in the Baron's breast, as well as that jealousy of which he is
described to have been susceptible. The old bard and the youth at
length arrive, and therefore she can no longer personate the char-
acter of Geraldine, the daughter of Lord Roland de Vaux, but changes
her appearance to that of the accepted though absent lover of Chris-
tabel. Next ensues a courtship most distressing to Christabel, who
feels — she knows not why — great disgust for her once favoured
knight. This coldness is very painful to the Baron, who has no
more conception than herself of the supernatural transformation.
She at last yields to her father's entreaties, and consents to approach
the altar with the hated suitor. The real lover returning, enters at
this moment, and produces the ring which she had once given him
in sign of her betrothment. Thus defeated, the supernatural being
Geraldine disappears. As predicted, the castle-bell tolls, the mother's
voice is heard, and, to the exceeding great joy of the parties, the
rightful marriage takes place, after which follows a reconciliation
and explanation between father and daughter."
E



66 COLERIDGE. [chap.

Charles Laml) strongly recommended him to leave it un-
finished, and Hartley Coleridge, in every respect as com-
petent a judge on that point as could well be found, al
ways declared his conviction that his father could not, a\
least qualis ah incejito, have finished the poem.

The much-admired little piece first published in the
Lyrical Ballads under the title of Love, and probably
best known by its (original) first and most pregnant
stanza,' possesses a twofold interest for the student of
Coleridge's life and works, as illustrating at once one of
the most marked characteristics of his peculiar tempera-
ment, and one of the most distinctive features of his
poetic manner. The lines are remarkable for a certain
strange fascination of melody — a quality for which Cole-
ridge, who was not unreasonably proud of his musical
gift, is said to have especially prized them ; and they are
noteworthy also as perhaps the fullest expression of the al-
most womanly softness of Coleridge's nature. To describe
their tone as effeminate would be unfair and untrue, for
effeminacy in the work of a male hand would necessarily
imply something of falsity of sentiment, and from this
they are entirely free. But it must certainly be admitted
that for a man's description of his wooing the warmth of
feeling which pervades them is as nearly sexless in char-
acter as it is possible to conceive ; and, beautiful as the
verses are, one cannot but feel that they only escape the
"namby-pamby" by the breadth of a hair.

As to the wild dream-poem Kabla Khan, it is hardly
more than a psychological curiosity, and only that per-

' " All thoughts, all passions, all delights,
Whatever stirs tliis mortal frame,
All are but niiuisters of Love,
And feed his sacred llaiue."



111.] " KUBLA KHAN." 57

liaps in respect of the completeness of its metrical form.
For amid its picturesque but vague imagery there is noth-
ing which might not have presented itself, and the like
of which has not perhaps actually presented itself, to
many a half-awakened brain of far lower imaginative en-
ergy during its hours of full daylight consciousness than
that of Coleridge. Nor possibly is it quite an unknown
experience to many of us to have even a fully-written
record, so to speak, of such impressions imprinted instan-
taneously on the mind, the conscious composition of whole
pages of narrative, descriptive, or cogitative matter being
compressed as it were into a moment of time. Unfortu-
nately, however, the impression made upon the ordinary
bi'ain is effaced as instantaneously as it is produced ; the
abnormal exaltation of the creative and apprehensive power
is quite momentary, being probably, indeed, confined to
the single moment between sleep and waking ; and the
mental tablet which a second before was covered so thickly
with the transcripts of ideas and images, all far more vivid,
or imagined to be so, than those of Avaking life, and all
apprehended with a miraculous simultaneity by the mind,
is converted into a tabula rasa in the twinkling of a half-
opened eye. The wonder in Coleridge's case was that his
brain retained the word-impressions sufficiently long to en-
able him to commit them, to the extent at least of some
fifty odd lines, to paper, and that, according to his own
belief, this is but a mere fraction of what but for an un-
lucky interruption in the work of transcribing he would
have been able to preserve. His own account of this curi-
ous incident is as follows :

"la the summer of 1797 the author, then in ill health, had re-
tired to a lonel.v farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, on the
Exmoor confines of Somerset and Devon.shire. In consequence of



68 COLERIDGE. [chat.

a slight indisposition, an anodyne had been prescribed, fromxfthe
effects of which he fell asleep in his chair at the moment that
he was reading the following sentence, or words of the same sub-
stance, in Purchas's Pilgrimage : ' Here the Khan Kubla commanded
a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten
miles of fertile ground were enclosed by a wall.' The Author con-
tinued for about three hours in a profound sleep, at least of the ex-
ternal senses, during which time he has the most vivid confidence
that he could not have composed less than from two to three hun-
dred lines — if that indeed can be called composition in which all the
images rose up before him as things, with a parallel production of
the corresponding expressions, without any sensation or conscious-
ness of effect. On awaking he appeared to himself to have a dis-
tinct recollection of the whole, and, taking his pen, ink, and paper,
instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.
At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on busi-
ness from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his
return to his room found, to his no small surprise and mortification,
that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the
general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight
or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like
the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been
oast, but, alas ! without the after restoration of the latter."

This poem, though written in 1*797, remained, lilce Chris-
iabel, in MS. till 1816. These were then published in a
thin quarto volume, together with another piece called the
Pains of Sleep, a composition of many years' later date
than the other two, and of which there will be occasion to
say a word or two hereafter.

At no time, however, not even in this the high-tide of
its activity, was the purely poetic impulse dominant for
long together in Coleridge's mind. lie was born with the
instincts of the orator, and still more with those of the
teacher, and I doubt whether he ever really regarded him-
self as fulfilling the true mission of his life except at those
moments when he was seeking by spol-en word to oxer-



iii.j HE APPEARS IN THE PULPIT. 59

ci|f direct influence over his fellow-men. At the same
time, however, such was the restlessness of his intellect,
and such his instability of purpose, that he could no more
remain constant to what he deemed his true vocation than
he could to any other. This was now to be signally illus-
trated. Soon after the Ancient Mariner was written, and
some time before the volume which was to contain it ap-
peared, Coleridge quitted Stowey for Shrewsbury to un-
dertake the duties of a Unitarian preacher in that town.
This was in the month of January, 1798,* and it seems
pretty certain, though exact dates are not to be ascer-
tained, that he was back again at Stowey early in the
month of February. In the pages of the Liberal (1822)
William Hazlitt has given a most graphic and picturesque
description of Coleridge's appearance and performance in
his Shrewsbury pulpit ; and, judging from this, one can
well believe, what indeed was to have been antecedently
expected, that had he chosen to remain faithful to his new
employment he might have rivalled the reputation of the
greatest preacher of the time. But his friends the Wedg-
woods, the two sons of the great potter, whose acquaint-
ance he had made a few years earlier, were apparently
much dismayed at the prospect of his deserting the library
for the chapel, and they offered him an annuity of £150
a year on condition of his retiring from the ministry and
devoting himself entirely to the study of poetry and phi-
losophy. Coleridge was staying at the house of Ilazlitt's

' It may be suggested that this sudden resolution was forced upon
Coleridge by the res angusta domi. But I do not think that was the
case. In the w^inter of 1797 he had obtained an introduction to and
entered into a literary engagement with Mr. Stuart, of the Morning
Post, and could thus have met, as in fact he afterwards did meet, tU«
necessities of the hour.



60 COLERIDGE. [chap.

father Avlien the letter containing this liberal offer reac^d
him, " and he seemed," says the younger Hazlitt, " to
make up his mind to close with the proposal in the act of
tying on one of his shoes." Another inducement to so
speedy an acceptance of it is no doubt to be found in the
fact of its presenting to Coleridge an opportunity for the
fulfilment of a cherished desire — that, namely, of " com-
pleting his education," as he regarded it, by studying the
German language, and acquiring an acquaintance with the
theology and philosophy of Germany in that country itself.
This prospect he was enabled, through the generosity of
the Wedgwoods, to put into execution towards the end of
1798.

But before passing on from this culminating and, to all
intents and purposes, this closing year of Coleridge's ca-
reer as a poet it will be proper to attempt something like
a final review of his poetic work. Admirable as much of
that work is, and unique in quality as it is throughout, I
must confess that it leaves on my own mind a stronger
impression of the unequal and imperfect than does that of
any poet at all approaching Coleridge in imaginative vigour
and intellectual grasp. It is not a mere inequality and
imperfection of style like that which so seriously detracts
from the pleasure of reading Byron. Nor is it that the
thought is often impar sibi — that, like Wordsworth's, it is
too apt to descend from the mountain-tops of poetry to the
flats of commonplace, if not into the bogs of bathos. In both
these respects Coleridge may and does occasionally offend,
but his workmanship is, on the wholcj^as much more artistic
than Byron's as the material of his poetry is of more uni-
formly equal value than Wordsworth's. Yet, with almost
the sole exception of the Ancient Mariner, his work is in



iii.J HIS POETIC WOEK. 61

a certain sense more disappointing than that of either. In
spite of his theory as to the twofold function of poetry
we must finally judge that of Coleridge, as of any other
poet, by its relation to the actual. Ancient Mariners and
Christabels — the people, the scenery, and the incidents of
an imaginary world — may be handled by poetry once and
again to the wonder and delight of man ; but feats of this
kind cannot — or cannot in the Western world, at any rate
— be repeated indefinitely, and the ultimate test of poetry,
at least for the modern European reader, is its treatment
of actualities — its relations to the world of human action,
passion, sensation, thought. And when we try Coleridge's
poetry in any one of these four regions of life, we seem
forced to admit that, despite all its power and beauty, it
at no moment succeeds in convincing us, as at their best
moments Wordsworth's and even Byron's continually does,
that the poet has found his true poetic vocation — that he
is interpreting that aspect of life which he can interpret
better than he can any other, and which no other poet,
save the one who has vanquished all poets in their own
special fields of achievement, can interpret as well as he.
In no poem of actuality does Coleridge so victoriously
show himself to be the right man at the right work as
does Wordsworth in certain moods of seership and Byron
in certain moments of passion. Of them at such moods
and moments we feel assured that they have discovered
where their real strength lies, and have put it forth to the
utmost. But we never feel satisfied that Coleridge has
discovered where his real strength lies, and he strikes us as
feeling no more certainty on the point himself. Strong
as is bis pinion, his flight seems to resemble rather that of
the eaglet than of the full-grown eagle even to the last.
He continues "mewing his mightv youth" a little too



62 COLERIDGE. [chap.

long. There is a tentativeness of manner which seems to
come from a conscious aptitude for many poetic styles
and an incapacity to determine which should be definitely
adopted and cultivated to perfection. Hence one too often
returns from any prolonged ramble through Coleridge's
poetry with an unsatisfied feeling which does not trouble
us on our return from the best literary country of Byron
or Wordsworth. Byron has taken us by rough roads, and
Wordsworth led us through some desperately flat and
dreary lowlands to his favourite " bits ;" but we feel that
we have seen mountain and valley, wood and river, glen
and waterfall at their best. But Coleridge's poetry leaves
too much of the feeling of a walk through a fine country
on a misty day. We may have had many a peep of beau-
tiful scenery and occasional glimpses of the sublime ; but
the medium of vision has been of variable quality, and
somehow we come home with an uneasy suspicion that we
have not seen as much as we might.

It is obvious, however, even upon a cursory considera-
tion of the matter, that this disappointing element in Cole-
ridge's poetry is a necessary result of the circumstances of
its production ; for the period of his productive activity (at
least after attaining manhood) was too short to enable a
mind with so many intellectual distractions to ascertain its
true poetic bent, and to concentrate its energies thereupon.
If he seems always to be feeling his way towards the work
whicb he could do best, it is for the very good reason that
this is what, from 1796 to 1800, he was continually doing
as a matter of fact. The various styles which he attempted
— and for a season, in each case, witli such brilliant results
— are forms of poetic expression corresponding, on the
face of them, to poetic impulses of an essentially fleeting
nature. The political or politico-religious odes were the



III.] DECLINE OF POETIC IMPULSE. 63

offspring of youthful democratic enthusiasm ; the super-
natural poems, so to call them for want of a better name,
had their origin in an almost equally youthful and more
than equally transitory passion for the wild and Avondrous.
Political disillusion is fatal to the one impulse, and mere
advance in years extinguishes the other. Visions of An-
cient Mariners and Christabels do not revisit the mature
man, and the Toryism of middle life will hardly inspire
odes to anything.

With the extinction of these two forms of creative im-
pulse Coleridge's poetic activity, from causes to be con-
sidered hereafter, came almost entirely to an end, and into
what later forms it might subsequently have developed re-
mains therefore a matter more or less of conjecture. Yet
I think there is almost a sufficiency of a priori evidence as
to what that form would have been. Had the poet in him
survived until years had " brought the philosophic mind,"
he would doubtless have done for the human spirit, in its
purely isolated self-communings, what "Wordsworth did for
it in its communion with external nature. All that the
poetry of Wordsworth is for the mind which loves to hold
converse with the world of things ; this, and more perhaps
than this — if more be possible — would the poetry of Cole-
ridge have been for the mind which abides by preference
in the world of self-originating emotion and introspective
thought. Wordsworth's primary function is to interpret
nature to man : the interpretation of man to himself is witb
him a secondary process only — the response, in almost ev-


1 2 3 5 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Online LibraryH. D. (Henry Duff) TraillColeridge → online text (page 5 of 16)